The 1920s had been a decade of tremendous growth and prosperity for the American motion picture industry, with all phases of production, distribution, and exhibition expanding rapidly as movie-going became the nation'sand indeed much of the world's -- preferred form of entertainment. Following the industry's conversion to sound films in 1927-8, the so-called 'talkie boom' capped this halcyon period, providing an additional market surge at the decade's end and further solidifying the dominant position of Hollywood's major studio powers. The talkie boom was so strong, in fact, that Hollywood was touting itself as 'Depression-proof' in the wake of Wall Street's momentous collapse in October 1929, and the American movie industry enjoyed its best year ever in 1930 as theatre admissions, gross revenues, and studio profits reached record levels.
The Depression caught up with the movie industry in 1931, however, and its delayed impact was devastating. Between 1930 and 1933, theatre admissions fell from 90 million per week to only 60 million, gross industry revenues fell from $730 million to about $480 million, and combined studio profits of $52 million became net losses of some $55 million. Thousands of the nation's 23,000 theatres closed their doors in the early 1930s, leaving only about 15,300 in operation by 1935. Among the Hollywood powers, the Depression hit the Big Five integrated major studios especially hard because of the massive debt service on their theatre chains. Three of the Big Five -- Paramount, Fox, and RKO -- suffered financial collapse in the early 1930s, and Warner Bros. survived only by siphoning off roughly one-quarter of its assets. MGM, meanwhile, not only survived but prospered during the Depression due to its relatively limited chain of first-class metropolitan theatres, the deep pockets of powerful parent company Loew's Inc., and the quality of product turned out by its Culver City studio.
Hollywood's three 'major minor' studios-Columbia, Universal, and United Artists (UA) -- fared somewhat better in the early 1930s. These companies produced top product and had their own nation-wide and overseas distribution operations, like the Big Five, but they did not own theatre chains. While this had been a tremendous disadvantage during the 1920s, it proved to be a blessing during the Depression, since these studios avoided the related mortgage commitments. The major minors also adjusted their production and market strategies more effectively than the integrated majors. UA, which was essentially a releasing company for the A-class productions of its active founders (Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks) and for major independent producers like Sam Goldwyn and Joe Schenck, simply limited its output to about a dozen A-class pictures per annum. Columbia and Universal pursued a very different course, gearing their factories to low-cost, low-risk features which fell into a new and significant 1930s product category: the 'B movie'.
The rapid rise of the B movie and the 'double feature' was a direct result of the Depression. To attract patrons in those troubled economic times, most of the nation's theatres began showing two features per programme, and changed programmes two or three times per week. The increased product demand was met largely via B movies- that is, quickly and cheaply made formula fare, usually Westerns or action pictures, which ran about sixty minutes and were designed to play on double bills in subsequent-run theatres outside the major urban markets. Not surprisingly, this period saw the emergence of many companies which specialized in B pictures. Referred to as 'independents', these were straight production companies without distribution set-ups; they released through the states' rights system, farming out their films to small-time independent distributors on a regional basis. A few of these B-picture studios, notably Monogram and Republic, not only survived the Depression but became relatively important companies by the late 1930s.
B-movie production was scarcely confined to the poverty row' outfits, but in fact became an important element in the studio system at large. All of the integrated majors produced Bs during the 1930s, with up to half of the output of Warners, RKO, and Fox falling into that category as the decade wore on. While most of the major studios' revenues came from A-class features, the production of B movies enabled them to keep their studio operations running smoothly and their contract per-