The Elusive Audience:
Comparing Tino Ballio and Robert Ray’s Examination of the Moviegoing Audience on the 1950s By Justin Daering
Between 1948 when the Paramount decision was made, and 1969 when the last of the majors was bought out by a conglomerate, the structure of the film industry underwent its most drastic alteration since its inception, and a prolonged period of economic struggle and uncertainty. Two film historians, Robert Ray and Tino Balio, have created causal accounts of this change. Both authors agree that one of the most significant causal factors in the economic downfall of Hollywood, and its subsequent need to change to survive, was the audience’s loss of interest in traditional Hollywood fare. Each author however takes a different approach in examining this problem. Balio believes that the audience’s loss of interest in Hollywood films was due to changes in their lifestyles that made movie attendance no longer as desirable or convenient an activity. Conversely, Ray would have us believe that it was the mentality of the audience that had evolved beyond the typical Hollywood picture, and would need something new and different in order to continue to satiate its screen viewing desires. As a direct result of these varying notions of causality, each author looks for the solution in a different part of the industry. Balio, being primarily concerned with the altered lifestyle of the middle class, looks at the way in which exhibitors adapted their methods to once again be alluring to that audience. Ray, being concerned more with the content of the film loosing its pull on the viewers, focuses on the changes in production, or film content. After briefly establishing a historical context, Balio delves right into his analysis of the middle class’ loss of appetite for cinema in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He notes that although the loss is sometimes blamed on television, which did eventually become a strong adversary in Hollywood’s struggle to regain the audience, “the postwar recession in Hollywood was caused in large part by the migration to the suburbs and the baby boom, which focused consumer spending on appliances, automobiles, and new housing.” (Balio, 3) Ray explains that, whereas during and before the war, the amount of material positions available for families to spend their money on was limited, there developed a strong push by the market industry for people to spend more money on the ownership of something physical, i.e. not movie admission. But different ways to spend their money were not the only things drawing the middle class away from the film market. Another direct result of the postwar flight to suburban life was an increased distance from the nearest theatre. If for a suburban couple, traveling down town to go to a movie was merely an annoyance, for couples with young children it was a significant hassle. As a result, “suburbanites with small children, far removed from the downtown location of movie places, found a substitute for the movies in radio, which enjoyed unprecedented growth in the late forties.” (Balio, 3) The eventual incorporation of the television into the homes and lives of the Americans only served to continue the alternative entertainment trend that radios had begun. These alone were not the only factors in the middle classes loss of interest in the movies. Balio has already shown us how they had new things to spend their money on instead of movie patronage, and the movies themselves became less accessible. But we are also informed that, during the 1950s, the middle class was suddenly presented with a greater array of options on which to spend their leisure money. At that time “shorter working hours, paid vacations and holidays, and general prosperity started a spending spree on leisure—domestic and foreign pleasure travel, vacation homes, athletics, hunting and fishing, gardening, boating, games and toys, records and hi-fi’s, and do-it-yourself...
Cited: Balio, Tina. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Introduction to Part I. 1990.
Ray, Robert. A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema. The dissolution of the Homogeneous Audience and Hollywood’s Response: Cult Films, Problem Pictures, and Inflation. 1985.
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