The First Studios
Filmmaking continued to grow as an industry in the early 1900s with big names directors like D.W. Griffith becoming a celebrity. The filmmaking process centered around these directors - in a director unit of production meaning movies were generated by directors who were in charge of getting the entire project done from start to finish.
But times were changing.
In September of 1911, a small time filmmaker named Thomas Ince, wearing a borrowed suit and a borrowed diamond ring, convinced New York Motion Picture Co. to give him the job of setting up a west coast studio to make Westerns - a particular passion of his.
On the west coast, Ince would revolutionize the filmmaking process by applying scientific principles in the way that Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry. Using careful planning for the films, he pioneered the use of the “Continuity Script” which contained information on who was in the scene, the action in the scene, notation for interiors and exteriors, camera requirements and cost control. By breaking down the scenes he could create shooting schedules where he could assign different camera units to produce the scripts simultaneously.
This was wholly new for the time. Before it was just producers putting out one film at a time. Now a huge number of pictures could be made and the cost predicted and controlled. Ince became hugely powerful and by 1915 joined up DW Griffith and Mack Sennet at Triangle Motion Picture Company. There he directed a few films but his real contribution was as a central producer... Triangle was one of the first vertically integrated film companies - meaning they had access to all the means of production and distribution under one roof - the beginnings of the powerful central office studio system.
The central office worked like a manufacturing plant - using the division of labor to streamline the filmmaking process to produce as many movies as possible. You had writers, directors, cinematographers, actors, editors and sound recordists (after 1926) - each working simultaneously on different projects to fill up the studio’s billing which were shown at theaters the studios owned or had exclusive deals with. Gone was the director unit production - and in came the Central Producer System - the studio system.
But at the heart of it all, what kept the manufacturing wheels grinding away, was the continuity script that Thomas Ince had introduced.. It gave the studio the ability to track costs and time and although there was some artistic leeway given to directors, the shots and cuts were pretty much laid out in advance so the studio knew exactly what they were paying for.
And this continuity script with all the camera direction and production information was the type of script that was used for all of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Cinema - including Casablanca which many consider one of the best scripts ever written.
The End of the Studio System
Through mergers and acquisitions, Hollywood studios grew so powerful that they started to garnering anti-trust red flags in Washington D.C. Through ownership or partnership with movie theaters, the studios where essentially oligoplies that controlled both how the film was made and how it was shown. This was not good for anyone who was independent of the Big 5.
In the pivotal case of United States vs Paramount et al in 1948, the studios were forced to divest all interests in their movie theaters. Before the court decision, Studios could sell their movies using block booking which forced the theaters to buy large bundles of movies often a complete season’s worth sight unseen. To make money the studio would just churn out as many movies as possible which they could force on the theaters. After the Supreme Court decision, they could only bundle up to five movies. The game had changed and now it was much more about marketing those movies.
Other forces like the rise of television also ate away at the studio power. By 1955, the central office system pretty much dead as studios focused mainly on financing and distribution which were far more lucrative than actually making films.
What arose was a new package unit system of production which centered around the producers. Independent producers took projects to studios looking for financing and distribution deals. These producers also assembled the directors, actors and craftspeople that would make go and make the film - essentially creating a whole package for investors. And that’s where we begin to see the style of screenplay we have today coming into use.... the Master Scene Script.
Instead of including all the camera angles and scene numbers that the continuity script had - the Master Scene screenplay was all about Readability. It was a document to tell the story of the film - for producers to generate interest from all parties that would go into making the film.
It was only after movie had been greenlit and a director selected - then the Master Scene screenplay would be turned into a shooting script - resembling that of the continuity script under the studio system with all the technical details like camera angles and cuts added under the guidance of the director.