During the reign of the old Hollywood studio system, the studios were able to control independent studios and theater owners and sell their inferior films by using a method known as block booking. The studios would sell their films in all or nothing packages, this usually required theater owners to buy several mediocre pictures for every quality one. Do you want to show Gold Diggers of 1935 at your theater? Sorry, but you also have to buy The Fighting Caballero, Honeymoon Bridge, A Scream in the Night, and The Widow from Monte Carlo along with it. You don’t like that? Well then suck it, you get nothing.
The man who created block booking was Adolph Zukor, the head of Paramount Pictures, who was also the guy that had the bright idea of making Paramount the first vertically integrated movie company. Zukor invented block booking in 1915 in reaction to the popularity of his contract player and “It” girl Mary Pickford. Zukor decided to sell Pickford’s movies in packages with other, less popular films. The plan worked so well that it spread to all Paramount films, and eventually the rest of the Hollywood studios. Ironically, Pickford hated the concept of block booking and threatened to leave the studio until a provision was placed in her contract stating that her films would only be sold individually. She later went on to help found the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers and spent years trying to eliminate block booking altogether.
Block booking helped the major studios in so many ways. Not only did it a give them a way to sell their lesser features at a higher price, but it also increased traffic to the movie theaters that were owned by the studio. The independent theatres had to buy lots of B-movies to get access to an A-picture, while the studio theaters could always play A-pictures because they were exempt from block booking. The practice also hurt the independent film producers, as they couldn’t get room in the theaters either because the studios owned the theater, or the screens were already filled with films that were bought due to block booking.
Anti-block booking bills were proposed in the United States Congress throughout the 1920s and 30s. Most of the bills were passed by the Senate, but stalled in the House. In an early display of lobbying muscle, the studios published several pamphlets that were distributed to Congressmen (and the public at large) and had many of their biggest stars testify and meet members of Congress. The enemies of block booking testified that the practice only allowed the studios to become creatively stagnant assembly lines, because they knew that whatever product they produced could be sold in some sort of deal. The studios argued that block booking actually fostered creativity and allowed for a more diverse range of films because it gave them a reliable cash flow, which they could then use to make riskier films. They also attacked the anti-block bookers as being Communists and declared that they were trying to interfere with good American free enterprise.
In 1927 the Federal Trade Commission issued a cease and desist order to Paramount in order to end block booking. The studio ignored the order, and that led to the first anti-trust case by the federal government attempting to break up the studios. The government won the case, but the decision was declared void after the studios became protected under President Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933.
Block booking was eventually outlawed by the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., which broke up the vertically integrated distribution chain and ended the Hollywood studio system.
Aberdeen, J.A. Hollywood Renegades. Palos Verdes: Cobblestone, 2000