The New Hollywood Studio System

Posted by Stephen Mitchell
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today, the return of one of my favorite 32'ers - actor, screenwriter, filmmaker, producer, master raconteur, impeccable dresser, and all around Renaissance man, Stephen Mitchell.

Enjoy! 

RB

It seemed to take me forever to get my filmmaking career underway. I grew up in a show business neighborhood where my friends’ parents were film and television stars and, as a teenager, I found a mentor in a family friend who directed an unending series of episodic TV shows and some TV movies and welcomed me onto the set whenever he was working. Still, as I came out of college having gotten stellar grades in all of my cinema courses, it took ten years before I found myself in Paris making my first film (in French, no less). 

It must be said that my day job during those years of waiting and figuring out how to get to make films wasn’t too hard to take. I travelled to London and Milan to buy vintage Bentleys, Ferraris and Maseratis and brought them back to Los Angeles for resale. It was party time while I was overseas and driving the cars around Los Angeles was also part of the fun. If I couldn’t make films, at least I was living my life as though I were in a movie. 

Having made my first film in Paris and vowing to live there forever, I made the mistake of returning to Los Angeles to market a couple of projects I’d made—one being a pilot called The French Chef featuring award winning actor Philippe Léotard and a girl from the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris in what was a combination of travelogue, cooking show and comedy. I say I made a mistake because I ended up staying in L.A. rather than returning to Paris because people started giving me money with which to make films and it was hard to walk away from that, I can tell you. 

As I got accustomed to making independent films, I had a constant need for actors but found that seasoned actors with exceptional brand signatures were not so easy to find. A distributor told me he liked the story and direction of my first film shot in the U.S. but I needed to get better actors. Something had to be done. Ironically, the actors I had used in the film had all studied in workshops that were considered top notch. Clearly, not everyone who attends a great workshop comes away capable of giving a great performance but how does one improve on the best? I needed to get better results.

In those early days, I had consulting clients whose professional lives I managed. I started by working with two women who made clothing, added a hairstylist and then an attorney before I found actors coming to me for help. I thought of it as career management but the light went on one day and I decided I would only take actors, writers and directors from that point on. Instead of charging them consulting fees, which could be expensive, I would consult for free with any members of what would become the world’s only repertory company for film and television. Dues of twenty dollars a week replaced consulting fees that were considerably more expensive. The membership grew rapidly and we maintained a list of about a hundred actors along with a dozen writers and half a dozen directors.

I patterned the rep company on the old Hollywood studio system which had various activities which included the development of actors. They taught actors to sing and dance and walk down stairs without looking at their feet and put on a coat without looking as though they were wrestling an octopus and, by the way, they were given acting lessons. Actors were branded and developed so as to make them attractive to audiences. When the studio wasn’t using an actor, it loaned out the actor to other studios. The system created unparalleled opportunities for an actor to have a career.

Actors in our rep company developed their acting brands by performing in taped one-act plays that the writers in the group had written specifically for them. We watched to see how well a writer could write for the actors as well as how well the actor could perform the piece. The feedback of seeing the performance on tape—as opposed to having a workshop instructor saying “Very good”--was quite effective. If you were to look at the first taped performance and compare it to the sixth tape done by an actor in the group, you would see a world of difference. The tapes were put on cable and served to market the actor to ‘mainstream’ Hollywood and you would be amazed at the names of the directors who responded to these performances.

The actors were instructed in PR. Each actor began by learning how to present themselves as actors and how to speak about their performances in a way that made people want to find out more. Every taped performance was followed by a PR interview being mailed to film directors and producers, as these were the people to whom we marketed our actors when they weren’t acting in films made within the group.

A dozen or so actors within the group developed into writer/directors—Stage 32 member Kathi Carey being a notable example. Every other week, the writer/directors, along with any of our actors who were interested, would gather to watch a film that we would dissect and discuss. It was interesting to note that the films that had become classics withstanding the test of time all seemed to conform to Syd Fields’ paradigm. Those that had fallen into oblivion strayed from the natural aesthetic that Fields described so well in his books.

Over the years, our members became more and more involved with mainstream Hollywood while fiercely maintaining our independence. For example, all of our writer/directors and a few of our actors became judges for the CableACE Awards. I judged for nine years until these awards were folded into the Emmys. 

The films we made were shot guerilla-style and this probably was owing to a combination of necessity and my fondness for the films of the French New Wave which broke from the studio tradition and shot films in the streets and actual locations. The quick tag line for my films was ‘Thinking man’s cop dramas’ along the lines of the French films Shoot the Piano Player or Without Apparent Motive. Each of our writer/directors had their own personal brand signature as filmmakers. Part of the instruction for directors was how to handle location shoots—getting permission, handling the logistics and knowing how to get in and out quickly.

The rep company operated from approximately 1981 until 2001 when I began to travel returning to France to make a film and look for a place to live there. Over the years, the dues went from twenty dollars a week to thirty-five. It was an extraordinary way to receive training, branding, PR and free management consultation while acting in films where the parts had been written specifically for you. We referred to it as The New Hollywood Studio System.

The original studio system finally ended not because it became less effective at developing and branding talent and producing vehicles for them. It disappeared only after the federal government insisted that the studios could not vertically integrate by having all aspects of production, distribution and owning the theaters as well. The great benefit to talent that was the old studio system came to an end as a result of a Sherman Antitrust action and the losers were the creatives as the financial component of the system found other ways to protect its investments.

A studio system such as I organized would, I believe, be viable and sustainable today presuming the elements of education, branding, production and marketing functioned effectively to compensate the organization and its participants. What you teach your students changes radically when you have to sell the results of your teaching—it was what made our curricula different from the workshops that covered the same subjects but were free from having to rely on the quality or salability of the result.

Sadly, there is no such group in existence today of which I am aware. It must be said that a group creates power that an individual often lacks and if one can band together a group of actors, writers and directors, whether in Los Angeles or Little Rock, I think it could make an impact and benefit the careers of those taking part in its activities.

Let me know if you agree.


Stephen Mitchell is an actor, screenwriter, producer, and director.

In 1980, Stephen founded an entertainment industry think tank labeled The New Hollywood Studio System in the guise of a repertory company for film and television. He authored the Action/ReAction technique for actors and founded a film school with curricula for writers and directors. Stephen supervised the group until 2001.

In 1985, Stephen launched his cable TV series (Interview). The series, lauded by critics, attracted a cult following that included Oscar, Emmy, Peabody and Grammy winners. It attracted buyers for Stephen's story ideas and generated a first-look deal for him with TriStar Pictures.

Stephen is producing a documentary on the Ferrari 250 GTO, one of which he used to own. He produced Carrera Panamericana (1950-54) and was a co-producer on Addiction Incorporated with Charlie Evans Jr. (The Aviator). He is currently producing a DVD series Elysée Wednesday: Drive! and a TV series Tennessee Long Haulers. Last year, he wrote his first novel, Ignorance is Bliss, and is now writing a book about his Ferrari GTO which is worth forty million dollars and is currently owned by Ralph Lauren.

Stephen is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below!

RB's Stage 32 News, Notes, Discussions, and Other Fun Stuff (September 28th, 2013)
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