What Are the Big Five of Classical Hollywood Cinema?

The Big Five, also known as the Major Studios of the Golden Age, were the dominant players in Hollywood from the 1930s to the close of the Golden Age. These five studios were responsible for producing many of the most successful and iconic films of the era. Here are the Big Five classical Hollywood studios:
  • Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM): Known for its lavish musicals, sweeping dramas, and big-budget spectacles, MGM was one of the most successful studios in Hollywood during the Golden Age. Some of the studio’s most beloved films include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Singin’ in the Rain.
  • RKO: Although RKO was one of the smaller studios, it was responsible for some of the most innovative and influential films of the era. Some of RKO’s most famous films include King Kong, Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons.
  • 20th Century Fox: Founded in 1935, 20th Century Fox quickly established itself as one of the most successful studios in Hollywood. It produced many of the era’s most popular musicals and comedies, as well as big-budget epics like The Sound of Music and Cleopatra.
  • Warner Bros.: Known for its gritty crime dramas and socially conscious films, Warner Bros. was at the forefront of the Golden Age. Some of the studio’s most famous films include The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
  • Paramount Pictures: Founded in 1912, Paramount Pictures was one of the oldest and most established studios in Hollywood. It produced a wide range of films, from comedies and musicals to Westerns and horror films. Some of the studio’s most successful films include Sunset Boulevard, Shane, and Roman Holiday.
  • Together, these five studios were responsible for shaping the Hollywood we know today, and their influence can still be felt in the films we watch and love.

    The Rise of the Big Five Studios

    The Golden Age of Hollywood was marked by the dominance of five major studios known as the Big Five. These studios, including Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), RKO, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and Paramount Pictures, accounted for more than 95% of the box office revenues in the 1930s to the close in the Golden Age. The Big Five studios controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of films during this period. They also had experienced personnel who knew what made a successful movie and understood how to produce it.
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    The Big Five studios were born at a time when the American film industry was undergoing rapid changes. The arrival of sound in movies and the end of silent films paved the way for a new era in cinema. Hollywood studios began to invest heavily in new technologies, improve production values, and expand their global reach. This period of growth ushered in the era of the Big Five studios, and they dominated the Golden Age of Hollywood.

    MGM: The King of Hollywood

    Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the largest and most powerful of the Big Five studios. MGM was the most profitable studio in Hollywood throughout the 1930s and the 1940s. They produced a diverse range of films, including musicals, dramas, comedies, and adventure films, which became highly influential in Hollywood. The studio was home to some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Clark Gable, Judy Garland, and Spencer Tracy. MGM was known for its lavish productions, extravagant sets, and impressive special effects. The studio invested heavily in its films, building iconic sets such as the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz and the Roman Colosseum from Ben-Hur. The studio also had a large range of technicians under its employment which included set designers, costume designers, and makeup artists. MGM’s success was due to a combination of financial backing, talented personnel, and a keen eye for producing commercially and critically successful films.

    RKO: The Smallest of the Big Five

    Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (RKO) was the smallest of the Big Five studios and considered the underdog of Hollywood. Despite its smaller size, RKO produced some of the most legendary films in Hollywood’s history, including King Kong, Citizen Kane, and It’s a Wonderful Life. The studio was known for taking risks and producing films that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and filmmaking.
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    RKO’s smaller budget forced the studio to be more creative with its films. The studio was known for using innovative camera techniques, creative editing, and non-linear storytelling. The studio also employed some of the most talented writers and directors in Hollywood, including Orson Welles and John Ford. Although RKO was the smallest of the Big Five studios, it made some of the largest contributions to Hollywood’s history.

    20th Century Fox: From Silent Films to Blockbusters

    20th Century Fox was one of the oldest of the Hollywood studios, dating back to the silent film era. The studio evolved with the industry and became a major player in Hollywood during the Golden Age. 20th Century Fox produced some of the most successful and iconic films of the era, including The Sound of Music, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and All About Eve. The studio was also the first to successfully transition to the blockbuster era, producing financially and critically successful films such as Star Wars, Alien, and Die Hard. The success of 20th Century Fox was due to its willingness to take risks and invest in new technologies. The studio was also home to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gregory Peck.

    Warner Bros.: The Studio that Broke the Rules

    Warner Bros. was known for its bold and daring approach to filmmaking, making it stand out among the Big Five studios. The studio was founded by four brothers in 1923 and quickly made a name for itself with its gritty and realistic films. Warner Bros. produced some of Hollywood’s most iconic gangster films, including Little Caesar and Public Enemy. The studio broke the rules of Hollywood by tackling taboo subjects such as racism, politics, and social issues. The studio also took risks by casting unknown or unproven actors in lead roles. These risks paid off, and Warner Bros. produced some of the most critically acclaimed films of the Golden Age, including Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Gone With the Wind.
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    Paramount Pictures: The Oldest Studio in Hollywood

    Paramount Pictures was the oldest of the Big Five studios, dating back to the silent film era. The studio was known for its lavish productions, such as Cleopatra and Sunset Boulevard. However, Paramount was also responsible for some of Hollywood’s most iconic films of the Golden Age, including The Ten Commandments, Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The studio was home to some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, including Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, and Bing Crosby. Paramount was also responsible for introducing some of the most influential directors in Hollywood, including Cecil B. DeMille, Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder. The success of Paramount was due to its strong financial backing, talented personnel, and a commitment to producing high-quality films that resonated with audiences.

    The Decline and Fall of the Big Five Studios

    The Golden Age of Hollywood came to an end in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Changes in the film industry, including the rise of television and the decline of cinema attendance, led to the decline of the Big Five studios. MGM struggled financially in the 1960s and 1970s and eventually was sold in 1986. RKO was sold in 1955, and its library of films was split between other studios. 20th Century Fox went through various changes in ownership, including a merger with Disney in 2019. Warner Bros. and Paramount Pictures continue to operate but in a vastly different Hollywood landscape. The legacy of the Big Five studios, however, lives on. The films produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood remain some of the most iconic and influential movies in history. The revolutionary techniques, talented casts, and creative storytelling by the studios paved the way for modern-day filmmaking. Although Hollywood has changed, the impact of the Big Five studios endures.

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