Back in the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood from the late 1920s to the mid 1940s, the film industry operated under the studio system. This means that certain companies controlled practically the entire process of filmmaking, from production to distribution and exhibition. There were eight studios then, with five having fully integrated conglomerates, with a production studio, creative people under long-term exclusive contracts, distribution division and a wide network of theater chains. These five studios were 20th Century Fox, Loew’s Incorporated/MGM, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures and Warner Bros. There were three other companies that were considered to be major studios, namely Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures and United Artists, though they had substantially smaller theater chains.
These came to an end in 1948 when the set up was challenged in the Supreme Court under anti trust laws. Production was thereafter separated from distribution and exhibition.
Still, the term studio system is being used up to now as reference to the outputs of the different companies. Here is a list of the ten biggest Hollywood studios. The top six are considered to be the major studios, while the last four, along with Relativity Media and Dreamworks Animation, are considered as mini-majors that compete directly with the majors, though they also sometimes work together to help with the distribution of home videos and in the foreign market.
Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenburg and David Geffen established Dreamworks in 1994. Though not a full-service studio, Dreamworks arranges for the production and financing of movies. It then ties up with one of the majors for help in the distribution. It actually had a brief stint as part of the Viacom group, but it became independent again after over two years. The Reliance ADA Group of India currently backs the company. Katzenburg has since completely divested from the company and now runs a separate studio called Dreamworks Animation.
MGM has downgraded itself from being a major studio into a minor media company that distributes films and television content. It fully owns United Artists after it bought out the shares of Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. It still owns the rights to the franchise of the James Bond movies. Its home video and overseas theatrical products are distributed by 20th Century Fox. Columbia Pictures, on the other hand, has helped distribute the first two Bond movies that starred Daniel Craig, with its mother company Sony helping out in subsequent releases.
8 The Weinstein Company
Harvey and Bob Weinstein established The Weinstein Company in 2005 after leaving Miramax Films, which they had helped establish in 1979. It holds the right to Dimension Films, an outfit that the brothers regularly use for genre movies. While it had a hit back in 2007 with the movie called “1408,” it then experienced a dry spell of two years without scoring a blockbuster. Their long relationship with Quentin Tarantino has helped the outfit turn around its fortunes, with the success of the director’s 2009 movie “Inglourious Basterds” considered as a watershed moment for the company.
7 Lions Gate Entertainment
Lions Gate Entertainment is the most successful studio not based in Los Angeles. Established in 1997 by Frank Giustra, the company is also the owner of Artisan Entertainment. It has recently been renamed as Lionsgate and the studio is now also the owner of Summit Entertainment, the highest earning mini major studio from 2009 to 2012. Lionsgate also has a share in Roadside Attractions.
Viacom is the conglomerate behind the Paramount Motion Pictures Group. Its major studio subsidiary is Paramount Pictures, while arthouse movies are released under the name of Paramount Vantage. It also has a company dedicated for B movies called Insurge Pictures. It has an 8.5 percent share of the entire North American market. It also owns MTV Films and Nickelodeon Movies.
5 News Corporation
News Corporation is the outfit behind the Fox Extertainment Group. The major studio subsidiary is 20th Century Fox, while independent movies are distributed through its Fox Searchlight Pictures. Other companies under News Corporation include Fox Faith, 20th Century Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios and Fox Animation Studios. It also has a minority stake in New Regency Productions. The company owns a 10.6 percent share of the US and Canadian markets.
4 Comcast/General Electric
Comcast/General Electric owns NBCUniversal and is the company behind Universal Pictures. It also owns Focus Features that it uses for arthouse and independent movies. It has a 13.6 percent share of the US and Canadian markets. Other companies under it are Illumination Entertainment, Working Title Films and Universal Animation Studios.
3 The Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company controls about 14.3 percent of the entire North American market. Its parent division is called The Walt Disney Studios. Movie productions are done under its major studio subsidiary called Walt Disney Pictures. The Walt Disney Company also owns other important film brands and divisions, among them being Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, Pixar, Touchstone Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Disneynature.
2 Time Warner
Time Warner is a conglomerate that owns the second biggest share of the combined markets of the US and Canada at 15.4 percent. Its parent division is called Warner Bros. Entertainment, while its major studio subsidiary is named Warner Bros. Pictures. It is also the owner of other brands and divisions. Among them are New Line Cinema, Castle Rock Entertainment, Turner Entertainment Co., Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment.
Sony is the conglomerate behind Sony Pictures Entertainment. Its major studio subsidiary is Columbia Pictures. The company is also friendly to independent producers with its own arthouse division that is called Sony Pictures Classics. The company, through its distribution subsidiary called Screen Gems, also backs genre and B movie producers. With a 17 percent share of the entire US and Canadian markets, Sony is considered as the biggest studio these days. It also owns companies and prominent film brands like Tri Star Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Destination Films, Triumph Films, Stage 6 Films and Affirm Films.