The Development of Screenwriting and the Hollywood Studio System

In the beginning of the 20th century, the introduction of cinema radically changed the world of art. During the outset of silent cinema, filmmakers made actualities; short clips that depict a single scene or action. However, not much time had passed before filmmakers started moving towards narrative film. As a result, the idea of structuring a story for film beforehand一or screenwriting一came to fruition. Due to the fact that narrative films were becoming the norm, screenwriting went through multiple phases of development, which led to the creation of many new jobs, and the birth of Hollywood and the studio system.


It is important to make the distinction between screenwriting as a profession, and the idea of planning out the actions of a film beforehand. In The Literary Side of Pictures, by Epes Winthrop Sargent, he states that photo dramatic writing began between 1894 and 1896.[1] These writings, however, were short captions used to describe what would happen in the film. These captions differ from screenplays. Also, this is vastly different from the profession that would come to be in the later years of the silent era: photo dramatists一or in modern terms一screenwriters. The creation of these writing jobs is what creates the push towards the studio system that emerges during the latter half of the silent era.


Before delving into the development of screenwriting, one must look to the early years of the film industry to fully understand the differences the introduction of narrative created. In the book Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry: and How to Qualify for Positions in its Many Branches, written by the Photoplay Research Society, Frederick Palmer divides the history of the film industry at that time into 5 parts:[2]


“First, random action.

Second, the brief anecdote.

Third, the story written or rewritten by the director.

Fourth, the eminent author.

Fifth, the photo dramatist, trained and skillful.”


This subdivision is useful when attempting to understand how the film industry developed during the silent era. Nonetheless, it is important to note that this division is just a tool to better understand how cinematic writing developed, and there were no fine lines or defining moments that separated these parts entirely.


As Palmer states, the first phase of motion picture manufacturing were actualities, or clips of random action. These motion pictures were manufactured in the purest sense of the word, as they were made in studios of inventors and engineers, such as Thomas Edison, who produced dozens of them. Actualities were shown in vaudeville halls purely for exhibitionism and the novelty of the newly invented “moving picture”. However, this novelty would not last forever, and audiences thought they had seen the only miracle a moving picture could provide: the movement of a picture.[3] But, due to the growing lengths of reels, filmmakers were able to make slightly longer films, which would take the form of anecdotes. These anecdotal films differed from the actualities because they not only told a story, but they also typically contained more than one scene. For example, Palmer describes a scene in which a lady and a man are in a restaurant, and it happens that the man does not have enough money to pay for the food.[4] One can see that there is a simple procession of events and it does not include a strong narrative. This second subdivision falls along with the third, as directors were the main contributor or creator of these anecdotal scenarios. Due to this, during this period, the directors of films were hugely important to the business. Because all of these responsibilities were held by the director alone, “photo dramatists” or screenwriters, and other writing jobs in the industry did not exist. This is not to say that these scenarios were not written or planned beforehand by the director, but that the separate job of being a writer for the screen had not yet come to fruition.


To help illustrate this, one should look at the development of Edwin S. Porter’s most famous works: The Life of an American Fireman  and The Great Train Robbery . According to an article Porter wrote for Moving Pictures World in 1908, entitled “The Evolution of the Motion Picture”, it had dawned on him that moving pictures could be utilized to tell a story, so he had created The Life of An American Fireman.[5] Conveniently, Porter had footage of a fire department, so it was simple to create a story around it and edit the footage with this preplanned story in mind.[6] After the tremendous success it had, the entire film industry had been rejuvenated by this large monetary incentive, and his team at Edison turned their focus to producing stories. By the time The Great Train Robbery was released at the end of the same year, Porter had created what is regarded as the first screenplay. This screenplay had included scene transitions and specific shots. However, what may be the most important aspect is the description of the action. Porter had adapted the plot of The Great Train Robbery from a stage play and had the challenge of removing all the dialogue and making the plot comprehensive through action alone.[7] This pure action focus is what divided screenwriting from all other types of writing. As time went on, and films like The Great Train Robbery won out with audiences, studios increasingly saw this as a necessity.


During the fourth and fifth divisions that Palmer describes, writing for the screen had stopped being the director’s job and people were hired or paid for the sole purpose of writing for the screen. During the fourth division, however, screenwriting was done by authors and writers who had written in other genres. It was a common practice for writers to have a story and sell it to film studios who offered $5-$100 for original ideas.[8] Even so, when studios would purchase stories that were previously written, the director still needed to adjust the story in order to make it about action. It is because of precisely this that screenwriting as a separate profession emerged.


According to Palmer, the eminent author period caused much trouble and discouragement among producers and freelance writers who were already attempting to write directly for the screen.[9] This is because “the producers turned to the established fictionists and dramatists…as the least hopeless source…They knew of storytelling… it would be easy for them to learn the screen and its separate values.”[10] However, because these people were established in their field, few were able to adopt the techniques that screenwriting required. Therefore, producers realized that they needed to hire and work with writers who, by this point of the silent era, were experienced in what screenwriting required.


Eventually, writing directly for the screen won out for multiple reasons. Most significantly because of a Supreme Court ruling that stated that filmmakers would have to pay copyright fees to use existing stories in any film, creating a gigantic need for original writers. The industry wide use of screenwriting as the norm then affected the growth of the Hollywood studio system. The clearest reason the emergence of screenwriting contributed to the creation of the studio system is that it created lots of jobs in the film industry that previously did not exist. Not only were there screenwriters, but a short list of other jobs included: editors, continuity writers, readers, and title writers. As these roles became solidified, and directing became enough of a job in itself, the scenario writing and editing departments became one of the biggest facets of the emerging studio system.[11] They filtered stories before they were suggested for production and later on, the scenario departments were critical in the self-censoring the film industry needed.


Another way the development of screenwriting facilitated the emergence of the studio system is related to the ability to craft the story, and characters specifically, before production. The faces of the early studio system were the stars. As these movie stars grew in popularity, they developed their own star personas. In most cases, this included the type of characters they would play in their movies. Therefore, if the scenario writing department knew which stars would be in the film, they were able to tailor the writing of the characters towards them.


In all, the development of screenwriting had a profound effect on the film industry during the silent era. Not only did it alter the way films were made completely, going from no narratives to feature length films, but it also contributed greatly to the creation of the Hollywood studio system. Due to the fact that screenwriting created many new studio jobs, aided in media censorship, and allowed the star system to take hold over the industry, it is sufficient to say that screenwriting was one of the biggest advancers of the film industry in the silent era.



[1]              Epes Winthrop Sargent, “The Literary Side of Pictures,” Moving Pictures World, 1914.

[2]              Frederick Palmer, “Writing the Scenario: Its Five Cycles of Evolution,” in Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry: and How to Qualify for Positions in Its Many Branches (Los Angeles, CA: Photoplay Research Society, 1922), pp. 9-17)

[3] Ibid., 9-17.

[4] Ibid., 9-17.

[5]              Edwin S Porter, “The Evolution of the Motion Picture,” Moving Pictures World, March 1908)

[6]              Azlant, Edward. “Screenwriting for the Early Silent Film: Forgotten Pioneers, 1897-1911.” (1997)

[7]              Ibid.

[8]              Ibid.

[9]              Palmer, Opportunities in the Motion Picture Industry, 9-17.

[10]             Ibid., 9-17

[11] Azlant, Edward. “Screenwriting for the Early Silent Film”, 1997.