An important result of decentralization—at Gaumont and other large French companies as well at Pathé—was a relaxation of the principle of the strict division of labor as applied to the director-unit system of production. To appreciate the impact of this development, we should first contrast the development of production systems in France with their development in the American industry, especially to get a fuller understanding of the possible relations among modes of production—the sets of work practices that develop within production systems—and the industrial structures within which the work is carried out.

Qu’est-ce que l’Auteurisme?

  In addition, the historical ramifications of these differences are illuminating, particularly as regards the combination approach to film history and method of film criticism that we recognize by the term auteurism. For our present purposes, we will define auteurism as the conviction that filmmakers should be assessed according to the thematic consistency with which they imbue whole bodies of work—œuvres that it often seems more logical to regard as series of collaborative projects realized within industrialized, market-driven modes of production. “One essential corollary” of auteurism, adds British critic Geoffrey Nowell-Smith,

. . . is the discovery that the defining characteristics of an [auteur’s] work are not necessarily those which are most readily apparent. The purpose of criticism thus becomes to uncover behind the superficial contrasts of subject and treatment a hard core of basic and often recondite motifs. The pattern formed by these motifs . . . is what gives an [auteur’s] work its particular structure, both defining it internally and distinguishing one body of work from another.[1]


        Claude Chabrol and Jean-Luc Godard

              at Cahiers du cinéma, ca. 1956

Among the first proponents of auteurism were the young French critics—François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and others—who wrote for the magazine Cahiers du cinéma under the editorship of André Bazin before taking up directing and giving birth to the French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave, which revitalized the French cinema in the late 1950s with a mode of production characterized by creative autonomy and stylistic license. One of the chief services performed by the auteurist critics was what Peter Wollen calls their “unmatched perception of the historical dimensions of Hollywood”[2]—their insistence that serious critical attention should be paid to a whole roster of Hollywood directors who had long been excluded from the “art film” canon. This reassessment of American directors went hand in hand with a theory of film genre that derived from Bazin’s conviction that such vital genres as Westerns, films noirs, screwball comedies, and musicals, though bound to commercial formulas and studio product lines, were also repositories of myth and thus often more liberating than constricting: in this view, the best Hollywood movies were driven by a dialectic between generic conventions and the aesthetic sensitivity of individual directors ranging from Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks (see Figure R6.1 [3]) to Otto Preminger and Budd Boetticher.

The rise of auteurism is often traced to two conditions:

  1. What Wollen identifies as “the close connection there had always been in France between the cinema and the intelligentsia.”[4]
  2. The radical rejection by the Cahiers/New Wave cineastes of the shopworn complacency that had overtaken contemporary filmmaking in France.

Ironically, however, we must also look to certain conditions in the French film industry, especially in the evolution of modes of production that began with decentralization in 1911-1913—practices which undoubtedly lent themselves ultimately not only to the tendency in French film criticism known as auteurism but to the production practices of New Wave filmmaking itself.

The Evolution of Production Systems

  Our ultimate concern is a comparison between the development of French and American modes of production, so let’s begin by tracing early production practices in the United States. Film historian Janet Staiger describes three modes of production that dominated successive eras in the U.S. industry between 1896 and 1914 (see Figure R6.2).[5]

The Cameraman System (1896-1907)

  As a type of social division of labor,” explains Staiger, the cameraman system

represents a particularly unified craft situation. In general, cameramen . . . would select the subject matter and stage it as necessary by manipulating setting, lighting, and people; they would select options from available technological and photographic possibilities (type of camera . . ., etc.), photograph the scene, develop and edit. . . . Like the artisan craftsman, the cameraman knew the entire work process, and conception and execution of the product were unified.

Once the effects of the nickelodeon boom had been felt, the cameraman system was no longer capable of providing enough films to satisfy the demand from distributors and exhibitors. Moreover, there were too few such skilled artisans to go around, and training and paying them was certainly more expensive than training large corps of workers in various specific aspects of production—more expensive, in other words, than dividing the necessary labor.


              Producer/director D.W. Griffith

       and Cameraman G.W. Bitzer, ca. 1914

The Director System (1907-1909)

  Under the director system, one individual, a director/producer (the terms were basically synonymous),

staged the action, and another person photographed it. Moreover, the director managed a set of workers, including the craftsman cameraman. . . . As a producer, his employment with a company ensured that finances were available. . . . [H]e either furnished the idea for the film or rewrote one the firm had available. He selected his stage settings and gave directions to the carpenters, painters, and property men. If any research was necessary, he would do it. He selected [actors] from the stock company; he found locations. . . . Once the cameraman or laboratory staff developed the film, the director edited it.

Gradually, the process of script production divided itself into two phases:

  1. Selecting material and constructing a plot.
  2. Analyzing the plot according to its production requirements.

Typically, the director/producer was involved only in the latter stage, although he still enjoyed considerable latitude in his handling of the scenario. As more and more work functions became specialized, the system became more markedly hierarchical as a management system, with the director atop a pyramid of staff specialists.

The Director-Unit System (1909-1914)

  By 1911, American exhibitors required 20 to 30 new releases per week. Moreover, these films had to be of various kinds, and exhibitors thus required producers to satisfy not only predictable, regularized quantities, but quantities classifiable by type, whether comedy, drama, melodrama, Western, or a host of lesser genres. Production, therefore, had to be increased while remaining systematized. The director system represented a model of systematized production, but it wasn’t capable of producing enough films. “The solution,” reports Staiger, “was logical: hire more directors.” The director-unit system, therefore, originated as a multiplication of the director system by as many fully integrated units—sets of employees—as necessary:

As the firms organized the work, the director of the unit remained in charge of the producing, rewriting, directing, and editing functions. Generally, he retained the same production staff . . . from film to film, but now there was some combining, sharing, and dividing of work by mid-level workers such as cameramen, prop men, the stock company [of actors], and so on. What changes significantly is that the workers in each unit only participated in the work of their unit or only for sections of many films rather than in the production of all the firm’s films.

The hierarchical nature of the system solidified: now teams of “upper-level managers made long-term decisions as to methods of financing, type of products, hiring of middle-level specialists and the rest of the workers, and assessing of market conditions and trends.” These “middle-level specialists” were no longer simply working cameramen, set designers, or the like, but rather department managers presiding over groups of lower-level employees.


                  Nestor Company Studio,

  Probably the First Hollywood Studio, ca. 1911

It’s also important to note that distributors not only required quantities of varied products but needed them to be released according to balanced schedules throughout the year. In order to meet year-round production schedules, producers, most of them based in New York or Chicago, began dispatching filmmaking units to more congenial climates, from Florida and the Gulf Coast to New Orleans, through the Southwest, and into Southern California. The eventual settlement of the industry (at least its production sector) in the vicinity of Hollywood was a direct result of this practice. The director-unit system was an ideal means for a centralized organization to extend geographical reach, and it was the same model that the major companies applied to production units working out of their home studios. As production increased in efficiency, the number of such units grew, and so, of course, did the size of the firms that employed them.

The Package-Unit System

  Ironically, even as the director-unit system came to dominate French production in the years 1911-1913, the decentralization of the major studios (that is, of the industrial system) resulted in a tendency in the mode of production that was virtually the reverse of the contemporary tendency in the United States. According to Richard Abel,

the specialized division of labor which American companies developed in order to promote efficiency only went so far in France. . . . [T]he filmmaker usually was still responsible for writing or adapting his own scripts. . . . Moreover, the French director-units tended to be organized as small companies rather than as divisions within a single large company and to be involved, at least in part, in their own financing and production planning. In other words, there were no moves to institute anything like a central producer who would exercise strict control over a company’s director-units, especially those engaged in feature-film production. . . . French companies continued to rely on the camaraderie of their production teams . . . or on a “merit system” of responsibility and compensation rather than on “scientific management”—apparently there were no “clock watchers” at Pathé-Frères.[6]


                    Abel Gance

In fact, while many “companies” remained within the corporate orbit of major firms, many other independent production firms were launched by either individual directors or popular stars. It was under these conditions, for example, that Abel Gance, one of France’s greatest directors of the silent era, formed his first company, Le Film français, which was capitalized with 1,000 francs that he scraped together with a group of friends. The company produced only four films, all in 1912. None of them survives, and Le Film français sank in a mire of legal difficulties,[7] but the experience—both its positive and negative aspects—reaffirmed Gance’s conviction that

the producer-director of a film . . . is essentially a creator; he “produces” a complete work in a sequence of living images that he alone invents and structures. . . .

[W]hatever the number and quality of ideas that an author brings to a film, it is the producer, and he alone, who can, who must, conceive, organize, construct his work on the basis of those ideas, selecting the ones he finds suitable, using technical means of exteriorization which he has chosen or invented, and being directed by the dictates of his tastes, his particular talents, his personality. . . .

The ability to organize a program of work which is always extraordinarily complex, to save time and money, to exploit a given circumstance, to resolve the countless debilitating problems of personnel relations, of equipment and the elements, is one of the chief and one of the rarest qualities of the true professional. . . .

There is another thing.

The producer is the only possible director of finance, the only competent accountant for the film he is making (let us not forget that he hires the actors, recruits the technicians, commissions the sets, orders the props . . ., etc.). He is the omnipotent financial director whose expenditure cannot be held in check.

For the work to be well executed, he must, moreover, be the only judge of the utility and the opportuneness of all his expenditure [see Figure R6.3].[8]

In practice, the arrangement extolled by Gance took the form of what, in the context of American production history, Staiger calls the package-unit system:

Rather than an individual company containing the source of the labor and the materials, the entire industry became the pool for these. A producer organized a film project: he or she secured financing and combined the necessary laborers . . . and the means of production. . . .

The package-unit system . . . was a short-term film-by-film arrangement. Of course, often many subordinate members of the labor hierarchy worked time and again with the same people because of skills and work habits; workers’ employment was, nonetheless, based on a film, not a firm. . . . [T]he means of production were also a [matter of] short-term combination. Instead of a filming unit owning its entire means of production for use in film after film, the unit leased or purchased the pieces for a particular project from an array of support firms. Costumes, cameras, special effects technology, lighting, and recording equipment were specialties of various support companies, available for component packaging.[9]


                Studio-Owned Theater, 1927

In the United States, independent producers such as David O. Selznick and Samuel Goldwyn worked according to the package-unit system in the 1930s and 1940s (see Figure R6.4 [10]), but the practice didn’t become common until after World War II, when the major studios cut back on output and relied more heavily on independents to furnish products for distribution. Perhaps the most important incentive to make the change came on the legal front. In May 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court capped more than a decade’s worth of hearings and appeals by declaring that certain policies practiced by the major vertically integrated studios—including block-booking, tying arrangements, and discriminatory pricing—violated federal antitrust laws. The Big Five—Paramount, 20th Century Fox, MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO—were ordered to divest the theater holdings that had been major sources of income for twenty years. Deprived of this revenue—and no longer obligated to meet the demands of circuit programming for their own theaters—the major studios cut back on production even further. Gradually, as they phased out mass-production operations, they began to rely more heavily on fewer, more specialized films that could be acquired from independent producers.[11]

“An Artisanal and ‘Intimate’ Mode of Production”

  It was under these conditions—conditions of retrenchment analogous to those that prevailed in the French industry in 1911-1913—that the package-unit system became a common feature of the American production landscape. That system had been responsible for a significant portion of French output since the 1920s (see Figure R6.5 [12]), when it was adapted to the director system by filmmakers like Gance. “They would establish themselves,” reports English film historian Colin Crisp, “as company directors of a firm established uniquely to fund and to package a specific film or series of films directed by themselves. Soliciting funds from a variety of sources . . ., they would assemble the components of their project and hire a studio if finances permitted and the subject required it.”[13]


           Director Jean Renoir and Producer

  Pierre Braunberger (“40 ans après”), ca. 1965

By the end of the 1920s, however, especially with the advent of sound, the cost of mounting productions prohibited most independent directors from assembling the financing they needed. At this point, then, there emerged the independent producer, who took over the responsibility of putting together package-units, and for the next 30 years, a significant portion of French films were produced, on a film-by-film basis, by 150 to 500 small or medium-sized production firms, each of whom released perhaps one film per year. “In effect,” argues Crisp,

by preserving an artisanal and “intimate” mode of production, the fragmented industrial structure contributed to the maintenance of a consciousness among all concerned in making the films (and specifically in the producers who were the central decision makers) of being involved in an exhilarating enterprise with national cultural responsibilities. . . . [T]he lack of ongoing contractual relationships engendered constant personal negotiations, such that filmmaking could not escape seeming a highly personalized and adventurous undertaking.[14]

Whether more accurately characterized as director- or producer-packaged, many of these projects came to fruition under conditions that Crisp describes as “extremes of informality,” and according to Abel, the persistence of this production climate for some three decades “would later provide the basis for the polemical notion of the filmmaker as auteur.”[15]

The director René Clair, whose career stretched from the mid-1920s to the mid-1960s, had long acknowledged the importance of the package-unit system in fostering autonomy and diversity in the French cinema. “It may be said,” he had complained in 1932, “that the entire cinema is paralyzed by the concentration of facilities in the hands of a few big companies and by the industrial structure which these companies have given to . . . production.” In 1950, however, Clair admitted that this situation “has no longer been true in France for a good number of years, but it should be noted that most of the works that count in the history of French cinema since the beginnings of the sound film were produced outside the big companies.”[16]

The New Wave: The Director-Package System and the Art-Film Project

  In the same vein, Crisp contends that the directors of the French New Wave sought essentially to apply the principles of auteurism to the practice of a cinema in which a filmmaker would be judged according to his or her success in creating (to borrow Gance’s terms) “a complete work in a sequence of living images that he alone invents and structures.” They were, in other words, “merely returning to the director-package system of the twenties”—a system that was in fact made viable by the effectiveness of the producer-package system: “What the New Wave did,” suggests Crisp,

was to expand [the] director-package system and establish it as a norm for the more ambitious art-film project, while the producer package system continued as a norm in the more commercially oriented segment of the market.

While current mythology sees the director-package system as a breakthrough, a case can be made for the producer-package system, against which they were reacting, having all the advantages of the director-package system and no real disadvantages. . . .

In respect of “individuality,” then, the director-package system of the New Wave did not provide significant advantages over [the] classic French mode of production. All it did was inflict on the director the administrative and financial responsibilities normally accruing to the producer. Given that many . . . New Wave directors also took on the role of scriptwriter, their output was probably significantly reduced by the move.[17]

[1] Luchino Visconti (1967; rpt. New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 10.

[2] Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Bloomington and London: Indiana Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 74, 77. See also Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (London: British Film Institute, 1985), esp. Part Two.

[3] For Figure R6.1, see James Monaco, The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (1976; rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 9-10, 135-39; Jean Narboni and Tom Milne, eds., Godard on Godard (New York: Viking, 1972), p. 196; Richard Thompson, “Hawks at Seventy,” in Focus on Howard Hawks, ed. Joseph McBride (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), esp. pp. 143-44; McBride, Hawks on Hawks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982), esp. p. 142.

[4] Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, p. 74.

[5] David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 113-27.

[6] The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), p. 48.

[7] See Philip Kemp, “Gance, Abel (Eugène Alexandre),” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 372.

[8] “The Producer,” in Norman King, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle (London: British Film Institute, 1984), pp. 58-61. On Gance and Napoléon, see Kevin Brownlow, “Napoleon”: Abel Gance’s Classic Film (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), esp. pp. 40-45, 96-101, 170-75.

[9] The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 330.

[10] For Figure R6.4, see Gavin Lambert, GWTW: The Making of “Gone with the Wind” (1973; rpt. New York: Bantam, 1976), pp. 32-140; Roger Dooley, From Scarface to Scarlett: American Films in the 1930s (San Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984), pp. 614-19; Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1995), pp. 207-11; Patrick McGilligan, George Cukor: A Double Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991), pp. 143-54.

[11] On the advent of independent production in the U.S. in since about 1945, see the following: Denise Mann, Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2007). Barry Langfield, Post-Classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology since 1945 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2010), esp. Pt. 1. Matthew Bernstein, “Hollywood’s Semi-Independent Production,” Cinema Journal 32:3 (1993), pp. 41-54. Michael Conant, Antitrust in the Motion Picture Industry: Economic and Legal Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1960); rpt./abr. as “The Impact of the Paramount Decrees,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Ballio (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976), pp. 346-70. Conant, "The Paramount Decrees Reconsidered," Law and Contemporary Problems 44:4 (1982), pp. 79-107, at (accessed June 25, 2016); rpt. in Hollywood: Social Dimensions: Technology, Regulation and the Audience, ed. Thomas Schatz (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), Ch. 52. Alexandra Gil, “Breaking the Studios: Antitrust and the Motion Picture Industry,” NYU Journal of Law and Liberty 3:83 (2008), pp. 83-123.

[12] For Figure R6.5, see Maureen G. Shanahan, “Indeterminate and Inhuman: Georgette Leblanc in ‘L’Inhumaine’ (1924),” Cinema Journal 43:4 (Summer, 2004), pp. 53-75; Felicia Miller Frank, “L’Inhumaine, La Fin du monde: Modernist Utopias and Film-Making Angels,” MLN 111:5 (1996), pp. 938-53; Noël Burch, “Marcel L’Herbier,” in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. Volume Two, ed. Richard Roud (London: Martin Secker & Warburg, 1960), esp. pp. 623-24; Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Obscure Objects: Introducing the Neglected Cinema of Marcel L’Herbier,” Moving Image Source (June 19, 208), at (accessed June 25, 2016); “L’Herbier, Marcel,” in World Film Directors, ed. Wakeman, esp. p. 668; Eric Rhode, A History of the Cinema: From Its Origins to 1970 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), pp. 135-37; “Marcel L’Herbier,” Les Indépendants du premier siècle [in English], at (accessed June 25, 2016).

[13] The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960 (1993; rpt. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1997), p. 270.

[14] The Classic French Cinema, p. 283.

[15] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 48.

[16] Cinema Yesterday and Today, trans. Stanley Appelbaum, ed. R.C. Dale (New York: Dover, 1972), p. 166.

[17] The Classic French Cinema, pp. 282, 283.

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