|United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc.|
|Argued February 9-11, 1948|
Decided May 3, 1948
|Full case name||United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. et al.|
|Citations||334 U.S. 131 (more)|
|Prior||Injunction granted, 66 F. Supp. 323 (S.D.N.Y. 1946)|
|Practice of block booking and ownership of theater chains by film studios constituted anti-competitive and monopolistic trade practices.|
|Majority||Douglas, joined by Vinson, Black, Reed, Murphy, Rutledge, Burton|
|Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.|
|Sherman Antitrust Act; 15 U.S.C. § 1, 2|
United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131 (1948) (also known as the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, the Paramount Case, the Paramount Decision or the Paramount Decree), was a landmark United States Supreme Court antitrust case that decided the fate of film studios owning their own theatres and holding exclusivity rights on which theatres would show their movies. It would also change the way Hollywood movies were produced, distributed, and exhibited. The Supreme Court affirmed (a District Court's ruling) in this case that the existing distribution scheme was in violation of the United States antitrust law, which prohibit certain exclusive dealing arrangements.
The case is important both in U.S. antitrust law and film history. In the former, it remains a landmark decision in vertical integration cases; in the latter, it is responsible for putting an end to the old Hollywood studio system.
The major film studios owned the theaters where their motion pictures were shown, either in partnerships or outright. Thus specific theater chains showed only the films produced by the studio that owned them. The studios created the films, had the writers, directors, producers and actors on staff (under contract), owned the film processing and laboratories, created the prints and distributed them through the theaters that they owned: In other words, the studios were vertically integrated, creating a de facto oligopoly. By 1945, the studios owned either partially or outright 17% of the theaters in the country, accounting for 45% of the film-rental revenue.
Ultimately, this issue of the studios' then-alleged (and later upheld) illegal trade practices led to all the major movie studios being sued in 1938 by the U.S. Department of Justice. As the largest studio, Paramount Pictures was the primary defendant, but all of the other Big Five (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO Pictures) and Little Three (Universal Pictures, Columbia Pictures, and United Artists) were named, and additional defendants included numerous subsidiaries and executives from each company. Separate cases were also filed against large independent chains, including the 148-theater Schine.
The federal government's case was initially settled in 1940 in the District Court for the Southern District of New York with a consent decree, which allowed the government to resume prosecution if studios were noncompliant by November, 1943. Among other requirements, the District Court-imposed consent decree included the following conditions:
The studios did not fully comply with the consent decree. In 1942, they instead, with Allied Theatre Owners, proposed an alternate "Unity Plan". Under the Plan, larger blocks of theatres were blocked with the caveat of allowing theaters to reject films. Consequently, the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP) came into existence and thence filed a lawsuit against Paramount Detroit Theaters, representing the first major lawsuit of producers against exhibitors. The government declined to pursue the Unity proposal and instead, owing to noncompliance with the District Court's binding consent decree, resumed prosecution via the 1943 lawsuit. The 1943 case went to trial on October 8, 1945, one month and six days after the end of World War II. The District Court ruled in favor of the studios, and the government immediately appealed to the Supreme Court.
The case reached the United States Supreme Court in 1948; their verdict went against the movie studios, forcing all of them to divest themselves of their movie theater chains. This, coupled with the advent of television and the attendance drop in movie ticket sales, brought about a severe slump in the movie business.
The Paramount decision is a bedrock of corporate antitrust law and as such is cited in most cases where issues of vertical integration play a prominent role in restricting fair trade.
The Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in the government's favor, affirming much of the consent decree (Justice Robert H. Jackson took no part in the proceedings). William O. Douglas delivered the Court's opinion, with Felix Frankfurter dissenting in part, arguing the Court should have left all of the decree intact except its arbitration provisions.
Douglas's opinion reiterated the facts and history of the case and reviewed the Supreme Court's opinion, agreeing that its conclusion was "incontestable". He considered five different trade practices addressed by the consent decree:
Douglas let stand the Court's sevenfold test for when a clearance agreement could be considered a restraint of trade, as he agreed they had a legitimate purpose. Pooling agreements and joint ownership, he agreed, were "bald efforts to substitute monopoly for competition ... Clearer restraints of trade are difficult to imagine.":149 He allowed, however, that courts could consider how an interest in an exhibitor was acquired; thus, he remanded some other issues back to the District Court for further inquiry and resolution. He set aside the lower court's findings on franchises so that they might be reconsidered from the perspective of allowing competitive bidding. On the block booking question, he rejected the studios' argument that it was necessary to profit from their copyrights: "The copyright law, like the patent statutes, makes reward to the owner a secondary consideration".:158 The prohibitions on discrimination he let stand entirely.
Frankfurter took exception to the extent to which his colleagues had agreed with the studios that the District Court had not adequately explored the underlying facts in affirming the consent decree. He pointed to then-contemporary Court decision, International Salt Co. v. United States that lower courts are the proper place for such findings of fact, to be deferred to by higher courts. Also, he reminded the (Supreme) Court that the District Court had spent fifteen months considering the case and reviewed almost 4,000 pages of documentary evidence: "I cannot bring myself to conclude that the product of such a painstaking process of adjudication as to a decree appropriate for such a complicated situation as this record discloses was an abuse of discretion.":180 He would have modified the District Court decision only to permit the use of arbitration to resolve disputes.
The court orders forcing the separation of motion picture production and exhibition companies are commonly referred to as the Paramount Decrees. Paramount Pictures Inc. was forced to split into two companies: the film company Paramount Pictures Corp. and the theater chain (United Paramount Theaters), itself merged in 1953 with the American Broadcasting Company.
Consequences of the decision include:
Following the decision, and with the rise of television, the major studios felt that the loss of their exclusive theatre arrangements would reduce the opportunity to re-release products from their extensive film libraries. Paramount, for example, sold its pre-1950 sound feature film library to MCA, which created EMKA (today Universal Television) to manage this library. Other studios, such as 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., also sold or leased their classic back-catalogs to other companies such as Associated Artists Productions or National Telefilm Associates.
By contrast, Walt Disney believed his film library was much more valuable than RKO had estimated it to be. In 1953, he formed a holding company that both held rights to his pre-1953 works and distributed new material from his studio. That company became its own in-house distribution unit, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. That move, along with the eventual Walt Disney Company's theme parks and other properties to provide an impetus into television programming (and eventual ownership of ABC in 1996), would provide the company much more revenue and power over the film market, with RKO in its 1948 state eventually dissolving in 1959 among dysfunctional management, and becoming nothing more than a nostalgia trademark and associated film library distributed among several other companies.
The United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division began a review of antitrust decrees that did not have expiration dates. In 2019, the DOJ sought to terminate the Paramount Decrees, which would include a two-year sunset period as to the practices of block booking and circuit dealing to allow theater chains to adjust. The Department stated it was "unlikely that the remaining defendants can reinstate their cartel" as reasoning for terminating the decrees. The DOJ formally filed its motion for a court order to terminate the decrees on November 22, 2019. The move was opposed by independent movie theater owners, including the Independent Cinema Alliance, and independent filmmakers.