hollywood cinema

Formatting and Hollywood Cinema


The concept of formatting was first defined by Bill Ryan (1992) who argued media producers were always trying to “confront the uncertainties of the cultural marketplace” through some “form of creative control”. In his exploration of the cultural industries, Hesmondhalgh identified three important strategies companies used to “minimise the danger of misses”: stars, genres and serials.

The Star System

The right casting can ensure box office success because popular actors provide filmmakers with an established audience who will be eager to see their favourite performance in another role. Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Will Smith were all considered bankable stars. Hesmondhalgh noted this type of formatting is reserved for “privileged texts” that are predicted to be “big hits”.

By the way, the star system was created in the 1920s by the Hollywood studios who understood the importance of using glamorous and exciting actors to generate publicity for a film. Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Gary Grant are good examples of stars who were managed and marketed by the studios.

More recently, James Ulmer, an entertainment journalist, developed his own method to quantify a star’s value to the film production. The Ulmer Scale takes account of the actor’s box office history, public image, and professionalism. An actor might become a riskier investment if they are involved in a scandal, or their most recent performances were panned by the critics.


Genre is another way companies can mitigate the risks involved with production. Labels, such as horror film and romantic comedy, suggest to the audience the “kinds of satisfaction and reward they might attain by experiencing the product”. Hesmondhalgh mentioned genres were similar to brand names.

You might already be aware that a genre’s codes and conventions offer a basic formula for success to filmmakers. Genre films might attract more funds from investors because the production company can point to similar films and their popularity at the box office. Think about brand loyalty – fans of certain genres will continue to watch the same films rather than competing narratives. Genre films also have a clear identity which can make the advertising message more effective.

The Serial

The highest grossing films in recent years have all been franchise films – Harry Potter, the Avengers, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. Hesmondhalgh argued Hollywood studios rely more than ever on sequels, prequels, reboots, and alternative timelines. This type of formatting is called the serial and it is another way production companies can “spread the high fixed costs associated with developing a programme idea and reaping the reward from the relatively low variable costs”.

Hesmondhalgh, David (2019): “The Cultural Industries”.
Ryan, Bill (1992): “Making Capital from Culture”.

Further Reading

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