By the early 1970s, the term “studio system” had become synonymous with an institutional form of artistic repression, intent on sucking the lifeblood from auteurist projects in favor of safer, commercially viable fare. Just ask George Lucas, whose experience working with Warner Bros. on THX 1138 made him so angry that he swore off studio films for good. Of course, then Star Wars inaugurated the concept of big budget, globalized franchising, axed most remaining personal visions produced within studio confines, revved up synergistic media practice, and turned “Weekend Box Office” into a household term.
Cut to West Orange, New Jersey in 1893, where W.K.L. Dickson has just finished building the Black Maria, the world’s first film studio. An open-air establishment with a retractable roof and rotation capabilities, it became responsible for cultivating what Brian R. Jacobson calls a “framed aesthetic,” committed to the “enframing of light and objects” within the closed space. In Studios Before the System: Architecture, Technology, and the Emergence of Cinematic Space, Jacobson examines such pre-system spaces within the United States and France in order to better comprehend the “formal genealogy” and “importance for theorizing film space” offered by these prototypical studios. Rather than simply celebrating early film pioneers for their innovations, Jacobson rigorously examines the architectural, industrial, and artistic logic that drove filmmakers out of the daylight and into enclosed structures that became “a technological form of environmental regulation” and proffered cinema as “a broad reformation of the relationship between nature and technology in the late nineteenth century.”