Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Work In Progress: From Poverty Row To Park City- A Rough History of Independent Films

For the last few years I've been working, off & on, on a book compiling all the things I've learned while doing this blog. It's become a much bigger undertaking than I originally envisioned, racking up about 153,000+ words so far, and many things left to cover.

Today, I'm going to post one of the articles from my work-in-progress on the history of independent film in America, just so you can get the gist of what's going to be in the book and how it's shaping up. To some of my long running readers it may seem familiar in parts, since some of it was cannibalized from a blog post I had done several years ago.  Enjoy.


The big studios that we know and love today, were founded by the original independent filmmakers.
Yep, that's true.
The massive conglomerates that crush all who challenge their dominance, were once a collection of small, hard-scrabble indie filmmakers fighting against a massive conglomerate that dominated the fledgling movie industry.
History does repeat itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce, but I digress...
It all starts with Thomas Edison.
Thomas Edison, not only invented the light bulb, but patented some of the first modern motion picture cameras and projectors. Now most people would think that their patent only gave them the right to manufacture the cameras and projectors.
Edison saw it differently.
He believed that owning the patent on the means of making films, gave him an amount of ownership of the films themselves. So all motion pictures had to be produced by the member companies of the Motion Picture Patent Company (A.K.A. the MPPC or The Edison Trust). These companies included Edison’s own company as well as Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, Star Film Company, and American Pathé. If you don’t find any of those names familiar, there’s a pretty good reason for that which I will get to shortly.
Anyone who tried to make or show movies outside of this little cartel could face lawsuits, court injunctions, and sometimes vandalism and intimidation by MPPC goons.
Some folks didn't care for this and started heading away from the original film centres of New York, New Jersey, and Chicago, and went west to find a place where they could operate free of MPPC interference.
According to legend, the founders of what would become Paramount Pictures, were planning to set up their operations in New Mexico, but changed their mind en-route because of bad weather, and chose to stay on the train until they reached a little town in southern California named Hollywood. Soon others followed suit, and a new film community was born.
The truth is a little more banal. Some companies had already been operating in Southern California by that time, because of the ability to film outdoors all year round. However, the big clincher was that the Edison Trust didn't have the political clout they had back east to get away with their usual competition crushing shenanigans. This meant the independents could operate there more or less unmolested and enjoy the sunshine.
These tough little indies soon defeated the MPPC. Partially through winning anti-trust court battles, and the MPPC’s own internal fighting, but mostly by beating them at their own game.
One of the MPPC's favourite tactics was to use uncredited actors. They feared that anyone who became popular would naturally become more expensive. Now that is a reasonable concern, but a real star who put bums in seats could also be a worthwhile investment. The upstarts in Hollywood started giving credit to their actors and using the image and charisma of their more popular stars to promote films.
Another way the upstarts defeated the cartel-beast was by catering to popular tastes. The companies of the MPPC had quickly grown arrogant and thought that their monopoly meant that people would like what the MPPC told them to like. The independents in Hollywood based their business plan on looking for what made audiences happy and then running with it.
It wasn't long before the old trust companies of the MPPC had crumbled into corporate oblivion, and the Hollywood companies were at the top of the game.
By the 1920s the Hollywood studios had grown large, and a tad drunk on their own power. This sparked not only the founding of the major Hollywood trade unions, but also the creation of the United Artists movie company. United Artists was founded by a coalition of A-List actors, top tier directors and producers, and one politician, to produce and distribute their own films, as well as distribute the films of other independent producers. Unlike the major studios, United Artists had a comparatively small infrastructure and, as the box office clout of its founders dwindled, quickly became dependent on importing British films, or distributing productions by major independent producers like Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick. 
Outside of those aforementioned major players Goldwyn and Selznick, most independent producers were relegated to making low budget films for various Poverty Row companies like Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures, and the Producers Releasing Corporation. The Poverty Row studios specialized in "filler" material: cheap, relatively short movies designed to fill screen time for the independent cinemas that dotted the country. The films were small because for the most part their market was very small. The main reason their market was so small was because the major studios also owned almost all the movie theatres during this era.
However, Poverty Row enjoyed a renaissance thanks to the 1949 federal consent decree that forced the studios to sell their theatres. Soon after that came the explosion of television, and the studios cutting back a lot on making their usual slate of program "filler" B-movies, aiming for grander and more "important" Technicolor wide-screen "A" pictures. The studios figured that only big widescreen technicolor movies with big stars and big budgets could compete with the small, black and white, cheap, yet convenient competition of television.
Now if you didn’t skip ahead and read my history of blockbuster movies before reading this, you’d know that independent companies like American International Pictures (with their exploitation maestro & cinematic mentor Roger Corman), and producers like William Castle, stepped in to fill the gap the studios left behind. Long story short, their movies started making serious money, and by the 1970s Corman started his own company New World Pictures, and the studios started poaching talent and ideas from the independents. That poaching led to big movies like The Godfather and Jaws, and the age of the studio blockbuster was born.
Now these big studio blockbusters started to squeeze independent movies out of the theatres, which were then being swallowed up by big corporate cinema chains. These chains, though independent of the studios, wanted big movies that attracted big crowds to their new multiplex theatres. AIP tried to become more "mainstream" with limited success, and Arkoff sold the company to Filmways (itself to be soon bought by Orion Pictures), and retired. Roger Corman also sold New World Pictures to new owners who sought to make it into a more diversified and mainstream media company. Even poverty row stalwart Monogram, which had been renamed Allied Artists in the 1950s, had tried to play the blockbuster game, but didn’t have the infrastructure and deep pockets to do big budgets with the efficiency of the major so that even when they had hits, they couldn’t make enough to stay afloat.
But all was not lost.
Because home video had come along, and had come with a vengeance.
Home video was new, and in the early 80s small independent video stores had spread more virulently than over-priced coffee shops in the 90s and venereal disease in the 70s. These stores needed to fill their shelves with anything they could get their hands on, and the studios were a tad slow, sometimes taking years to get films out on the then new fangled phenomenon of the VHS cassette tape. This was because the big studios saw home video as a threat to their lucrative broadcast and pay television sales, and an invitation for piracy. They even went to court to try to put home video out of business, but they failed.
Independent companies saw an opportunity and moved fast to exploit it. Filling video-store shelves with hundreds of low budget sci-fi, action, horror, and comedy films. Since these films needed an exploitation or “high concept” hook to make themselves stand out the sci-fi flicks had lots of (usually hokey) special effects, action films became more violent, the horror films spewed buckets of gore, and many of the comedies took the easy road of low-brow sex-farces complete with topless girls and genital jokes.
Among the new crop of companies to grow in the fertile fields of VHS and begin to use their clout to get better releases for their films in theatres were New Line, New World (under new owners), Embassy Pictures, Cannon Films, Live Entertainment, and Vestron.
While Cannon was the most prolific of the low budget exploitation movie companies, producing and/or releasing hundreds of films in theatres and on home video during their run, other companies like Goldcrest, and the fledgling Miramax, sought their own opportunities. The teen market was over saturated in theatres and in video stores by both the big studios and the smaller "mini-majors." Leaving mature urban professionals under-stimulated when it came to movies. Goldcrest and Miramax started to fill this gap with some success. Goldcrest was the critical and commercial golden boy of the 1980s but was hindered by an overly complicated corporate/financial structure and internal strife, got overextended, and was actually crushed under its own success. Miramax specialized in distributing foreign and "art" films to the upscale urban audience and subsidizing that business with Dimension Films, a division that specialized in low budget, low brow material for the lumpen proletariat.
It was around this time also that Robert Redford started the Sundance Film Festival as a place for independent filmmakers to network with distributors and promote their films.
While many of the "mini-majors" came and went, being bought out by majors, or destroyed by their own ambitions, a handful survived, and some of them even thrived. New technology made it possible to make movies without the sort of massive studio-sized budgets, and this technology fell into the hands of a new generation of film school graduates, and other wannabe directors. This new generation of movie brats made the films they wanted to see, and they did it faster, cheaper, and more creatively than the big studios and the aging first generation of film school kids. Sundance gave them a place to premiere and shill their films to companies like Miramax, who had the means to get them into theatres. The indie film industry saw the beginning of a major change with the coming of a film with a $1.2 million budget called Sex, Lies, & Videotape. S,L, & V, directed by a post-pubescent neophyte named Steven Soderbergh, became a critical splash at the then still foetal Sundance Festival, but Harvey Weinstein and his Miramax company saw an opportunity. They shook up the industry by spending several million dollars to buy and then market the film. Traditionally independent films were booked into little “art-house” cinemas in major cities and college towns with small ads in the local newspapers and hope that word of mouth would help it catch on. Miramax spent millions in TV ads, and booking it into a couple of hundred theatres. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off, with the film raking in $24 million domestic, and spawning millions of bad puns and jokes based upon its title.
Flushed with cash and a line of credit Miramax started buying up more and more films both independent and foreign. Some did well, but too many were too niche to make back what Miramax was spending. But all was not lost, The Walt Disney empire was growing and then executive Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the awards, critical praise, and “street cred” that Miramax enjoyed and wanted some of that action. The sale to Disney saved Miramax from its overextension and gave it not only deep pockets but greater weight in theatrical and home video.
Then came Pulp Fiction.
Pulp Fiction rocked not only the independent film business but mainstream Hollywood as well. The critical cachet filmmaker Quentin Tarantino earned with his previous film Reservoir Dogs had helped him raise a slightly larger budget of $8 million as well as the participation of some big name actors like Bruce Willis. It went on to win multiple Oscars, including Best Original Screenplay, made over $100 million domestic gross at the box-office, and revived John Travolta’s long dormant career. It marked the beginning of a golden age for Miramax, which went on to dominate the Oscars, the Sundance festival, and the independent film market almost entirely between 1994 and 1998. Part of this came from shrewdly marketed quality films, but a good chunk of it came from very aggressive Academy Award campaigns that were often bigger, budget wise, than the films they were promoting.
This was the big sign that things were starting to go wrong, very, very, wrong.
A form of schizophrenia descended on the world of independent films.
First Miramax used it’s Disney backed bulk to outbid all of their truly independent rivals not only for the ones they liked, but even the movies they didn’t like. Miramax’s business philosophy was that they not only had to win, everyone else had to lose. This meant that Miramax was acquiring a massive amount of films that were being listed as assets on the books, but weren’t doing anything but gathering dust on their shelves.
Second, a lot of companies that originally just acquired and distributed independent films, including Miramax, began to produce their own films because it seemed cheaper than the rampant inflation that Miramax started in the acquisition market. Too many of these producers saw the success of Pulp Fiction and tried to repeat it, constantly. Instead of carefully aiming modestly budgeted pictures at modestly sized audiences for modestly sized profits, these companies now wanted big hits, and lots of them. Miramax became notorious for chopping up such pictures in the vain hope that they'd be able to somehow transform them into the next "indie" blockbuster.
Thirdly, and this is where the schizophrenia set in. The big studios started buying up independent distributors, spending millions of other people's dollars for art-house street-cred, and Oscar mojo. The distributors that remained truly independent were hurt financially from trying to compete with the majors and the new “independent” divisions, many went under or were swallowed up, and Sundance degenerated into a massive media whore fest, known more for celebrity sightings at the "swag parties" where billionaire corporations shower expensive gifts on millionaire movie stars, than independent films.
There was also a change in attitude. With most of the "indie" distributors now very dependent cogs in massive corporate machines, the need to make films that actually appealed to audiences outside of critics and Academy voters, dwindled to almost nothing. These new faux-indies didn't even need to market and release these movies in any way that might make the films profitable, since the reason for their existence was to win awards, critical praise, help their executives get young actresses out of their designer parkas at a Sundance swag party, and give the parent companies something to write-off on their books.
Soon what was once challenging, became insulting, daring became offensive, and artistic became an excuse for being incoherent, obscure, and worst of all, boring. Indie films went from giving the audience what mainstream Hollywood wouldn't give them, to giving Hollywood what the audience didn't want.
But like all bad things, it has more or less come to an end.
Because the big studios could only really get away with this sort of operation when times are good, investor financing plentiful, and losses acceptable. That changed with the global economic crisis of 2008-2009. Times became bad, investor financing shrank, while becoming more finicky, and losses lost their acceptability. Many faux-indie divisions of major studios soon found themselves being shut down, their staffs dumped on the unemployment line, and their films dumped in the discount DVD bins.

And that's where it sits today. Independent films are still being made, thanks to new technology making professional looking filmmaking cheaper than ever, and some are even finding audiences thanks to social media and new services like Netflix allowing them to circumvent the blockbuster obsessed mainstream. So the industry may be due for another renaissance, but probably not in the way it happened before, and most likely in a way we cannot see today.

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