Independent Films

"Independence" is in many ways the Holy Grail in the film business - something most everyone who makes movies strives for but can never quite attain. To be independent in the film business denotes a freedom from something, whether the vicissitudes of the commercial market or the matrix of companies that dominate the production and distribution of motion pictures in America. Such an independence can be attained only by degree. As long as a feature is screened in commercial theaters and/or aired on pay or network TV, as long as it carries a PCA seal or MPAA rating system designation, independence is a relative term.

indie film

The definition of what constitutes an independent film, or indie film, still needs to be clarified, although it usually means a film made outside of the established studio system, also known as the "mainstream" professional circut, by a little-known director who is working on a shoestring budget. Independent films, often with unconventional plots and characters, usually attract only small audiences in small, so-called art-house theaters, and have little access to prime distribution markets. Generally, the marketing of independent films is characterized by limited release designed to build word-of-mouth or to reach specialty audiences, but can also have major marketing campaigns and a wide release. They often contain groundbreaking subject matter designed for sophisticated audiences, and are not necessarily produced with commercial success as the goal. Independence assumes a distance from the commercial mainstream that is systematically and industrially maintained. They are sometimes distinguishable by their content and style and the way in which the filmmakers' personal artistic vision is realized. Independent films are often screened at local, national, or international film festivals before distribution (theatrical and/or retail release).

What follows surveys the history of American independent cinema beginning with the very first alternatives to Edison's early films and the cartel he subsequently founded. Of interest as well are the niche films that proliferated in the early years of studio Hollywood, the Poverty Row pictures of the 1930s–1950s, the so-called new American cinema avant-garde in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and the various independent cinemas that emerged as Hollywood conglomerized and monopolized the entertainment market after 1980.

The first independents: Resistance to the Edison trust

So far as most American film histories and the US Patent Office are concerned, movies in the United States began with Thomas Edison (1847–1931). First there were the patents on the Edison Kinetograph (the photographic apparatus that produced the pictures) and the Kinetoscope (the "peep show" viewing machine that exhibited them) in 1891. And then there was the first public demonstration of the Edison motion picture apparatus at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in May 1893, the place and date of what most agree was the first publicly exhibited movie. edison paper "The discourse of independent cinema appears perhaps for the first time in 1908–9 with the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC, also known as the Patents Company or simply the Trust) and its antagonists, which became known as independents".[1] The company was established on 1 January 1909 by ten film manufacturing outfits – Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, Klein Optical, American Pathé, the leading distributor (George Kleine) and the biggest supplier of raw film, Eastman Kodak – in an attempt to licence all three branches of filmmaking (production, distribution and exhibition) in the United States and, thereby, control the American film market. At the time of the formation of the MPPC, Thomas Edison owned most of the major patents relating to motion pictures, including that for raw film.

In 1910, the General Film Company, the key middle-man in the film production/distribution equation, joined forces with the MPPC trust, making an already strong cartel even stronger. With the help of General Film (which purchased studio films and then leased them to theaters) exhibitors could more quickly and more systematically change their programs. To meet the increase in demand for product, the studios ramped up production. Everyone made more money.

But despite such intra-and inter-industry collusion, the MPPC trust's domination of film production, distribution, and exhibition was short-lived. The first big problem for the MPPC arose in February 1911, when Kodak, miffed that it did not have a profit interest in the trust, exploited a clause in the original agreement and began to sell film stock to local independents. These independents had organized into a cartel of their own: the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Corporation (or Sales Company). The Sales Company "independents", led by Carl Laemmle (1867–1939), William Fox (1879–1952), and Adolph Zukor (1873–1976), were well organized and fiercely competitive. Within eight months from its inception, the Sales Company was in a position to claim that ‘in the year 1910 [they] succeeded in splitting the business of the country between the trust and [them]selves on a 50 percent basis’.

"Independent filmmaking in these early years of American cinema was mainly a reaction to any attempt towards monopolisation of the film industry. In this respect, independence is defined here by a production company’s refusal to succumb to the pressures applied by one or more organisations that actively seek total control of the film market. These early independents did break away from certain production and distribution practices of the Trust. One of the major advantages the independents had over the Patents Company was that they were willing to experiment. Unlike the production companies working for the Trust, who were making one-reel films under the assumption that the public was indifferent to the quality of the product and who would get their 10 cents per foot of film produced regardless of content or quality, independent producers consciously strove to differentiate their product".[1]

In a landmark case, The Motion Picture Patents Company v. IMP (Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company), decided in August 1912, a US Circuit Court gave the independents access to formerly licensed and restricted equipment. The victory in court put the independents on a level playing field with the MPPC. By 1914, the MPPC was out of business and the so-called independents took over. Laemmle founded Universal, Fox founded Twentieth Century Fox, and Zukor founded Paramount. In the years to follow, what independent cinema would be independent of, and from, would be the very companies that first insisted upon independence from Edison and his cartel in 1911.

Independent filmmaking in the studio era

By establishing a new system of production, distribution, and exhibition which was independent of The Edison Trust in New York, these studios opened up new horizons for cinema in the United States. The Hollywood oligopoly replaced the Edison monopoly. Within this new system, a pecking order was soon established which left little room for any newcomers. At the top were the five major studios, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures, and Warner Bros. Beneath them were Columbia Pictures, United Artists, and Universal Studios. Finally there was "Poverty Row", a catch all term used to encompass any other smaller studio that managed to fight their way up into the increasingly exclusive movie business. It is worth noting that though the small studios that made up Poverty Row could be characterized as existing "independently" of any major studio, they utilized the same kind of vertically and horizontally integrated systems of business as the larger players in the game. Though the eventual breakup of the studio system and its restrictive chain-theater distribution network would leave independent movie houses eager for the kind of populist, seat-filling product of the Poverty Row studios, that same paradigm shift would also lead to the decline and ultimate disappearance of "Poverty Row" as a Hollywood phenomenon. While the kinds of films produced by Poverty Row studios only grew in popularity, they would eventually become increasingly available both from major production companies and from independent producers who no longer needed to rely on a studio's ability to package and release their work.

The following table illustrates the categories commonly used to characterize the Hollywood system
The Big Five majors The Little Three majors Poverty Row
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer United Artists Grand National
Paramount Pictures Columbia Pictures Republic Pictures
20th Century Fox Universal Studios Monogram Pictures
Warner Bros. Producers Releasing Corporation (aka PRC)
RKO Pictures Majestic

"There are two main periods in the history of top-rank independent production during the era of mature oligopoly (the era of the Big Five and the Little Three). The first period covers the years between the mid-/late 1920s and 1939. During this period top-rank independent production was a relatively isolated phenomenon in the American film industry and was mainly characterised by a small group of elite producers, which apart from Goldwyn, Selznick, Disney and Hughes included among others Walter Wanger, Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck (before their company 20th Century Pictures merged with the Fox Corporation), Chaplin and Pickford. These producers had formed their own companies and were in the business of making only a few, mostly high-cost, prestige-level films per year. Their films were handled theatrically by United Artists, which represented the main outlet for distribution of independently produced films during those years.

The vast majority of the films produced by these companies did not present major aesthetic differences from the films produced by the studios. Surely, there were films with transgressive moments in terms of the use of film style, the construction of narrative, the politics of representation and in terms of bypassing the limitations of the Production Code. Those moments, however, were not pervasive enough to suggest the existence of an ‘alternative’ cinema, movement or film culture that ran parallel to the mainstream studio cinema. Rather, they constituted isolated instances of unconventional filmmaking at a time when the films of a small number of studios seemed to be made within the boundaries of a classical aesthetic paradigm.

Although it would be easy to dismiss these types of films as nothing more than studio copycats that were made outside the studio system simply because their producers wanted a share of the profits, such a characterisation would entirely miss the point. This is because the purpose of top-rank independent production during this period was not to revolutionise American cinema or even to articulate an alternative voice. Instead, it was to resist the claws of oligopoly which since the late 1920s were closing tighter and tighter on the American film market. With five vertically integrated corporations exerting almost total control of the market, the threat of a film industry that would turn out films ‘like sausages’ became visible once again.

Independent production, then, sought on the one hand to prevent an extreme standardisation of American cinema towards which the centripetal tendencies of its oligopolistic structure seemed to be leading it. At the same time, it provided American cinema with product differentiation that was based mainly on the high level of quality that the films brought on to the screen. Not surprisingly, independent producers specialised mainly in prestige-level films which were defined by their level of quality, production values, spectacle and artistic competence rather than by particular genre/star/style combinations that characterised the vast majority of studio films. In this respect, independent production set trends, standards and fashions which were often imitated by the studios, while on several occasions pushing the limits of Hollywood’s aesthetic paradigm. On the other hand, however, top-rank independent producers respected and therefore did not seek to change or even challenge certain fundamental aspects of American cinema: its organisation as a capitalist enterprise; its function solely as a narrative medium; and its emphasis on entertainment.

The second period of top-rank independent production in the studio era spans the years between 1940 and 1948. This time it was characterised by an industry-wide shift to this type of filmmaking. A cluster of factors that included the growing demand for prestige-level films (especially during the World War II years), the increasing power and leverage of a relatively large number of above-the-line studio employees (actors, directors and, more rarely, writers) and the effects of changes in the taxation system for the duration of World War II encouraged a much larger number of film producers than in the previous period to go independent.

If during the 1926–39 period independent production was a relatively isolated phenomenon, merely tolerated by the major studios and serviced primarily by one distributor, this was not the case after 1940. In the new decade independent production became an industry-wide phenomenon with the studios opening their gates to a large number of independent filmmakers and with United Artists gradually losing its distinct identity as the first-choice distributor for top-rank independents".[1]

United Artists: Resistance to the studio system

On February 5, 1919 four of the leading figures in American silent cinema (Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith) formed United Artists, the first independent studio in America. It is not coincidental that prior to the formation of UA two out of its four founders (Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford) were independent producers releasing through First National, while the other two (D. W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks) were set up as producers of their own films at Paramount/Artcraft but with less creative control than Chaplin and Pickford.

United Artists: Griffith,Chaplin,Pickford,Fairbanks

Each held a 20% stake, with the remaining 20% held by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo (son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary of then-President Woodrow Wilson). The idea for the venture originated with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, and cowboy star William S. Hart a year earlier as they were traveling around the U.S. selling Liberty bonds to help the World War I effort. Already veterans of Hollywood, the four film stars began to talk of forming their own company to better control their own work as well as their futures. They were spurred on by the actions of established Hollywood producers and distributors, who were making moves to tighten their control over their stars' salaries and creative license. With the addition of Griffith, planning began, but Hart bowed out before things had formalized. When he heard about their scheme, Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, is said to have observed, 'The inmates are taking over the asylum.'

"In their first press release (15 January 1919) they articulated clearly their vision about the role and function of their company:

'We believe this is necessary to protect the exhibitor and the industry itself, thus enable the exhibitor to book only pictures that he wishes to play and not force upon him . . . other program films which he does not desire . . . We also think that this step is positively and absolutely necessary to protect the great motion picture public from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment'.

Under the spectre of a ‘threatening combination’ that the potential merger between Famous Players-Lasky and First National would create, and with the memories of the Trust’s efforts to monopolise the industry still very fresh, UA was officially incorporated on 17 April 1919. Although originally envisaged as a production-distribution outfit, UA was eventually set up purely as a distribution company with the mission to supply theatres with films made by independent producers outside the studios, in addition to films made by its four founders".[1]

The original terms called for Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith and Chaplin to independently produce five pictures each year, but by the time the company got under way in 1920-1921, feature films were becoming more expensive and more polished, and running times had settled at around ninety minutes (or eight reels). It was believed that no one, no matter how popular, could produce and star in five quality feature films a year. By 1924, Griffith had dropped out and the company was facing a crisis: either bring in others to help support a costly distribution system or concede defeat. The veteran producer Joseph Schenck was hired as president. Not only had he been producing pictures for a decade, but he brought along commitments for films starring his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, and his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton. Contracts were signed with a letter of independent producers, especially Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda and Howard Hughes. Schenck also formed a separate partnership with Pickford and Chaplin to buy and build theaters under the United Artists name.

"As the only distributor to be established by the talent and the only one of the eight dominant film companies in the 1920s and 1930s without a production or an exhibition arm, UA was certainly an oddity in the studio system. Despite the fact that it has always been considered by film historians as one of the eight oligopolists and, especially, a member of the Little Three, United Artists did not also cease to be what Douglas Gomery calls a ‘specialised studio’, located ‘further on the fringe’ alongside companies such as Monogram and Republic. If the specialisation of the Poverty Row outfits was in producing and distributing cheap action films, especially westerns, the specialisation of United Artists lay in the distribution of prestige-level films and/or star vehicles by a small number of creative producers. United Artists was the only company outside the studios that was allowed access to the first-run houses, which had the power to dominate exhibition. With the other studios’ doors firmly closed, top-rank independent producers needed United Artists’ distribution apparatus to get access to those theatres".[1]

Still, even with a broadening of the company, UA struggled. The coming of sound ended the careers of Pickford and Fairbanks. Chaplin, rich enough to do what he pleased, worked only occasionally. Schenck resigned in 1933 to organize a new company with Darryl F. Zanuck, Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon provided four pictures a year to UA's schedule. He was replaced as president by sales manager Al Lichtman who himself resigned after only a few months. Pickford produced a few films, and at various times Goldwyn, Korda, Walt Disney, Walter Wanger, and David O. Selznick were made "producing partners" (i.e., sharing in the profits), but ownership still rested with the founders. As the years passed and the dynamics of the business changed, these "producing partners" drifted away. Goldwyn and Disney left for RKO, Wanger for Universal Pictures, and Selznick for retirement. By the late 1940s, United Artists had virtually ceased to exist as either a producer or distributor.

The Poverty Row studios

"Films from studios like Monogram, Republic, Grand National, PRC and a large number of other smaller companies represent film production of a particularly low quality and cheap look that could never be confused with top-rank independent production. For instance, according to film historian Wheeler Dixon, the key features of Monogram films were ‘shoddy sets, dim lighting restricted mostly to simple key spots, non existent camerawork and extremely poor sound recording’, elements far removed from prestige-level independent production or studio filmmaking. Even the most successful financially and "artistically" Poverty Row studio in the 1930s and 1940s, Republic Pictures, was widely known by industry practitioners as "Repulsive Pictures".

Despite the lack of quality and the absence of production values, however, low-end independent production represents a less controversial form of independent filmmaking. This is because the ties with the major studios that top-rank independents like Selznick International Pictures enjoyed did not exist for companies like Grand National and Producers Releasing Corporation. These companies operated completely ‘independently’ to the majors, producing their films in their own studios (or in hired soundstages), releasing them through self-owned distribution networks (or through the states rights system) and exhibiting them in small independent theatres located mainly in the neighbourhoods of big cities, small towns and rural areas. With the majors concentrating on servicing primarily the lucrative first- and second-run theatre market in the large metropolitan cities, a large number of independently owned theatres, which could not afford to buy the majors’ films, found themselves in need of product. As these theatres traditionally supplied only a fraction of the industry’s box office revenues, the studios could afford to leave them to the competition. In other words, these independent companies operated in the shadow of the studios but outside their sphere of influence.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds

The history of low-end independent filmmaking during the time of the domination of the film industry by the studios can be divided also into two distinct periods. The first one covers the years of the Great Depression, particularly from late 1930 to 1939. During this period, low-end independent production was actively encouraged by the industry as the introduction of the double bill created far greater demand for product than the major studios could handle. Companies like Monogram, Republic and Grand National were formed to exploit those buoyant conditions and, along with the studios’ B units, supplied theatres with cheaply made films, mainly for the bottom half of double bills.

The second period covers the 1940s and the early years of the 1950s. During these times, the studios gradually phased out their B film production, to the extent that the Poverty Row companies (as the low-end independents were also known) became the sole providers of low-cost films to the US theatres. As the market for low-budget productions started declining in the mid-1940s, a small number of companies like Monogram and Republic ventured into A-class and prestige-level production with Republic even scoring a major Academy Award for one of its productions (an Oscar for Best Direction for John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952).

Besides the films produced and distributed by the Poverty Row studios, low-end independent production was also characterised by a significant number of films made for various ethnic audiences. This type of film production was practised completely outside the borders of the American film industry and was exemplified by films that cost just a few thousand dollars to produce, with money raised directly from private investors or from the members of the ethnic communities the films targeted".[1] For example, as early as 1915, Noble Johnson's (1881–1978) Lincoln Film Company produced films made by and for African American audiences. These so-called "race films", like those directed by the entrepreneurial auteur Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) (who went door to door to raise money to shoot his movies), played in select urban venues and on the "chitlin circuit" (venues in the Southeast where daily life featured a strict racial segregation). Another alternative independent cinema, Yiddish films, emerged to serve the many Eastern European immigrants in the urban northeast. Featuring dialogue in Yiddish, a language that combines elements of German and Hebrew and was spoken by many first-generation Jewish immigrants, these films had their own stars and exhibition venues. Over forty Yiddish language "talkies" were made between 1930 and 1950.

Monogram Studios

"Poverty Row films represented an alternative practice that went against the mainstream classical cinema of the studio system. Although this was particularly evident in the films by the smaller independents, which offer an aesthetic problem in the paradigms of classical Hollywood cinema, it also permeated the films of larger Poverty Row outfits".[1] Exemplified primarily by the ultra-low-budget films produced and distributed by PRC as well as by a significant number of films by Monogram and Republic, low-end independents continued to prize action and pace to the detriment of character motivation and narrative coherence. "This type of independent cinema performed an extremely significant social function: it promoted a more accessible and, ultimately, more inclusive American cinema which embraced audiences from the lower strata of society whose limited consumer power had placed them at the bottom of the studios’ customer list. In departing from the rules of classical filmmaking, low-end, non-studio production presented a cinema that was less bound by established rules, which justifies the term ‘independent’, in the same way that production of films outside the studio system lends to that label".[1] From the mid-1940s, however, the two most significant Poverty Row studios stopped making exclusively B pictures and gradually entered the A film market. This meant that their films – produced mainly by ex-studio filmmakers like Borzage for Republic and Del Ruth for Monogram – started embracing the properties of classical narrative and style more readily and therefore becoming part of mainstream American cinema. Despite this evolution, however, which occurred towards the end of the studio period, the films of the Poverty Row studios represent historically a type of cinema that differs from the mainstream in both economic and aesthetic terms and therefore deserve the label independent, perhaps more so than their top-rank counterparts.

The Transitional Years

"The second period of the history of American independent cinema commences with the Paramount Decree of 1948, a consent decree the Big Five and Little Three studios signed when the US Supreme Court found them guilty of applying monopolistic practices that restrained trade and eliminated competition. The decision had a seismic impact on the structure of the American film industry as it forced the studios to divest themselves of their theatre chains and therefore lose control of exhibition, one of the three foundations upon which vertical integration depended. Although the studios found alternative ways to retain control of the film industry, the Paramount Decree became instrumental in gradually dismantling the studio system of production which had been at work since the late 1910s. Instead, the new system privileged a format of independent production which had its origins in the top-rank independent production model of the hyphenate filmmakers which had started gaining momentum during the 1940–8 period, though with some important differences".[1]

Maya Deren

The advent of inexpensive portable cameras during World War II effectively made it possible for any person in America with an interest in making films to write, produce, and direct one without the aide of any major film studio. These circumstances soon resulted in a number of critically acclaimed and highly influential works, including Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Kenneth Anger's Fireworks (1947), and Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Abrashkin's Little Fugitive (1953). Filmmakers such as Ken Jacobs with little or no formal training began to experiment with new ways of making and shooting films. Unlike films of the collapsing studio system, these new low-budget films could afford to take risks and explore new artistic territory outside of the classical Hollywood narrative.

"In the late 1950s/early 1960s, a group of filmmakers that among others included John Cassavetes, Jonas and Adolfas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Edward Bland, Alfred Leslie, Lionel Rogosin and Robert Frank was brought together by its distinctly anti-Hollywood approach to filmmaking. Bearing a strong kinship to movements in various European countries such as the Nouvelle Vague in France, the Free Cinema in Britain and other similar attempts for an alternative cinema in Italy, Poland and the Soviet Union, this American filmmaking movement attempted a radical break from the ‘official’ American cinema as this was represented by the films of the majors and of the independents (top-rank and low-end). For these filmmakers, independence meant producing and distributing ultra low-budget films entirely outside the structure and influence of the US film industry.

Driven by their commitment to these principles, the above filmmakers (minus Cassavetes) formed the New American Cinema Group, an organisation established to support formally all those new voices in American cinema. Perhaps the most important development within the Group was the formation of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, a distribution organisation dedicated to the marketing and releasing of New American films, in April 1962. Prior to the establishment of the Cooperative, the key films of New American Cinema were either self-distributed or released marginally by small distributors, like British Lion International Films that released Shadows (Cassavetes, 1959). The Film-Makers’ Cooperative was run by the filmmakers themselves who every year elected an executive committee to supervise the organisation. In distributing a film, the Cooperative retained 25 per cent of the film’s gross, returning the remaining 75 per cent to the filmmaker. Furthermore, it was open to distributing any type of independently made film regardless of length, subject matter, budget or width.

John Cassavetes

Although the Cooperative distributed a number of independent films, these were mostly non-commercial, short subjects which could not sustain financially a releasing organisation, even a non-profit one. One had to wait until 1964 to see the first features released by the Cooperative, Jonas Mekas’ Guns of Trees and Jerome Hill’s Open the Door and See All the People. By the mid-1960s it was obvious that the Cooperative had to open up to mainstream exhibition sites and therefore take a more commercial direction. For that reason, the members of the Group created a subdivision, The Film-Makers’ Distribution Center, which undertook the task of handling the more commercial films and expanding the theatrical distribution of independent cinema across the country.

The original Cooperative was usurped by the experimental or nonnarrative filmmakers who in the meantime had joined forces with the New American Cinema filmmakers as advocates of an alternative cinema. Very quickly, the Group, Film Culture and a number of the original independents led by Jonas Mekas shifted almost entirely their focus towards the avant-garde and the experimental, therefore dispensing with any concerns about commercial narrative cinema. From the mid-1960s, the filmmakers most commonly associated with the movement were Stan Brakhage, Gregory Markopoulos, Kenneth Anger, Michael Snow, Jack Smith, Robert Breer and James Broughton, all experimental filmmakers, while Andy Warhol, another important independent filmmaker, had only a tentative relationship with the Group.

Although the phenomenon of the New American Cinema was extremely short-lived it nevertheless exerted immense influence on the New Hollywood, and more generally on one of the routes that post-1970 American independent cinema took. The main reason for this was John Cassavetes, whose films, especially his first feature, Shadows, became examples of what many critics have called ‘contemporary American independent cinema’, and whose approach to filmmaking created the very powerful and romantic ideology of the lone and uncompromised filmmaker who works with a dedicated circle of friends and who goes to great lengths to see his distinct vision on the screen".[1]

Not all low budget films existed as non-commercial art ventures. The success of films like Little Fugitive, which had been made with low (or sometimes non-existent) budgets encouraged a huge boom in popularity for non-studio films. Low budget filmmaking promised exponentially greater returns (in terms of percentages) if the film could have a successful run in the theaters. During this time, independent producer/director Roger Corman began a sweeping body of work that would become legendary for its frugality and grueling shooting schedule. Until his so-called "retirement" as a director in 1971 (he continued to produce films even after this date) he would produce up to seven movies a year, matching and often exceeding the five-per-year schedule that the executives at United Artists had once thought impossible.

Like those of the avante-garde, the films of Roger Corman took advantage of the fact that unlike the studio system, independent films had never been bound by its self-imposed production code. Corman's example (and that of others like him) would help start a boom in independent B-movies in the 1960s, the principal aim of which was to bring in the youth market which the major studios had lost touch with. By promising sex, wanton violence, drug use, and nudity, these films hoped to draw audiences to independent theaters by offering to show them what the major studios could not. Horror and science fiction films experienced a period of tremendous growth during this time. As these tiny producers, theaters, and distributors continued to attempt to undercut one another, the B-grade shlock film soon fell to the level of the Z movie, a niche category of films with production values so low that they became a spectacle in their own right. The cult audiences these pictures attracted soon made them ideal candidates for midnight movie screenings revolving around audience participation and cosplay.

In 1968, a young filmmaker named George A. Romero shocked audiences with Night of the Living Dead, a new kind of intense and unforgiving independent horror film. This film was released just after the abandonment of the production code, but before the adoption of the MPAA rating system. As such, it was the first and last film of its kind to enjoy a completely unrestricted screening, in which young children were able to witness Romero's new brand of highly realistic gore. This film would help to set the climate of independent horror for decades to come, as films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974 and Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 continued to push the envelope.

With the production code abandoned and violent and disturbing films like Romero's gaining popularity, Hollywood opted to placate the uneasy filmgoing public with the MPAA ratings system, which would place restrictions on ticket sales to young people. Unlike the production code, this rating system posed a threat to independent films in that it would affect the number of tickets they could sell and cut into the grindhouse cinema's share of the youth market. This change would further widen the divide between commercial and non-commercial films.

New Hollywood and independent filmmaking

Following the advent of television and the Paramount decree, the major studios attempted to lure audiences with spectacle. Screen gimmicks, Widescreen processes and technical improvements, such as Cinemascope, stereo sound, 3-D and others, were invented in order to retain the dwindling audience by giving them a larger-than-life experience. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a Hollywood dominated by musicals, historical epics, and other films which benefited from these advances. This proved commercially viable during most of the 1950s. However, by the late 1960s, audience share was dwindling at an alarming rate. Several costly flops, including Cleopatra (1963) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) put severe strain on the studios. Meanwhile, in 1951, lawyers-turned-producers Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin had made a deal with the remaining stockholders of United Artists which would allow them to make an attempt to revive the company and, if the attempt was successful, buy it after five years. The attempt was a success, and in 1955 United Artists became the first "studio" without an actual studio. UA leased space at the Pickford/Fairbanks Studio, but did not own a studio lot as such. Because of this, many of their films would be shot on location. Primarily acting as bankers, they offered money to independent producers. Thus UA did not have the overhead, the maintenance or the expensive production staff which ran up costs at other studios. UA went public in 1956, and as the other mainstream studios fell into decline, UA prospered, adding relationships with the Mirisch brothers, Billy Wilder, Joseph E. Levine and others.

By the mid 1960s, RKO had collapsed completely, and the remaining four of big five had recognized that they did not know how to reach the youth audience. Foreign films, especially European and Japanese cinema, were experiencing a major boom in popularity with young people, who were interested in seeing films with non-traditional subjects and narrative structures. An added draw for such films was that they, like the American independents, were unencumbered by the production code. In an attempt to capture this audience, the Studios hired a host of young filmmakers (many of whom were mentored by Roger Corman) and allowed them to make their films with relatively little studio control. In 1967, Warner Brothers offered first-time producer Warren Beatty 40% of the gross on his film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) instead of a minimal fee. The movie proceeded to gross over $70 million worldwide by 1973. This initial successes paved the way for the studio to relinquish almost complete control to the film school generation and began what the media dubbed "New Hollywood".

Easy Rider

On May 16, 1969, Dennis Hopper, a young American filmmaker, wrote, directed, and acted in his first film, Easy Rider. Along with his producer/star/co-writer Peter Fonda, Hopper was responsible for the first completely independent film of New Hollywood. 'Easy Rider' debuted at Cannes and garnered the "First Film Award", ("Prix de la premiere oeuvre") after which it received two Oscar nominations, one for best original screenplay and one for Corman-alum Jack Nicholson's breakthrough performance in the supporting role of George Hanson, an alcoholic lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Following on the heels of 'Easy Rider' just over a week later, the revived United Artists' Midnight Cowboy (1969), which, like 'Easy Rider', took numerous cues from Ken Anger and his influences in the French New Wave, became the first and only X rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. 'Midnight Cowboy' also held the distinction of featuring cameo roles by many of the top Warhol superstars, who had already become symbols of the militantly anti-Hollywood climate of NYC's independent film community.

Within a month, another young Corman trainee, Francis Ford Coppola, made his debut in Spain at the Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival with The Rain People, a film he had founded his own studio, American Zoetrope, to make a reality. Though 'The Rain People' was largely overlooked by American audiences, Zoetrope would became a powerful force in New Hollywood. Through Zoetrope, Coppola formed a distribution agreement with studio giant, Warner Bros., which he would exploit to achieve wide releases for his films without making himself subject to the controlling forces of Hollywood.

These three films provided the major Hollywood studios with both an example to follow and a new crop of talent to draw from. In 1971, Zoetrope co-founder George Lucas made his feature film debut with THX 1138, also released by Zoetrope through their deal with Warner Bros., announcing himself as another major talent of New Hollywood. By the following year, the leaders of the New Hollywood revolution had made enough of a name for themselves that Coppola was offered Paramount's multi-generational gangster epic, The Godfather. Meanwhile Lucas had obtained studio funding for American Graffiti (1973) from Universal. In the mid-1970s, the major Hollywood studios continued to tap these new filmmakers for both ideas and personnel, producing idiosyncratic, startling original films such as Paper Moon (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976), all of which were met with enormous critical and commercial success. These successes by the members of New Hollywood led each of them in turn to make more and more extravagant demands, both on the studio and eventually on the audience.

It can often seem that all members of the New Hollywood generation were independent filmmakers. Though those mentioned above began with a considerable claim on the title, almost all of the major films commonly associated with the movement were studio projects. The New Hollywood generation soon became firmly entrenched in a revived incarnation of the studio system, which financed the development, production and distribution of their films. Very few of these filmmakers ever independently financed or independently released a film of their own, or ever worked on an independently financed production during the height of the generation's influence. Seemingly independent films such as Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show and others were studio films: the scripts were based on studio pitches and subsequently paid for by the studios, the production financing was from the studio, and the marketing and distribution of the films were designed and controlled by the studio. Though Coppola made considerable efforts to resist the influence of the studios, opting to finance his risky 1979 film Apocalypse Now himself rather than compromise with skeptical studio executives, he, and filmmakers like him, had saved the old studios from financial ruin by providing them with a new formula for success.

Indeed, it was during this period that the very definition of an independent film became blurred. Though 'Midnight Cowboy' was financed by United Artists, the company was certainly a studio. Likewise, Zoetrope was another "independent studio" which worked within the system to make a space for independent directors who needed funding. George Lucas would leave Zoetrope in 1971 to create his own independent studio, Lucasfilm, which would produce the blockbuster 'Star Wars' and Indiana Jones franchises.

Peter Bogdanovich

In fact, the only two movies of the movement which can be described as uncompromisingly independent are 'Easy Rider' at the beginning, and Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, at the end. Peter Bogdanovich bought back the rights from the studio to his 1980 film and paid for its distribution out of his own pocket, convinced that the picture was better than what the studio believed — he eventually went bankrupt because of this.

In retrospect, it can be seen that Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) marked the beginning of the end for the New Hollywood. With their unprecedented box-office successes, these movies jump-started Hollywood's blockbuster mentality, giving studios a new paradigm as to how to make money in this changing commercial landscape. The focus on high-concept premises, with greater concentration on tie-in merchandise (such as toys), spin-offs into other media (such as soundtracks), and the use of sequels (which had been made more respectable by Coppola's The Godfather Part II), all showed the studios how to make money in the new environment.

On realizing how much money could potentially be made in films, major corporations started buying up the remaining Hollywood studios, saving them from the oblivion which befell RKO in the 50s. Eventually, even RKO was revived. The corporate mentality these companies brought to the filmmaking business would slowly squeeze out the more idiosyncratic of these young filmmakers, while ensconcing the more malleable and commercially successful of them. Like the original independents who fled the Edison Trust to form old Hollywood, the young film school graduates who had fled the studios to explore on-location shooting and dynamic, neo-realist styles and structures ended up replacing the tyrants they had sought to dislodge with a more stable and all-pervasive base of power.

Outside Hollywood

Though many of the thematic changes which would resound through the American cinema of the 1970s would prominently feature heightened depictions of realistic sex and violence, those directors who wished to reach the audience which the old Hollywood once had quickly learned to stylize these actions in a way that made them appealing and attractive, rather than repulsive or obscene. However, at the same time that the maverick film students who would become the American new wave were developing the skills they would use to take over Hollywood, many of their classmates had begun to develop in a different direction. Influenced by foreign "art house" directors, (such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini) exploitation shockers (including Joseph P. Mawra, Michael Findlay, and Henri Pachard) and those who walked the line between, a number of young film makers began to experiment with transgression not as a box-office draw, but as an artistic act. Directors such as John Waters and David Lynch would make a name for themselves by the early 70s for the bizarre and often disturbing imagery which characterized their films.

From the late 1970s onwards mainstream American cinema started placing particular emphasis on the production and distribution of franchise films with great potential for further reiteration in the ancillary markets and on star-driven genre films that were guaranteed to deliver particular audience demographics. Hollywood’s shift towards these types of films gradually became so noticeable that the low-budget films of John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee in the 1980s were perceived by audiences as real alternatives to the commercial Hollywood fare, while the origins of most of the films outside the majors led film critics and industry practitioners alike to employ the term independent to describe them. Unlike the mindless, crass commercialism and harmless entertainment of the majors’ blockbusters, independent films were seen as examples of cinematic art that dealt with real issues and refused to compromise aesthetically, thematically and ideologically in exchange for a higher box office take.

"For certain audiences, American independent cinema was a distinct-from-Hollywood category of filmmaking and was perceived as an attraction in itself. The label independent became a signifier of prestige and status for a large number of films that lacked any traditional commercial elements. In this respect, ‘independent cinema’ became an extremely important industrial category, often the only way of marketing esoteric or idiosyncratic films to an increasingly large audience.

Roberto Begnini

In the 2000s, however, this situation has changed dramatically. The sheer volume of films that might fall under the rubric of independent filmmaking has reached such high levels that the label has lost its marketing power (not to mention its meaning). According to Variety, advertising a film as an indie production in today’s marketplace is as ‘current as Tarantinoesque’. ‘After a decade of inflated expectations met with erratic B.O. returns,’ the trade publication continues, ‘ “indie” has lost much of its rugged appeal. It’s become shorthand for movies that are small in concept, weren’t produced with the bottom line in mind and were released by companies that are going out of business.’ In other words, the prestige and status associated with the label in the previous decade has suddenly disappeared.

At the same time, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of non-American films breaking box office records in the United States: Life is Beautiful (Benigni, 1997; $57.5 million), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000; $128 million), Amélie (Jeunet, 2001; $33 million), Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2004; $53.6 million), Kung Fu Hustle (Chow, 2004; $18 million) and The Motorcycle Diaries (Salles, 2004; $18 million). With non-American films demanding equal attention alongside the American ones from major independents, classics divisions and independent distributors, the discourse of American independent cinema has once again expanded to accommodate recent developments. As a result, industry analysts and practitioners have started dropping the term independent, opting instead for the more inclusive ‘niche’ or ‘specialty’ labels. As Variety put it pragmatically, ‘in a product-saturated marketplace, you don’t sell tickets on a director’s oeuvre or a stellar review in the New York Times. These days, ya gotta have a niche . . . ‘niche’ is a nice way of saying ‘anything we can sell.’ And as it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the use of the term independent, the term ‘specialty’ has also been utilised increasingly. Another Variety editorial explains the reason: ‘while studios often label their specialty division as “indies,” they are exerting more control over them . . . And history has shown that the niches that flourish best, like Sony Classics and Focus, are the ones with the least meddling from the parent.'

Although this shift in the discourse of American independent cinema seems to suggest that independent filmmaking does not exist anymore, this is far removed from the truth. The label might have changed (or be in the process of changing), but the type of film it signifies continues to thrive and represent the most likely source of original and challenging material in American cinema. The difference is that this type of film is now accompanied by, and competes against, other such films originating outside the United States".[1]

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