Despite ultimately being controlled by the majors, independent production post-1948 continued the project of the hyphenate filmmakers of the 1940s who had laid the foundations for a filmmaker's cinema and had gradually stripped the studios of their distinct house styles. By moving from distributor to distributor, arranging individual or multi-picture deals and by constructing film packages that often were sold to the highest bidder, independent filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s indeed finished the job that the previous generation had started. Thus, even when the credits continued to present films by Paramount, Universal or Warner, the logo did not mean anything specific. Writing about the production of Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960) at Universal one year after the company was taken over by the Music Corporation of America (MCA), a talent agency that grew so powerful in the 1950s that it acquired one of the seven majors, Thomas Schatz noted 'how genuinely independent top-feature production had become even at Universal.' He continued:
This was an unprecedented production by Universal's standards, and its packaging was equally unconventional . . . Spartacus was a European co-production put together by an outside producer, Edward Lewis, and directed by maverick free-lancer Stanley Kubrick. Much of the film was shot in Spain and several of its international all-star cast owed a piece of the production . . . Universal served as no more than the nominal producer, providing production facilities, personnel and distribution. Thus Spartacus was by no means a 'Universal picture' in any traditional sense.69
The fact that Spartacus was not a 'Universal picture', however, did not mean that it was very different formally and aesthetically to other epics of the time such as the Walter Wanger-produced/20th Century-Fox-distributed Cleopatra or the MGM-produced and-distributed Ben-Hur. Thus although the distinct identities of the individual studios had disappeared completely, there was also a parallel centripetal tendency throughout the industry towards the tried and tested, which eventually eroded any oppositional-to-the-mainstream attitude and made a progressive cinema almost impossible. It was this tendency that laid the foundations for another brand of independent cinema that is discussed in Part 3, after an examination of the low-budget independent market during the 1948-67 period in the following chapter.
Case Study: Stanley Kramer's Lomitas Productions and United Artists, 1957-60
The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958, 97 min.); On the Beach (Kramer, 1959, 134 min.); Inherit the Wind (Kramer, 1960, 128 min.). Unless otherwise stated all quotes and figures are taken from a number of documents available in Stanley Kramer Papers (Collection 161). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
Stanley Kramer is arguably the most significant producer-director of social-problem films during the 1950s and 1960s. Starting from the lowly position of a backlot labourer at MGM in the early 1930s, Kramer moved gradually up the industry hierarchy, finally obtaining the position of executive assistant to independent producer David Loew. In 1948, Kramer signed a distribution contract as an independent producer with United Artists, for which he produced five films in four years: So This is New York (Fleischer, 1948), Champion (Robson, 1949), Home of the Brave (Robson, 1949), The Men (Zinnemann, 1950) and Cyrano de Bergerac (Gordon, 1951). From his first pictures, Kramer developed a reputation for tackling bold, difficult or even taboo subjects which he treated with seriousness and maturity in relatively low-budget films that proved artistically and, especially, commercially successful. For instance, Champion, which was shot for under $600,000 in 24 days, dealt with the ugliness and corruption in the world of professional boxing; Home of the Brave, which was financed completely by private investors, was one of the first films to deal openly with race prejudice; and The Men dealt with the world of heavily injured World War II veterans and their struggle to adjust to life back home. As he put it in an interview, Kramer wanted to 'use film as a real weapon against discrimination, hatred, prejudice, and excessive power' (Aberdeen, 2000, p. 152).
After Cyrano, Kramer signed an independent deal with Columbia, for which he produced eleven films between 1951 and 1954, including: The Death of A Salesman (Benedek, 1951); The Wild One (Benedek, 1953); and The Cain Mutiny (Dmytryk, 1954). By far his most successful film during that period, however, was High Noon (Zinnnemann, 1952), which Columbia let him produce for United Artists so that Kramer could fulfil an outstanding contractual obligation. During his four-year spell at Columbia, Kramer, who saw himself as 'a creative moviemaker and not just a business executive', found himself in conflict with the major's boss Harry Cohn several times. Not surprisingly then, when his contract expired, Kramer chose to return to United Artists, which by that time had completed its miraculous financial recovery, for a more enhanced form of independent filmmaking.
In this third chapter of his career as a producer Kramer decided to undertake also the role of a director, becoming a hyphenate filmmaker. His first picture in this dual capacity was Not As A Stranger (1955), a film that dealt with the trappings of the medical profession for an arrogant doctor who liked to play God, a solid hit. His second film as a producer-director, however, a widescreen period epic entitled The Pride and the Passion (1957) was a major box office flop. Cross-collateralised, the two films left United Artists with a loss of $700,000 (Balio, 1987, p. 143). Despite the loss, however, United Artists and the filmmaker proceeded to the signing of a new multi-picture deal on 31 December 1957, under the provisions of which Kramer had to produce six films and direct three out of these (see this chapter for details of the deal).
The first of these films was based on an original screenplay by Nathan E. Douglas (pseudonym for blacklisted writer Nedrick Young) and Harold Jacob Smith, called The Defiant Ones (TDO). The story revolves around the escape from a chain gang of two convicts, one black and one white, who hate each other's race but who have to depend on each other for survival as they are chained together. Having spent a record $75,000 for the property, Kramer brought to the deal Curtleigh Productions as a co-venturer. Curtleigh was an independent production company formed by Tony Curtis and his then wife, Janet Leigh. Curtleigh's participation in the production of TDO came as a package with Curtis's agreement to play John 'Joker' Jackson, one of the two main leads. For the second lead Kramer hired the leading black actor of the era, Sidney Poitier. With a very low (for the period) budget of $881,904 ($128,196 in total deferred), Kramer completed the shooting in seven weeks, signalling a return to his early days as a producer of low-budget social-problem films that aimed at raising awareness of important social issues.
United Artists' marketing of the film capitalised on Kramer's increasing reputation as a distinctive filmmaker who was 'unafraid to tackle bold and uncompromising themes' and submitted the film to a number of international festivals 'as an unusual example of American motion picture making'. The distributor also stressed the significance and controversy of the picture, highlighting a number of key points, which included an emphasis on the chain gang (hoping to induce protests against the system) and the prominence of chain linking as a powerful symbol.
The film opened in Chicago to great reviews and then to the rest of the country, winning many awards, including two Oscars (Best Screenplay and Best Black and White Cinematography). Perhaps more importantly for Kramer's image as a social-problem filmmaker, the film was awarded the Newspaper Guild of New York Page One Award for Motion Pictures 'for its civilised, adult approach in motion picture terms to one of the profound problems of our time.' Although it garnered a profit of $1 million for United Artists, the film's returns for Lomitas consisted of a paltry $17,324,71 net profit (Curtleigh, which had made a gross income participation deal, made a substantial profit from the film).
Kramer's next film was On the Beach which dealt with another massive social problem, the threat of human extinction from nuclear weapons. The film was based on the best-selling novel by Nevil Shute which dealt with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, represented by the lives of Australians as they wait for radiation to reach their continent, the last place with life on the planet. The production attracted a stellar cast that included Hollywood legends such as Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire (in an unusual dramatic role). Although Kramer deferred both his salaries as a producer-director, Astaire deferred $40,000 from his own salary and Peck accepted only $250,000 against 10 per cent of gross receipts, the film's budget was almost three-and-a-half times the cost of TDO, surpassing the $3 million mark. The film's production lasted for more than two-and-a-half months and like many of Kramer's other films it faced a battle with the Production Code Administration, as the film seemed to promote euthanasia as an alternative to death from radiation.
For the film's publicity United Artists orchestrated a concerted effort to proclaim the film one of the most important films in the history of cinema and to make the premiere day a significant event all over the world. This is evident in the film's taglines which included: 'Never Before in the History of the Industry Has the World Been Linked
Together by One Motion Picture'; 'The First Motion Picture for Everyone All Over the World'; and 'If You Never See Another Motion Picture in Your Life, You Must See On the Beach'. The result of this approach to marketing brought an unprecedented simultaneous opening of the film in eighteen major cities in all six continents, while the film was also specially screened for 1,200 selected Soviet officials in Moscow and for the US president Eisenhauer in the White House.
Furthermore United Artists highlighted Kramer's contribution, stressing his individuality as a filmmaker and especially his tendency to 'ignore' or 'throw out' the rules of picture-making in the US and to 'treat with starkly frank fashion' themes that are deemed 'untouchable' by Hollywood. Despite its critical and commercial success (the film grossed $7,189,915 worldwide), the film's high budget and Peck's agreement for gross participation meant that the film lost $700,000.
Kramer's third film, Inherit the Wind, tackled the subject of individual free thinking and how it was put on trial when a high school biology
Figure 3.1 Stanley Kramer directing Ava Gardner in the Lomitas Productions Picture On the Beach.
teacher was charged with teaching illegally the theory of evolution by Christian fundamentalists in a small American South town in the 1920s. The film was adapted from a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and was based on the 1925 Tennessee vs John Scopes trial (also known as 'The Monkey Trial'), one of the most famous trials in American legal history. With the screenplay written by the same Oscar-winning writing team of TDO, the film attracted another stellar cast, led by Spencer Tracy, Fredrick March and Gene Kelly (in an atypical dramatic role - just like Astaire in Kramer's previous film). The production was budgeted at a little more than $2.3 million with Kramer and Kelly deferring the whole and part of their salaries respectively, while this time there was only one gross participation deal, that of the two playwrights.
Inherit the Wind provoked an epic battle with the PCA. As the film was attacking religious fanaticism it had the potential of striking a new blow to the already weakened Production Code. Although Kramer accepted some of the recommendations by the PCA (especially that the community depicted in the film was 'not representative of the True Christian faith'), the film retained its polemic nature by assuming an educational tone, mainly represented by Henry Drummond's (Spencer Tracy) monologues that exposed the dangers of bigotry and fundamentalism.
Like with the other two Lomitas pictures, United Artists stressed the controversial elements of the film and Kramer's undisputable value as a filmmaker with a conscience. Despite a number of awards and rave reviews, however, the film's combined US and world gross receipts were $1,792,336. With advertising and marketing costs alone surpassing the $1 million mark, the film recorded a heavy loss ($1.7 million), representing a major disappointment for both producer and distributor.
Although the filmmaker's independence in this case is determined by his production deal with United Artists, Stanley Kramer is also a filmmaker with a personal visual style, an aspect of his work that is often ignored by critics. His trademark is a combination of the use of deep focus cinematography with the use of extremely long takes (often more than two or three minutes in duration while on certain occasions individual scenes consist of just one long take) that allow dramatic situations to develop gradually and reach a peak at the end of a scene. For instance, each scene in The Defiant Ones lasts about two-and-a-half minutes on average, while in On the Beach and in Inherit the Wind, they last three and four minutes respectively).
Because of the emphasis of his films on tense dramatic situations Kramer often uses 180-degree tracking shots (the positions of two characters in a frame switch), which often signify an upcoming dramatic reversal or that one character gains an advantage over another character. This is particularly evident in The Defiant Ones and in Inherit the Wind which contain two distinctively penned antagonists. Apart from the aesthetic effects such stylistic choices produce, they make the actors' performance easier, as they allow them to act uninterrupted for a substantial amount of time. Under Kramer's direction, Tracy, Poitier and Curtis were nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, while the same three along with Frederick March and Fred Astaire won other US and international acting awards.
Although Kramer directed and produced three pictures, he nevertheless did not produce the additional three films his agreement with UA specified. Despite the heavy losses of Inherit the Wind, UA and Lomitas signed a new distribution deal on 2 February 1960 for three more films which Kramer would direct and produce, while his obligations from the previous contract were transferred to the new agreement. The filmmaker continued to tackle difficult subjects such as genocide and the Nazi crimes (Judgement at Nuremberg, 1961), racism (Pressure Point, Cornfield, 1962) and child disabilities (A Child is Waiting, Cassavetes, 1963) before scoring big at the box office with the comedy It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). After these films Kramer moved to Columbia and in 1967 produced arguably his most famous picture, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
Stanley Kramer managed to establish a significant career by creating a distinct identity for himself and his movies. The downside of this success, however, was that he never managed to make any profits for the various production outfits he had set up. Between 1955 and 1963 Kramer's films lost a staggering $7 million at the box office, a loss that was absorbed by United Artists. The main problem was that Kramer suffered from lack of product differentiation, that is, he produced only one type of picture, the social-problem film. This means that once the appeal of this type of picture passed, he was in no position to follow trends or produce commercially successful films (Balio, 1987, p. 160). As a result, he made a significant contribution to American cinema with certain very distinct pictures, but failed to establish a solvent self-owned production company.
9. The figures are taken from Schatz, 1996, p. 435; and Schatz, 1999, pp. 290 and 331.
20. The figure is taken from Gomery, 1986, p. 175.
27. The figures are taken from Davis, 1997, p. 30.
28. The figures for the proliferation of TV sets are taken from Balio, 1976, p. 224. The figures for the increase in the number of television stations are taken from Lev, 2003, p. 9.
35. The figures are taken from Balio, 1976, p. 237.
36. The figures are calculated from 'Appendix 1: United Artists Domestic Releases, 1951-1978 (including Lopert Releases)', in Balio, 1987, pp. 349-87.
37. The contract is available in 'UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement', Box 258, Folder 2, Stanley Kramer Papers
(Collection 161). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.
38. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 2.
39. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 6.
40. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 40.
41. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, pp. 54-6.
42. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, pp. 57-8.
43. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 20.
44. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 21.
46. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, p. 10.
47. Lev, 2003, p. 202. Although Lev does not include a figure or a percentage of the budget that this overhead charge reached, Balio stated that fellow major Columbia used to charge independent filmmakers such as Stanley Kramer an overhead as high as 25 per cent of a film's budget (1987, p. 141). One could assume that Paramount's charges were similar to the those charged by Columbia.
49. UA Corp - Lomitas OTB, ITW, TDO Financing and Distribution Agreement, pp. 6 and 11.
53. All the quoted figures about the art-cinema market in the US are taken from Doherty, 1988, p. 32.
54. Youngstein is quoted in Doherty, 1988, p. 22.
61. The number of films that went past the $10 million mark in the 1948-67 period is calculated from the table of Box Office Hits 1914-2002 available in Finler, 2003, pp. 356-9.
62. This estimation is for the year 1961 and is quoted in Monaco, 2001, p. 11.
63. The top ten is taken from Finler, 2003, p. 358.
65. The figures are obtained from Finler, 2003, p. 320 and Balio, 1987, p. 317.
68. Of course there were several new distribution companies in the art-house cinema field and in the low-budget/exploitation fields, but like in the studio period, these distributors were marginal and in no position to compete in the same arena with the main powers.
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