The emergence and relative commercial success of the first new independent films of the late 1970s and early 1980s once again demonstrated that the oligopolisation of American cinema - this time by the infinitely-more-powerful-than-the-studios conglomerates - was impossible. Commercial
Figure 6.1 Pam Grier is Foxy Brown. Grier became an international star after her appearance in leading parts in a number of films that targeted a black audience.
independent filmmaking persisted despite the squeezing of the exploitation sector, the total appropriation of top-rank independent production by the conglomerated majors, and in spite of the absence of any serious source of funding. It transmogrified into ultra low-budget, nonexploitation film production that took place away from the influence of the majors, while a distinct institutional apparatus that would eventually support and define it was emerging. Independent production became the province of the individual filmmaker who was no longer in need of the (until then necessary) backing of a large national distributor to finance, market and release his or her film.
The independent movement of the late 1970s/early 1980s assumed a central position within the discourse of American independent cinema as it was different from mainstream filmmaking both in terms of production-distribution and in terms of aesthetics while it was also far removed from the disreputable exploitation filmmaking. As such it laid a particularly strong claim to the label, while the success of some of the films ensured that the word 'independent' would enter public discourse, signifying a very particular type of film.
Case Study: Blaxploitation, the AIP way
Foxy Brown (Jack Hill, 1974, 90 min.), produced and distributed by American International Pictures.
In 1971, an extremely low-budget film, which was financed by private investors and distributed by the tiny Cinemation Industries, became a huge commercial success ($10 million gross on a $500,000 budget -Guerrero, 1993, p. 86). The film was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, written, directed, produced, edited by and starring black artist Melvin Van Pebbles. Its spectacular commercial success proved to majors and exploitation independents alike that there was a significant race audience that had remained untapped. That audience wanted to see dynamic representations of black people, which would not follow old Hollywood stereotypes that promoted subservience and/or assimilation to white dominant groups. Instead, they would advocate opposition or resistance to the historical oppression of the black population by white individuals and institutions. With estimates bringing this potential audience to approximately 30 per cent of the ticket-buying audience in major cities (Guerrero, 1993, p. 83), it was clear that black theatregoers could provide film companies with much needed new revenues. Thus a type of film that was labelled by trade publications as 'blax-ploitation' (exploitation films for black audiences) was born.
Never late to capitalise on a fad, craze or trend, AIP jumped immediately on the blaxploitation bandwagon and offered as early as January 1972 a very successful film in the cycle, Black Mama, White Mama (starring Pam Grier). A few months later, AIP was experimenting with black content within existing genre frameworks such as horror (Blacula [Crain, 1972]) or the gangster film (The Black Caesar [L. Cohen, 1973]). By that time however, almost every company in Hollywood was making blaxploitation pictures, thus creating congestion in the film market.
To differentiate its product, AIP initiated a cycle of pictures that featured a strong female character played by Pam Grier, who was under a five-year contract to the company (1971-6). Although the idea of a strong female protagonist also runs at the Warner-financed and-distributed Cleopatra Jones (Starrett, 1973) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (Bail, 1975), both starring Tamara Dobson, AIP developed a fully fledged cycle that lasted three years (1973-5) and four films: Coffy (Hill, 1973), Foxy Brown (Hill, 1974), Friday Forster (Marks, 1975) and 'Sheba, Baby' (Girdler, 1975). Naturally, AIP continued the production of other types of blaxploitation pictures such as Truck Turner (Kaplan, 1974) and Bucktown (Marks, 1975) in case its Pam Grier films failed to attract black male audiences.
Despite the fact that Coffy became the most commercially successful film of that AIP cycle, Foxy Brown is, arguably, a more useful example for an understanding of the company's approach to this particular group of films. Originally intended as a sequel to Coffy under the title Burn, Coffy, Burn, with the same above-the-line talent, the film became Foxy Brown when Arkoff noticed that sequels had stopped performing as well in the US box office. Rather than releasing a new Coffy film, which could underperform in an increasingly competitive marketplace, the company's president decided on the production of a 'new' picture with a different heroine in the mould of Coffy. This gave the company's official policy of exploiting a proven formula a new twist. While Burn, Coffy, Burn would have been a pre-sold title in little need of substantial advertising costs given the success of the original film, by opting for a new film (with a brand new advertising campaign), AIP demonstrated its commitment to distinguish itself from the other exploitation companies. It also sent a signal to the majors, which were moving to exploitation turf, that AIP was a serious company that did not depend on sequels.
Although Foxy Brown was marketed as a 'new' blaxploitation picture with Grier, the film certainly uses most of the successful ingredients that were introduced in Coffy: the revenge plot line; the problem of drugs in the black community; the protagonist's use of her sexuality to achieve her objectives; sex and violence (and sexual violence); and a fast, upbeat music soundtrack produced by Motown legend Willie Hutch. Even the poster and tagline that are used to advertise the film present similarities. The poster of Coffy features a large picture of a scantily clad Grier holding a shotgun, while around this image there are a number of smaller pictures, mostly of fights and of Coffy in a bikini. The tagline of the film makes a reference to The Godfather (then the most commercially successful film of all time) and reads: 'She's the GODMOTHER of them all ... the baddest One-Chick, Hit-Squad that ever hit town.' Similarly, the poster for Foxy Brown features another large picture of Grier, this time in an evening dress and in a suggestive position reaching for her gun. Again smaller pictures of fights (this time mostly between scantily clad women) accompany the main image. The film's tagline is reminiscent of Coffy but it also pays tribute to Grier who in the meantime had become one of blaxploitation's main stars: 'Don't mess aroun' with Foxy Brown; She's the meanest chick in town! She's brown sugar and spice but if you don't treat her nice she'll put you on ice! Pam Grier as "FOXY BROWN."'
Not surprisingly, Foxy Brown is not very different stylistically from Coffy either. The pace is fast and becomes faster when fight or chase scenes occur. In such scenes editing becomes of primary significance (both films were edited by Chuck McLelland) as the quick cuts increase the pace while at the same time hiding the absence of production values and lack of elaborate camera set-ups. The camera often lingers on Grier's body, especially her breasts (more often and for longer periods than in Coffy). Even in unsuspecting scenes like the one where Foxy is giving a passionate speech about the need for action against the problems of the black race, Grier is stooping for the duration of the scene, allowing the camera to fixate on her bosom for a long period of time. Finally, as AIP
was committed to producing and distributing PG-certificate films, most of the violent scenes have been sanitised (the camera tilts, pans or cuts away before a controversial representation and returns to show the aftermath, especially when it comes to murder and rape).
By the time Foxy Brown was released, Coffy and Cleopatra Jones had already innovated in terms of gender representations by offering black women active roles in their respective narratives. For that reason, Foxy Brown was not allowed enough space for innovations of an aesthetic and/or political nature. Still there are a few instances in which the film transcends its low-end exploitation status and/or offers interesting representations. An example of a use of film technique not normally expected at this level of filmmaking occurs approximately thirty-seven minutes into the film when Foxy visits the home of the female crime boss and of her male lover. The scene, which lasts two minutes, makes extensive use of tracking shots, eye-line matches and point-of-view cutting, off-screen sound and deep-focus cinematography, to present a purely visual comment on the power relations between the three characters (ultimately highlighting Foxy's power over the other two despite the fact that she is in the most disadvantageous position for the time).
An example of an interesting gender representation occurs a couple of scenes earlier when Foxy confronts her brother after finding out that he betrayed her. Foxy enters his apartment and like a raging bull destroys everything in front of her. She injures him and makes him give her important information and proclaims that his days in the city are over. Throughout the scene the male sibling is represented as a very weak man who is repeatedly humiliated by his sister, especially in front of his white lover. The reason why this reversal of gender representations works so well is because this is one scene where Foxy is not portrayed as an erotic spectacle. The camera stays clear from her breasts or other parts of her body and focuses primarily on her face, while the low camera angles employed make Foxy look menacing but without objectifying her. Thus Foxy's domination over her brother is not undermined by a simultaneous eroticisation of her own image, which is not the case in the majority of the film's scenes.
Like Coffy, Foxy Brown was a big hit for AIP in 1974. In the same year, the company released more blaxploitation titles such as Sugar Hill (another film with a black female protagonist) and Truck Turner before the cycle started slowing down in late 1975.
Case Study: The Godfather of contemporary American independent cinema
John Sayles and The Return of the Secaucus Seven (Sayles, 1980, 110 min.), produced by Salsipuedes Productions, distributed by Libra/Specialty.
Perhaps because of its unexpected commercial success and John Sayles' distinguished later career, which continues successfully into the 2000s, Return of the Secaucus Seven (Secaucus) is often seen as a point of departure for contemporary American independent cinema, while the filmmaker's name is always included in the list with the most influential filmmakers of the sector. Financed by Sayles himself, who also wrote, directed, edited and played a small part in the film, and distributed by two tiny distributors, Specialty Films and Libra Films, Secaucus is in many ways a paradigmatic film for late 1970s/early 1980s independent cinema.
After a successful early career as a fiction writer, Sayles quickly moved to screenwriting with a job at New World Pictures. There he scripted a number of successful exploitation films, including Piranha (Dante, 1978), Alligator (Teague, 1980) and The Howling (Dante, 1981). It was during the early days of his apprenticeship at Corman's company when Sayles decided to make his own film. By March 1978, he had already finished the screenplay for Secaucus, a story about the reunion of seven friends who used to be politically active during their college years at the height of counterculture. With savings from three screen-writing jobs and the income from the publication of his fiction, Sayles put together $40,000 out of $125,000 necessary for the production of the film. Securing an extra $20,000 from further screenwriting work and by deferring the rest of the budget, Sayles was able to start production with no external financing (Rosen, 1990, p. 183). As a matter of fact, he declined an offer of investment in his film by Roger Corman in order to maintain complete control over every aspect of the film (Molyneaux, 2000, p. 23)
During the principal cinematography stage, which lasted five weeks, Sayles took a number of creative decisions that were determined by budgetary constraints. He took out of the script elaborate -and therefore expensive - camera movements; he employed non-union actors who were paid much less than the Screen Actors Guild normally specified; he shot the film in and around a ski resort which he had rented off-season for a fraction of the normal price; he used a 16mm camera; and he used his experience at penny-pinching New World Pictures to come up with ways to keep production costs low. Following the end of the shooting, Sayles and Maggie Renzi (the film's producer and Sayles' life partner) hired an editing table and taught themselves how to edit the film.
The film was selected for Filmex, the Los Angeles Film Festival, in 1979. It was received well by the public and attracted the interest of three distributors, United Artists Classics, Libra Films and Specialty Films. Sayles decided to make a deal with Specialty Films, a very small, Seattle-based releasing company, which was established by the owner of a West Coast art-house film exhibition chain to ensure constant product supply to his theatres. Furthermore, Sayles and Specialty brought Libra Films in on the deal as a subcontractor to handle distribution in the East Coast, a region where Specialty did not feel they knew the market well.
Lacking the resources and financial muscle of a national theatrical distributor, Specialty and Libra devised what is known as a grassroots approach to the film's distribution. They concentrated on a small number of important film markets (New York, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, DC), and tried to reach their target audience (the 1960s generation) on a personal level with strategies such as direct mailing, advertising in local communities, pre-screenings for influential local people (film critics, community leaders, and so on) and other word-of-mouth promotional activities. As the film's release coincided with the disastrous opening of Heaven's Gate, the distributors used this to promote Sayles' film as the anti-Heaven's Gate, a picture of modest origins with a good script compared to the $44 million fiasco of the conglomerate-owned United Artists, which was panned universally.
Furthermore, the marketing campaign also focused on Sayles and his transition from writer to filmmaker. Despite a poor opening in New York and San Francisco, the release of the film in the other regional markets was very successful. Fuelled with an award from the Society of Los Angeles Film Critics to Sayles for Best Original Screenplay and with the film's inclusion in many 'ten best' lists around the country, the film re-opened in New York. Accompanied by the clever ad line 'the film everyone's missed' (Rosen, 1990, p. 193), the film became a success playing in one Manhattan theatre for twenty-two weeks and opening elsewhere in New York. The film eventually grossed more than $2 million from its first theatrical run.
What is immediately evident from the first shots of the film is that this is not a glossy Hollywood production. Sayles' realistic dialogue and location shooting provides the film with a sense of verisimilitude that is absent from the big-budget productions of the time. As the story revolves around a reunion of seven friends with a common political past, the film's emphasis is placed heavily on their interaction, especially their verbal exchanges (as one large group or in smaller units). Throughout the film the spectator gradually discovers their secrets, their political views, their romantic/sexual inclinations, the ties that bind them together and their relation to each other and to the group as a whole.
As a result, the film's narrative is structured in a loose manner, driven by small incidents that occur to individual members of the group during the reunion (how will Jeff react to the news that his partner Maura slept with J.T.? Will Frances succumb to Ron's sexual advances?) or by larger enigmas that turn out to be irrelevant to the unfolding of the story (will Chip [the only outsider and the audience's surrogate] be accepted by the rest of the group?). The absence of a heavily structured narrative trajectory allows the question of how these people have coped in the real world after their activist years - the real subject of the film - to be explored without the help of the usual narrative tricks (suspense, deadlines, and the pursuit of clear-cut goals).
To avoid a theatrical aesthetic of 'filmed conversations' Sayles interjects a couple of 'action' sequences. In one sequence, the male characters play basketball and Sayles, the editor, gradually speeds up the editing pattern of the scene as the spectator expects that Jeff (who has just found out that J.T. has slept with his partner) will hurt J.T. Although the aesthetic of the scene is somewhat at odds with the rest of the film, it nevertheless stands as the closest thing to a climactic narrative sequence as in the end Jeff does instigate an injury (only a slight one) on J.T. In the second action scene, the male characters dive repeatedly into a river while the female characters admire their (the male characters') naked bodies. Apart from presenting an opportunity for action in beautiful scenery, the scene raises the question of women's (and the spectator's) visual pleasure from the male naked body, reversing an extremely strong tradition in American cinema where the spectator's visual pleasure is almost entirely associated with looking at the female body. Although both scenes add pace in the film, Secaucus remains a dialogue-driven exploration of the death of political radicalism and a comment on the destiny of the sixties generation under the threat of the New Right.
After Secaucus, Sayles established a consistent career in the independent sector (with the exception of Baby It's You , which he made for Paramount). With a body of fifteen feature films in twenty-five years (including the commercially successful The Secret of Roan Inish  and Lone Star ), Sayles has remained an influential voice in American independent cinema, especially as his films continue to tackle social and political issues (civic corruption and its effects on small town politics [City of Hope, 1991]; corporate capitalism [Sunshine State, 2001]; racism [The Brother from Another Planet, 1984; Lone Star, 1996]; lesbianism [Lianna, 1983]; disability [Passion Fish, 1992]; the labour movement [Matewan, 1987]; and so on) that major film productions and newer independents rarely do.
2. Decca Records, the controlling company of Universal, had already been bought by MCA, a talent agency wsith interest in television production, in 1962. MCA had to divest itself of its talent agency holdings for the takeover to be allowed by the US Justice Department.
3. In 1977, it was estimated that the top 6 grossing films of the year were responsible for approximately one third of all income generated from the 199 releases of the year (Davis, 1997, p. 116).
4. The figure is taken from Finler, 2003, p. 366.
8. Finler, 2003, pp. 359-60. For a fascinating account of audience research and how its results informed the production of Star Wars, see Earnest, 1985, pp. 1-18.
11. The number of screens is taken from Finler, 2003, p. 366; the figure for audience attendance is taken from Davis, 1997, p. 139.
13. 'AIP Announces Biggest Product Line-Up History', in The Hollywood Reporter, 14 January 1970, pp. 1 and 3.
14. Barron, Frank, 'Crown Int'l Hits $500 million Worldwide Box office Figure', in The Hollywood Reporter, 28 September 1978, p. 1.
16. Crown is an exception here as it distributed between six and ten films per year.
17. The figures are taken from Finler, 2003, pp. 366-7.
19. 'In Times like these, Film Fare Trend Should Be Escapist, AIP Reasons', in Daily Variety, 17 August 1970.
22. For more information on the distribution history of the film, see Wyatt, 1998b, pp. 74-5.
23. 'Crown Int'l to Celebrate 15th Anniversary in "74"', in Box Office, 15 October 1973.
24. According to an MPAA-commissioned survey in 1977, 57 per cent of all tickets were bought by people who were under 25 years old (Cook, 2000, p. 23).
28. The figures are taken from Cook, 2000, p. 335.
29. The figures are taken from Cook, 2000, p. 16.
30. The figures in Table 6.2 are taken from: Isenberg, Barbara, 'Formula Flicks: A Film-Maker Cashes In On Low-Budget Movies Exploiting Fads, Trends', in The Wall Street Journal, 5 May 1970, pp. 1 and 17; Getze, John, 'Horror or Horrid Films, AIP Quickies Score at Box Office', in LA Times, 20 February 1974; 'Record Profits Gross For AIP As 20th Year Winds', in Daily Variety, 17 May 1974, pp. 1 and 18; and '$2.9 Mil A.I. Profits For Fiscal 1976 On Record Gross Income', in Daily Variety, 13 May 1976, pp. 1 and 4.
31. The figure for Jaws' budget is taken from Cook, 2000, p. 41. The figure for AIP's credit line is taken from, 'AIP Free of Debt, Bank Loan Repaid', in The Hollywood Reporter, 21 March 1975.
32. The figure is quoted in McBride, Joseph, 'Arkoff Lambastes "Suicidal" Film Budgets; Says Labor, Talent Also Cost Too Much', in Daily Variety, 30 January 1976, pp. 1 and 4.
35. Segers, Frank,' Arkoff Chides Film Leaders, Inaction In Defence; Credits "Tax Shelter" As Indispensable', in Weekly Variety, 8 October 1975, pp. 3 and 38.
36. 'American International Draws Lotsa Exhibs To N.Y "Advance"', in Weekly Variety, 15 June 1977.
37. 'AIP Orders 3835 Prints For Six Summer Releases', in Daily Variety, 14 April 1977.
38. Levin, Gerry, 'AIP Signs Wynn on Three-Picture, "Exploitable" Deal', in The Hollywood Reporter, 7 December 1977; 'AIP-Filmways Merger Dropped, Says Arkoff', in Box Office, 18 December 1978.
39. 'Major Revolving Credit Pact Finalized by AIP', in Box Office, 19 December 1977; 'American International Pictures, Filmways Inc. Terminate Merger Plan', in The Wall Street Journal, 11 December 1978.
40. 'Tax Credits Substantial Factor In AIP's Fiscal Year Profits', in Daily Variety, 17 May 1977; 'Legal Steps Re Filmways-AIP "Conditions" Unstated; Don March's Future Influence Awaits Clarity', in Weekly Variety, 28 March 1979.
41. Murphy, A. D., 'Picture Biz Still A-Buzz Over AIP-Filmways Merger Plans', in Daily Variety, 18 October 1978.
42. For a brief account of the deal, see 'AIP - Filmways Nuptial Contract: Arkoff's Working, And Exit, Pay; Answers Only to Richard Block', in Weekly Variety, 11 July 1979, pp. 4 and 32.
43. Lewis, 1995, p. 35. The company had already dropped 'Pictures' from its name in the early 1970s, having become American International.
45. The figures are taken from Hillier, 1986, p. 51.
46. The figure is taken from Hillier, 1986, p. 53.
47. The Hollywood Reporter, 28 September 1978, p. 1.
48. Schreger, Charles, '58 Films Launched So Far This Calendar Year, 23 Of Them during Third Quarter', in Daily Variety, 11 October 1978, pp. 1 and 6.
55. The figures are taken from Biskind, 2005, p. 17.
56. Biskind, 2005, p. 17, original italics.
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