Economic Opportunities In The Lowbudget Independent Sector Late s

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As the majors were struggling financially during the economic recession of 1969-71, and the New Hollywood independents were trying to secure a place in mainstream cinema, the independents in the low-budget, exploitation sector had been having an altogether different experience. Unlike the majors, who were still searching for their audience, these independents knew exactly which segment of the population their target audience was. For that reason, they continued successfully to supply youth audiences with cheap, generic product, exhibited primarily at the approximately 6,000 drive-in theatres of the country. As a matter of fact, conditions were so good for these independents that at a time when 20th Century-Fox was recording losses of $80 million in one year (1970),12 a small company like American International Pictures was enjoying its most successful year yet, with a profit of $632,000.13

AIP was not alone in feeling that these were good times for low-end independents. Crown Pictures, a distribution company that had been releasing a handful of low-budget films per year since the late 1950s, was ready to expand both in terms of distribution business volume and of producing its own films (after 1972).14 Roger Corman chose 1970 as the year to establish his own production/distribution organisation, New World Pictures, after his lengthy and particularly successful association with AIP. Only a year later, former New World Pictures employees Charles Swartz and Stephanie Rothman, and veteran independent producer Lawrence Woolner, established Dimension Pictures to compete directly with New World Pictures for the same market. Finally, after six years on the market 'for "special events" on college campuses', New Line Cinema established a national distribution apparatus in 1973 to release low-budget 'arty and freak' films.15

All these production/distribution companies were linked by several common characteristics. First - with the exception of AIP, which went public in 1970 - they were limited companies that were owned and run by their founders and not by a board of directors. Second, their operation and initial success was based on the distribution of a large quantity of cheap films which were designed to fill in the increasing number of available playdates in the nation's theatres, hardtop and drive-in.16 For instance, when in 1972 the seven majors released just 145 films, it was these independents who supplied the majority of the remaining of the 315 films released by US distributors that year,17 and therefore prevented the threat of product shortage from materialising.

Third, their films tended to exploit the new freedom in representation of sex and violence made possible by the changes in the ratings system in 1968. According to Ed Lowry, who wrote specifically on Dimension Pictures, films from such independents belonged almost exclusively to mostly 'R-rated sub-genres (the softcore nurse/teacher/stewardess film, the women's prison picture, the graphic/erotic horror movie, the imported kung-fu actioner, and the whole range of blaxploitation).'18 Compare for instance the taglines from one film each from AIP, NWP, Dimension and Crown, released in 1972. The differences seem to lie only in the inspiration of the marketing departments, as can be seen in Table 6.1.

Independent Cinema in the Age of the Conglomerates Table 6.1 Taglines from exploitation films of the early 1970s

Distributor

Film

Tagline

American International Pick Up on 101

'Anybody's back seat will do so long as he's going her way'

'The mouth to mouth they give is not CPR!' 'She made plowboys into playboys'

'She forced her husband's son to commit the ultimate sin!'

Pictures

(Florea)

New World Pictures Private Duty Nurses (Armitage)

Dimension Pictures Sweet Georgia (Boles)

Crown International The Stepmother (Avedis)

Fourth, as exploitation companies, they were watching closely trends and cycles in American cinema, trying to cash in on the latest fad or craze. Although business analysts and trade publications like Variety were proclaiming at the peak of the industry recession 'that the only current trend was no trend at all',19 low-end independent producers never stopped looking for winning formulas. Some, in fact, were very successful, like New World Pictures with its Nurses cycle, which was sustained for five films (The Student Nurses [Rothman, 1970]; Night Call Nurses [Kaplan, 1972]; Private Duty Nurses [Armitage, 1972]; The Young Nurses [Kimbrough, 1973]; and Candy Stripe Nurses [Holleb, 1974]).

Finally, these companies allowed filmmakers a substantial degree of creative control during the production process. This freedom was sometimes translated into the making of innovative films, especially in terms of the use of film style and the representation of political issues. For instance, even the softcore sex films of the Nurses cycle often featured narratives that revolved around such political matters as 'abortion, ecological issues, black disadvantage and alternative education',20 issues rarely tackled by the majors in the early 1970s. Although independent companies often gave filmmakers such freedom consciously, claiming that this practice differentiated them from the majors, film historian Jim Hillier has argued that such freedom was 'inherent' in the production practices these companies followed. Writing specifically on New World Pictures he argued:

freedom was inherent in the ways the films were produced. Expectations tended to be low for a number of reasons: the films would have no aspirations to critical acclaim (as a rule, they would not be press shown), the budgets were extremely low, and producers would generally be absent and more concerned with selling the product than with actually making it - Corman, would certainly absent himself from the start of the shooting until it was more or less finished.21

AIP, New World, Crown and Dimension were only the tip of the iceberg, the most well-known of a large number of low-end independent producers and distributors some of which also enjoyed commercial successes with low-budget films that have remained cult favourites throughout the years. These included Bryanston Distributing Company which released The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) and Fanfare Films which released the extremely successful The Born Losers (Laughlin, 1967; co-distributed with AIP), the first film in which the character of Billy Jack appears. In 1971, Laughlin wrote, directed, produced and starred in Billy Jack, a film that became a commercial triumph ($32,500,000 in rentals on a less than $1 million budget), after Laughlin and Warner distributed it with the method of 'four-walling'.22

The blossoming of the exploitation sector in the early 1970s continued the project of the Poverty Row studios and of the low-end independents of the 1950s and 1960s (targeting audiences the majors excluded, working with genres the majors shunned, filling in playdates especially in the drive-in theatres, and so on). One could go as far as to argue that the period between the late 1960s and the mid-1970s is reminiscent of the 'classic years' of the Poverty Row studios in the 1930s and 1940s. This is because the number of important distributors, the volume of their business, the freedom they granted filmmakers (provided they would stay within specific budget and genre constraints), the distributors' association with a particular type of exhibition site (then the subsequent-run theatre, now the drive-in theatre) and the emphasis on showmanship (Crown executives invented the term 'Crownmanship' to distinguish their own brand of film promotion) suggest that the exploitation independents of the 1970s had found their own niche market, just like their predecessors during the studio years.23

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