Identity Crisis

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With United Artists virtually out of the picture until the early 1950s and with the banks taking very few risks after 1947, it comes as no surprise that most of the top-rank independents returned to the studios, setting up semi-autonomous units. Despite initiatives by independent theatre owners to form a company that could finance top-rank independent production (in the steps of First National) and the formation of Motion Picture Capital Corporation by two former RKO producers to supply funds to independents,24 even the most stalwart representatives of independent production of the previous years (like Frank Capra, Leo McCarey and James Cagney) signed up distribution deals with the studios to secure the future of their companies.

The independents needed the studios to raise finance (because of their tangible assets the studios were in a position to guarantee bank loans) and to distribute their films worldwide (an absolute necessity for films to break even after the drop in domestic attendances). In their turn, the studios needed the independents to provide them with the necessary product (at a time when they had started firing their personnel and reducing their production schedules) and to cut overhead costs by making independent production companies take up slack space on their backlots. Before the end of the 1940s then, studios and independents had already become strong allies. For that reason, when the Paramount Decree gave independent producers the opportunity to compete with the studios on an equal basis, not only were the independents in no position to take up the challenge but, had they taken it up, they would have had to go against the hand that fed them, the institutions that allowed them to exist.

But even if independent producers had the funds to make films away from the studios and the means to distribute them, a major shift in the political climate of the country during the same period would probably have ensured that their films would not stray too far from the mainstream. The Hearings of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947 and sporadically in the following few years until 1953, which sought to cleanse the film industry from communist infiltration, created a climate of political paranoia under which it became extremely difficult for liberal independent filmmakers to present alternative world-views in their films. As Peter Lev argued, in the early 1950s there were many quality American films, but they were all made 'within socially and aesthetically conservative parameters' as the filmmakers who were not blacklisted by HUAC and continued to work in Hollywood could not afford to take any risks whatsoever.25 This meant that any form of independent cinema would have to cooperate with Hollywood, especially as the heads of the studio-distributors publicly endorsed HUAC's objectives and terminated the employment of over 350 industry workers who had been 'blacklisted' by HUAC as communists or communist sympathisers.

Besides the political climate of paranoia, industrial and economic conditions did not seem to improve as the new decade came in. Between 1950

and 1953 (the first year when box office receipts climbed slightly since 1946),26 3,000 theatres closed, while attendance and profits continued to slide. In 1954 it was estimated that less than one third of all US theatres were financially viable, while production of films had dropped to 300 from 425 pictures in 1946 (down 30 per cent).27 By far the biggest contributing factor in the continuation of the slump in the new decade was television, which offered free entertainment in the comfort of one's own home. The proliferation in the number of television sets between 1948 and 1950 was astounding. In 1948 there were a mere 172,000 television sets in the whole of United States. In 1949 the number had increased to 1,000,000 and a year later to 16,000,000. Equally, the number of commercial television stations climbed from 98 in 1950 to 233 in 1953, providing a staggering amount of additional product to the offerings of the three national networks, NBC, CBS and ABC.28 According to a federal government survey in 1950, families that owned a television set had reduced their movie-going attendance by an alarming 72 per cent, while their children's visits to the theatre were reduced by an equally problematic 42 percent.29

In the face of this protracted economic downturn, independent production - now any form of film production by any company other than majors - became the dominant method of production in Hollywood cinema and can be credited with securing Hollywood's future. Although in many ways independent production in the 1950s and 1960s resembled substantially top-rank independent production of the pre-1948 period, the main difference was in the relationship between the production and the distribution company, a relationship that saw the two parties more as partners, rather than as the former working for the latter. This type of arrangement was to a certain extent reminiscent of the relationship between United Artists and its independent producers in the 1930s and 1940s. What was different, though, was that, this time, the distributor would provide complete production financing in exchange for worldwide distribution rights, therefore asking the independent producer to do only what he or she could do best: produce the film without worrying about raising production funds or marketing the product. Appropriately, the distribution company that first foresaw the benefits of this arrangement and put it into practice was none other than United Artists. According to Tino Balio, United Artists' policies transformed the company 'into a pacesetter of the industry and started a revolution in the motion picture business.'30

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Film Making

Film Making

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