Independents Before The Formation Of The Studios

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With the Patents Company out of the picture, Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Company set out to become the next ruler in the American film industry. Together with the Feature Play Company (owned by Jesse Lasky, Samuel Goldfish [later Goldwyn] and Cecil B. DeMille), Zukor's company understood the potential of a new system of national film distribution devised by Hodkinson and implemented through his company, Paramount (formerly Progressive). Under this system Paramount would finance the production of feature films by advancing funds to production companies in exchange for exclusive distribution rights for a set period of time. In this manner, producers would be in a position to dedicate their efforts solely to the making of the films, leaving the marketing, promotion and advertising of the pictures to a specialised distribution company that is adequately equipped to reach a nation-wide audience.

As one of Paramount's first clients, Zukor experienced first hand the benefits of the new distribution system. Within two years of their initial agreement in 1914, Zukor and Lasky took over Hodkinson's company and in the process found themselves in charge of a giant production-distribution outfit as they also merged Famous Players with Feature Play into Famous Players-Lasky. The power of the company became such that before the end of 1916 they introduced the practice of block booking.13 Under this trade practice, exhibitors were forced to accept a company's annual output in one large or a few smaller blocks of films, despite the fact that the majority of a company's films were of a dubious quality with lesser or no stars, and production values often down to an absolute minimum. In order for exhibitors to secure a company's top-rate and therefore most desirable productions (for instance, the Mary Pickford films at Paramount), they also would have to accept the rest of the company's productions.

As we shall see later in this chapter, this particularly oppressive trade practice kept films made and distributed outside the studios from reaching specific cinemas and, to a certain extent, defined the parameters of independent filmmaking during the 1928-48 period. Block booking, moreover, provided the spark for another movement of resistance to Zukor's attempt towards monopolisation, a movement which, once again, can be labelled independent. Unlike its predecessor, however, which had its roots in 'outlaw production', this independent movement started with disenfranchised film exhibitors.

By the mid-1910s a small number of newly built, centrally located theatres in several large American cities were accommodating the increasingly large motion pictures audience. Although these theatres represented a very small percentage of the actual theatres in the country at the time (approximately 200 out of 14,000),14 they nevertheless held the power to dominate exhibition. This was because films in first run were guaranteed maximum exposure and publicity as well as much larger profits than in smaller, second-run theatres.

The first-run exhibitors were dissatisfied with Paramount's trade practices - especially with block booking - and as they gradually became aware of the power their sites had in controlling exhibition they organised resistance against Zukor. In April 1917, twenty-six key first-run exhibitors representing the biggest markets in the country formed the First National Exhibitors Circuit, a distribution company whose objective was 'to acquire outstanding pictures made by independent producers'.15 With a distribution network in place and with exhibition secure in all key territories, First National proceeded to attract talent from various companies. The company's greatest success was to lure Charlie Chaplin and, especially, Mary Pickford from Mutual and Paramount respectively. History repeated itself: in the same way Laemmle's Independent Motion Picture Company had managed to lure Pickford away from The Patents Company, it was now First National that managed to lure the same star away from another company that was attempting to exert control over the industry. By 1920 First National had become a great force in the industry, controlling 639 theatres, 244 of which were first-run houses.16

Zukor's response was to try to merge Paramount (as Famous Players-Lasky was eventually renamed) with First National, aiming to create a vertically integrated super-company. When the merger did not materialise, Zukor chose to do the next best thing: he proceeded to an aggressive programme of theatre acquisition which would not only make Paramount vertically integrated, but would also end First National's domination of the exhibition circuit. From that moment on and for almost a decade the history of the American film industry was defined by endless corporate battles, mergers and takeovers as other companies, in all three branches of the film business, tried to emulate Zukor's example to stay in the game. The end result of this corporate restructuring was further consolidation until the industry reached its mature oligopoly phase in the mid-/late 1920s.

First National can be perceived as an independent company that opposed Paramount's march towards monopolisation of the American film market. However, the company is also important as a distributor that set out to acquire films made by independent producers. As a distributor-exhibitor (but not a producer) First National's practice of setting up creative individuals as independent producers with, sometimes, complete creative control in exchange for exhibition and distribution rights became the blueprint for one of the main forms of independent production in the studio era. It also paved the way for the birth of a distribution company which would handle the bulk of independent production during the era of oligopoly, United Artists (UA). 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.

The formation of United Artists was a direct response to the rumours of the merger between First National and Paramount. Star-producers Chaplin,

Pickford and Fairbanks (whose contract with Paramount was close to expiring) and director-producer D. W. Griffith announced their intention to form their own production-distribution company. 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.17

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. As we shall see in the next section, not only did UA come to represent one of the very few avenues -certainly the most prestigious - for independent production during the 1930s, it also actively shaped the discourse on American independent cinema for the same period. This was mainly because UA was created, as Tino Balio argued, 'for the benefit of the independent producer in an era dominated by big business and an oligopolistic market structure',18 despite the fact that it eventually became an integral part of that same market structure it was set up to counter.

Despite its ambiguous position in the American film industry, UA ensured the continuation of a particular format of independent production, which can be labelled as 'top-rank independent production' (as opposed to the low-end format of independent production associated with the Poverty Row studios, which is examined in Chapter 2). Top-rank independent production was practised by a small number of filmmakers who could produce artistically and commercially successful films but who were unwilling to follow some of the rules of the studio system for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons included: disagreement with studio policies; lack of creative control during the production process; exclusion from profit participation schemes; and, more rarely, aspirations to make 'different' films, which the studios would probably never produce. Although one could argue that producers like Samuel Goldwyn, Walt Disney, David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes 'depended', each to a different extent, on certain resources of the studio system, they nevertheless provided American cinema with a product that often led the way in a number of areas of the film art and business. As Thomas Schatz put it:

While the big studios emphasised efficiency and productivity, Selznick and other major independents like Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney produced only a few high-cost, high-yield pictures annually. These filmmakers were in a class by themselves turning out prestige pictures that often tested the economic constraints and the creative limits of the system or challenged its usual division of labour and hierarchy of authority.19

Specifically, films by these producers tested the tolerance of the Production Code (Selznick's Prisoner of Zenda [Cromwell, 1937] and Gone with the Wind [1939], Hughes' The Outlaw [1943]). They pushed the limits of technological innovation (Disney's Snow White and Seven Dwarves [1937]) and were credited with ushering Hollywood to a new era of mature representations on screen (Goldwyn's Best Years of Our Lives [Wyler, 1946], Selznick's Duel in the Sun [K. Vidor, 1946]). Furthermore, the same producers repeatedly broke conventional distribution and marketing strategies in an attempt to maximise the box office revenues of their films (Duel in the Sun was one of the first films to be released simultaneously in a number of cities; The Outlaw was marketed on a city-by-city basis by the producer himself). They advocated the use of scientific audience research at a time when the studios took their audience for granted (Selznick and Goldwyn were among the first producers in Hollywood to make use of the Audience Research Institute, which was established by George H. Gallup to study the Hollywood industry and its audience). Their films repeatedly outperformed the studio films (Gone with the Wind, The Best Years of Our Lives and Duel in the Sun grossed more than $10 million at a time when $5 million gross was considered outstanding business). Finally, in what was a unique arrangement in the studio era, Disney's short-subject films were used as hooks by distributor RKO to sell its - sometimes substandard - feature films (the exact opposite was true for all the other studios).

One could argue then that top-rank independent filmmaking during the studio era was associated with prestige-level film production, which became a particularly significant production trend in American cinema during the 1930s. Prestige-level films were high-cost productions (between $1 and $4 million) and were normally based on firmly established, pre-sold properties to ensure audience recognition. Such properties included nineteenth-century literature, Shakespearean plays, best-selling novels, popular Broadway productions, and biographical and historical subjects.20 As a result, prestige-level films could be of different genres and styles as the emphasis of such films was on production values (high budget, lavish settings, special effects, top stars, glamour) and especially on the films' marketing potential.21 Although all the major studios adopted this trend, it was a small group of independent producers that, by and large, set the standards and defined the potential of such productions. And it was the success of these independently produced films which occasionally pioneered innovation in several areas of the three branches of Hollywood filmmaking: production, distribution and exhibition.

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