Walt Disney who made a large number of shorts but only one feature-length film for the company. From the sixteen remaining production companies, United Artists' chairman Joseph Schenck was involved in five (Art-cinema, 20th Century, Reliance Pictures, Joseph M. Schenck Productions and Buster Keaton Productions), while the three remaining founders, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford, produced their films through individually owned companies. This left Goldwyn, Wanger, Selznick, Hughes, Hal Roach and Edward Small (who produced most of their films for United Artists post-1939), Gloria Swanson and Walter Camp, who produced films through three different outfits: Inspiration, Inspiration-Carewe and Patrician Productions.
It is clear then that the independent producers who supplied United Artists with product on a regular basis or throughout an extensive period of time were a particularly small group, which becomes even smaller if one tries to locate the individuals who were in the business of making only prestige-level pictures.30 This suggests that top-rank independent production was a modest and relatively isolated phenomenon in American cinema until the late 1930s, which explains why it was represented mainly by one specialised distribution company.
The reasons behind the relative shortage of successful or well-established independent producers are several and can be traced in the specific market conditions that characterised American cinema during the late 1920s-late 1930s period, the years of the Great Depression. In the years prior to the Depression, the independents faced two main problems: obtaining production finance and accessing the studio-owned first-run theatres. With Wall Street banks interested only in film companies with tangible assets - the studios - it was extremely difficult for independent companies to obtain production loans or secure any other form of investment, especially as they were not guaranteed access to the all-important first-run theatres (until United Artists came to an agreement with the majors in 1928). As a result, independent production was limited to a few individuals such as the UA partners who had established outstanding track records in terms of box office revenues since the early 1910s and millionaires like Howard Hughes who was in a position to self-finance his productions.
These conditions did not particularly improve as the 1920s drew to a close, even though both production finance and access to the first-run theatres seemed to become somewhat easier to obtain. This time, it was the complex problems the industry faced during the period of the conversion to sound (1926-28) that proved prohibitive for a large-scale turn to independent filmmaking.31 Even the few established producers who distributed through UA had to wait until October 1928 to release a film with synchronised sound, approximately ten months after the release of The Jazz Singer.32 This was because almost all available sound equipment was utilised for studio production, which meant that the independents had very few opportunities to make sound films.
The next decade, however, seemed to be somewhat more promising. Ironically, the major factor that improved slightly market conditions for established and new independent producers was the Great Depression and its impact on the studios and the film industry in general. Having borrowed heavily during the late 1910s and early 1920s to acquire hundreds of theatres and extended financially even more in the late 1920s during the conversion to sound, the studios found themselves in an extremely fragile state when the Depression eventually hit the film industry late in 1930. One of the measures the studios took to deal with the effects of the Depression was to adopt a more tolerant attitude towards independent filmmakers. This was especially so when the latter started specialising in prestige-level pictures, films that turned out to be the biggest money-makers during the 1930s. Furthermore, the studios changed their system of production to reflect the flexibility of the independents' approach to filmmaking, while even developing their own brand of 'independent' production. All the above changes, however, took place after the studios collectively put an end to a radical independent project initiated by David O. Selznick. This was based on an idea that was only slightly ahead of its time and entailed the establishment of an independent company within the structures of a major studio, RKO.
Selznick attempted to create an independent company which would consist of a small number of units headed by filmmakers. The company would produce about twelve prestige-level films per year and, according to Selznick, would provide the answer to the considerable number of bad films that had flooded the US film industry in the early 1930s.33 During his stint at Paramount Selznick had suggested the idea to his superiors but the studio was not interested. After leaving Paramount, Selznick tried to obtain the necessary funds to get the company off the ground but he was unsuccessful. Instead, he decided to accept an offer to become RKO's vice president in charge of production in October 1931 and establish his company within the structures of the studio. By that time RKO was in a desperate financial situation (the Depression had started leaving its mark with $5.7 million net losses for 1931) and, therefore, was willing to try new approaches to film production.34
The other studios interpreted Selznick's project as a move that would take creative and administrative control from the studios' owners and top executives to filmmakers or mid-echelon managers, and in effect undermine the traditional structure of the industry. In a perfect example of collusion the studios ensured that Selznick's independent venture was killed off.35 He had to wait until 1935 to form Selznick International Pictures (SIP), the structure of which reflected his original idea of a company made of a few units. Like other top-rank independents, SIP made an agreement with United Artists for distribution.
Although Selznick's idea had its foundation on unit production, a particular approach to filmmaking that had been practised informally in some studios since the late 1920s,36 it nevertheless proved particularly threatening for the studios at a time when their revenues and profits were decreasing rapidly. With their combined profits dropping from $55 million in 1930 to $6.5 million in 1931, the studios were reluctant to allow the extra competition that Selznick's company would certainly create.37 More importantly, though, the studios were not ready to formalise unit production and accept the partial handover of control of film production from studio owners or top executives to filmmakers. As it turned out, Selznick had put his idea forward only one or two years early. By 1933, as the eight studios collectively recorded $26 million net losses and the need for a more strict fiscal policy became evident, they were ready to replace the dominant central producer system of production with the producer-unit system.38 Like any dominant business enterprises in any other industry, they were ready to accept new practices when the benefits to them were clear or when market conditions left them with no alternative.
Under the central producer system, which had been the dominant system of production since the mid-1910s, one executive - usually a top-class producer or a manager - supervised a large quantity of films per year (normally between thirty and fifty). This system was best exemplified by managers like Irving Thalberg at MGM who had input in every single production of their respective companies. The producer-unit system, however, decentralised management control, transferring it from one executive or a committee of executives to an elite group of top-rank producers/executives per studio. Each of these producers was in charge of a unit of studio-contracted employees and delivered a short number of films, normally between three and six per year. The benefits from this shift were many, including: better cost and quality control per film as one person supervised fewer films; a more enhanced sense of teamwork among unit members; further product differentiation within a studio and across the industry as each unit revolved around a particular star, director or producer who made specific types of films; and more efficient use of a studios' assets, which meant lower overhead costs.39
This new system of film production presented a number of features common with top-rank independent production. The main ones included: a creative individual in charge of the production process; a tightly knit group of employees working only for one producer; a small number of films produced per year; occasional participation of unit-producers in their films' profits; and production of films of a particular type/trend/style. This suggests that at the time when a handful of producers were making films independently for United Artists there was a much larger number of producers who were heading their own units and were making films for the other studios. In other words, there was a significant number of producers, many of whom specialised in prestige-level and A-class films, who preferred the small degree of autonomy that the security of unit production provided over the larger degree of autonomy that the uncertainty of independent production promised. As we shall see in the next section, many of these unit producers became the independents who characterised the 1940-8 period.40
This raises the question of the degree of independence for both unit and independent producers. According to Matthew Bernstein, the producer-unit system was only a slight modification of older production models initiated for the benefit of talent that sought more creative control (such as the Famous Players-Lasky's Artcraft arrangement for Mary Pickford in 1916 and First National's agreements for Chaplin and Pickford in 1917 and 1918 respectively).41 As a result, Bernstein continues, when unit production became dominant in 1932-3, it was only an independent production model that was appropriated by the studios and was adapted to the needs of the existing mode of production. As he puts it:
Although they correspond to different corporate and contractual arrangements, the different terms 'unit' and 'independent' production actually denoted differences in the degree of autonomy rather than differences in kind. In practice from the mid-1920s onward unit production and independent production for major studio distribution were interchangeable.42
Even though Bernstein seems to be refuting the existence of 'real' independent production in the studio era, he nevertheless does not refer to the producers who released through United Artists when he talks about 'independent' production. Instead, he refers to another brand of independent producers such as Walter Wanger and Edward Small (before they both started producing for United Artists), Lewis Milestone, Jesse Lasky and a few others whose production companies established distribution deals with the majors. Although in many respects similar to the independents who distributed through United Artists, this particular brand of independent production was characterised by the various forms of control the studio/distributor was able to exercise. Furthermore, as the studios were members of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) all the films they distributed (including their in-house independent productions) were subject to approval by the Production Code Administration (PCA), a division of the MPPDA that regulated the films' content. For all those reasons, these productions' 'independent' status was severely compromised.
One particularly interesting example is provided by the treatment of JayPay's first production for Paramount, the Walter Wanger-produced The President Vanishes (Wellman, 1934). The film, which deals with the efforts of a group of industry leaders to force the US president to enter the war in Europe so that they will increase their profits, was subjected to a number of changes by Paramount and PCA who did not agree with the representation of various industry professions and the film's overtly liberal political content. As Bernstein argues, Walter Wanger, who otherwise had enjoyed complete freedom in the production process, had actually chosen this format of independence to avoid 'the kind of meddling' that the studio and PCA habitually exercised on their in-house productions. While Wanger's contract with Paramount specified that he was obliged to make any changes dictated by the PCA, it did not have any provision for Paramount's interference with the film's content. Despite that, Paramount board members demanded cuts from the film while the studio's president, John Otterson, dictated an opening title which would emphasise the film's fictional status and deny any potential for truth value in the events repre-sented.43 Producing independently for a major (a practice that Bernstein calls 'semi-independence' and equates to unit production), therefore, did not guarantee complete creative control, and Wanger, after a short stint as a unit producer at Paramount, moved to United Artists in search of a more enhanced form of independence in 1936.
The producers who distributed through United Artists, however, were 'a case apart', not least because United Artists did not have any in-house productions to which its independent films could be compared.44 Like the other studios, United Artists was also a member of the MPPDA and had to distribute films that carried the seal of approval from the PCA. Unlike the studios, though, United Artists did not influence the production process or, indeed, demand any non PCA-related changes in the films of its producers. To the contrary, the company made it an informal policy to stand by its producers' films, which often tested the tolerance of the Production Code and the patience of its administrators. Aside from specific ideological reasons (the owners of the company were producers themselves and were more sensitive to questions of creative control), United Artists was not in a position to either influence a production or demand changes in a final cut. This was because all the producers who released through the company arranged their own financing. As a matter of fact, United Artists provided no finance to independent producers during the 1926-39 period, with the notable exception of Walter Wanger Productions, when it joined UA in 1936.45 As a result the producers who distributed through UA were able to exercise control of their productions, unlike their counterparts who had distribution deals with the studios.
Financing for independent production in the 1930s was available only for an elite group of producers, while the size of guarantees financial backers asked for to make production funds available ensured that the group of independent producers would continue to remain small. With UA refusing to provide any form of financing, the only other avenue open to independent producers was commercial banks, which nevertheless agreed to bankroll producers who had established a good track record of box office revenues. For instance, Goldwyn and Selznick, perhaps the two most successful independent producers in the studio era, arranged financing for their films in the form of residual loans from a small number of banks. To qualify for such a loan for a proposed picture, the producer was asked to secure a distribution contract, surrender any profits from the proposed film until the loan was covered and mortgage any earlier films that were still returning profits for the period of the loan agreement.46 The more successful the earlier pictures and the more promising the proposed one, the more easily the bank would agree to a loan. This of course made it very difficult for any aspiring independent producer to secure production funds and partly explains why there were so many producers who delivered only one independently produced film for United Artist in the 1926-39 period.
Despite the problems, however, top-rank independent production was also essential for the Depression-hit film market. Burdened by the heavy borrowing for the conversion to sound, the studios had started decreasing their output gradually, from 393 releases in 1929, to 362 in 1930, to 324 in 1931, to 318 in 1932.47 Along with the slowdown in production, the studios also emphasised films 'that would add to the bottom line' rather than take gambles with ambitious projects.48 Although this decrease was accompanied by a much more substantial drop in the number of theatres in the US (4,000 theatres closed between 1930 and 1932),49 exhibitors' demand for product was nevertheless increased exponentially. This was because of the introduction of the double bill (or double feature presentation), a practice that saw the billing of two films together as part of an evening's programme. The double feature normally consisted of a major production, which was the main attraction (the A film), and a lesser known film which got the lower half of the billing (the B film). Less than a year after its introduction, the double bill had become a norm in the field of exhibition as more than 8,000 theatres adopted the practice.50 The A/B film combination was deemed good value for money for a bargain-hunting public and consequently can be considered responsible for keeping theatre attendance at a relatively respectable level during the nadir of the Depression (1932-3).
Although the double bill proved extremely beneficial for the low-end independent producers at Poverty Row (which is why we shall examine it in more detail in Chapter 2), it also provided top-rank independents with considerable gains. Firstly, because of the extraordinary demand for product, exhibitors (including the prestigious first-run theatres) turned more often to independent producers to acquire the necessary number of films to fill in their playdates. This resulted in the consolidation of the independents' status as essential components of the American film industry. Secondly, as they specialised in the production of prestige-level and solid A-class films, independent producers saw their films in constant demand for the top half of the double bills.51 Although top-rank independent producers like Goldwyn and Selznick were completely against the concept of the double bill (they thought that coupling their own productions with lesser films would degrade the former as well as deprive them of a percentage of the rentals),52 ticket sales in theatres playing double bills were consistently higher than in the few theatres which exhibited one film. In other words, the independent producers stood to profit more from double bills despite their position that their films should be exhibited on their own.
Finally, and more importantly, the combination of great demand for film along with the studios' trend to emphasise the production of films that would add to the bottom line elevated the already prestigious independent product to an even higher status. Top-rank independent producers became the champions (and gatekeepers) of outstanding production values and overall quality in filmmaking, while their films epitomised the level of artistic excellence that US cinema was capable of achieving. In the words of Thomas Schatz:
Just as any studio needed its occasional prestige picture to reinforce its artistic credibility, so had the industry at large needed independent producers like Selznick and Sam Goldwyn to define the high-class motion picture - so long as they were not too independent and their pictures reinforced rather than challenged or changed the dominant notions of value and quality in feature filmmaking.53
As the film industry started bouncing back from the effects of the Depression in the mid/late 1930s, the few top-rank independent production companies had not only managed to survive, they also had become an integral part of the film industry. The major studios had realised that not only were the independents' contributions essential for the smooth running of the industry, they also did not pose any real threat to the studios' domination of the film market. This was mainly because the most important of these independents (Goldwyn, Selznick, Disney and Wanger) operated as mini-studios and in effect replicated a number of production and business practices associated with studio filmmaking. These practices included, among many others, the adoption of a detailed division of labour during the production process, the making of genre films and the placement of stars, directors and other creative personnel on long-term contracts. Furthermore, they could not pose any real threat for the studios because, despite whatever claim to financial independence, they had to use some of the studios' resources whether these were the studios' sound stages, their directors or their stars. Most importantly, they had to use their theatres, because without the studio theatres they would not be in a position to bring their films to profitability, and therefore secure funding for more pictures.
Where they differed from the studios, the in-studio independents (like JayPay Productions) and the studio units was in the ways these independents adapted certain dominant production practices to allow for greater collaboration during all stages of the production process,54 and in the ways they 'pushed the envelope' in several aspects of film production, distribution and exhibition. As a result, the vast majority of the films produced by these companies did not present major aesthetic differences from the films produced by the studios. Surely, there were films with transgressive moments in terms of the use of film style, the construction of narrative, the politics of representation and in terms of bypassing the limitations of the Production Code. Those moments, however, were not pervasive enough to suggest the existence of an 'alternative' cinema, movement or film culture that ran parallel to the mainstream studio cinema. Rather, they constituted isolated instances of unconventional filmmaking at a time when the films of a small number of studios seemed to be made within the boundaries of a particular aesthetic paradigm, which Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson called 'classical'.55
Although it would be easy to dismiss these types of films as nothing more than studio copycats that were made outside the studio system simply because their producers wanted a share of the profits, such a characterisation would entirely miss the point. This is because the purpose of top-rank independent production during this period was not to revolutionise American cinema or even to articulate an alternative voice. Instead, its was to resist the claws of oligopoly which since the late 1920s were closing tighter and tighter on the American film market. With five vertically integrated corporations exerting almost total control of the market, the threat of a film industry that would turn out films 'like sausages' became visible once again.
Independent production, then, sought on the one hand to prevent an extreme standardisation of American cinema towards which the centripetal tendencies of its oligopolistic structure seemed to be leading it. At the same time, it provided American cinema with product differentiation that was based mainly on the high level of quality that the films brought on to the screen. Not surprisingly, independent producers specialised mainly in prestige-level films which were defined by their level of quality, production values, spectacle and artistic competence rather than by particular genre/ star/style combinations that characterised the vast majority of studio films. In this respect, independent production set trends, standards and fashions which were often imitated by the studios, while on several occasions pushing the limits of Hollywood's aesthetic paradigm. On the other hand, however, top-rank independent producers respected and therefore did not seek to change or even challenge certain fundamental aspects of American cinema: its organisation as a capitalist enterprise; its function solely as a narrative medium; and its emphasis on entertainment.
For all those reasons, it is not constructive to perceive of top-rank independent production in the late 1920s and 1930s as a failed effort to establish an alternative aesthetic paradigm in American cinema. Rather it should be seen as a successful experiment that prevented the integrated majors from achieving total control of the film market, while occasionally providing films which demonstrated the possibilities for an alternative American cinema.
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