During the studio era the American film industry was dominated by eight companies, the Big Five (Paramount, Loew's [MGM], 20th Century-Fox, Warner Bros and RKO) and the Little Three (Columbia, Universal and United Artists). The Big Five were vertically integrated companies: they produced their films at self-owned studios; they developed a network of offices in the United States and around the world to market their films and deliver them to the theatres; and they owned a relatively small number of theatres in the United States and in key European countries where they exhibited their own (as well as each other's) films. The Little Three were organised in the same way as the Big Five but were not integrated on the same level: Columbia and Universal produced and distributed their own films but did not own any theatres, while United Artists was mainly a distribution company even though, for a time, it owned a small number of theatres in certain key markets. According to Douglas Gomery, the eight studios produced about three-quarters of all features made, while this product was responsible for about 90 per cent of the box office takings.2 This suggests that roughly one-quarter of all films were made and distributed outside the eight studios, while 10 per cent of all dollars spent on cinema-going were for films made and distributed by non-studio outfits.
This picture of the studio era, however, is not characteristic of the entire mid-1910s-late 1940s period that is widely known as the studio years. Although many production and business practices were adopted at the beginning of this period and remained in place throughout the years, the structure of the industry became clear in the late 1920s. For instance, RKO, the last member of the Big Five, was not established until October 1928, almost fourteen years after Fox Film Corporation became one of the earliest examples of a vertically integrated film company. Indeed by 1925, the structure of the industry was very different. Instead of the Big Five and the Little Three, there were three major, vertically integrated companies (Paramount, Loew's and First National - with the Fox Film Corporation slightly trailing them), while Warner, Columbia, Universal and United Artists were far more marginal compared to what they would become later. In this respect, even though the same few companies (with the exception of First National) would dominate the industry in the 1930s and 1940s, the balance of power in the American film industry did not remain unchanged since the formation of Fox Film Corporation in 1914, and the relationship between major and minor studios transformed. In actual fact, almost all of the above companies had been associated with forms of independent film production and distribution before they became the masters of the American film industry in the late 1920s. Once in a position of power and control, they actively tried to suppress new independent production and distribution.
This raises two important issues. Firstly, one cannot talk about independent filmmaking in the studio era until the structure of the film industry became clear, until the five major and three minor studios became the forces which independent producers sought to avoid being 'depended on'. Secondly, and as an extension of the first issue, independent production has a 'pre-history' that involves earlier incarnations of the major studios, which dates back to the first decade of the twentieth century, before any of the studios assumed their producer-distributor-exhibitor guise. What links the two periods is the concept of independent production as a form of resistance to any attempts towards monopolisation of the American film industry. During the early years of US cinema, independent film production and distribution became banners under which a number of companies actively sought to prevent the formation of trusts and syndicates that would threaten competition in the newly established film industry. During the studio years, independent film produc tion fought the system of oligopoly, while rejecting key features of the studio-based system of production.
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