If the Paramount Decree and the post-World War II recession ushered American independent cinema towards its second major phase, the factors that led to its further evolution in the late 1960s were once again economic, though changes in American society and culture played also a significant part. The end of the 1960s was one of the most volatile periods in the history of the country, characterised by civil unrest in the streets of major American metropoles like New York and Chicago; assassinations of extremely influential political figures such as Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X; the escalation of the war in Vietnam (and the intensification of the country's commitment to it); the continuation of the cold war with the Soviet Union; and the increased visibility and activism of formerly marginalised social groups in terms of race and sexuality (such as blacks, gays and lesbians) or age (young adults and college students). All these factors contributed to a remarkable change in attitudes and mores in American culture which, reflected in the films of the period, make even the most liberal films of the late 1950s/early 1960s (like the social-problem films by Stanley Kramer) look like fake Hollywood constructions with naive ideological messages.
While the country was amidst social and cultural upheaval, the American film industry had to face its own set of severe problems as well as keep up with the transformations in the American social and cultural fabric. These problems included: the financial over-exposure of the majors (manifested mainly in the production of a large number of expensive family films that increasingly started to falter at the box office, and in the efforts of many majors towards diversification); the continual audience decline, which reached an ultimate low of 15.8 million people a week in early 1971);2 the decrease in the number of theatres; the entrance of the television networks to the theatrical market which increased competition and contributed to a glut of product; and an extremely outdated (despite substantial revisions) Production Code which the industry was still trying to enforce at a time of sweeping changes in sexual mores. Grouped together with the larger social and political problems the country was experiencing, they represented another life-threatening set of obstacles for the film industry, which had only recently started stabilising after the effects of the Paramount Decree.3
Facing a new, more severe recession that was going to make its presence particularly felt in the period between 1969 and 1971, the industry looked for help or leadership in every direction. To the rescue came a form of a relatively low-budget independent production by (mostly) hyphenate filmmakers that quickly became the model for mainstream Hollywood filmmaking for a short period of time (c. 1967-75), a period often labelled as 'The New Hollywood' or 'Hollywood Renaissance'. Combining a mixture of exploitation strategies, art-house filmmaking techniques and an emphasis on distinctly American themes within not always clear-cut generic frameworks, the Hollywood Renaissance films can be seen as the product of a new marriage between independent film production and the majors. The main difference between the New Hollywood and the previous periods was that during this short time the majors allowed filmmakers an unprecedented degree of creative control in the filmmaking process. As a result American cinema entered a phase characterised by the production of stylistically diverse and narratively challenging films that were much more tuned in to the social and political climate of the era than the films made for the majors by top-rank independents.
One of the consequences of the emergence of this type of film was further muddling in what could constitute American independent cinema. As films like The Graduate (Nichols, 1967; produced by Embassy and Lawrence Turman and distributed by Embassy) and Easy Rider
(Hopper, 1969; produced by Pando Company and Raybert Productions and distributed by Columbia) were radically different aesthetically from the big-budget, independently produced films of the period, they laid a stronger claim to the label independent than their top-rank counterparts. For instance, although, strictly speaking, a film like Easy Rider and a film like The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969, Kramer; produced by Stanley Kramer Productions and distributed by United Artists) have an equally valid claim to the term independent (both were produced by one or more companies other than the ex-studios and both were distributed by major releasing corporations) the two films could not be more different in terms of everything else.
The former was a biker/social protest/road film with a particularly distinctive film style that went against well established stylistic and narrative norms. It was shot for approximately $500,000 and was written, produced and directed by actors Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda who had no prior experience in filmmaking. On the other hand, the latter was a very expensive ($6.3 million budget) period romantic comedy that was very 'Hollywood' in its look. It was produced and directed by a famous top-rank independent producer and starred Oscar-winning stars Anthony Quinn and Anna Magniani.4 Even without any additional information about their production history, one would be immediately inclined to think of the former as an amateurish production created away from the influence of the majors, while perceiving of the latter as the personification of the expensive Hollywood picture that the majority of top-rank independents were producing under the sponsorship of the majors in the 1950s and 1960s.
This means that the discourse of independent cinema expanded once again to include the type of picture that films such as Easy Rider represented while top-rank independent production started occupying a much more marginal position in the discourse. While prior to 1967 this new type of independent film would normally be classed as low-budget exploitation with some artistic pretence, during the years of Hollywood Renaissance it gradually also become an integral part of the mainstream (supported by the studios). This does not mean, however, that all exploitation films became automatically part of the mainstream. The vast majority of exploitation films continued to be made away from the majors with Roger Corman and American International Pictures still leading the way (see Chapter 6).
To make things even more confusing, a different brand of very low-budget independent filmmaking that had emerged a few years before the New Hollywood and has been labelled by critics as the 'New American Cinema' (1959-63) became another, particularly strong, contender for appropriating the label independent. Although its emergence falls chronologically under the period covered in the second part of this book, its influence on commercial American independent cinema became particularly evident in the low-budget films of the late 1960s.
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