Lowend Independents Against Television

While the decline of the B film market was first noted in the post-World War II years, the practice of the double feature presentation lasted well into the 1950s. Even as late as 1954, approximately 70 per cent of all US

theatres continued to play double bills in a desperate effort to attract a sharply declining audience.30 But while in the 1930s this particular exhibition strategy paid off by attracting a large percentage of the Depressionhit, starving-for-cheap-entertainment American public, in the 1950s the coming of television put an end to this attraction. This was because television offered entertainment for free in the comfort of one's own home. Thus, while the double bill continued in the first years of the 1950s, its effectiveness as an exhibition strategy was severely tested as audiences stayed away or, when visiting the cinemas, opted instead for the expensive widescreen spectacles that could not be enjoyed on television and which normally played as single bookings in the old first-run theatres.

If television was perceived as a major threat for the ex-studios, it was a life-threatening competitor for the low-end independents. This was mainly because television made unprofitable the cheap 'bread and butter' movies (especially westerns and adventure films) that defined the business of Poverty Row studios. By emulating their cheap production methods and by copying their action-oriented content, early television programmes were shorter versions of B films. For instance, Gene Autry, the phenomenally popular singing cowboy of the Republic westerns, started making pictures directly for television and therefore provided television audiences with content similar, if not identical, to his Republic fare.31 Pretty soon the old B films actually became television programmes (after being re-edited down to forty-eight minutes per episode to allow for commercials). Realising that this type of programming was successful with the ever expanding television audiences, Republic and Monogram sold parts of their libraries of film titles to television and earned some profits at a time when the future of their feature production was uncertain.

Not surprisingly, the theatrical exhibitors opposed vehemently the Poverty Row companies' decision to make their films available to television and for a while they boycotted Republic's product. With sharply declining theatre attendances, the smaller exhibitors who depended on cheap fare held the view that the repeat appearances of stars (like Autry) on television would result in decreasing their star value.32 At a time of recession, however, leasing their films to television was perhaps the only solution for the low-end independents which managed to stay solvent in the mid-1950s, largely thanks to the lifeline offered by television.

With B films now readily available on television, rentals from the theatrical market for the ex-Poverty Row studios dropped to such low levels that distributors were finding it difficult to recoup the costs of print and advertising, never mind the costs of production.33 It could be argued then that television turned low-end independents and theatre exhibitors against each other at a time when they needed one another more than ever. But as theatrical exhibitors suddenly found themselves to have become a secondary source of profit and exhibition outlet -behind television - for low-end independent producers and distributors, it was they that were hurt the most. This is one additional reason (besides the industry recession) why more than 3,000 theatres closed between 1948 and 1954.

But even during the difficult days of the early 1950s, low-budget independents had a number of opportunities to attract production funds, arguably more than their top-rank counterparts. 'Because the Hollywood industry had suffered economic reverses due to anti-trust decisions and the popularity of television,' Peter Lev argued, 'smaller studios and independent production companies found it easier to raise financing for relatively small budget projects.'34 For instance, important financial institutions like Morris were willing to provide first money for projects such as Lippert's Treasure of Monte Cristo (Berke, 1949) 'in way of an experiment . . . to an expansion of motion picture financing activities in lower budget field.'35

Other options available were the creation of companies through investment from franchise holders (the way Monogram was set up). Companies like Screen Guild (later Lippert Pictures) and American Releasing Corporation (later American International Pictures) were established in this manner. Finally, and as the market kept shrinking, there was also the option of mergers between small companies in the hope of establishing a more stable basis of operations that could attract production investment from major lending institutions. As Variety noted, the point behind the trend for consolidation was that it was 'uneconomic for these minor dis-tribs to compete for the same customers - most of them small exhibs who pay minimum rentals.'36 However, despite a merger between Eagle-Lion and Screen Classics and negotiations between several companies for a number of merger deals (including one between Monogram and Lippert in the summer of 1950) the consolidation of the low-budget film sector that Variety predicted did not, in fact, materialise.

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