The End Of Exploitation As We Know It

The runaway success of Billy Jack in 1971-2 represents, arguably, the zenith of low-end independent cinema in the early 1970s and made the retrenched majors question once again their knowledge of the film market. Once the majors came out from the heavy recession of the 1969-71 period and the effects of conglomeration (renewed emphasis on blockbusters, scientific audience research and new marketing techniques, aggressive diversification, and so on) were becoming apparent, it became clear to them that (1) the exploitation market was too important a market to be overlooked and (2) the youth audience for that market was too large to be ignored.24 Not surprisingly, the majors decided to move to exploitation turf and 'upgrade' the normally extremely cheap independent product by throwing their millions of dollars on monster, science fiction and car chase films such as Jaws, Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit (Needham, 1977).

The majors' move to the low-end independent market was initiated during the 1974-7 period and went into a full effect from the late 1970s onwards. A significant factor in that move was the phenomenon of blax-ploitation, the mass production and distribution of films geared to black audiences which in the early 1970s had appeared to be a significant audience demographic. Between 1970 and 1972 alone there were more than fifty films aimed specifically at the black cinema-going community, while the trend increased further in the following two years before it started declining in 1975.25

Some of these films became very successful financially (for instance, Shaft [Parks Jr, 1971] recorded rentals of more than $7 million on a $1 million budget), to the extent that blaxploitation films were considered significant contributors in leading Hollywood out of the 1969-71 recession.26 This means that besides the low-end independents which, expectedly, jumped immediately on the blaxploitation bandwagon, the majors were also heavily involved in the perpetuation of the trend until the mid-1970s (for instance, Warner backed, among others, Superfly [Parks Jr, 1972]; MGM financed and distributed, among others, Black Mama, White Mama [E. Romero, 1972] and a number of successful films produced by Roger Corman's brother, Gene Corman, including Cool Breeze [B. Pollack, 1972]; and Paramount distributed The Legend of Nigger Charley [Goldman, 1972]).

The majors' involvement with a type of film that was traditionally associated with exploitation filmmaking demonstrates clearly that by the mid-1970s the rulers of the industry were in the process of adopting and appropriating practices 'from the industry's margins'.27 With the blax-ploitation 'experiment' paying off handsomely at a time of retrenchment, the majors started realising that the low-end independent sector had a lot more to offer. As the success of their glossy exploitation films, especially of Jaws, made clear that their future lay in such types of production, the majors rushed to adopt more practices associated with exploitation cinema. Soon they were employing strategies such as sensational advertising and saturation bookings, while also targeting drive-in theatres for exhibiting their films. In doing so, the majors not only managed to regain their position of almost absolute control of the American film industry, but they also eliminated the competition that these independents provided until the mid-1970s. By the end of the decade, the majors were back controlling approximately 90 per cent of the film market (a figure that in the early 1970s was estimated closer to 70 per cent),28 a degree of control comparable to the one the same companies enjoyed during the studio years.

The one practice the majors adopted that, arguably, proved the most harmful to the low-end independents was their move to the drive-in theatres, the one type of exhibition site that the independents had almost total control of since the 1950s. With the number of drive-ins already in decline in the early 1970s (as the value of the land on which they operated had been increasing steadily), the independents had already started feeling the pressure. For that reason, when the majors started using the drive-in theatres as exhibition sites for their own brand of exploitation productions and claimed the remaining youth audience who patronised mainly this type of theatre, the independents were faced with nothing less than extinction.

On one level, the majors were forced to move to the drive-ins. Their adoption of the saturation release method dictated the use of a massive number of theatres which would all play the same film on the same dates. With Universal's Jaws opening in more than 400 theatres in 1975, De Laurentiis and Paramount's King Kong (Guillermin) in 961 theatres in 1976, and Columbia's The Deep (Yates) in 800 in 1977 (2.6, 6.5 and 5.3 per cent of all the nation's screens respectively),29 using the drive-in theatre as a firstrun exhibition site became a necessity for all majors. On a different level, however, the majors' physical move to the drive-ins was strategic, designed to reduce the number of playdates for the independents and therefore kill off the already weakened competition.

These developments placed the low-end independents in an impossible situation. The smallest and least capitalised ones exited the market en masse and immediately: Fanfare Films in 1974; Cinemation Industries, Bryanston Distributing and Manson Distributing in 1975; American Film Distributing

Corporation in 1976; and Monarch Releasing Corporation (responsible for the hugely controversial Snuff [Findlay and Findlay, 1976]) in 1977. The larger exploitation independents (AIP and New World Pictures) along with the smaller Crown and Dimension had no choice but to fight back by producing and distributing considerably more expensive productions which could have a chance of competing with the studio fare both in the drive-ins and, very importantly, in the multi-screen theatres that had been mushrooming in the US since the mid-1960s and especially the 1970s. The response of American International Pictures to this situation makes a particularly interesting case study.

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