The First Independents

The discourse of independent cinema appears perhaps for the first time in 1908-9 with the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC, also known as the Patents Company or simply the Trust) and its antagonists, which became known as independents. The company was established on 1 January 1909 by ten film manufacturing outfits - led by Edison and Biograph - in an attempt to licence all three branches of filmmaking (production, distribution and exhibition) in the United States and, thereby, control the American film market.3 By that time, the motion picture business was driven by the exponential growth of nickelodeons, the number of which had increased from 2,500 in 1906 to 8,000 in 1908.4 The MPPC sought to become the main holder of various patents associated with cinematographic technology and put an end to long legal battles about who had the right to use the said technology, at least in the United States. By controlling the patents involved in the manufacturing of cameras, projectors and other necessary equipment for the production and exhibition of motion pictures, the MPPC proceeded in charging a fee for the use of this equipment. It also made a deal with Kodak to provide raw film stock exclusively to members and its licencees, and, as a result, made it impossible for other companies to successfully photograph, develop, print or exhibit a film without its consent.5

In April 1910, the MPPC created the General Film Company (GFP) in order to control film distribution and control the market further. The GFP gradually took over all but one licensed exchange whose function was to ensure the smooth delivery of films from producers to distributors. The exception was an exchange in New York run by William Fox. Under the new status, production companies agreed to be paid a flat rate of 10 cents per foot of film by GFP in exchange for distribution rights. For the Patents Company, film was seen as a 'standardised, undifferentiated product' which was one reel long (roughly fourteen to fifteen minutes in duration) and was sold by the foot. There was no concern for the content or the quality of the product.6

The Trust's efforts to monopolise the American film industry, however, did not remain unchallenged. Between fifty and one hundred companies, which were not considered by MPPC standards significant forces in the embryonic film industry, were excluded from membership of the Patents Company and had to pay weekly fees for the right to use their licensed equipment.7 Also, the General Film Company was not successful in absorbing the Greater New York Film Exchange owned by William Fox, as we saw earlier. Resistance began only one month after the formation of MPPC, in February 1909. These 'rebels' refused to respond to an initial deadline to abide by MPPC regulations, and decided to continue business through any means. They used illegal equipment, imported film stock from abroad or relocated their companies to certain geographical areas where the Trust's representatives would find it difficult to reach them and therefore bring legal action against them. By 20 February 1909 an exchange appropriately called The Anti-Trust Film Company of Chicago was already established. These 'unlicensed outlaws' attached the label independent to their practices and, to a certain extent, became responsible for the failure of the Patents Company to monopolise the market.8 Within six months from the establishment of MPPC, independent companies were more than a few isolated presences in the American market. They were part of an independent movement which directly opposed the plans of the Trust to dominate the market.

While the Patents Company was establishing the GFC to control film distribution (April 1910), a number of independent producers were in the process of forming their own apparatus to handle distribution for independent product, the Motion Pictures Distributing and Sales Company (MPDSC or the Sales Company). Representing the most important independents, including Carl Laemmle, future head of Universal, the Sales Company quickly became the General Film Company's main rival. Within eight months from its inception, the Sales Company was in a position to claim that 'in the year 1910 [they] succeeded in splitting the business of the country between the trust and [them]selves on a 50 percent basis'.9

In its attempt to organise the independent sector, however, the Sales Company found itself following several of the trade practices established by or associated with the Trust, rather than developing practices of its own.10 Faced with the danger of having to substitute one form of dependence for another, several independent producers, who habitually had been hostile and antagonistic to each other, withdrew from the Sales Company and went on to form new distribution apparatuses. These included the National Film Manufacturing and Leasing, the Film Supply Company (which grew into the Mutual Film Company, one of the key distributors in the early and mid-1910s) and the Universal Film Manufacturing Company (which eventually became Universal, one of the eight powers during the studio period).

As it is clear from this account, independent filmmaking in these early years of American cinema was mainly a reaction to any attempt towards monopolisation of the film industry. In this respect, independence is defined here by a production company's refusal to succumb to the pressures applied by one or more organisations that actively seek total control of the film market. This essentially means that a company's status as an independent is shaped by its position outside an established (or semi-established) industrial-economic system which has been designed to suit one company organised in a particular way. The overall purpose of this system is to eliminate competition from existing players and/or discourage competition from potential entrants to the market. In other words, independence is perceived purely in industrial terms and without any reference to possible qualitative differences that the independents' films might demonstrate in comparison to the films made by the Patents Company members.

These early independents, however, did break away from certain production and distribution practices of the Trust. One of the major advantages the independents had over the Patents Company was that they were willing to experiment. Unlike the production companies working for the Trust, who were making one-reel films under the assumption that the public was indifferent to the quality of the product and who would get their 10 cents per foot of film produced regardless of content or quality, independent producers consciously strove to differentiate their product. For that reason, when audience demand for more pictures with 'Little Mary' became evident, it was the independent companies that read correctly the public's increasing fascination with screen performers and it was Carl Laemmle and his Independent Motion Picture Company (before he formed Universal) who lured Florence Lawrence and Little Mary (aka Mary Pickford) away from Biograph, a member of the Patents Company. Despite the fact that MPPC adopted the star system almost at the same time as the independents, in many ways it was responding to practices initiated by independents and not to the signs of the times.11

Similarly, it was another independent, Adolph Zukor and his Famous Players Company who realised the potential of feature-length films (at least four reels long as opposed to the two-reel maximum length practised by the Patents Company) for much greater profits. Although multi-reel

Figure 1.1 The birth of United Artists. D. W. Griffith signs the papers finalising the company's incorporation, surrounded from left to right by Douglas Fairbanks Sr, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Bahnzaf (lawyer), Dennis O'Brien (lawyer) and Mary Pickford.

films imported from Italy had appeared in the US markets as early as 1910, it was the success of Queen Elizabeth (Desfontaines and Mercanton, 1912), a four-reel film imported by Zukor and starring Sarah Bernhard, that paved the way for the eventual triumph of this film format as the mainstay of American cinema. With the General Film Company refusing to distribute anything longer than two reels - as this would mean a much higher distribution cost for a company that was buying films by the foot - Zukor resorted to other distribution strategies such as road showing and promoting his films via the states rights market.

In road showing, films were branded as special events and toured around the country playing mostly in legitimate theatres and more rarely in prestigious exhibition sites such as town halls. Admissions prices were as high as $1 (at a time when standard prices were around 25 cents) and the film played for as long as each market sustained it. Once demand for the film decreased, the producer would seek to make more profits through the states rights market. States rights was a system of film distribution whereby a small exchange company acquired the rights of a film and exploited it in a number of theatres in a delimited territory or state, usually for a flat fee. Operating outside the control of the General Film Company exchanges, which dealt specifically with one- and two-reel films, states rights distributors became specialised in the marketing and selling of multi-reel films, which were gradually becoming increasingly important as money-earners for their production companies.12 It was partly due to the success of feature films in the states rights market that a national system of distribution finally emerged in 1915-16, primarily through the work of W. W. Hodkinson, who was originally in charge of one of these states rights exchanges.

These production and distribution methods practised by the first independents precipitated the decline and eventual collapse of the Motion Pictures Patents Company and its distribution arm, therefore salvaging the neophyte film industry from the claws of monopolisation. It was some of these same independents, however, that would try to become the next rulers of the US film industry.

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