The New Hollywood

During the late 1960s, the American film industry presented an unusual picture. On the one hand, it had reached a respectable level of stability after the Paramount Decree had changed the organisational structure of the industry and the rise of television had made American cinema a secondary leisure activity. An increasing number of big-budget productions, either produced and distributed by the majors, or produced independently but still released by the majors, had started reaching an audience, sometimes returning rentals of extremely sizable proportions (seven films released in the 1960s recorded rentals of over $26 million).18 Big-budget epics and spectacles that targeted mainly a family audience seemed to provide some answers to the industry's acute financial problems. Even the number of releases started bouncing from just over 140 in 1963 to 230 by the end of the 1960s.19

This picture of the industry, however, revealed only half the truth. The success of these films was more often than not offset by the size of their budget and marketing costs and by the various profit participation schemes that shifted a significant percentage of the films' rentals to the talent. Furthermore, the success of The Sound of Music, Doctor Zhivago (Lean, 1965), Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964), My Fair Lady (Cukor, 1964), Thunderball (Young, 1965) and Cleopatra (Mankiewicz, 1963), in short six out of the ten biggest box office champions in the history of American cinema till 1969, represented a particularly successful two-year period mid-decade, and therefore cannot be deemed as representative of the whole decade. During the late 1960s, an increasing number of such bigbudget productions bombed at the box office: Dr Dolittle (Fleischer, 1967), Star! (Wise, 1968) and Hello Dolly (Kelly, 1969), all films distributed by Fox and designed to emulate the success of The Sound of Music, recorded dismal grosses. All the other majors witnessed similar results: Camelot (Logan, 1967) failed for Warner; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hughes, 1968) for United Artists; Sweet Charity (Fosse, 1969) for Universal; and Paint Your Wagon (Logan, 1969) for Paramount, while Cleopatra, another Fox picture, despite its position in the top ten of box office champions, had cost excessively to produce and market and should be also included in the box office losers of the 1960s.

Although there was a handful of exceptions, such as Funny Girl (Wyler, 1968) and Disney's Love Bug (Stevenson, 1969), which proved successful with the family audience, the late 1960s became host to a series of mostly low-budget, independently produced films that found great, sometimes spectacular, success at the US box office: The Graduate ($43.1 million in rentals); Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967; produced by actor-producer Warren Beatty and distributed by Warner - $22 million); Easy Rider ($16.9 million); Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969; produced by Jerome Hellman Productions and Florin Productions and distributed by United Artists -$16.3 million); and Goodbye, Columbus (Peerce, 1969; produced by Willow Tree and distributed by Paramount - $10.5 million).20

Besides their status as independent productions, the above group of films shared a large number of other characteristics the most important of which were their conscious targeting of a young audience and their emphasis on questioning established traditions, both in terms of the types of stories they presented and the manner in which the presentation of the stories occurred on screen. These films set new trends in their treatment of controversial material such as the representation of violence (Bonnie and Clyde); sex (Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate); and drugs (Easy Rider) and struck the final blow to the already weakened Production Code, which was replaced in 1968 with the Ratings classification system.

What becomes especially important with this category of independent filmmaking is not so much the fact that film production was arranged by companies other than the major studios (although this of course is a starting point in any approach to American independent cinema), but that a large number of independent producers consciously assaulted the codes and conventions of mainstream American filmmaking, the majority of which had been established firmly for almost half a century. Furthermore, as American society was also in the process of questioning its very foundations, burying forever 'the optimism that dominated American life and spirit since the Second World War',21 the above films, along with many other less financially successful ones, were perceived as considerably more sensitive to the sweeping cultural changes of the period. They were perceived as representative of the counterculture, an alternative culture developed around the differences in attitudes, mores and style between the American youth and the older generations who continued to represent the official culture, the establishment.

With the ex-studios and top-rank independents clearly representing the establishment in American cinema, it was no surprise that the new, low-budget independent cinema was automatically deemed as the cinema of counterculture, a cinema geared specifically towards the youth generation and firmly endorsed by it. Perhaps the most vocal example of this characteristic was the tagline for Where It's At (Canin, 1969), which made no attempt to hide the fact that it targeted only one particular demographic: 'Where it's at for you, Dad, isn't necessarily where it's at for me.'22

As the established cinema had its own codes and conventions, grammar and syntax, the young filmmakers of the new independent cinema had to create their own language. In a short span of time, a large number of cinematic techniques, mainly associated with art-house filmmaking in Europe and Japan, were imported to American cinema. These included: improvisational acting, repeated actions, camera zooms, jump-cuts, freeze frames, telephoto shooting, hand-held camerawork, split screen, more frequent use of extreme close ups and extreme long shots, image-sound mismatches and many others. As film style in mainstream American cinema had been obeying the rules of classicism and, for that reason, had largely remained unobtrusive, subordinate to the needs of a causally driven narrative, the sudden appearance of these new cinematic techniques and their infusion with existing staples of Hollywood style changed dramatically the 'look' of American films.

Even the causally driven narrative with its psychologically motivated protagonist who has to fight a number of obstacles before reaching a clearly set goal had to lose some of its force in the presence of a film style that often drew attention away from narrative and to itself. Coherence and clarity, the key characteristics of the classical narrative, gave way to what Robin Wood called 'the incoherent narrative' of the 1970s cinema, a narrative 'where the drive toward the ordering of experience [was] visibly defeated.'23 And if narrative became considerably less classical in its structure, film genres underwent such radical transformations that almost ceased to perform the supremely important ideological function of keeping the spectators' expectations constant. Instead, genres were perceived by independent filmmakers as sets of conventions and rules that could be explored, questioned and very often subverted, resulting in unsettling the spectators' expectations. For instance, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969; co-produced by Phil Feldman Productions and Warner) clearly subverts the codes of the western genre when it mixes modern iconography (automobiles, machine guns) with a more traditional one, but mostly by refusing to distinguish between heroes and villains, one of the most fundamental points of departure from the genre.

Although the changes in American film during the late 1960s and early 1970s were particularly notable, leading a number of film critics and cultural interpreters to talk about a post-classical or post-modern Hollywood cinema,24 there was still continuity with the previous dominant aesthetic system. Despite evidence of 'a breakdown of classical storytelling conventions, a merger of previously separated genres, a fragmentation of linear narrative, a privileging of spectacle over causality [and] the odd juxtaposition of previously distinct emotional tones and aesthetic materials',25 American cinema continued to operate as a narrative cinema where all the above elements of a potentially new aesthetic system were assimilated gradually into the powerful classical aesthetic. This was mainly because, as David Cook argued, the directors of the New Hollywood 'were not modernists who sought to demolish primary forms like representation and narrative. Rather, they concentrated their attack on secondary forms - most notably individual genres',26 while also making extensive use of techniques that were normally associated with art-house cinema. For that reason, Hollywood cinema did not entirely lose the identity that had characterised it in the previous decades, despite the fact that some of the changes that occurred were radical.

The new state of American cinema that the Hollywood Renaissance effected was considerably more tuned in to the state of American culture during the 1967-75 period. The changing attitudes and mores in lifestyle that the counterculture had brought in were not only the subject of many films of the period (such as Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Alice's Restaurant [Penn, 1969]). They were also reflected in the stylistic and narrative experimentation that young filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Dennis Hopper and many others were practising. One could argue that changing America and changing American cinema became objectives that for a short period of time coincided as the younger generations set out to discover their own culture, while a number of young filmmakers were setting out to create part of this culture for them, in this case to discover their own approach to cinema. And if, according to John Belton, the main difference between the establishment and counterculture was 'just plain "style" ',27 it was obvious that many battles of the war of the new independents against mainstream Hollywood would take place on the level of visual style, by assaulting the aesthetic norms of the classical style upon which the established Hollywood cinema was founded.

The war of the new independents against mainstream cinema, however, was not limited to the field of film aesthetics. Hollywood Renaissance was driven by the overly ambitious objective of putting an end to the domination of the majors and their preferred mode of filmmaking, which by that time was top-rank independent production. By borrowing a model of filmmaking again from European art-house cinema, whereby filmmakers were able to produce and distribute commercially successful films without the institutional support of a national distributor, and by subscribing fully to the auteur theory which placed the filmmaker at the centre of the creative process, the independents attempted to bring about these fundamental changes in the structure of the film industry.

Film distribution, however, became the insurmountable obstacle for every independent that wanted to apply fully the art-house filmmaking model in America. As this branch of the business of filmmaking remained firmly under the control of the ex-studios and of a small number of minor releasing companies, it was impossible for any structural changes to take place. Even the low-budget independent films needed national distribution to become profitable and enable the young filmmakers to find financing for their next projects. As there was no other avenue for national (and international) distribution besides self-distribution, which required the filmmakers' time and effort in touring the country with a print, filmmakers were forced to accept the importance of the established major distributors. On the other hand, though, the majors had to accept the necessity of supporting the new independent movement as the expensive genre films they financed and produced increasingly had problems with finding an audience large enough to render them profitable. Thus when The Graduate, a film produced and distributed by Embassy, was pronounced the box office champion of 1967 and the second most successful film in terms of rentals for the whole decade, the majors had no seconds thoughts about supporting the independent producers who sought to destroy them.

Allowing young filmmakers an unprecedented degree of creative control (which meant allowing the assault on the aesthetic of the 'official' cinema) was a small price to pay for the majors. For, despite the fact that the management of the majors for the first time in their history were in no position to predict what kinds of films the audiences wanted to see, and therefore know what kinds of films they should finance, betting on the low-budget independents represented only a small financial risk. With films like Easy Rider produced for a fraction of the cost of top-rank independent pictures like The Secret of Santa Vittoria, the road to profitability was considerably easier at a time when expensive, star-studded genre films proved to be box office poison. Furthermore, a large number of these films arranged financing from outside sources, a development that reduced the majors' financial stake. More importantly, because the new independent filmmakers had embraced the counterculture, they were the only category of filmmaker with the potential of delivering to the majors the most important demographic: the youth audience. As one MPAA survey in 1968 revealed, the age group of 16-24-year-olds was responsible for almost half (48 per cent) of all ticket sales,28 which made it clear that reaching this one particular group made the difference between profitability and financial failure.

Although the majors had no idea about what types of film the young generation wanted to see, they were nevertheless still the only organisations with the means to reach this audience, to inform it about the existence of films that were made for them. Despite the fact that the majors' marketing resources were more accustomed to promote expensive films that targeted a family audience, their coverage of the US market, their presence in all major international markets and their relationship with major exhibitors were essential for the adequate commercial exploitation of any film. This means that the success of the stylistically and narratively challenging New Hollywood films was to a large extent due to companies such as Columbia, United Artists and Warner, which made films like Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Bonnie and Clyde respectively readily available in large cinemas in and outside the United States. Writing specifically about Easy Rider, a film that was originally to be produced by Roger Corman and distributed by American International Pictures, Teresa Grimes highlights the significance of major distributors:

With the distributing power of Columbia behind it, what could have been just another Corman-produced biker film made it through the conventional distribution/exhibition channels to reach a mass audience. Whether Easy Rider would have been the massive success it was had it been made and distributed by AIP is of course questionable.29

If the price the majors paid for endorsing the new independent movement was small, the price the new independents had to pay for having their films distributed and exhibited nationally and internationally was considerably larger. Their 'dependence' on the old studios for marketing and distribution automatically signalled the failure of their attempt 'to overthrow the studio system' or 'to democratize filmmaking'.30 Yet the same 'dependence' ensured the emergence of some of the most idiosyncratic voices in American cinema and the unexpected success of some truly individualistic films that normally would not have found an audience had the majors not been behind them. As Biskind put it: 'although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.'31 This was particularly evident in the fate of many independent production companies like BBS (producer of characteristic New Hollywood films, including Five Easy Pieces [Rafelson, 1970]; The Last Picture Show [Bogdanovich, 1971]; The King of Marvin Gardens [Rafelson, 1972]; and Hearts and Minds [Davis, 1974]) and the Directors Company (set up by Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and William Friedkin), which collapsed once the industry came out of the recession and moved firmly into the blockbuster business in the mid-1970s.

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