The Triumph Of A Brand Of Independent Production And Of The Majors

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By the end of the 1950s all the ex-studios had started following United Artists ensuite. Independent production was in full swing with almost 70 per cent of the ex-studios' output being independently produced films, forcing industry officials like United Artists' vice president, Max E. Youngstein, to talk about 'an independent revolution' that had overthrown 'the one-man studio czar system'.54 Even MGM, the studio that epitomised best the one-man studio czar system (Louis B. Meyer had stepped down only in 1951 after twenty-seven years as production chief), the only studio that had refused to support any top-rank independents in the 1940s and the last company to divest of its theatre chains and fire its personnel, finally saw the benefits of independent production. By 1957 and under Joseph Vogel's regime MGM had arranged distribution deals with ten independent filmmakers who collectively produced twenty-four pictures in the 1957-8 period and brought in $5 million in profits to the distributor.55 The new industrial conditions were helped undoubtedly by the loosening of the conservative political and social mores that made politically progressive films almost impossible in the early 1950s. Films in the late 1950s were again 'connected to political, social and cultural issues',56 while on 11 December 1956, even the Production Code was revised to permit the representation of previously taboo subjects like abortion, childbirth and drug addiction.

As the 1960s came in, the ex-studios were embedded fully in the structures of independent production or, to see it from the opposite perspective, independent production had become the business of the ex-studios, which were transformed into financiers and distributors of independently produced pictures. If after the Paramount Decree they surrendered control of exhibition reluctantly, this time they were more than willing to surrender the next foundation of vertical integration - production - to the independents.

The decline of American cinema, however, continued. Although the slide was not as dramatic as in the late 1940s and early 1950s, cinema-going simply stopped being a primary recreation activity for the majority of Americans. Already from as early as 1958, the seven majors' earnings from abroad were higher than their domestic revenues.57 In the same year, music record sales in the US represented a $350 million business, a figure that would increase exponentially in the coming decade.58 But if the film industry would eventually find a way to share the profits of the music business when the ex-studios started branching out to other media industries, it could certainly not lay a claim on the $1.3 billion of disposable income that Americans were spending on garden products in 1965 for their suburban homes.59 By 1960 the Hollywood majors were distributing about 200 films per year, while 3 years later the number of releases went down to 143 and movie attendance reached 21 million per week (less than a quarter of what it was in 1946).60

The low number of releases signalled a new development in American cinema - the distributors' emphasis on fewer but more expensive films which had the potential to return large profits. Up until 1947, there were only four films in the history of American cinema that had achieved rentals (the sum collected by the distributor after the exhibitor has deducted its share and before the distributor deducts its fee) of more than $10 million: The Birth of A Nation (Griffith, 1914); Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939); The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946); and Duel in The Sun (Vidor, 1946), the last three being top-rank independent productions. During the 1948-67 period, however, there were forty-one features that went past that landmark, led by The Sound of Music in 1965, which achieved the phenomenal-for-the-period record of $72 million in rentals.61 The emphasis on more expensive films, however, brought with it the potential for greater losses if the films failed at the box office. And with approximately three-quarters of all films released by the majors failing to find an audience,62 it became obvious that American cinema was heading in a direction where very few expensive films per year had the potential to return the size of profits the ex-studios needed to keep controlling the industry.

More importantly, this development had a significant impact on the types of films that were made (historical spectacles, war films, epics), and, therefore, on the types of films independent filmmakers were forced to produce if they wanted to stay in the game. Between 1951 and 1960, the independents were responsible for seven out of the ten most financially successful films of the period: The Ten Commandments (De Mille, 1956); Around the World in 80 Days (M. Anderson, 1956); South Pacific (Logan,

1958); Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean, 1957); Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960); The Greatest Show on Earth (De Mille, 1952); and This is Cinerama (Cooper and von Fritsch, 1952). With the exception of Bridge on the River Kwai, all the above films were shot in colour (which enhanced their spectacular elements such as costumes and locations), while all films with the exception of The Greatest Show on Earth were made to exploit the new exhibition technologies in which the US distributors had invested to lure audiences out of their homes and to the theatres. Equally, all seven films can be categorised as spectacles or epics and with the possible exception of Bridge on the River Kwai are virtually indistinguishable aesthetically from two of the studio-produced films that appear in the top ten: Ben-Hur (Wyler,

1959) by MGM and The Robe (Koster, 1953) by 20th Century-Fox, leaving the Columbia Pictures-produced and-distributed From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann, 1953) as the only film that was not spectacle-driven, even though it did contain also a number of spectacular elements such as exotic locations and one battle scene.63

With the majority of US-produced films failing to find an audience and with the policy of fewer but more expensive films carrying a higher financial risk, the ex-studios were in danger of finding themselves in an extremely vulnerable position. For that reason, from the mid-1950s onwards they had started diversifying, mainly towards the broadcasting and the music industries. In this manner they were able to supplement their reduced income from theatrical exhibition with revenues earned in these ancillary markets. The company that pioneered this type of branching out to other media-related industries and revolutionised the film business was a former top-rank independent of the 1930s and 1940s, Walt Disney Productions.

By the early 1950s, Disney was ready to exploit other income-generating avenues than just cartoon production. Perhaps worried that the expansion of television would bring the end of newsreels, cartoon shorts and other forms of theatrical film entertainment,64 Disney decided to increase animated feature film production, while also branching out into live-action production and the theme park business. After more than a decade distributing through RKO, Disney decided to form its own distribution apparatus at a time when the company's output of feature films had started increasing. Indeed in 1953, Disney formed Buena Vista and distributed its own films including the very successful commercially 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (Fleischer, 1954). Equally importantly, Disney approached ABC, one of the three US television networks that was lacking in significance and revenues compared to its two competitors, and in 1954 created Disneyland, a sixty-minute weekly series. The show, which was a big hit for ABC, promoted Disney's businesses - including the company's upcoming productions - to the vast US television audience for free. The success of Disneyland, which was broadcast at primetime, brought a second Disney sixty-minute weekly series to ABC, the hugely popular The Mickey Mouse Club, which was also in the business of promoting Dinsey's other ventures (including its famous theme park that opened in 1955), while entertaining the nation's children.

Following these moves, Disney diversified further to exploit cross-promotions in the music industry, the publishing industry and the toy industry, and soon was far away from the marginal position it occupied in the late 1940s. By 1956, it averaged more than $2.5 million in profits, while ten years later that figure had climbed to $16 million, making Disney one of the most successful media companies in the world, with film accounting only for one third of the company's business.65 Once again an independent had shown the way. One by one, the major studios started diversifying, mainly into television and music. By the mid-1960s the majors were earning about one third of their total revenues from television production,66 while Balio remarks that a quarter of all United Artists' revenues for 1966 was coming from its music subsidiary, United Artists Records.67 For the ex-studios then, which were gradually becoming diversified media companies rather than film financiers and distributors, filmmaking became only one of their activities, though still the primary source of their income (with the exception of Disney). This trend reached its logical conclusion towards the end of the decade when one by one the majors were bought out by conglomerates with interests in diverse, non-media-related fields (see Chapter 6).

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that this particular brand of independent production, the main method of production in Hollywood cinema during this period, was locked in the trajectory of the seven major distributors and consequently became synonymous with mainstream filmmaking. Such a development necessarily suggests that the Paramount Decree did not succeed in its ultimate objective, to dispossess the eight studios of their control and domination of the US film industry. Adverse industrial and economic conditions, a constellation of political, social and cultural factors but mostly the ex-studios' brilliant manoeuvring in a period of recession and their emphasis on the power of distribution to control the business even when production was arranged individually and without their direct participation, made independent cinema the business of the majors. A great contributor to the ex-studios' success in retaining their dominant position in the industry as distributors was the major decline in theatre attendance which in its turn effected an even larger decline in the number of films released. With only 143 films released in a year there was simply no place for new distribution companies to enter the market and compete directly with the seven powers.68

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