In 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company or "Edison Trust" was formed as a trust. The Trust was a cartel that held a monopoly on film production and distribution comprising all the major film companies of the time (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, American Pathé), the leading distributor (George Kleine) and the biggest supplier of raw film, Eastman Kodak. A number of filmmakers declined to join or were refused into the trust and came to be described as "independent".
At the time of the formation of the MPPC, Thomas Edison owned most of the major patents relating to motion pictures, including that for raw film. The MPPC vigorously enforced its patents, constantly bringing suits and receiving injunctions against independent filmmakers. Because of this, a number of filmmakers responded by building their own cameras and moving their operations to Hollywood, California, where the distance from Edison's home base of New Jersey made it more difficult for the MPPC to enforce its patents.
The Edison Trust was soon ended by two decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States: one in 1912, which canceled the patent on raw film, and a second in 1915, which cancelled all MPPC patents. Though these decisions succeeded at legalizing independent film, they would do little to remedy the de facto ban on small productions; the independent filmmakers who had fled to Southern California during the enforcement of the trust had already laid the groundwork for the studio system of classical Hollywood cinema.
In early 1910, director D.W. Griffith was sent by the Biograph Company to the west coast with his acting troupe, consisting of performers Blanche Sweet, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, and others. They began filming on a vacant lot near Georgia Street in downtown Los Angeles. While there, the company decided to explore new territories, traveling several miles north to Hollywood, a little village that was friendly and positive about the movie company filming there. Griffith then filmed the first movie ever shot in Hollywood, In Old California, a Biograph melodrama about California in the 1800s, while it belonged to Mexico. Biograph stayed there for months and made several films before returning to New York.
During the Edison era of the early 1900s, many Jewish immigrants had found jobs in the U.S. film industry. Under the Edison Trust, they were able to make their mark in a brand-new business: the exhibition of films in storefront theaters called nickelodeons. Within a few years, ambitious men like Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, and the Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Samuel, and Jack) had switched to the production side of the business. After hearing about Biograph's success in Hollywood, in 1913 many such would-be movie-makers headed west to avoid the fees imposed by Edison. Soon they were the heads of a new kind of enterprise: the movie studio.
By establishing a new system of production, distribution, and exhibition which was independent of The Edison Trust in New York, these studios opened up new horizons for cinema in the United States. The Hollywood oligopoly replaced the Edison monopoly. Within this new system, a pecking order was soon established which left little room for any newcomers. By the mid-1930s, at the top were the five major studios, 20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures, and Warner Bros. Then came three smaller companies, Columbia Pictures, United Artists, and Universal Studios. Finally there was "Poverty Row", a catch all term used to encompass any other smaller studio that managed to fight their way up into the increasingly exclusive movie business.
While the small studios that made up Poverty Row could be characterized as existing "independently" of any major studio, they utilized the same kind of vertically and horizontally integrated systems of business as the larger players in the game. Though the eventual breakup of the studio system and its restrictive chain-theater distribution network would leave independent movie houses eager for the kind of populist, seat-filling product of the Poverty Row studios, that same paradigm shift would also lead to the decline and ultimate disappearance of "Poverty Row" as a Hollywood phenomenon. While the kinds of films produced by Poverty Row studios only grew in popularity, they would eventually become increasingly available both from major production companies and from independent producers who no longer needed to rely on a studio's ability to package and release their work.
This table lists the companies active in late 1935 illustrates the categories commonly used to characterize the Hollywood system.
United Artists and resistance to the studio system
The studio system quickly became so powerful that some filmmakers once again sought independence. On February 5, 1919 four of the leading figures in American silent cinema (Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith) formed United Artists, the first independent studio in America. Each held a 20% stake, with the remaining 20% held by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo. The idea for the venture originated with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford, and cowboy star William S. Hart a year earlier as they were traveling around the U.S. selling Liberty bonds to help the World War I effort. Already veterans of Hollywood, the four film stars began to talk of forming their own company to better control their own work as well as their futures. They were spurred on by the actions of established Hollywood producers and distributors, who were making moves to tighten their control over their stars' salaries and creative license. With the addition of Griffith, planning began, but Hart bowed out before things had formalized. When he heard about their scheme, Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, is said to have observed, "The inmates are taking over the asylum."
The four partners, with advice from McAdoo (son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary of then-President Woodrow Wilson), formed their distribution company, with Hiram Abrams as its first managing director. The original terms called for Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith and Chaplin to independently produce five pictures each year, but by the time the company got under way in 1920–1921, feature films were becoming more expensive and more polished, and running times had settled at around ninety minutes (or eight reels). It was believed that no one, no matter how popular, could produce and star in five quality feature films a year. By 1924, Griffith had dropped out and the company was facing a crisis: either bring in others to help support a costly distribution system or concede defeat. The veteran producer Joseph Schenck was hired as president. Not only had he been producing pictures for a decade, but he brought along commitments for films starring his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, and his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton. Contracts were signed with a number of independent producers, especially Samuel Goldwyn, Howard Hughes and later Alexander Korda. Schenck also formed a separate partnership with Pickford and Chaplin to buy and build theaters under the United Artists name.
Still, even with a broadening of the company, UA struggled. The coming of sound ended the careers of Pickford and Fairbanks. Chaplin, rich enough to do what he pleased, worked only occasionally. Schenck resigned in 1933 to organize a new company with Darryl F. Zanuck, Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon provided four pictures a year to UA's schedule. He was replaced as president by sales manager Al Lichtman who himself resigned after only a few months. Pickford produced a few films, and at various times Goldwyn, Korda, Walt Disney, Walter Wanger, and David O. Selznick were made "producing partners" (i.e., sharing in the profits), but ownership still rested with the founders. As the years passed and the dynamics of the business changed, these "producing partners" drifted away. Goldwyn and Disney left for RKO, Wanger for Universal Pictures, and Selznick for retirement. By the late 1940s, United Artists had virtually ceased to exist as either a producer or distributor.
Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers
In 1941, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, and Walter Wanger—many of the same people who were members of United Artists—founded the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. Later members included William Cagney, Sol Lesser, and Hal Roach. The Society aimed to preserve the rights of independent producers in an industry overwhelmingly controlled by the studio system. SIMPP fought to end monopolistic practices by the five major Hollywood studios which controlled the production, distribution, and exhibition of films. In 1942, the SIMPP filed an antitrust suit against Paramount's United Detroit Theatres. The complaint accused Paramount of conspiracy to control first-run and subsequent-run theaters in Detroit. It was the first antitrust suit brought by producers against exhibitors alleging monopoly and restraint of trade. In 1948, the United States Supreme Court Paramount Decision ordered the Hollywood movie studios to sell their theater chains and to eliminate certain anti-competitive practices. This effectively brought an end to the studio system of Hollywood's Golden Age. By 1958, many of the reasons for creating the SIMPP had been corrected and SIMPP closed its offices.
The efforts of the SIMPP and the advent of inexpensive portable cameras during World War II effectively made it possible for any person in America with an interest in making films to write, produce, and direct one without the aid of any major film studio. These circumstances soon resulted in a number of critically acclaimed and highly influential works, including Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943, Kenneth Anger's Fireworks in 1947, and Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Abrashkin's Little Fugitive in 1953. Filmmakers such as Ken Jacobs with little or no formal training began to experiment with new ways of making and shooting films.
Little Fugitive became the first independent film to be nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the American Academy Awards. It also received Silver Lion at Venice. Both Engel and Anger's films won acclaim overseas from the burgeoning French New Wave, with Fireworks inspiring praise and an invitation to study under him in Europe from Jean Cocteau, and François Truffaut citing Little Fugitive as an essential inspiration to his seminal work, The 400 Blows. As the 1950s progressed, the new low-budget paradigm of filmmaking gained increased recognition internationally, with films such as Satyajit Ray's critically acclaimed Apu Trilogy (1955–1959).
Unlike the films made within the studio system, these new low-budget films could afford to take risks and explore new artistic territory outside the classical Hollywood narrative. Maya Deren was soon joined in New York by a crowd of like minded avant-garde filmmakers who were interested in creating films as works of art rather than entertainment. Based upon a common belief that the "official cinema" was "running out of breath" and had become "morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring", this new crop of independents formed The Film-Makers' Cooperative, an artist-run, non-profit organization which they would use to distribute their films through a centralized archive. Founded in 1962 by Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Gregory Markopoulos, and others, the Cooperative provided an important outlet for many of cinema's creative luminaries in the 1960s, including Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. When he returned to America, Ken Anger would debut many of his most important works there. Mekas and Brakhage would go on to found the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, which would likewise prove essential to the development and preservation of independent films, even to this day.
Exploitation boom and the MPAA rating system
Not all low-budget films existed as non-commercial art ventures. The success of films like Little Fugitive, which had been made with low (or sometimes non-existent) budgets encouraged a huge boom in popularity for non-studio films. Low-budget film making promised exponentially greater returns (in terms of percentages) if the film could have a successful run in the theaters. During this time, independent producer/director Roger Corman began a sweeping body of work that would become legendary for its frugality and grueling shooting schedule. Until his so-called "retirement" as a director in 1971 (he continued to produce films even after this date) he would produce up to seven movies a year, matching and often exceeding the five-per-year schedule that the executives at United Artists had once thought impossible.
Like those of the avante-garde, the films of Roger Corman took advantage of the fact that unlike the studio system, independent films had never been bound by its self-imposed production code. Corman's example (and that of others like him) would help start a boom in independent B-movies in the 1960s, the principal aim of which was to bring in the youth market which the major studios had lost touch with. By promising sex, wanton violence, drug use, and nudity, these films hoped to draw audiences to independent theaters by offering to show them what the major studios could not. Horror and science fiction films experienced a period of tremendous growth during this time. As these tiny producers, theaters, and distributors continued to attempt to undercut one another, the B-grade shlock film soon fell to the level of the Z movie, a niche category of films with production values so low that they became a spectacle in their own right. The cult audiences these pictures attracted soon made them ideal candidates for midnight movie screenings revolving around audience participation and cosplay.
In 1968, a young filmmaker named George A. Romero shocked audiences with Night of the Living Dead, a new kind of intense and unforgiving independent horror film. This film was released just after the abandonment of the production code, but before the adoption of the MPAA rating system. As such, it was the first and last film of its kind to enjoy a completely unrestricted screening, in which young children were able to witness Romero's new brand of highly realistic gore. This film would help to set the climate of independent horror for decades to come, as films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) continued to push the envelope.
With the production code abandoned and violent and disturbing films like Romero's gaining popularity, Hollywood opted to placate the uneasy filmgoing public with the MPAA ratings system, which would place restrictions on ticket sales to young people. Unlike the production code, this rating system posed a threat to independent films in that it would affect the number of tickets they could sell and cut into the grindhouse cinema's share of the youth market. This change would further widen the divide between commercial and non-commercial films.
However, having a film audience-classified is strictly voluntary for independents and there’s no legal impediment to releasing movies on an unrated basis. However, unrated movies face obstacles in marketing because media outlets such as TV channels, newspapers and websites often place their own restrictions on movies that don’t come with a built-in national rating in order to avoid presenting movies to inappropriately young audiences.
New Hollywood and independent filmmaking
Following the advent of television and the Paramount Case, the major studios attempted to lure audiences with spectacle. Widescreen processes and technical improvements, such as Cinemascope, stereo sound, 3-D and others, were developed in an attempt to retain the dwindling audience by giving them a larger-than-life experience. The 1950s and early 1960s saw a Hollywood dominated by musicals, historical epics, and other films which benefited from these advances. This proved commercially viable during most of the 1950s. However, by the late 1960s, audience share was dwindling at an alarming rate. Several costly flops, including Cleopatra (1963) and Hello, Dolly! (1969) put severe strain on the studios. Meanwhile, in 1951, lawyers-turned-producers Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin had made a deal with the remaining stockholders of United Artists which would allow them to make an attempt to revive the company and, if the attempt was successful, buy it after five years.
The attempt was a success, and in 1955 United Artists became the first "studio" without an actual studio. UA leased space at the Pickford/Fairbanks Studio, but did not own a studio lot as such. Because of this, many of their films would be shot on location. Primarily acting as bankers, they offered money to independent producers. Thus UA did not have the overhead, the maintenance or the expensive production staff which ran up costs at other studios. UA went public in 1956, and as the other mainstream studios fell into decline, UA prospered, adding relationships with the Mirisch brothers, Billy Wilder, Joseph E. Levine and others.
By the late 1950s, RKO had ceased film production, and the remaining four of big five had recognized that they did not know how to reach the youth audience. In an attempt to capture this audience, the Studios hired a host of young filmmakers (many of whom were mentored by Roger Corman) and allowed them to make their films with relatively little studio control. Warner Brothers offered first-time producer Warren Beatty 40% of the gross on his film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) instead of a minimal fee. The movie had grossed over $70 million worldwide by 1973. This initial successes paved the way for the studio to relinquish almost complete control to the film school generation and began what the media dubbed "New Hollywood."
Dennis Hopper, the American actor, made his writing and directing debut with Easy Rider (1969). Along with his producer/co-star/co-writer Peter Fonda, Hopper was responsible for one of the first completely independent film of New Hollywood. Easy Rider debuted at Cannes and garnered the "
First Film Award" (French: Prix de la premiere oeuvre) after which it received two Oscar nominations, one for best original screenplay and one for Corman-alum Jack Nicholson's breakthrough performance in the supporting role of George Hanson, an alcoholic lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Following on the heels of Easy Rider shortly afterwards was the revived United Artists' Midnight Cowboy (also 1969), which, like Easy Rider, took numerous cues from Ken Anger and his influences in the French New Wave. It became the first and only X rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. Midnight Cowboy also held the distinction of featuring cameo roles by many of the top Warhol superstars, who had already become symbols of the militantly anti-Hollywood climate of NYC's independent film community.
Within a month, another young Corman trainee, Francis Ford Coppola, made his debut in Spain at the Donostia-San Sebastian International Film Festival with The Rain People (1969), a film he had produced through his own company, American Zoetrope. Though The Rain People was largely overlooked by American audiences, Zoetrope would become a powerful force in New Hollywood. Through Zoetrope, Coppola formed a distribution agreement with studio giant Warner Bros., which he would exploit to achieve wide releases for his films without making himself subject to their control. These three films provided the major Hollywood studios with both an example to follow and a new crop of talent to draw from. Zoetrope co-founder George Lucas made his feature film debut with THX 1138 (1971), also released by Zoetrope through their deal with Warner Bros., announcing himself as another major talent of New Hollywood. By the following year, two New Hollywood directors had become sufficiently established for Coppola to be offered oversight of Paramount's The Godfather (1972) and Lucas had obtained studio funding for American Graffiti (1973) from Universal. In the mid-1970s, the major Hollywood studios continued to tap these new filmmakers for both ideas and personnel, producing films such as Paper Moon (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976), all of which met with critical and commercial success. These successes by the members of New Hollywood led each of them in turn to make more and more extravagant demands, both on the studio and eventually on the audience.
While most members of the New Hollywood generation were, or started out as, independent filmmakers, a number of their projects were produced and released by major studios. The New Hollywood generation soon became firmly entrenched in a revived incarnation of the studio system, which financed the development, production and distribution of their films. Very few of these filmmakers ever independently financed or independently released a film of their own, or ever worked on an independently financed production during the height of the generation's influence. Seemingly independent films such as Taxi Driver, The Last Picture Show and others were studio films: the scripts were based on studio pitches and subsequently paid for by the studios, the production financing was from the studio, and the marketing and distribution of the films were designed and controlled by the studio's advertising agency. Though Coppola made considerable efforts to resist the influence of the studios, opting to finance his risky 1979 film Apocalypse Now himself rather than compromise with skeptical studio executives, he, and filmmakers like him, had saved the old studios from financial ruin by providing them with a new formula for success.
Indeed, it was during this period that the very definition of an independent film became blurred. Though Midnight Cowboy was financed by United Artists, the company was certainly a studio. Likewise, Zoetrope was another "independent studio" which worked within the system to make a space for independent directors who needed funding. George Lucas would leave Zoetrope in 1971 to create his own independent studio, Lucasfilm, which would produce the blockbuster Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. In fact, the only two movies of the movement which can be described as uncompromisingly independent are Easy Rider at the beginning, and Peter Bogdanovich's They All Laughed, at the end. Peter Bogdanovich bought back the rights from the studio to his 1980 film and paid for its distribution out of his own pocket, convinced that the picture was better than what the studio believed — he eventually went bankrupt because of this.
In retrospect, it can be seen that Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and George Lucas's Star Wars (1977) marked the beginning of the end for the New Hollywood. With their unprecedented box-office successes, these movies jump-started Hollywood's blockbuster mentality, giving studios a new paradigm as to how to make money in this changing commercial landscape. The focus on high-concept premises, with greater concentration on tie-in merchandise (such as toys), spin-offs into other media (such as soundtracks), and the use of sequels (which had been made more respectable by Coppola's The Godfather Part II), all showed the studios how to make money in the new environment.
On realizing how much money could potentially be made in films, major corporations started buying up the remaining Hollywood studios, saving them from the oblivion which befell RKO in the 50s. Eventually, even RKO was revived. The corporate mentality these companies brought to the filmmaking business would slowly squeeze out the more idiosyncratic of these young filmmakers, while ensconcing the more malleable and commercially successful of them. Like the original independents who fled the Edison Trust to form old Hollywood, the young film school graduates who had fled the studios to explore on-location shooting and dynamic, neo-realist styles and structures ended up replacing the tyrants they had sought to dislodge with a more stable and all-pervasive base of power.
During the 1970s, shifts in thematic depictions of sexuality and violence occurred in American cinema, prominently featuring heightened depictions of realistic sex and violence. Directors who wished to reach mainstream audiences of Old Hollywood quickly learned to stylize these themes to make their films appealing and attractive rather than repulsive or obscene. However, at the same time that the maverick film students of the American New Wave were developing the skills they would use to take over Hollywood, many of their peers had begun to develop their style of filmmaking in a different direction. Influenced by foreign and art house directors such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini,exploitation shockers (i.e. Joseph P. Mawra, Michael Findlay, and Henri Pachard) and avant-garde cinema, (Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren) a number of young film makers began to experiment with transgression not as a box-office draw, but as an artistic act. Directors such as John Waters and David Lynch would make a name for themselves by the early 1970s for the bizarre and often disturbing imagery which characterized their films.
When Lynch's first feature film, Eraserhead (1977), brought Lynch to the attention of producer Mel Brooks, he soon found himself in charge of the $5 million film The Elephant Man (1980) for Paramount. Though Eraserhead was strictly an out-of-pocket, low-budget, independent film, Lynch made the transition with unprecedented grace. The film was a huge commercial success, and earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Lynch. It also established his place as a commercially viable, if somewhat dark and unconventional, Hollywood director. Seeing Lynch as a fellow studio convert, George Lucas, a fan of Eraserhead and now the darling of the studios, offered Lynch the opportunity to direct his next Star Wars sequel, Return of the Jedi (1983). However, Lynch had seen what had happened to Lucas and his comrades in arms after their failed attempt to do away with the studio system. He refused the opportunity, stating that he would rather work on his own projects.
Lynch instead chose to direct a big budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune for Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis's De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, on the condition that the company release a second Lynch project, over which the director would have complete creative control. Although De Laurentiis hoped it would be the next Star Wars, Lynch's Dune (1984) was a critical and commercial flop, grossing a mere $27.4 million domestically against a $45 million budget. De Laurentiis, furious that the film had been a commercial disaster, was then forced to produce any film Lynch desired. He offered Lynch only $6 million in order to minimize the risk if the film had failed to recoup its costs; however, the film, Blue Velvet (1986) was a resounding success. Lynch subsequently returned to independent filmmaking, and did not work with another major studio for over a decade.
Unlike the former, John Waters released most of his films during his early life through his own production company, Dreamland Productions. In the early 1980s, New Line Cinema agreed to work with him on Polyester (1981). During the 1980s, Waters would become a pillar of the New York–based independent film movement known as the "Cinema of Transgression", a term coined by Nick Zedd in 1985 to describe a loose-knit group of like-minded New York artists using shock value and humor in their Super 8 mm films and video art. Other key players in this movement included Kembra Pfahler, Casandra Stark, Beth B, Tommy Turner, Richard Kern and Lydia Lunch. Rallying around such institutions as the Film-Makers' Cooperative and Anthology Film Archives, this new generation of independents devoted themselves to the defiance of the now-establishment New Hollywood, proposing that "all film schools be blown up and all boring films never be made again."
The development of no-budget film production company ASS Studios in 2011 brought guerrilla style tactics to their filmmaking. Founded by Courtney Fathom Sell & Reverend Jen Miller, the now-defunct studio would utilize local performers and locations from the Lower East Side of New York City to create various short films which would then be screened in venues such as bars and Anthology Film Archives. Though mainly recognized for their short films, the studios' first and only feature Satan, Hold My Hand was made on a budget of just $27.00 while featuring an A-list Hollywood cast including Janeane Garofalo and was Produced by Jonathan Ames, writer and creator of the HBO series Bored to Death.
Independent Cinema movement
In 1978, Sterling Van Wagenen and Charles Gary Allison, with Chairperson Robert Redford, (veteran of New Hollywood and star of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) founded the Utah/US Film Festival in an effort to attract more filmmakers to Utah and showcase what the potential of independent film could be. At the time, the main focus of the event was to present a series of retrospective films and filmmaker panel discussions; however it also included a small program of new independent films. The jury of the 1978 festival was headed by Gary Allison, and included Verna Fields, Linwood Gale Dunn, Katherine Ross, Charles E. Sellier Jr., Mark Rydell, and Anthea Sylbert. In 1981, the same year that United Artists, bought out by MGM, ceased to exist as a venue for independent filmmakers, Sterling Van Wagenen left the film festival to help found the Sundance Institute with Robert Redford. In 1985, the now well-established Sundance Institute, headed by Sterling Van Wagenen, took over management of the US Film Festival, which was experiencing financial difficulties. Gary Beer and Sterling Van Wagenen spearheaded production of the inaugural Sundance Film Festival which included Program Director
Tony Safford and Administrative Director
Jenny Walz Selby.
In 1991, the festival was officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival, after Redford's famous role as The Sundance Kid. Through this festival the Independent Cinema movement was launched. Such notable figures as Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, James Wan, Hal Hartley and Jim Jarmusch garnered resounding critical acclaim and unprecedented box office sales In 2005, about 15% of the U.S. domestic box office revenue was from independent studios.