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Forms of Independent Filmmaking in the Studio Era

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2161 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Discuss the different forms of independent filmmaking that existed during the studio era and with specific reference to one film, examine the extent to which they were stylistically different from classical, studio-made films.

What could be deemed as a government hindrance for some major studios in the late 1940s, was actually the application of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that surprisingly paved the way for the flourishing, independent filmmakers of Hollywood amid the studio era. On the 14th of May 1948, smaller moviemakers and multiplex owners took legal action against the near-monopoly and vertical integration that larger movie companies had over the filmmaking industry. Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky and Howard Hughes were just a few names amongst a multitude of others that were pitted by this court decision. The day marked an end to the oligopoly that ‘The Big Five’ and ‘The Little Three’ had over the manufacturing of the film industry in the studio era. Yet, the day also marked a beginning for New Hollywood Cinema. During the following years, ‘…independent film production fought the system of oligopoly, while rejecting key features of the studio-based system of production.’ (Tzioumakis, 2017).

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New Hollywood Cinema gave smaller producers a chance to compete with its substantial adversaries. With the introduction and technological advancements of the time, portable cameras and sound equipment along with other filmmaking facilities were made cheaper and more budget friendly for these individuals. This enabled them to create the films they wanted to, without the financial, aesthetic or ideological influence of the majors; which is a factor that could generally deem a motion picture ‘independent’ alone.

The definition of indie cinema proves hard to diagnose and categorize. With no real consensus, it is easier to refer to the generic term, dwindled down to, any film that is created outside of the conventional studio system. But of course, the criteria has always been more definitive than that, and forever changing. The pictures that were produced by independent filmmakers were usually financed out of their own pocket and with resources that they already possessed; seen in cases such as Maya Deren, a Ukrainian-born American filmmaker, who rented out theatres with her own money to showcase her work. These factors and more output a unique sense of reality and rawness in the films due to their stripped back nature as opposed to that of a Hollywood constructed movie with high end production value, a naturally larger budget and over-saturation in terms of distribution and exhibition.

The narratives, along with the cohesive styles and thematic quality of the features, contributed to the avant-garde and surrealistic essence of the texts that “indiewood” was releasing. The films would deal with issues that were accessible to all kinds of Americans at the time, from every class and from every race. Directors had the tendency to make films that were personal, and often a reflection of their youths and childhoods, their interests and ‘ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker’s personal vision’ (Levy, 1999). With this, gives off a feeling of inclusiveness, creates an intimate touch and embodies an all-round, more accessible American cinema than the risk-averse studio system would ever.

This is particularly evident in John Cassavetes’ ‘Shadows’ (1959), a film that heavily deemed Cassavetes the godfather of independent cinema at the time. The film’s narrative trajectory surrounds three African-American siblings, though only one of them dark-skinned and the struggle around race relations in the Beat Generation years of New York City. The idea and basic structure for the movie spawned from a method acting drama class that Cassavetes ran. He enjoyed the story so well, he began to look for funding. The narrative clearly presents a lack of the Hollywood-esque feel seen with the studios. With its stripped back, non-mainstream and off-beat fictional content in which it turns the depiction of race at the time, on its head; it clearly meets the foundation for a low-end independent production.

The types of independence that these filmmakers were part of could be classified as one of three sub-categories, titled top-rank, low-end or ethnic production. Each one clarifies a range of criteria of what it means to be independent. Top-rank production filmmakers such as Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick fit this model through their reluctant output of film releases and means to preserve their prominence without over-saturation. “While the big studios emphasized efficiency and productivity, Selznick and other major independents like Sam Goldwyn and Walt Disney produced only a few high-cost, high-yield pictures annually. These filmmakers were in a class by themselves turning out prestige pictures that often tested the economic constraints and the creative limits of the system or challenged its usual division of labor and hierarchy of authority.” (Shactz, 2017)

Low end meets in the middle between the three, providing the accessible, typically lower strata texts to cater to the everyman in the American society. The narratives would be far from what studio Hollywood would touch upon with substantial and extensive storylines, but rather more inclusive and could be considered in line with reality. Stylistically, they would be less bound by established ‘classical’ rules in cinema, such as following the 180-degree rule and would sometimes incorporate improvisation; a trope that classical studio Hollywood would shy away from. The number of crew members would be modest, the filmmaking equipment was commonly already owned, borrowed or of a low enough quality to purchase themselves. These types of movies were practiced mainly through companies on Poverty Row, such as Monogram and Republic Pictures.

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Shadows embraces these elements of low-end production, with its oppositional ideology embedded in the narrative, one that features (at the time) a controversial outlook on race in the United States. But also by means of the low cost value of its creation with its minimal crew, most of the time limited to Cassavetes family and friends and its stylistically indie visuals. “People can go out with nothing, and through their own will and determination [they can] make something that exists out of nothing, out of no technical know-how and no equipment,” (Lunn, 2018). In typical classical studios, it is not unusual to have over five hundred credits on a production, yet a low end feature can have a crew size of sometimes less than twenty people.

Thirdly, at the bottom of the ranking, is ethnic indie films. This acts as an umbrella term for one of several defining audience member characteristics and attributes. This is influenced by one’s race, religion or nationality; collectively formulating the expression, ethnic. Mainly, these focus on Jewish, Hispanic and African-American audiences, whether it be that the cast of the film stars a person that holds these qualities or whether it is an race or religion-specific created film for instance. Oscar Micheaux played a significant part in the portrayal of film as a didactic medium. Meaning that, the films he made were intended to educate and that moral and political messages were nested in their depictions. This can be applied to Shadows, in the instance of the storyline pertaining to one’s blackness and identity in an American urban world. Whilst still being a low-end independent film, Cassavetes direction with the movie definitely adheres to that of being an ethnic production, as the films protagonist deals with the subject matter of racial identity in a corrupt America. ‘Often cited as the ground zero of American independent cinema, Shadows was specifically designed to be an alternative, a small story about the kind of people—young, African-American bohemians—Hollywood usually ignores.’ (Dowd, 2014)

With regards to budget, the spectrum of funding from which these three different forms of independency range from, is sizable. With most top-rank productions, one million dollars was a high, however not unsightly figure for a film’s overall budget. Amongst the likes of marketing, star salaries and contracts with distribution companies, it was easy for such a number to become rationalized. Contrarily, stands the low-end movies which rarely saw a figure that large, due to their simplicity throughout production, shoddy sets and restricted financing. Shadows, brought to life on a ‘shoestring budget of $40,000’ (Dowd, 2014) can harmonize with this basis. In the larger perspective, Paramount had willingly spent $1.75 million on Sunset Boulevard in 1950. Cassavetes shot his directorial debut on 16mm film initially over the course of a few days (before reshooting the next year) with the help of audience crowdfunding from a marketing ploy on a local radio station he featured on. A handful of generous friends also helped him with the budget, lending him money in order to aid the production of the film. The movie was filmed on location between the inside of Cassavetes’ own home which he shared with his wife and on the streets of New York. Low-end independent cinema is infamous for its extremely mediocre sound recording and sound design and Shadows was no exception. The audio throughout is disorganized and unconvincing, cuts arrive off-cue leaving awkward pauses between scenes and shots and the sound is almost fully limited to dialogue from the actors. ‘Part of that rough-hewn quality is just a byproduct of the director’s inexperience and modest means. But it’s also an expression of his DIY sensibilities, his privileging of performance over craft (Dowd, 2014)’, which is again something that major Hollywood studios would hesitate to blow over instead of repeatedly gravitating to where the market is.

It can be argued that the success of independent filmmaking can owe itself to the decline of the studio era and its systematic approach to the management of these companies. No longer is the industry owned by filmmakers but by conglomerates, that often have little to no experience or sentiment for the art. Columbia, a studio that started off producing and selling B-movies to the ‘Big Five’, was eventually sold and bought by Coca-Cola, a company that have a niche and market aptitude for selling carbonated drinks. Some say that this behavior has affected the way that Hollywood is viewed, inclining itself more towards that of a world owned by business conglomerates rather than what it began with, which was actual filmmakers. Reasons like this, along with the aspiration to make different films – ones that studios are likely never to finance or produce – are why filmmakers turn to becoming independent and exclude themselves from any studio involvement.

In 1960, a columnist named Jonas Mekas and twenty-three other independent filmmakers wrote an article in Film Culture magazine titled; The First Statement of the New American Cinema Group. The principles stated that cinema was a personal expression and that filmmakers should reject the interference of distribution companies, producers and keen investors until their work was ready to be projected on screen.

Reference List:

  1. Cassavetes, J. and Carney, R. (2001). Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Directors on Directors). Faber Faber.
  2. Dowd, A. (2014). American indie cinema is born on the mean streets of New York. [online] AV Film. Available at: https://film.avclub.com/american-indie-cinema-is-born-on-the-mean-streets-of-ne-1798272290 [Accessed 10 Dec. 2018].
  3. Levy, E. (1999). Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. New York: NYU Press.
  4. Lunn, O. (2018). How John Cassavetes’ Faces broke new ground for indie filmmaking. [online] British Film Institute. Available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/john-cassavetes-faces-indie-filmmaking [Accessed 9 Dec. 2018].
  5. No Film School (2016). Video Essay: How New Hollywood Created the American Indie. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3qvubc_khZs [Accessed 8 Dec. 2018].
  6. Schatz, T. (2010). The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  7. Tzioumakis, Y. (2017). American Independent Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


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