The Indie is BornIf you wanted to make an independent film in 1908, you were out of luck. That year, a trust called the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) was formed. It’s often called the Edison Trust because Thomas Edison owned most of the major motion picture patents. The Edison Trust was a cartel, since it held a monopoly on film production and distribution. The major film companies of the time were Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, and American Pathé, while the main distributor was George Kleine, and the primary raw film supplier was Eastman Kodak. They all were part of the Edison Trust. Anyone who wasn’t part of this tight-knit group, either by choice or exclusion, was an independent filmmaker.
Because the trust was a monopoly, it was not only challenging but illegal for independent filmmakers to compete. Since the MPPC owned patents on the technology needed to make a movie, including the patent for raw film, they were able to go after independent filmmakers by enforcing those patents, bringing lawsuits and receiving injunctions. Independent filmmakers got fed up with this pretty quickly, but they weren’t going to quit. Instead, they built their own cameras and moved their productions away from Edison’s New Jersey headquarters. They found a refuge in Southern California, where the Hollywood film industry was born.
Indies on Poverty RowIt’s amazing how quickly the oppressed can became the oppressor. This cycle has been repeated throughout history, including in the early days of Hollywood. D. W. Griffith, a director who worked for an important Edison Trust film company called the Biograph Company, is credited with filming the first movie in Hollywood. The movies he filmed in the Los Angeles area in the early 1910s proved very successful, so other aspiring filmmakers soon headed west. These men, including Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, and the Warner Brothers, were nickelodeon exhibitors who had worked with the MPPC but aspired to produce their own films. Their names are famous, since they would start the major Hollywood studios who reigned during the studio era.
Far from the small town of independent rebels it started out to be, Hollywood quickly became a city which was dominated by a very well-ordered business. The aforementioned founders developed a whole new system for production, distribution, and exhibition, which was independent at the time because it was separate from the Edison Trust. However, they developed a close-knit system of their own, later deemed a monopoly of a different kind. Studios owned theaters as well as production companies, so they had a convenient in-house system for playing their movies around the country. The system worked very well, but it created a class system. The dominant major studios were called the Big Five, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO Pictures. The remaining, less prestigious major studios were called the Little Three, and they included United Artists, Columbia Pictures, and Universal Studios.
Every film company which operated outside of these eight major studios was part of “Poverty Row.” This was a slang catchall term used to describe Hollywood films produced by any small company. The movies they made were called B movies, not because they were secondary in quality but because they were played as the second film in a double feature. Although there were many Poverty Row studios which existed during Hollywood’s Golden Age, some for very short periods, the four biggest ones were Grand National, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures, and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Many of these studios were on Gower Street in Hollywood.
Poverty Row films included many Westerns and horror films as well as ongoing series. These movies were made cheaply and quickly, and it often shows in the finished product. Many contained obscure or unknown actors, but they often created opportunities for future stars to gain experience and exposure. While many Poverty Row films are largely forgotten today, others have become cult classics in recent years. The struggles of these Poverty Row companies were an important step in the evolution of the independent film.
United Artists, the Independent Studio“The inmates are taking over the asylum,” said Richard A. Rowland, the head of Metro Pictures, in 1919 when he heard about the early plans for United Artists. Founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith in an attempt to give actors some freedom over their own art, United Artists would become the first independent film studio in America. Over a century later, it’s still in existence.
In 1919, the studio system was beginning to emerge, but many of Hollywood’s main players weren’t happy with the direction the film industry was taking. As the business end of movie making grew more and more successful, the exhibitors turned filmmakers who started the early Hollywood film industry started to look at the business more and more as dollars and cents. They were limiting budgets, tightening salaries, and even restricting creative freedom to make filmmaking a profitable business. Clearly, they were great businessmen who knew what they were doing, since the studio system produced tons of phenomenal movies. As creative people, though, we understand how restricted the artists felt.
The four partners formed their own distribution company, which was fully operational by 1921. Although their original plan was for each of the four founders to produce five feature-length films a year, increased production costs and longer standard run times averaging ninety minutes each made that goal impossible. Instead, they ended up producing about film fives a year in total for the first five years. The company faced many financial challenges, relying on weekly advance payments from theater owners instead of selling public stock.
Throughout its history, United Artists has faced countless challenges, yet it has remained in existence in some form for over one hundred years. During that time, it’s been responsible for some of the biggest advancements in the independent film recognition. In the early 1950s, it became the first studio without a physical studio lot, instead providing financial support and distribution to independent filmmakers. Some of these movies ended up becoming huge successes, proving that independent films deserved recognition during the major studio-dominated era.
Although the studio system used to produce great movies, Hollywood now seems to have forgotten how to make worthwhile entertainment. Thus, it’s up to independent filmmakers to make something different, which has real substance, meaning, and decency. Bucking the system is probably the biggest factor in making any independent film what it is. People always scoff when somebody does something daring, especially if it hasn’t been done before. Independent filmmaking is a special kind of art. It’s more than just entertainment, since it represents a fight to do something unique which is truly your own, even if it’s hard to do.