“Independent Review” – Freedom – A Fourth of July Special Edition

Amidst our most patriotic holiday, I though I would save last week’s column and use it here, to celebrate true independence.  There are a lot of things we take for granted in America, one of them being our freedom of speech, which covers filmmaking, new social media, and entertainment in general.  With today being “International Talk Like Randy Savage Day” in honor of his recent passing, I can heartily say we live in a country like no other.  Since the early days of filmmaking, when film companies moved west, it was not only for the bright sunshine and expansive shooting locations.  New York investors sent their crews west to dodget Thomas Edison’s patent agents, who were attempting to enforce the patent for the motion picture process.  These men forged out on their own, to a land foreign to them, chasing their American dream. 

Without these patent-dodging individualists, we would oddly enough probably not have the studio system that we have in place today.  This industry was established in the early 1900’s, and by the 1920’s it was a largely commercial business with constant growth.  The 1930’s represented an era of filmmaking that was fiercly anti-independence.  Original studios were run as fascist regimes, with outspoken dictators selecting which films to make, who was to star in them, who was to write and direct them, and how the films were sold to the public, including marketing, advertising, and where the films would play.  This system proliferated until the early 1960’s, where theater attendance was in steady decline, and old formulas were no longer working.  During this time, mini-studios started to pop up, producing “B-movies”.   Now, B-movies were nothing new, the old studio system had been making B-pictures since their move west.  This was the method for testing out new talent, creating new starts, and making quick, cheap, profitable films to act as a landing pad for the possible failure of some of the studios’ grand scale pictures.

With the dawn of the 1960’s, social change was on its way into the American psyche, with counter-culture steadily rising into a popular culture of its own.  What remained undergound and behind closed doors int he 1950’s was exploited for the screen in the 1960’s.  The first truly independent filmmakers like John Cassavettes, Henry Jaglom, Roger Corman, and Herschell Gordon Lewis began making films with privately funded money.  Cassavettes, an actor, would do films for studios and then turn around and use his paycheck to fund his own ventures such as the award winning films Shadows and Faces.  Jaglom had similar tactics, coming from a career acting, writing, and directing off-Broadway shows.  His first venture into film was as an editor on Dennis Hopper’s seminal independent film Easy Rider.  He quickly began acting for the screen, and after some appearances on different TV shows and movies, he went out on his own to make A Safe Place.  Meanwhile, H.G. Lewis was making commercials and other advertising pieces until he decided to use his own money to make The Prime Time, a “nudie cutie”, the first of many such productions he would make over the next few years with his producing partner David S. Friedman.  Once they tired of that corner of the exploitation market, they had an idea that would eventually become Blood Feast, cited as one of the very first gore-based horror films.  It was banned in many areas in the US, which only piqued the interest of the American public, driving them to the drive-in theaters in droves to see the shocking new type of film.  Roger Corman began producing B-movies in the 1950’s, and into the 60’s he only expanded his output.  Corman became famous for giving many big filmmakers their first breaks, with such greats as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jack Nicholson getting their first gigs working for Corman.  As the 60’s progressed, Corman became the king of schlock, with his name appearing in front of a very large number of exploitation pictures from the time. 

At the end of the decade, disaffected with the Vietnam war and race relations, a young Pittsburgh native named George A. Romero gathered his friends and family and stepped into the outlying Pennsylvania landscape to film the first zombie epic Night of the Living Dead, which shocked many people, and at the same time was revered by critics as a milestone in horror films, being one of the first to have real substance beyond the blood and guts.  Romero took a big chance in 1968, casting a black man in the lead role of his film, breaking down the expectations of the audience as to who can be a tough guy movie star.

As the 1970’s dawned, many of the formerly independent filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola quickly became studio stalwarts after proving their abilities in the realm of lower budget features under people like Corman.  With their climb into the mainstream, a new group of filmmakers jumped into their wake, with directors like Steven Speilberg, George Lucas, Wes Craven, and Sean S. Cunningham becoming the next wave of independent producers making their splash.  The main thing that changed during this time, however, was audience attendance.  Whereas in the 1960’s there was a certain kitsch element to drive-in movies, this next wave of filmmakers took old formulas and put modern twists on them.  Speilberg’s break-out hit was the road thriller Duel, while Lucas was completing the sci-fi opus THX-1138.  Both films put both filmmakers on the radar of major studios, and both would use that position to elevate themselves to major studio production for their following films.  

Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, meanwhile, stayed decidedly out of the mainstream so they could make horror classics such as The Last House on the Left, which shocked audiences with its realistic depictions of brutal rape and torture violence, The Hills Have Eyes, about a family of murderous, mutant freaks, and finally Cunningham’s reinvention of the modern slasher with Friday the 13th.  The fact that these films have all been recently remade, by big studios no less, speaks to their revolutionary nature.

With hits such as these, the 1970’s and 1980’s became an explosion of small films from first time and young filmmakers, with exploitation becoming a full fledged genre of its own to be celebrated by fans and filmmakers alike.  Today, these films still hold strong influence over modern audiences (and studios too, apparently).  As independent production slowed in the 1980’s to make room for violent horror and action films, often funded by studios trying to replicate independent successes, with great success in some cases, like First Blood, starring Sylvester Stallone.  In the 1980’s, the decade of success, independent films became a place for producers to make similar films with lower budgets, often called “rip-offs”, of successful studio pictures.  One example is the grand proliferation of gory alien horror films after the success of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  As big budget spectacle took the industry by storm into the late 1980’s, independent producers again returned to the underground scene to escape the pressures and control of mini-studios that had quickly come to reflect all the negative aspects of the major studios they were trying to escape.

As the 90’s dawned, Generation X was in full swing.  Alternative music had taken over the radio, and with it, young alternative filmmakers sprang up, like Richard Linklater with Slacker, Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, and Robert Rodriguez with El Mariachi.  This new wave of indy filmmakers became known through the newly formed Sundance Film Festival, founded by actor/director Robert Redford, to give exposure to new talent and independent films across the country.  These filmmakers quickly became the new Hollywood darlings, and from the success of their independent films, like Scorsese and Coppolla before them, were able to secure deals with major studios for their next films.

With the explosion of the home video market in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, many films that were produced under the radar, or were unable to secure a theatrical release became hits on video.  This spawned an era of “direct-to-video” films, a new-school replacement to the old 50’s B-movies.  This became a market in and of itself, where $100,000 comedies sat on the video store shelves next to “A-picutures”, or big budget studio films.  In fact, some straight-to-video movies sold and rented bigger than some studio films.  With the advent of DVD, films were cheaper and easier to obtain and own permanently, and the popularity of DVD collecting exploded. 

With an explosion of money available to make new films, direct to video production exploded.  Nowdays, many moderate and big budget films get relegated straight-to-video because of many different factors:  the rising costs of prints and advertising for theatrical exhibitions, poor test screening ratings, and a general increase in overall production.  From a few hundred films being produced each year in the 1980’s, the rate of filmmaking has gone up exponentially, with tens of thousands of movies being released globally each year.  Now films must compete with pure numbers, even a big name doesn’t guarantee high returns if the movie gets mired amongst similar releases with inferior quality.  Consumers have more options available to them on a weekly basis than they ever have before, resulting in a broader spectrum of content produced.

This trend is no longer specifically American, either.  Countries like South Korea, Serbia, Croatia, Lithuania, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Poland, China, and Nigeria, which has quickly become the most profitable film production center on the entire planet.  Bollywood films from India have exploded in popularity on a world scale as well.  The American promise of artistic freedom has expanded, with filmmakers all over the world taking tips and production strategies of independent films past and applying them to new global markets that haven’t been saturated with product, many countries merely getting only the biggest studio films in years past. 

The ideas and methods applied to independent films over the years clearly reflect the American process for making movies, and the world market has benefitted from it.  American ingenuity and fierce independence from major companies has become an industry of its own.  This industry has many times crossed paths with major studios, with films like Paranormal Activity and Jackass becoming popular hits on miniscule budgets, with little control exerted over their production.  Today, major film studios often produce films that would have been independent 10 years ago, simply because of content or the actors starring in the film.  Films like Hostel and Old School would have never been studio approved pictures if they had been made 20 years ago.  But since alternative films do have their place in the sun, studios are also clamoring for the biggest and the best of them, doing their best to make at least some of the dollars earned on the market float in their direction.

With recent advances in filmmaking technology, like digital video cameras, mini-dollies, and mini-rigs becoming cheaper and easier to use every day, there has never been a better time to be an independent filmmaker.  Some will complain the market is far too broad for any film to find the same success of films past, mainly because of studio involvement in films that would have been independent years ago.  However, this remains simply not true.  Filmmakers like those behind the cult hit Black Devil Doll, or the Trailer Park Boys series have proven there is still a large niche audience out there, only now it’s just tougher for the filmmaker to find their prime audience.  With the proliferation of streaming, digital downloading, the declining cost of DVD production, and the enhanced quality of viewing devices (HDTV, Blu-Ray, 3D-TV, etc) films are enjoyed now more than possibly ever, both in times seen and money earned. 

This trend is proudly American, and although the process has been globally adopted, the US still tends to be the breeding ground for new genres, concepts, and techniques, which later get adapted by filmmakers worldwide.  These are the basic rights our forefathers had in mind when they successfully formed this country in the Revolutionary War, the right to exist and be made available.  Popular consumer trends have been born of that concept, and that accounts for the increase in overall production and consumer spending on said production.   While Thomas Jefferson might not have even been able to imagine motion pictures, his ideas of basic freedom in the United States has made it possible for such an industry to even exist.  In many countries, alternative artists are captured and jailed to prevent their ideas from being heard.  This is why you should never take any film for granted, no matter how bad it might be.  The fact that the filmmaker had the right to make that film is a wonder to some countries on the planet, and those that have been able to adopt the similar methods of American films have benefitted greatly from our ability to speak freely and make uncesnored art. 

So remember, every bad movie you watch, while you may not enjoy it, you better appreciate the fact that you were even able to see it, and that the filmmaker wasn’t killed for doing so.  America, land of the free, home of the motion picture industry, and the freedom to choose as you please.  Have a greath Fourth of July everyone, stay safe, and be sure to let us know which movies you will be seeing this holiday with your precious freedoms!

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