Indie insights from Hollywood's past

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This may look like the age of indie filmmaking, but the fact is indies really ruled back in Hollywood's earliest days.

Independents' impact on the fledgling movie business is hammered home in film journalist Phil Hall's "The History of Independent Cinema," published this summer by BearManor Media.

Among its many indie insights:

-- First movie shot in Hollywood: For their 1914 western "The Squaw Man" Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn) wanted to avoid trouble with Thomas Edison, who claimed all rights to the motion picture camera. De Mille set out with his production team by train from New York but didn't get off as planned in Flagstaff, Arizona because cattlemen and sheepmen were fighting when they arrived. Instead, they continued to L.A. where they rented a barn as their studio in a sleepy town that became Hollywood.

-- First indie hit pick-up: In 1912 Adolph Zukor licensed the French feature "Queen Elizabeth" starring Sarah Bernhardt, then the world's biggest stage star. Zukor got permission from the Edison-sanctioned Motion Picture Patents Co. to distribute the 44-minute drama in America where only short films were then being shown.

Zukor kicked off its release by renting a Broadway theater -- the first four-wall deal -- and struck gold with $1 tickets that were very pricey for the time. His indie studio Famous Players evolved into Paramount Pictures.

-- First blockbuster: D.W. Griffith wound up making his 1915 epic "The Birth of a Nation" independently because the studio he worked for, Mutual Film, wouldn't pay $25,000 plus 25% of the profits for the rights to Thomas Dixon's best-seller "The Clansman." Griffith quit and raised his own money. He made "Nation" for a budget-busting $110,000. It grossed $10 million worldwide!

-- First studio formed by independents: In 1919 Griffith joined Hollywood's three biggest stars -- Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks -- to launch United Artists. The majors joked that "the inmates are taking over the asylum," but UA survived as an indie producer-distributor with films from its founders and stars like Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Buster Keaton.

Independents, Hall explained, were "the barbarians at the gate who wanted to tear down the monopoly that Edison and his friends were trying to impose."

What accounts for the indie spirit?

"It's entrepreneurship and dissatisfaction with the way things are done," he replied. "The quartet who created United Artists weren't happy with what they perceived to be their share of the boxoffice profits and control of production."

Moviemaking, Hall added, is "art by committee and a lot of the independents weren't interested in sitting on the committee and having 20 yes-men around them. They just wanted to take charge, put their hands on the steering wheel and go."

While independents today are typically directors, they originally were producers -- like Goldwyn, David O. Selznick ("Gone With the Wind"), Howard Hughes ("The Outlaw"), Walter Wanger ("Stagecoach"), Hal Roach ("Our Gang") and Walt Disney.

"They were reliant on the studios to put their films into theaters," Hall told me. "They didn't have the distribution mechanism. The only one who was able to figure that out was Disney and that didn't happen until the mid-1950s."

Disney started Buena Vista Pictures Distribution because RKO, which had released his cartoon shorts and his 1937 animated feature "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," wouldn't handle his new nature docs. In 1948 RKO turned down the first one, "Seal Island," only giving it a national release after it won the best short subject Oscar.

Then RKO rejected "The Living Desert" in 1953: "Disney said, 'Enough already. I'll do it myself.' And he did."

It was the only time, according to Hall, that "a producer working independently was able to become a studio in his own right and distribute his own films.

Selznick tried it once or twice, but it didn't quite click. Goldwyn never distributed his own films. William Randolph Hearst, who had Cosmopolitan Pictures -- mostly for his longtime mistress Marion Davies -- was reliant on MGM and Warner Bros. to put his films out."

Independents brought about devastating change in Hollywood through the 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that became known as the Paramount Consent Decree. This stemmed from a 1942 lawsuit filed by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP) against Paramount Pictures' United Detroit Theaters chain.

SIMPP challenged the legality of the major studios owning theater chains while also dominating distribution and production. "A lot of the independents found it very difficult to get good bookings because the studios controlled the ownership of theaters," Hall observed. "The decree broke that up."

When the studios were forced to sell their theater circuits, indies like United Artists, Allied Artists and Republic Pictures were able to obtain wider releases for their films than was previously possible.

Looking ahead, Hall sees indie filmmaking benefiting because now "thanks to digital technology you can make a film for a couple thousand dollars or even a couple hundred dollars."

But the real challenge is getting them seen: "Many filmmakers are going to be shooting films and if they're lucky they can snag a DVD deal. If not, they can always produce their own DVDs and sell them online."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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