Q & A with Journalist-Film Historian Phil Hall

“The History of Independent Cinema” author Phil Hall

“The History of Independent Cinema” author Phil Hall

ZAMM.com’s Martin Grove spoke recently to journalist-film historian Phil Hall about his new book “The History of Independent Cinema” published by BearManor Media.

In “The History of Independent Cinema”, published this summer, Phil Hall, a contributing editor to Film Threat magazine and a journalist who’s written for The New York Times and New York Daily News, focuses on the world of American filmmakers who worked outside the studio system. “Cinema” is available in bookstores as well as through online sites like amazon.com, oldies.com and even target.com. It also can be ordered directly from BearManor Media (P.O. Box 71426, Albany, GA 31708).

Beginning with the challenge posed by the independents who brought down Thomas Edison’s motion picture monopoly in the earliest days of the movie business and ending with today’s digital age of indie filmmaking, Hall’s book examines the larger-than-life men and women who saw barriers and broke them down through their talent and determination.

The book covers the pioneers who redefined the technology of filmmaking. Hall explains that color cinematography, sound, widescreen, 3-D and digital video all originated with indie filmmakers. The book also pays tribute to the directors, producers and distributors who created the landmark productions that are regarded now as the height of American filmmaking — as well as the many Hollywood insiders who began their careers on the indie fringe.

Q: A lot of people think independent filmmaking is a brand new thing, but as you point out in your book it goes back to the earliest days of the movie business.
A: Well, nothing is new in the film world. I discovered in doing the research for the book how repetitious history can be in terms of outsiders challenging the status quo, achieving a degree of celebrity and power and becoming the status quo themselves until a new generation of outsiders come to challenge them.
Q: So going back to the very early days of the business with pioneers like Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle, although their companies evolved into major studios they were all originally independents. (The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company later merged with Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players and then evolved into Paramount Pictures. Laemmle founded what became Universal Pictures.)
A: That’s right. They were the outsiders. They were the barbarians at the gate who wanted to tear down the monopoly that Mr. Edison and his friends were trying to impose.
Q: We’ve read many times how problems with Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company about the licensing of cameras and projectors that Edison claimed all rights to as an inventor drove filmmakers to get out of places like Ft. Lee, New Jersey and other New York area locations where moviemaking was being done at the time and to travel West to try their luck.
A: One of the funny things about independent filmmakers is that they’re responsible for Hollywood with the production of “The Squaw Man” in 1913, which was the first film shot in Hollywood. That was an independent production (by Jesse Lasky, Cecil B. DeMille, who directed it, and Sam Goldwyn, known then as Samuel Goldfish).
Q: And then there were some very famous independents who launched their own studio, United Artists, in 1919 — Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. (Griffith was the hottest director of his time, having made the film industry’s first blockbuster, the 1915 epic “The Birth of a Nation”. His three partners in UA were the most popular movie stars of the day.)
A: That was rather interesting in that they were taking charge of production and distribution, which was without precedent. And going back to the repetitious (nature of movie history), in the past decade or so a great many filmmakers have taken it upon themselves to self-distribute, as well. So we’re seeing that again today. But Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks were the ones to put the ball into motion.
Q: And Sam Goldwyn was a leading independent, as well, at that time.
A: Yes, Goldwyn was on his own. He was briefly joined up with Metro Pictures (through Goldwyn Pictures Corp., which Goldwyn was no longer part of at the time MGM was formed in April 1924), which is where we wound up with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer even though Goldwyn, himself, had nothing to do with MGM in his heyday.

A lot of people don’t realize that the independents during these golden years, so to speak, from the late ’20s through the ’50s, were not the directors, but the producers. People like Goldwyn and (David O.) Selznick and Howard Hughes, Walter Wanger, Hal Roach and Walt Disney were independent filmmakers. They were reliant on the studios to put their films into theaters. 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 (when Disney started Buena Vista Pictures Distribution).

(Selznick is best remembered for producing the 1939 blockbuster “Gone With the Wind”. Earlier in his career at RKO he produced the 1933 classic “King Kong”. While producing films at MGM he married studio mogul Louis B. Mayer’s daughter Irene. In 1946 he launched Selznick Releasing Organization, making films like King Vidor’s “Duel in the Sun”, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and “The Paradine Case” and Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”.

Hughes is legendary for his reclusive multi-millionaire years later in life, but he started out as an independent producer as the silent film era was ending. He’s best remembered for his western “The Outlaw”, starring Jane Russell, which was made in 1941 but took years to get into theaters because of local censorship issues. It didn’t open in New York, for instance, until September 1947. Hughes left the independent side of the film business in 1948 when he purchased the RKO Radio Pictures studio.

Wanger was a studio executive in the 1920s at Paramount, Columbia and MGM, but moved into independent production in 1934 with a deal at Paramount. Among his later productions were John Ford’s 1939 western “Stagecoach” and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 spy thriller “Foreign Correspondent”.

Roach was a pioneer indie producer best remembered for making films starring comedian Harold Lloyd and the “Our Gang” comedies in the 1920s. He also is known for pairing British comic Stan Laurel with American character actor Oliver Hardy and producing their string of popular comedies.

Disney started out making independent animated shorts, distributed first through Columbia, then through United Artists and later through RKO, which released his feature-length animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. Disney split with RKO in 1953 and launched Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, which later became a major studio.)

Q: You point out in your book that RKO had refused to distribute one of Disney’s films and that’s what prompted him to move into distribution on his own.
A: A documentary (produced in 1948 called) “Seal Island”. Disney had the idea of nature documentaries and RKO thought it was a terrible idea. But Disney prevailed and the film won the (best short subject) Oscar and “Seal Island” was nationally released by RKO and became a big hit. (The 1953 production) “The Living Desert” was the next documentary that RKO balked at and Disney said, “Enough already. I’ll do it myself.” And he did. And that’s the only time 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, as far as I know, never distributed his own films. William Randolph Hearst, who had Cosmopolitan Pictures — mostly for Marion Davies (his longtime mistress) — was reliant on MGM and Warner Bros. to put his films out.
Q: One of the areas of independent filmmaking that people today recognize as an important part of the business is documentaries. In your book you shed some light on how many of these historic documentaries actually weren’t very truthful at all.
A: I found it very funny in doing the research because the whole concept of non-fiction cinema is to show real life not staged life. Incredibly, a lot of the documentaries were indeed staged, particularly (Robert Flaherty’s classic 1922 film about an Eskimo hunter in the Canadian Arctic) “Nanook of the North”, which was almost entirely fraudulent. It was even more interesting that in the post-War years a lot of films that were distributed as documentaries and even received Oscars and Oscar nominations were not documentaries. They were scripted and they used non-professional actors, but this was not by any stretch of the imagination non-fiction cinema.
Q: What do you think accounts for the spirit of independent production over all these years? Why did filmmakers want to strike out on their own?
A: For the same reason anybody wants to strike out on their own. It’s entrepreneurship and dissatisfaction with the way things are done. 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. Even today independent filmmakers like to be in charge and not be told what to do. Motion pictures 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 and put their hands on the steering wheel and go.

The funny thing throughout the whole book when I was putting it together is that these wonderful alpha personalities from Laemmle and Lasky all the way to today is that these are all go-getters, men and women that you have to admire for their energy and their spirit and their drive and their unwillingness to take no for an answer.
Q: Independents played a big role, as well, in what ultimately became the Paramount Consent Decree, following a lawsuit filed in 1942 by the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP) against Paramount Pictures’ United Detroit Theatres chain.
A: That was basically challenging the ability of the studios to own theaters as well (as distribution and production). A lot of the independents found it very difficult to get good bookings because the studios controlled the ownership of the theaters. The (1948 U.S. Supreme Court) decree that you’re talking about broke that up. The Hollywood studios had to sell off their theater chains and this enabled (independents) like United Artists and smaller studios like Allied Artists or Republic to get their films into wider release where it hadn’t been available before.
Q: You point out in your book that many of those who started out as independents later converted to working within the studio system. Why was that?
A: Well, hey — money, power. Who’s going to say no to that?
Q: As you look back on independent filmmaking over the years, what are some of the major milestones?
A: Well, there are so many. Obviously, bringing color (to the screen). The Technicolor people were from (the independent world). Sound — because the sound experiments were done by people working outside of the industry. Taking on some of the nastier elements of society (in the late ’40s and early ’50s during the Congressional witch hunts in Hollywood) — like the Blacklist and taboo subjects such as racism. I think it was just a sense of daring and bravery (that drove the independents) whether it was just to think differently, to present ideas in a different way or to stare down bullies who were turning the country into a pretty nasty place.
Q: And going back to the earliest days of the movie business, there was a lot of strength on the independent side even then.
A: They were always there. When people say the independent movement began with (Quentin) Tarantino or Kevin Smith or Steven Soderbergh or even (John) Cassavetes (they don’t realize) it went further back. Without the Laskys and the Laemmles and people like Hal Roach or Walter Wanger we wouldn’t have independent film today.
Q: We’re in the midst of a terrible recession right now. Back in the 1930s the Depression had a big impact on the motion picture business. Did independents suffer from that?
A: Supposedly no. Independent film production continued. In fact, that was probably the Golden Age of the independents. You had Goldwyn and Selznick and Hal Roach and Disney working. Those were the independent producers. There were smaller less famous independent filmmakers, a lot of them in the exploitation sector or making race films or Yiddish language films. But production was always there. People found a way to bring a few dollars together, put film in a camera and make a film.

The whole spirit of the independent cinema is just that they don’t take no for an answer even in the face of a Depression. I think mostly it was personality. These people had a vision. They had the drive and they wanted to get it done and they got it done. They had tremendous competition from the studios, but at the time the studios controlled the theater chains, as well.
Q: Looking at the independent film business today in the age of the specialized distributors, how robust do you think it is?
A: Well today there’s no shortage of it and we can thank digital video for that because that drove down the cost of many independent films. Getting the films seen is another issue because a lot of distributors are not taking on many films. A lot of (indie) films are going straight to DVD. Many more films are being made than a lot of people are aware of. Just because a film isn’t in a theater doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Q: Where do you see independent filmmaking going?
A: That’s a very difficult question. I think it will continue to be a realm of great activity because thanks to digital technology you can make a film for a couple thousand dollars or even a couple hundred dollars. The challenge is going to be getting these films seen. So many films are now being made that I’d say it’s literally a one in a million chance for many independent filmmakers to be able to get recognized, get picked up (for distribution), get the quality festival placement and the publicity and get their films into theaters.

Many filmmakers, I think, are just 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. I think there will be an increased quantity, but the competition’s going to be so great it will be somewhat Darwinian and only the strongest are going to be able to come out on top.