We think of independent films as being a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of cinema. John Cassavetes came along in the sixties, made great movies outside the studios, and eventually others followed suit. But independent film has been around all long. In fact, Hollywood exists as the center of filmmaking today because the early filmmakers wanted to get out from under the corporate thumbs of the Motion Picture Patents Company in New York, which held so many patents over so many facets of the filmmaking process, even on the raw film itself, that they essentially owned the industry on paper.
In Hollywood, major movie studios formed, and eventually they became the institution that independent filmmakers would be independent from. It was tough. The studio system was powerful, especially before their monopoly over exhibition was broken up. But there were a fair number of independent filmmakers working, especially before the advent of sound ramped up the costs and technical requirements of filmmaking.
This week, I thought we’d take a look at some early ads for independent productions. It’s fascinating to me how differently movies were advertised compared to today’s well oiled process. It’s also interesting, as I’ve said before in this series, how all these titles are unrecognized today. For all the movies I’ve seen and read about, I’ve never even heard of these. Probably they’re lost.
I just love that advertising materials once used the word “companionate.” The nation used to be a lot more literate, once upon a time. When “Road To Perdition” came out a few years ago, it seemed like every news article about it had some kind of remark about how unusual or unwieldy the title was. I’m shocked the studio didn’t require a title change. Studio heads are always paranoid that people won’t know what words in titles will mean. (”Licence To Kill” was originally “Licence Revoked,” but the studio balked at the word “revoked,” as if everybody with a driver’s license doesn’t already know full well what that word means.) My attitude is, hey, that’s what dictionaries are for.
Anyway, the thing to note in these ads is that they’re as much about the production company as the movies themselves. It’s a weird mentality, but it makes sense if you think about it. If you go out and buy shoes, an air conditioner, a watch, a toilet, a spindle of blank DVDs, a power drill, or a pint of ice cream, you’re going to be looking at the brand. Brands are a mark of craftsmanship. Some companies make good products, and others make cheap products. If you don’t know what brands are good, you may well ask somebody or read consumer reports to find out. So why don’t we advertise “Paramount” movies and “20th Century Fox” movies and “Columbia” movies?
At one time, we did. Actually, even today, there is the well-recognized branding of the “Disney” movie (and the “Pixar” movie), to the point where some people use it as a generic term, mistaking Scotties for Kleenex. But the branding was clearer across the board before the break down of the studio system. After the studio system, the creative talents all went freelance, essentially, and today we’re not so much talking about brands as manufacturing plants.
But hey, if you make a point to see Inspiration Pictures, located at such-and-such address, you can great films like “She Goes To War!!” and super-specials featuring the writings of Madame Fred de Gresac!
Actually, with this ad, the lines between independent films and studio films become blurred: note the mention of United Artists. But United Artists wasn’t so much a full-fledged movie studio as a company set up for enabling films to be made and marketed outside the studios. But is a film truly independent if it’s part of this organization? It’s the same paradox that the movie studios themselves were film’s original independents.
We contend with these gray areas today. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, Miramax was considered an indie house. But the company evolved to become a small studio, making “independent” films for mainstream budgets and all the studio concern and control that always follows big money. What’s the difference? And is “Fox Searchlight” truly an independent film house if it is, when all is said and done, an arm of 20th Century Fox? What about Lucasfilm, which makes films by co-financing them with major studios? It’s probably worth distinguishing between Spider-Man and The English Patient, but what about The English Patient and Primer?
With these four ads all vying for my attention, I think Roseland wins it. How can I resist something called “The Giggles Series”? Every two weeks, ten more minutes of giggles! And how about BONZO, the Dog? As if those weren’t enough, I can’t imagine a better movie than one entitled “Buddy To the Rescue.”