In 1908 Thomas A. Edison created the Motion Pictures Patent Company (or Edison Trust). This was basically the first major film studio, but it was really much more than that for it combined a bunch of film companies (Biograph, Edison, Vitagraph, Lubin, Kalem, etc…) with the biggest film stock supplier (Eastman Kodak) and the the largest distribution company of that time (George Kleine). It was in essence an attempt to create a company that had a monopoly over the film industry.
1908 was also the moment in time when the independent film movement was created. Certain filmmakers who believed in preserving the artistic integrity of filmmaking immediately saw the inherent problems with one corporation (Edison Trust) trying to control their art form. Thomas Edison owned most of the Patents for the film equipment that was used in the process of film production, including the Patents for film cameras, projectors and raw film stock. He had created the first Oligopoly in the film industry.
Thomas Edison was no friend of independent filmmakers in the early1900s. He was constantly bringing lawsuits against independent filmmakers of that time who were making films on a shoestring budget often with cameras and projectors they made themselves. But even when Edison was being a negative guy by persecuting the small filmmakers, something positive was happening: the independent film scene was being born to preserve the artistic integrity of filmmaking. Independent filmmakers were moving West to Southern California so they could continue making movies far away from Edison’s lawyers.
In the early 1900s California offered wide open terrain, mountains, oceans, deserts and great weather for filming movies year round. More importantly, California had the Ninth District Court of Appeals who were known to side with independent filmmakers on cases involving Patent claims with the MPPC.
Independent filmmakers shunned the Edison Trust corporation and continued to make smaller, yet more creative films out in California. The irony is that many of these “independent” filmmakers went on to become the Second Oligopoly in Hollywood a few years later. Louis B. Mayer, the Warner Brothers and all the other pioneers of the “big six” studios who fought Thomas Edison over his film Patents all started out as independent filmmakers, fighting the very thing they would become: corporate filmmakers trying to control the film market.
By 1917 The Motion Picture Patents Company ceased to exist. There were several reasons for its demise, including a failure to gauge and predict the interests of consumers and a series of decisions by the Supreme Court of The United States in 1912 and 1915 that cancelled all of Edison’s MPPC Patents. In 1917, The Sherman Anti-Trust Act put an end to Thomas Edison’s control over the independent film industry.
When the corporate executives back East in New York found out how great California was for making movies they decided to move their money and their big companies West. Warner Brothers was incorporated in 1923 (Hollywood, CA) and the first major film studio of the Second Oligopoly was born.
Meanwhile, things were a bit different over in Europe. On October 25, 1924 a group of British men established The London Film Society in England. The first meeting took place at the New Gallery Kinema (yes, that is spelled correctly with a “K”) in London on Regent Street. Their primary goal with this organization was to highlight artistic achievement in filmmaking. This was the first official group to form a society to preserve the artistic nature of filmmaking. They were the first defenders of the faith for the concept of independent films.
Some of the founding members of the London Film Society included H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Anthony Asquith, Maynard Keynes, Sidney Bernstein, Augustus John and Ivor Montagu. The first meeting included short film screenings of The Waxworks by director Paul Leni and Champion Charlie by Charlie Chaplain.
The London Film Society was the first Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute, times ten. Try to imagine people like H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw sitting around a large table talking about short films by Charlie Chaplain (and the like) that they just screened. These men were passionate about the art of filmmaking and they did not want to see it be pushed aside by the emergence of the corporate film industry. They praised foreign filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein from Russia for making films like Battlship Potemkin and Strike. This groundbreaking filmmaker offered new ideas and film editing techniques with such things as montages and linking related scenes to create an emotional effect..
Independent German filmmakers in the 1920s were also introducing horror and suspense films that offered dark subject matter, alternate realities and interior thoughts of characters on the screen. These types movies were the very first independent films. They were in stark contrast to the hero-based linear storyline movies that the major studios were cranking out back in Hollywood during that time.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s “film societies” began to spring up all over Europe. Eventually the idea spread to Hollywood California where the very thing these societies railed against (big film studios) lived and prospered. Films like Un chien Andalu, a sixteen minute 16mm film by early independent filmmakers Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí were the kind of films these societies preferred. These movies were also screened at little “art-house” theaters that were owned and operated on an independent level. The filmmakers did not need to have huge theaters packed with people every night to make their money back (or even a little profit), for their films cost hardly anything to make.
The independent film industry was very slow during World War II (as was the case during World War I). European filmmakers were busy trying to stay alive and American filmmakers were busy either going off to war or dealing with the effects of it back home. Film stock and film production equipment were very hard to find during these times, not to mention crew and lab services were also very scarce. Everyone was focused on winning the war and preserving our freedoms.
A few years after World War II ended American movie audiences began to crave more than John Wayne and Audie Murphy war movies. They wanted more intellectual films that addressed the issues of human society. Art-house theaters screened films from other countries that were not afraid to deviate from the normal status quo of filmmaking. In 1950 Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released his movie Rashomon, a story about a woman who is raped and murdered while walking through the forest. This film emphasizes the difficulty of obtaining the truth because of varying points of view, and it leaves the audience without a neatly tied up ending.
During the 1950s the television industry began to take off in America and this caused a major downswing in the profit curve for the film industry. The big Hollywood studios tried to lure people out of their living rooms and back into the movie theaters by offering color films on a wide screen format. Meanwhile, independent filmmakers began to make low budget space alien movies during the 1950s. Some were good, a lot were bad and some were downright classics.
One of the first alien invasion-themed movies of the Fifties was Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World. This film is a genuine independent film classic. The story is about a group of scientists on a mission in the Arctic circle who find an alien spacecraft buried in the ice of a glacier. It was actually ghost-directed by Howard Hawks, who was a prominent Hollywood film director during that time.
Although Howard Hawks had made dozens of film classics that were considered to be departures from the usual studio films including Scarface (1932), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and To Have and Have Not (1944) they were all made within the major Hollywood studio system. This meant that artistic restrictions were inevitably imposed. Directing The Thing From Another World gave Hawks a chance to use his strong narrative style to the full extent with an emphasis on character motives and realistic dialogue. Even in those days big-time Hollywood people strived to be part of the independent film scene so they could make movies without corporate commercialism.
The film festival concept has been around as long as the film industry itself, but it really started to become a full-fledged “circuit” in the 1960s and 1970s. People who loved independent films realized that they could promote their passion by holding a contest and make a little money at the same time. This also meant that independent filmmakers had another venue to showcase their films other than in the small art-house theaters.
In 1978 the Utah/U.S. Film Festival was established in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was founded by a BYU film graduate named Sterling Van Wagenen and Utah’s Film Commissioner at that time John Earle. This festival was a 7 day long event that involved panel discussions, retrospective screenings of independent films and a film contest for unknown, yet talented American filmmakers. Their overall goals for this film festival were to lure film production companies to their State to bring in more money and to showcase talented, but unknown American independent filmmakers. Little did they know that their tiny film festival would eventually become one of the biggest and most important ones in the world.
In 1985 Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute took over artistic management of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival. They changed the name to The Sundance Film Festival a few years later and implemented a full-time staff that worked year round. The festival location was moved from Salt Lake City to Park City (a ski resort town in the mountains). The festival date was changed from September to January and the running time was changed from 7 days to 10 days. Money and media were injected into the festival, and filmmakers around the world began to take notice. Major Hollywood film actors and studio executives also started to take notice of Sundance, and that was when things began to change.
The Sundance Film Festival really started to take off in the 1990s. Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino and many other independent filmmakers launched their Hollywood careers with movies at this humble little film festival.
Nowadays, the film festival circuit no longer exists solely for the purpose of showcasing independent films and unknown independent filmmakers. All of the “big six” film studios have a division for “independent films” now, and they all have a horse in the race at every festival. There is a lot of media attention paid to film festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Toronto and Seattle and the major film studios cannot ignore it. They need to be part of it in order to meet their quotas of 15-17% of company grosses each year (coming from their independent film divisions).
Just when it looked like the cigar-chomping corporate executives of the “big six” Hollywood film studios were going to push the little independent filmmakers out of the film festival circuit, technology came along and saved the day. Advances in the equipment and computer programs that are used in the film production process have been monumental in the past decade. Today’s digital cameras and sound equipment as well as digital computer editing and effects programs are very high quality and very affordable. A person can buy all the equipment they need to make a digital feature film for about ten thousand dollars.
The process of filmmaking can now be in the hands of anyone with a little bit of money and a great idea for a movie. The playing field in the arena of film story-telling has been leveled by technological advances.
The independent film scene is thriving today on the film festival circuit. More independent filmmakers than ever before are submitting films to contests and grabbing their little piece of this complex art form/industry.
The big Hollywood movie stars and the independent divisions of the “big six” film studios may be getting most of the media attention these days at film festivals, but this is not such bad news for small independent films. While the film festival spotlight is shining on that big Hollywood studio film/independent film (disguised as an art-house film) the spotlight may just move slightly in one direction where it may just shine some light down on that tiny little film nearby that deals with a very important subject, but cost almost nothing to make.
And so it would seem that the current state of the independent film industry is that it exists alongside the “big six” film studios (who are in disguise) on the film festival circuit. The two industries exist like David and Goliath, but with more tolerance of each other these days. There is a symbiotic relationship between them that is much like a bird that rides on the back of a hippopotamus and cleans bugs off in exchange for food and protection from predators. They need each other in different ways. And let us not forget that without this necessary connection, the hippo would eat the bird for lunch.