Film distribution business’ earliest history can be traced back to the first Kinetescope parlor that was opened at 1155 Broadway, New York City, April 14, 1894. “It was owned by the Holland brothers, who were licensed by the Kinetescope Company to distribute Kinetescopes and Kinetescope films in New York.” (Robinson, p.45) Edison had made an invention and set out to distribute it to this company and others. He had serious competition – (independent from his own creation of the kinetescope) from other companies that sold their own kinetescope and kinethescope movies among the most prominent were the American Mutoscope Company (i.e., Biograph) and the International Film Company in New York; Edward Amet in Waukegan, Illinois; and Sigmund Lubin in Philadelphia. (Muser, 103)
The competition was fierce and this was what independent distribution was created out of – competition. In 1901, Edison gains an ultimate monopoly over distribution over motion pictures. In the history of motion pictures, every time the government steps in to regulate it, the movie business is severely altered. “Many people were aware of the accomplishments of Edison, the technological advancements he created, but overlooked is his crucial work as a producer and distributor” (Hall, 2007) Edison, from 1900-1910, single-handedly tried to grab hold of the film business for himself, by suing a competitor every time they made a movie and tried to distribute a movie. This didn’t work out for him, so he formed the Motion Pictures Patents Company (MPCC) in 1909. He involved 9 of the top distribution houses at the time and it was legally ruled that they could only make and distribute films.
Independent Film Distribution was started to break free of control of the MPPC. It is an independent work that does not have to conform to Edison’s standards and is shown without a major studios money or help. In 1909, Laemmle, a wholesale distributor of films to theatres, was infuriated at the MPCC, and he continually challenged them in court over their monopoly until the MPCC stopped distributing films to his company. Angrier than ever, Laemmle created the Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP) and gave life to a new filmmaking force. He started making films and buying films from others and selling them. He creates in 1911, with Pat Powers and Mark Dintenfass what studios into what is known as Universal Studios. A man named Zukor also charged in after the MPCC and started making films and distributing them. They also gave the actors credits on the film and listed their name at the beginning of the movies, the first step in democratizing films. Lamella and the MPCC wouldn’t do this because they were afraid of paying the actors too much.
Independent Distribution was simplified for the first time and let a lot of new films in from other filmmakers, such as Howard Hughes. “Laemmmle and Zukor succeeded Edison and Laemmle founded Universal Studios and Zukor founded Paramount Studios. (Hall, 2007) Several new independents (at the time) in 1915, William Fox founds Fox Film Corporation, and combines production, distribution and theatres together and between 1915 and 1924, United Artists, Warner Brothers, MGM and Columbia formed as studios.
In the late 1920’s owners that usually retained control of their studio system, started hiring supervisors to run day to day operations and organization started taking place in a producer unit system that included a general manager, executive manager, producer and supervisors. (Bargann, 350) They found that branching out the system by operating with a larger organization of people encouraged quality of movies especially for independents. In the late 1930’s Independents such as Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn and David Selznick owned their own studios but started distributing independently and not through the major companies because they refused to give up creative control and because Hollywood had a monopoly over talent and distribution methods. In the late 1930’s the federal government accuses the Hollywood majors of restraint of trade by controlling all means of production, distribution and theatres and shutting independents out. The lawsuit was put on hold for wartime reasons and then in the 1940’s the Government accuses the majors of monopolizing on the best talent and monopolizing on all movies by owning the theatres. The government calls for the studios to break ownership with the theatres. (Cobbles.com, 1)
Sam Spiegel in the early 1950’s, became a new pioneer of independent movies among with Orson Wells, He created his own distribution company – Horizon Films, and then founded a production method that is still in use by independent producers today – financing films by pre-selling foreign distribution rights. (Aberdeen, 1)
In the 1960’s, Major Studios in desperation started financing independent films and major conglomerates that invested and traded in the studios bought up the studios. A slew of new distribution companies such as American International Pictures, a up and coming production and distribution company, distributed some very popular series of movies, including Roger Corman’s films based on Edgar Allen Poe. American Intl’ Pictures started the genre of marketing films to teenagers. Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro and Francis Ford Coppola got their starts with American International.
In the 1960’s as well, John Cassavetes, considered the father of Independent Film, made courageous new works, such as “Faces” and “Shadows” with no help from financial banks, the major studios. He could not get anyone in America to distribute his film in the US, so he received international help. He did not care for pleasing anyone in monetary standards, a true maverick, only himself. In a interview with Ron Carney, a renown and controversial film critic, he says about Cassevetes films, they were about “change and process” they were about staying free and avoiding being limited by social rules or arrangements”. Carney says the master plot of all his work was to expose fraudulence and self-delusion. His stories weren’t about plot or about events like many movies to date but Cassavetes films “were about character”. (Carney, 2002) Cassavettes was recognized as a spiritual father of independent filmmaking and although he wasn’t extremely successful because of lack of budgets to distribute his films, he impacted many other filmmakers and they could distribute their movies easier because they had a new niche in the market.
By the early 1970’s, Blaxploitation film genres became popular with a commercially successful film by Melvin Van Peebles “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.” Many notable indie filmmakers at the time that featured blaxploitation were Gordon Parks, William Crain and William Levy.
In 1975, the movie world would be changed forever and be a great blow to indie filmmakers that wanted to show their movies in theatres. Steven Spielberg created “Jaws” that caused courageous comeback by the Majors, started the rise of the Blockbuster movie and the rise of saturation marketing. George Lucas started the auxiliary market by betting his toys from his Star Wars trilogy would fund his movies. The studios had no idea of this profitable and lucrative auxiliary market of toys and licensing could be of such benefit to a filmmaker. At this moment of time, the budget of marketing for this film was the greatest amount of money ever spent on a film.
Every decade there were new and successful independents outside the sphere of Hollywood that are still successful to this day, Lions Gate Films, Miramax Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films.
At this time in the 1980’s Independent Films started gaining large audiences with the works of up and coming directors and distributors, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarumusch, David Lynch and John Sayles. (Pramaggiore & Wallis, 391) Reagan’s economic plan causes mergers and acquisitions to boom as many independents and failing Hollywood studios are bought up by huge conglomerates. The Sundance Institute – a nonprofit for indie filmmakers’ talents was created by Robert Redford. A major breakthrough for an independent film in the late 1980’s – Sex, Lies and Videotape by Steve Soderbergh becomes one of the first indie blockbusters with a budget of a million that made 24 million and one of the best investments in indie film to date at that time. Steve Soderbergh’s film is yet another deeply character based film that has not much plot. “Soderbergh laid bare the urgency of his vision without belittling his audience through esoteric overkill. Soderburgh had a cross-over hit that was liked by art film houses as well as the big theatres. Soderburgh was known for his extreme dialogue that depicted reality at the time, his great linear filmmaking and his “editing in such a way that no single truth or story would emerge; rather a mosaic of truths, fables and formats emerged” (Daly, 2003)
The 1990’s New technologies began to arise, cutting costs for independent and the majors with computer editing system and other technologies. Audiences gains access to more independent film festivals. Today, there is a film festival in 44 of the 50 US States. 2 States have more than 10 film festivals a year. The Independent Film Channel is broadcasted by Bravo TV that exclusively shows indie movies. Home audience watching gained critical momentum due to many new distribution technologies of films, i.e. Pay-Per-View and increased consumer sales of buying movies. In 1995- Home viewing accounted for half of all movie sales, which is great news for Indie filmmakers that skip formal distribution methods and sell straight to DVD. The DVD format is released. DVD format is a combination of MMCD and SD technology that can store up to 10 times more information than a CD can. It is released in the U.S in 1997. In the late 1990’s – a plethora of medium sized indie distribution companies opened, among them, Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films, Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage. The most successful independent studios at this time are owned by Hollywood except for IFC Films. Near the dawn of the century, Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, two indie filmmakers movie is presented to Hollywood and becomes the most profitable independent movie ever. It costed 30,000 thousand and netted 140 million.
From 2000 to present, Major Hollywood Studios that don’t have Indie production create one, i.e. Picturehouse from New Line and HBO, Weinstein Company- Miramax, Focus Features- Universal, among others. The way that indie prodco’s are progressing, Independent filmmaking will soon be dominant with more an more production companies opening up.
Hal Hartley created a new genre in independent filmmaking that received a cult following, He releases “Fay Grim” through Netflix’s Red Envelope productions. In 1997, Reed Hastings opened a branch of Netflix, Red Envelope Productions which distributes the DVD’s by mail. According to Ted Saunders, “Eventually, we’ll be coming to Sundance and saying, “We can buy everything, there is a market for every film.” (Biba, 2) As of 2006, less than 1% was filming digitally, 99% were editing digitally, 5% were distributing digitally and less than 1% was exhibiting digitally. (Bargam, Table A7, 369) The switch of independent and Hollywood to fully digitally status won’t happen to estimated year of 2025. (Bargam, Table A7, 369)
Since 1990 to present day, opportunities for independent filmmakers have jumped by leaps and bounds. With the creation of more and more niche markets and audiences, filmmakers could get their whole movie budget paid for without having start production on it. Distributors by the dozens started picking up movies at a dramatic pace and paying producers advances with the presale market that was born out of niche markets and audiences. This brings us to present day where the supply is more than demand and the acquisition prices of movies have begun to fall.
There are many opportunities for filmmakers to sell DVD’s, as Henrig, Henrig-Thrau, Sattler, Eggers and Houston report in their study in 2007, “The Last Picture Show” that 58% of all sales of movies are on DVD’s. The demand for watching movies at home has been increasing at a steady pace. More people download legal movies online or rent from Netflix and Blockbuster Online.