Considering the years Phil Hall has spent writing movie reviews, the Bootleg Files column, and other pieces for Film Threat, as well as a previous book of his entitled Independent Film Distribution, it would have been curious if he had not written a book about the history of independent film. He has done just that with the succinct and aptly-titled The History of Independent Cinema, published by BearManor Media. Think of the book as a tour from the early years of Thomas Edison’s efforts at filmmaking all the way through to what independent filmmaking is today, led by a deeply knowledgeable guide (am I shameless? Well, I suppose…) who is just as fascinated by the little things at the side of the road, such as L. Frank Baum’s failed attempts at filmmaking by way of adapting his Oz books.
The tour guide himself graciously provided a few minutes to his home site to discuss this latest accomplishment.
Did your years of experience as a contributing editor to Film Threat inspire you to write “The History of Independent Cinema,” or was it something else?
It was a culmination of a quarter-century of my involvement in multiple areas of the motion picture world: during this period, I have been a film journalist, film publicist, film festival director, film distributor and film actor. I never worked in Hollywood, nor have I been professionally affiliated with a Hollywood studio, so my cinematic endeavors have always been on the independent film side.
When you come up with an idea for a book, particularly this one, how do you begin? Do you map out exactly what you want to cover first or do you begin to research what you already know and let it expand from there?
The idea for the book came up in early 2008, when I pitched BearManor Media on the idea. I was kicking around a number of ideas and that was the one which was the most interesting.
My map is the table of contents, which was part of the proposal I forwarded to BearManor Media. From there, I write in a manner that is similar to filmmaking – everything is created out of order and is then edited together. Don’t ask why, it just works best that way.
Was Biograph still within the tight confines of the Motion Picture Patents Company at the time that Carl Laemmle spirited Florence Lawrence away and made her the first name star? Is it known whether Laemmle’s actions drew the ire of the MPPC together?
Yes and yes. Laemmle was one of the most courageous and daring men in film history, since he was at the front of the charge that broke down the MPPC monopoly and laid forth the industry environment that we have today. Many people are not aware that Thomas Edison was at the forefront of the MPPC monopoly – we only think about him for diddling with lightbulbs, but he was the first movie mogul.
The concept of the movie star came from independent cinema via Laemmle, who shrewdly tapped into the public curiosity regarding the anonymous people who were featured in the films being projected during the early years of the 20th century. The production companies within the MPPC feared that if the actors became famous, they would demand more money and wield an uncontrollable amount of power. Of course, their fears were justified, and the MPPC was furious at Laemmle for releasing that particular genie from its bottle.
How did the MPPC retaliate?
They couldn’t. Simultaneously, Adolph Zukor brought the French film “Queen Elizabeth” starring Sarah Bernhardt to the U.S. That was a huge hit and it spurred a movement to bring well-known stage stars to the big screen. Once that happened, the concept of selling a film based on the fame of its star talent was a done deal.
What fascinates you personally about the history of independent film?
I am a big fan of the concept of the outsider crashing the gates and challenging the status quo. The history of independent cinema is a history of outsiders agitating to change the way films are created and released. The first film made in Hollywood was an independently produced film. Independent producers gave us color, sound, widescreen projection and videography. They broke the censorship code and the McCarthy era blacklist. They put films on the Internet and gave voices to disenfranchised communities. How can you not be fascinated by such achievements?
How many of the directors and producers you researched truly put their own money into making movies, and how many relied partly on Hollywood funds?
Self-financing was not common for many years, due to the cost of making films. Wealthy men like Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst could afford to finance their own films, but they were the exceptions. For most of the history of independent cinema, funding came from investors, speculators and banks. Walt Disney, for example, was reliant for many years on loans from the Bank of America.
More recently, self-financing is easier since the cost of film production has dropped thanks to the introduction of low-cost video technology. In view of the current economic crisis, I suspect we will see more self-financing as outside investment funds dry up.
It’s interesting how you parallel D.W. Griffith’s publicity-making for “The Birth of a Nation” with how Mel Gibson attempted to publicize “The Passion of the Christ.” From that, it would appear that not much has changed in the way of publicity for independent films. A filmmaker does what they can to get word of his or her film out to the hopefully eager public. To you, what are the advantages today of drumming up publicity and what are some of the disadvantages?
Nobody makes films for the sake of making films – the idea is to get as many people as possible to see the films. That why publicity is an essential component for any film and DVD release.
Both Griffith and Gibson realized they had very controversial productions and, naturally, they did everything possible to exploit their films and play up the public fascination with their respective controversies. Likewise, Howard Hughes created a phony censorship controversy regarding the costumes worn by Jane Russell in “The Outlaw” (1943); the public was fascinated by the brouhaha and came out in huge numbers to see what the fuss was all about.
Today’s independent filmmaker has a lot of challenges getting good publicity. Unless there is name talent attached to the film or the film is in wide release, many media outlets will ignore the film or give it scant attention beyond an obligatory review.
In today’s industry, would it be possible for a trio like D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford to create another United Artists and make it work?
No, because United Artists was a response to the need of Griffith, Chaplin, Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to have full control over the production and distribution of their films – a mix of creative and financial power. The schematics of film distribution and the skyrocketing costs of production would make that impossible today.
The surprise of your book seems to be L. Frank Baum’s attempted contributions to movies by way of adapting his Oz books and failing spectacularly. What surprised you in the course of your research?
Baum invented the film franchise – many people don’t know that. My biggest surprise discovery was learning there were experiments with three-dimensional filmmaking in the 1920s. Those films are lost, sadly, and that explains why so few people were aware of them.
Throughout the book, you ask filmmakers and critics for their 10 favorite independent films. What are your favorites?
Okay – here goes:
1. “Fantasia” (1940) – yes, Walt Disney was an independent filmmaker prior to the creation of his Buena Vista distribution subsidiary.
2. “The Blood of Jesus” (1941) – a $5,000 “race film” directed by the African American actor/writer Spencer Williams. It is an extraordinary achievement and, arguably, the finest film of its long-maligned genre.
3. “Othello” (1952) – Orson Welles left Hollywood and raised money all over Europe to create this wild and brilliant interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
4. “Shadows” (1960) – How can you not cite John Cassavetes’ landmark breakthrough?
5. “Carnival of Souls” (1962) – Herk Harvey was an industrial film director/producer whose only commercial film release was this brilliantly eerie horror film.
6. “The Noah” (1968) – Robert Strauss stars as a soldier who survives a nuclear holocaust on a deserted island. The film is a psychologically damning portrait of an isolated man’s descent into near-madness.
7. “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” (1975) – noteworthy as the first shot-on-video film to receive an Oscar nomination, for James Whitmore’s incredibly performance as Harry S. Truman. It is also a wonderfully entertaining of creating a filmed record of a play that transcends all notions of stagnant staginess.
8. “Stop Making Sense” (1984) – arguably the best concert film of all time.
9. “The Drivetime” (1995) – Antero Alli’s underground feature was prescient in charting how telecommunication technology would destroy the basic tenets of human interaction.
10. “Plan 9 from Syracuse” (2007) – Ryan Dacko’s documentary follows his ill-fated publicity stunt to run across the United States in order to raise awareness for a film project he was pitching. The PR stunt failed, but the film offers a compelling portrait of an indefatigable spirit who went to wild lengths for the cause of independent cinema.