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The Secret Society of Old Hollywood
The Forgotten Influence of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers
They were among the most famous filmmakers of classic Hollywood. Their independent society became one of the preeminent film organizations of its day. Their influence shook Hollywood to its very foundation. Yet today, the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers has been
“It is one of those great Hollywood mysteries finally answered,” film historian J. A. Aberdeen explains. “This group played an essential part in the transformation of Hollywood. But we have never known what happened to the illustrious society -- until now.” The author spent years collecting the lost documents of the society for the new book “Hollywood Renegades: The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers.” In the process, Aberdeen uncovered a story of Hollywood intrigue and cutthroat business that has waited over 50 years to be told.
Back in the early 1940s, when the studio system reigned over Hollywood, a small group of film producers joined together to protest the big studio monopolies. Eight independent filmmakers -- Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda, Mary Pickford, David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger, and Orson Welles -- secretly formed an organization named SIMPP. They took on the major studios such as Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros., whose large corporate holdings and massive theaters chains were seen as a threat to independent filmmaking.
The studio monopolies had already survived government lawsuits, world war, and economic depression -- always emerging bigger and stronger than before. But soon the studio system would dwindle as the independent producers changed the way Hollywood made movies.
SIMPP objected to the assembly-line production method of the big film companies. The old studio backlots were run as if they were small cities. Movies were mass-made, and then mass-marketed in theater chains that were also controlled by the major studios. The independent producers like Disney, Selznick and Goldwyn envisioned a different future for the film industry.
The independents believed that individual artists and not studio committees should be in charge. As Charlie Chaplin said: “Masterpieces cannot be mass-produced in the cinema, like tractors in a factory.” They proposed that the studios leave film production to the filmmakers. In order to do this, however, the independents would need to break up the studio monopolies that controlled 95 per cent of all film production, distribution, and exhibition.
“One of the reasons why SIMPP was able to succeed against the studios where others had failed,” Aberdeen explains, “is because these movie-makers were essentially Hollywood insiders. Many of them had worked at the major companies before becoming independents. They certainly were not what you would call 'art-house' filmmakers. SIMPP producers independently made big budget pictures like ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’.”
Most of the SIMPP producers were also household names. Their mission was to use their notoriety to attract public attention to the studio monopolies that lurked behind the Hollywood glamour facade. SIMPP staged a number of momentous publicity stunts with the same kind of showmanship that the filmmakers put into their movies.
One example was in 1944 when the society fought against the Fox theater chain that dominated Northern California and Nevada. When independent producer Sam Goldwyn refused the paltry price offered by Fox, SIMPP helped the producer turn a local Nevada ballroom into a temporary movie theater. The premiere of Goldwyn's film “Up in Arms” became a media event that was broadcast live from Reno. This gave SIMPP producers Mary Pickford, Walt Disney, and Orson Welles air time to tell the country about their problems as they railed against the studio system. With such a costly maneuver, Goldwyn could never have hoped to make money from his makeshift theater. Instead the incident brought the Hollywood monopoly war into the living rooms of America, and helped accelerate the government antitrust actions in court.
The independent society also waged an all-out war on the controversial studio practice known as “block booking.” Under block booking deals, the studios sold their films in packages on an all-or-nothing basis, forcing theaters to take the good films with the bad.
Block booking was objectionable to the independent producers for several reasons. In the first place, according to SIMPP, block booking encouraged cheap filmmaking since the emphasis was on quantity rather than quality. Moreover, many independent producers distributed their films through the major studio exchanges. To the producers' horror, the studios would package independent films with studio B-pictures, so that each independent film had to carry several studio pictures as box office deadweight.
The studios considered block booking to be the only logical way to sell films to the national market. Many studio bosses said that the studio system could not survive unless block booking existed. However, the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers objected to block booking of any kind, calling it “the root of all evil in the motion picture industry.”
SIMPP held discussions on network radio to fight block booking. They sent reports to the press showing the detrimental effects of selling films in blocks. They also mailed letters to the most powerful politicians in the country (and then forwarded copies of the letters to the national media). In court, SIMPP helped prove that block booking violated antitrust laws, until finally the practice was declared illegal. To this day, block booking has been outlawed in the United States. As an example, in 1977 when 20th Century-Fox tried to use George Lucas’ “Star Wars” to block book their studio films, the courts nailed Fox with a stiff penalty.
SIMPP also recruited new members, not just producers but also prominent directors and even some actors who wanted to defect from the major studios to make film with creative autonomy. Some of the famous names who joined SIMPP were John Huston, James Cagney, Constance Bennett, Bing Crosby, Stanley Kramer, Preston Sturges, and Howard Hughes. Generations of filmmakers learned how to set up their own independent production companies from the founders of SIMPP.
Aberdeen's book “Hollywood Renegades” shows that SIMPP had a significant voice in many of the issues that shaped the industry, such as the Hollywood blacklist and studio censorship. In fact, the rating system as we know it today was originated by Sol Lesser one of the stalwart members of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. The Society was also ahead of its time in 1951 when it tried unsuccessfully to get pay television adopted by the FCC so that uninterrupted movies could be shown in American households.
SIMPP's defining moment came in 1948 during the Supreme Court Paramount case when the courts declared the studios guilty of violating antitrust laws. The government ordered the studios to sell their massive theater holdings and to refrain from anticompetitive practices. Aberdeen agrees with many historians that the Paramount case signaled the end of the studio era, and opened up the door for independent production in Hollywood.
As the studio system steadily declined, the independent producers began to steer the course of the movie industry. Without block booking, the studios drastically cut back on film production and concentrated primarily on distribution. As a result the studios depended more on independent films. Before SIMPP, independent productions comprised less than five per cent of all Hollywood features. By the end of the 1950s, the independent producers supplied over half of all major studio films. Today, over 80 per cent of Hollywood studio releases are independent productions, made in the same manner SIMPP championed years ago.
So what happened the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers? Based on the original SIMPP records uncovered by J. A. Aberdeen, the independent producers remained united only as long as they had a common enemy. Once the studio system was eliminated, the producers argued about the direction of the society, and about the overall mission of independent production.
Some of the more powerful producers like Walt Disney and David O. Selznick became more like the studios in an effort to become completely independent. Others like Orson Welles concentrated on more personal films and unconventional subjects.
Without a clear objective, the society degenerated into a group of temperamental, idiosyncratic, self-seeking film producers. “In the end, you could say that their downfall was that they were too independent to form a cohesive unit,” Aberdeen concludes. In “Hollywood Renegades,” Aberdeen fascinatingly recounts the inside story of the demise of SIMPP.
Toward the end of the 1950s, many of the SIMPP members dropped out leaving Walt Disney to become the guiding force behind the independent organization. The group became less active until 1963 when, with little fanfare, the Walt Disney studio took over the remnants of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers.
Aberdeen says that the independent struggle from a half century ago has proven surprisingly relevant to the film industry today. (Aberdeen is married to a member of the DreamWorks SKG production team.) The author observes a pattern in the cinema. “Throughout the history of the cinema, we see this constant trend of independent companies growing up to ultimately become major corporations. Paramount, Warner Bros. and all the major studios were all once independents who fought the status quo at one time,” Aberdeen says. “It seems ironic, but certainly typical as well, that the Walt Disney Company, one of the largest and most diverse media companies in Hollywood today, once began as an independent operation by a producer who opposed movie monopolization.”