production, as practiced by SIMPP, meant that a producer would operate a
company that would enter into a distribution deal with a Hollywood studio,
but remain off of the studio payroll. The filmmakers would finance their
own movies, develop their own projects, hire their own talent, and make
their own films without any studio interference. When film production was
complete, then a major studio would serve as distributor, charging a fee
(usually between 15 and 35 percent of the box office), and the independent
producer would receive a share of the profits.
All save one of the founding members of SIMPP are represented in this
photo of the United Artists producers in February 1936. Left to right: Charles
Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn, Jock Whitney, David O. Selznick, Mary Pickford,
Walter Wanger, Jesse L. Lasky, Douglas Fairbanks, and Roy Disney.
These independent producers of old Hollywood were not art-house
filmmakers nor champions of avant-garde cinema. They were showmen; their
specialty was the “prestige picture”—the A-class movie with large
budgets and high profit potential. Unlike the major Hollywood film
factories that released upwards of 50 features each year, the independent
producers concentrated on only one or two annual releases, leaving the
independents in a far more vulnerable position than the large studios
which could absorb the costs of a box office bomb.
“There are two kinds of producers,” Sam Goldwyn explained.
“One is a film manufacturer who turns out many pictures, some of them
good, more of them not so good. I once tried being a film manufacturer but
I didn’t like it. There were too many pictures going out under my name
which were not satisfactory to me. Since then, I’ve tried to be the
other kind of producer, making fewer pictures but each one the best I
could make it.”
When David O. Selznick went independent, he told his partners,
“It is my opinion, generally speaking, and from long observation, that
there are only two kinds of merchandise that can be made profitably in
this business—either the very cheap pictures or the expensive pictures.
. . . If we don’t deliver really topnotch product, we are not going to
get terms and we are going to take a terrible beating after the first few
pictures. There is no alternative open to us but to attempt to compete
with the very best.”
Most of the producers believed that prestige film production was
the only way they could distinguish their material. “I can’t afford to
make a cheap picture,” Alexander Korda, with his characteristic whimsy,
was fond of saying. The independents produced only a fraction of
Hollywood’s total films, but their batting average generated a
high-profile reputation among their peers, and their films have become
A case in point was 1939, the year which was known for its
top-flight Hollywood studio classics including The Wizard of Oz
(MGM), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia), Union Pacific
(Paramount), and Dark Victory (Warner). But among the year’s most
significant releases were out-of-house productions, by those who, two
years later, would found the Society of Independent Motion Picture
Producers: Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights, Walter Wanger’s Stagecoach,
and David O. Selznick’s epic paragon Gone With the Wind. Amidst
formidable competition, their films were remarkable both as blockbusters
and cinematic benchmarks.
In old Hollywood, just as in modern Hollywood, there were any
number of independent-type arrangements, and the various terms fluctuated
considerably. In some cases, the independent deals involved financing from
the distributor or the use of the studio backlot, which meant that independence
was a relative ideal. Walter Wanger facetiously defined an independent
producer as someone who is dependent on the banks, the press, the
distributors, and ultimately the public. Even as independents, the SIMPP
producers worked alongside the major studios, frequently borrowed from the
studio pools of movie stars, and depended heavily on the studio-owned
theater chains. Though they operated within the industry mainstream, they
flaunted their production freedom from the studio system and continually
sought to undermine the vertically-integrated corporations.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the independent movement tested the
limitations the studio system, but the Hollywood giants proved resilient.
Part of the difficulty in bringing monopoly charges against the major
studios was that the Big Eight stranglehold did not appear as dominant on
paper as it was in practice. Only five of the Big Eight owned their own
theater chains, for a combined total of about 16 percent of all of the
domestic movie theaters. However, the studios turned this minority share
into an exhibition monopoly by concentrating their theater holdings in key
metropolitan areas which generated the most revenue. In 1939, the
Hollywood studios controlled 126 of the nation’s 163 most prestigious
first run theaters. Furthermore, the Big Eight companies showed
preference to each other’s films, allowing them to suppress competition.
This gave the major studios the power to arbitrarily shut out any outside
filmmaker, independent or otherwise. A big budget independent film was
considered a doomed venture without a Big Eight distribution deal. Even
the banks refused to loan money to a production company unless the
producer secured a major distribution contract first.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, the independent producers were
criticized for their close ties to the studios, and frequently were
brought under the same condemnation as the Big Eight. After all, some of
the most high-profile SIMPP members were founders and/or owners of United
Artists, one the major distributors. Critics of SIMPP claimed that
“independent producer” was a self-styled term that misrepresented the
true relationship between the filmmakers and the studios. To complicate
the situation, the trade publications applied the designation
“independent” in a rather loose fashion, often to describe a studio
filmmaker or performer whose contract provided some amount of creative
The independents did not condemn film studios per se; they despised
the studio system which made assembly line films and
engendered monopoly control. This self-contradiction became a unique
dynamic of the SIMPP movement. The producers professed their autonomy from
the studio system but maintained close ties with the major distributors in
a resentful manner. Consequently, the independent producers spent a great
deal of effort trying to distance themselves from the
vertically-integrated Hollywood giants. The creation of SIMPP helped
the independents to disassociate themselves from the film oligopoly and
project an image of defiance in the industry.
The Society believed that its mission was logical: that films
should be made, marketed, and shown as individual works—creatively
overseen by a single individual. SIMPP sought to make independent
production, rather than studio filmmaking, the new paradigm for Hollywood.
To do so would require the upheaval of the studio system.
Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers had its origin in the
Hollywood antitrust case that enveloped the American film industry in the
late 1930s. Acting upon repeated complaints from independent producers and
small theater-owners, the United States Department of Justice initiated an
antitrust suit against the eight major studios in July 1938. The attorney
general accused the studios of creating an illegal conspiracy in restraint
of trade by monopolizing production, distribution, and exhibition. The
suit, one of the largest antitrust cases ever filed by the government
against an industry, took its name after the biggest of the eight
defendants, and became known as the Paramount case [United
States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. et al, 334 U.S. 131 (1948)].
The eight majors were divided into two groups. The theater-owning
companies, known as the Big Five, were Paramount Pictures Inc., Loew’s
Inc. (parent company of MGM), Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation,
Warner Bros. Pictures Inc., and RKO-Radio Pictures Inc. The Little
Three—Universal Pictures Company Inc., Columbia Pictures Corporation,
and United Artists Corporation—did not own theaters, but were alleged
co-conspirators who upheld a supporting role in the industry, completed
the oligopoly, and claimed a portion of the film bounty. The Justice
Department demanded that the eight studios cease all anti-competitive
practices and that the Big Five “divest themselves of all interest and
ownership, both direct and indirect, in theatres and theatre holdings.”
With the Hollywood studios on one side, and the independent
producers, small theater owners, and U.S. government on the other,
industry conflict continued to intensify as the case proceeded to trial in
1940. The independent producers awaited the studio system’s day of
reckoning, and were stunned when, only one week into preliminary
arguments, the studios cut a deal with the government.
Known as the Consent Decree of 1940, the agreement between the Big
Five and the Justice Department permitted the studios to keep their
theater chains in exchange for the studios’ promise to limit certain
monopolistic practices. Eager to avoid a lengthy trial with potentially
devastating effects, the studios successfully launched the first of a long
series of compromises and stall tactics that postponed the independents’
triumph for over ten years.
Although several key independent producers participated in the
early stages of the antitrust case, the Paramount suit before World
War II had focused primarily on the woes of the independent
exhibitors—the theater chains which were not affiliated with the
Hollywood studios. To the independent producers, the advent of a consent
decree proved that they could not trust the government and the independent
theaters to enact a judgement equitable to all independent parties. The
situation worsened when the independent exhibitor organizations grew
dissatisfied with the Consent Decree of 1940, and began to make their own
deal with the Big Five—to the disadvantage of the independent producers.
Alienated by their exhibitor allies, and with the antitrust case
reaching a standstill, the independent producers combined to form the
Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. Organized secretly in
1941, then publicly announced in early 1942, the group intended to do
collectively what no independent producer could do as a maverick—end the
Hollywood studio monopoly of the American film industry.
Most of the SIMPP founders had years of filmmaking experience
fighting for creative and economic freedom. When they joined together in
their collective effort, some of the producers were at the peak of their
influence in Hollywood, while others were at important crossroads in their
Charlie Chaplin, the screen’s most highly-regarded comedian, was
also one of the most versatile talents in Hollywood. As writer, director,
and actor, he had grown accustomed to lavishing years of painstaking
effort on each of his features. As independent producer, Chaplin worked at
his own pace without having to answer to any studio boss. His pioneering
achievements in independent production showed other artists how to use
their own companies to maintain complete creative control.
Walt Disney, the cartoon filmmaker from the midwest, established
his studio as Hollywood’s preeminent animation house with an
uncompromising attitude toward independence that gave him the freedom to
take the animated cartoon to artistic and commercial prominence. Disney
overturned box office figures with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
(1937), and, during Hollywood’s golden age, was one of the most
venerated and decorated filmmakers in the American cinema.
Samuel Goldwyn, the oldest producer of the group, was one of the
founding fathers of Hollywood, and an instrumental figure in the early
history of both Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He opted out of the
studio executive class, motivated in part by his “lone wolf” nature as
well as his inability to deal with partners. A one-time Hollywood mogul
archetype, he reinvented himself as an independent producer, forming a
production company that became the model for the independents who
Hungarian cosmopolitan Alexander Korda was one of Hollywood’s
promising imported directors who turned his back on the American studio
system to become an empire-builder overseas. Settling in London, he
intended to make his independent production company the most important
studio outside the United States, before setting out again to conquer
Mary Pickford was one of the screen’s most remarkable figures who
embraced a mixture of acting presence, filmmaking ability, and astute
business aptitude that was almost otherworldly. She used her screen idol
status to become her own producer, and ultimately her own company boss,
while remaining one of the most outspoken proponents of independent
David O. Selznick was the son of industry pioneer Lewis J.
Selznick, and the beneficiary of a childhood immersion in independent film
production. Working within the major Hollywood studios, he became a
supervisor, and later studio production head, before heading his own
independent production company.
Walter Wanger, a tweed-suited college graduate with a background in
theater, also successfully worked his way up the studio chain of command
before getting out at the top. His style and mannerisms evoked the image
of consummate Hollywood film producer, and lent itself well to both his
studio occupation and his independent producer mantra.
The final founding member of SIMPP was Orson Welles, then a virtual
newcomer to the film industry. The writer-director-actor attained
unprecedented public attention in theater and radio. Then, at age 24
Welles produced his extraordinary film debut Citizen Kane (1941).
He was a skilled producer and an influential member of SIMPP, but his
revolutionary film directing has overshadowed his many important
contributions to the industry.
The formation of the Society of Independent Motion Picture
Producers became a turning point in the Paramount antitrust case.
SIMPP lobbied within the industry, and recruited other producers who tired
of the studio restraints, including Howard Hughes, Hal Roach, Leo McCarey,
Sol Lesser, James Cagney, Bing Crosby, John Huston, Preston Sturges, Sam
Spiegel, and Stanley Kramer. Gradually the focus of the Paramount
case shifted away from the independent exhibitors as SIMPP began to steer
the events of the antitrust suit in favor of the independent producers.
They continually petitioned the government during the trial, but
concluded that the most effective way to impel change would be to take the
case to the people. The SIMPP founders used their household-name status as
a weapon against the studios—gobbling up headlines, attracting attention
from national media, and generating public awareness of the leviathan
behind the Hollywood glitter machine.
SIMPP also waged an all-out war on the most controversial old-time
studio practice known as block booking. Under block booking arrangements,
a distributor would sell its films in packages on an all-or-nothing
basis—usually requiring theaters to buy several mediocre pictures for
every desirable one. Because the studios made mass-produced films, they
also sold them in bulk.
Block booking was wholly unacceptable to the independent producers
for a number of reasons. To begin with, block booking made it difficult
for the independents to acquire film bookings when theaters were required
to purchase all the studio films they needed in a single package. But even
worse, the independents found that their films were being used by the
distributors to pawn off low-budget studio B-pictures. The producers
believed that block booking encouraged slack filmmaking by forcing
inferior films on the theaters and the moviegoers. The SIMPP members
brought this obscure practice to the fore until the courts finally
abolished block booking—which has remained illegal to this day.
SIMPP continued to intensify its antitrust activity throughout the
1940s. The group filed an amicus curiae that enabled
friend-of-the-court collaboration between the Society and the Justice
Department, and turned SIMPP into one of the most active participants in
the antitrust suit. The producers also hired Ellis Arnall, the
trustbusting former governor of Georgia,
to serve as Society president, bringing with him his political connections
and progressive antitrust agenda.
Finally, the 1948 Supreme Court decision provided the independent
producers with victory. The Big Eight were declared guilty of conspiracy.
The Hollywood studios were forced to sell their theater holdings, and all
film companies were prohibited from oppressive practices like block
booking. The success of the Paramount case signaled the demise of
the studio era. In the years prior to the decision, the major studios had
softened to independent production; and once block booking and theater
owning were eliminated, the studios turned to the independent producers
for their films. By the mid-1950s, the majority of major distributor
releases were provided by independent production companies, as SIMPP had
envisioned years earlier.
Interestingly, following the disintegration of the studio system,
SIMPP itself unexpectedly declined. Though SIMPP helped make independent
production the dominant form of filmmaking in Hollywood, ironically the
movement grew too rapidly, and SIMPP as an organization did not expand
accordingly. The Society’s influence was undeniable, and its triumph
over the studio system was monumental, but the independent producers
lacked cohesion. Without the antitrust fight to unify the organization,
the members lapsed into their natural state as stubborn, idiosyncratic,
and disagreeable partners. After the studio opposition collapsed, the
independent organization eroded, going from industry headline to film
history footnote. In 1958 as the last of the major studio theaters chains
was completing divestiture, SIMPP operations were curtailed and absorbed
by one of the most successful independents, Walt Disney Productions.
for Hollywood Renegades is based on documents that have remained
unpublished in the years since the demise of SIMPP. The author has
uncovered extensive SIMPP material among the collections of the founding
members, particularly David O. Selznick, Mary Pickford, Walter Wanger, and
Walt Disney. Original court records also helped flesh out the history of
the organization from an antitrust standpoint. The trade publications and
numerous publicity events of the SIMPP members have proved valuable by
illustrating the influence of SIMPP in the public arena. The sheer amount
of exposure the Society received within the industry and in national
publications of its day has made the forgotten nature of the group even
more fascinating from a historical perspective.
While some of the works of past biographers mention the
trustbusting efforts of individual producers, no previous film history has
studied the collective efforts of the independents who joined together to
protest the studio system. Hollywood Renegades discusses the steps
that the SIMPP members took to end the studio lock on American film
The existence of SIMPP allowed the producers to romanticize their
position in Hollywood history, as most of them viewed their struggle with
the studio system on an epic scale worthy of a scenario from one of their
own films. While many of the non-antitrust activities have been outlined
in this book—such as the blacklist, censorship, and the advent of
television—Hollywood Renegades focuses on the monopoly war that
served as the primary objective of the SIMPP organization. The history of
the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers provides a revealing
look at the independent film movement and the transition of the American
cinema away from the studio era.
The story of SIMPP also demonstrates a common historical
pattern (and one of the most potent ironies about independent
filmmaking)—the inevitable tendency of the independent victors to
replace a defeated monopoly with a new monopoly of their own. Even the
major studios all once had renegade roots. The studio czars who resisted
SIMPP were all former independents themselves. Adolph Zukor, William Fox,
and Carl Laemmle were one-time trustbusters who battled the Motion Picture
Patents monopoly organized under Thomas Edison in 1908. A generation
before SIMPP, “outlaw” independent companies like Paramount, Fox, and
Universal moved out west, established Hollywood, and then went on to
create an even more sophisticated monopoly that discriminated against
Hollywood Renegades traces the history of the independent
movement back to the silent era in order to elaborate on the rise and fall
of monopolies which characterized SIMPP. Chapter 2 provides this overview,
without being overly meticulous, while chapters 3 and 4 discuss the
antitrust setting that led to the formation of the Society of Independent
Motion Picture Producers in chapter 5.
This book also discusses the manner in which the studios themselves
adopted the ideology of the SIMPP producers. By adjusting to the methods
of the independents, the studios reemerged in conglomerate fashion. The
author argues that the independent movement led by SIMPP provided the
blueprint for the rise of the diverse media companies of modern Hollywood,
as embodied in the corporate progeny of SIMPP founder Walt Disney. Hollywood
Renegades also shows that certain trends, like the rise of the
blockbuster-driven industry mentality and the application of corporate
synergy, are not recent entertainment developments, but ones which were
popularized years earlier by the SIMPP producers.
While brief career profiles the SIMPP members are provided
throughout the text of this book, Hollywood Renegades avoids the
anecdotal filmmaking exploits of each producer in the interest of focusing
on new historical information concerning the Society of Independent Motion
Picture Producers. For readers who desire more specifics on the filmmakers
featured in this book, the author’s supplementary research material has
been collected by the publisher Cobblestone Entertainment on its website
located at http://www.cobbles.com.
The online SIMPP database is provided free of charge to promote
film scholarship on the independent movement of the cinema. The website
provides sources and additional information on many other aspects of this
vast and fascinating topic which could hardly be accommodated in any one
AND SOURCES FOR CHAPTER 1:
studio control of 95 percent of film industry: Big Five, 73 percent;
Little Three, 22 percent. Conant, Antitrust in the Motion Picture
Industry, p. 44.
are two kinds": Berg, Goldwyn, p. 108.
is my opinion": David O. Selznick to John Wharton and John Hay
Whitney; Behlmer, Memo From David O. Selznick, p. 100.
can’t afford": Kulik, Alexander Korda, p. 224.
1939, it is worthy to note, the four mentioned studio-made films The
Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Union Pacific,
and Dark Victory were all produced by former or future independents
who, at the time, were under studio contract—respectively Mervyn Le Roy,
Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, and Hal B. Wallis.
quote—"an independent producer is someone dependent upon the banks,
the trade press, the lay press, the radio critics, the theatre men,
distributors and, lastly, upon the public": Walter Wanger, "Mr.
Wanger on the Stand: The Prominent Producer Has His Say About American and
Foreign Films," NYT, May 15, 1938, sec. X, p. 4.
Big Five controlled 2,600 theaters (about 16 percent of the domestic
theaters) with 126 of the 163 first-run theaters (about 77 percent on the
first-run market) in the largest 25 metropolitan areas: Huettig, Economic
Control of the Motion Picture Industry, pp. 6, 77.
financing contingent upon a Big Eight distribution agreement: Donald M.
Nelson, "The Independent Producer," The Annals of the
American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 254 (November
1947), p. 49.
Justice Department initiates the Paramount suit; "divest themselves
of all interest": "Big Film Concerns Accused In U.S. Suit of
Acting As Trust," NYT, July 21, 1938, p. 1.