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The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

Book Cover


The Role of the Independent Filmmaker in Hollywood

"Breaking Hollywood's 'Pattern of Sameness' "

by Frank Capra

Frank Capra - Independent producer at Liberty Film.  (Aberdeen collection). 

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An Open Letter - May 5, 1946

A change is in the making in Hollywood. It might be termed a revolution, but for the gradual manner in which it is coming about. As things are, however, it's merely a revolutionary change that is coming about so gradually that you, the movie-going public far removed from the scene of action, aren't likely to be fully aware of its force and significance for many months.

As there is no explosion, no violent upheaval, there will be no impact. You'll simply become increasingly aware of what is happening now, after it has happened and the results are in full swing. Perhaps you'll leave your neighborhood theatre one evening and remark to your companion, "Haven't we been seeing an unusual number of good pictures lately, different from the typical Hollywood product? Or am I softening up?"

You'll become aware, for example, that the pattern of sameness is no longer present. The pictures will be different. They will have individuality.

The reason behind this is the growing number of independent motion-picture producers. By way of explanation, there are two groups of motion-picture makers in Hollywood: the major studios, comprising about a half dozen huge organizations, each turning out between thirty and sixty feature films annually, and the independent producers, comprising small units of from one to four film-makers each turning out from one to five pictures a year.

For many years the independent producers have been looked down upon as shoestring operators. Except in a few rare instances, they may have been, for the most part, producers with little more than an idea and a determination to gain a foothold. Before the war there was but a handful of these independent producers. Today there is a growing number of about fifty. Their ranks have been swelled by producers and directors who have decided to break away. take the gamble, and strike out for themselves.

Most of them are experienced film-makers with records of achievement. They are men who have become aware that the phrase "a typical Hollywood product" has more meaning and significance than just a mere catch phrase. They are men willing to gamble their hard-earned savings to gain independence.

Hollywood has taken great pride for a quarter of a century in being known as "the infant industry." Its spectacular expansion has been a source of gratification to its leaders, and it has preened itself on being listed among the top American industries on each year's commercial calendar. But in the process, it has suffered severe growing pains. Big studios became bigger, and as they became bigger, their number became fewer, until just before the war it had boiled down to a half-dozen major studios. Almost the entire output of Hollywood motion-picture entertainment was flowing from the funnels of this handful of giants.

From a production standpoint, comprising the purely mechanical side of film-making, this was sound. Perfection of setting, of designing and mounting was achieved by Hollywood film-makers beyond anything that could be touched by filmmakers in any other country on the globe. In this particular department, the Hollywood product was superior, in a class by itself.

But as the product achieved this physical perfection, some place along the line—as is likely to happen in any machine operation—it lost individuality. It took on an aura of sameness which inspired the phrase "a typical Hollywood product." It is true that each major studio had as many as a hundred experienced, capable producers, writers and directors. On the face of it, with so much creative talent engaged actively in film-making, it would seem that product would surely have great individuality. With each of these producers or directors selecting stories, picking stars and players, assigning script writers, it should ordinarily follow that the mark of each producer would be evident and apparent in the finished work.

But this was not always the case, in fact, it became the exception. Mass production methods, applied so skillfully to motion pictures to achieve perfection of production, only succeeded in submerging the creative skill of the individual producer and director. As every large industrial organization has to have a head man, on whose shoulders rests the ultimate responsibility, so do each of the major studios have to have a head man, through whom all the product flows.

Had the motion picture been a product which demanded uniformity as its ultimate goal, the results would have been highly satisfactory. But unfortunately it. was, and is, a combination of mechanical perfection and creative endeavor. And in applying the mass-production yardstick to both the mechanics and the creative side of film-making, the latter became molded into a pattern.

The efforts and achievements of the individual producers and directors had to meet with the approval of each studio's chief executive. The final product had to be approved by' him before it could be released to the public. This head man became the funnel through which all effort, and the results of all effort, of fifty or more individual film-makers flowed.

Producers and directors working under him found that instead of creating as they pleased, letting their own imagination and artistry have full rein, with the public the final judge of the worth and merit of their efforts, they were of necessity obliged to make pictures for the approval of the one man at the top. Thus the creative side of film-making, from the selection of the story, the writers who would put it into script form, the casting of the players, the designing of their costumes and the sets which provided their backgrounds, the direction, the cutting and editing of the final film was tailored (consciously or unconsciously) to the tastes of the studio's head man.

Multiply this situation by a half-dozen studios and you have one potent reason for the "typical Hollywood product." A half dozen head men-a half dozen funnels through which the product flowed-deciding what the public should see, and how the product should be fashioned for 100 million weekly patrons to see.

Curiously enough, this was more the fault of the system than of the head man. This man in practically all instances was a man of tremendous talents, drive and power. The weakness lay in attempting to apply mass-production methods to the creative element as it had been applied to the physical.

There was also another factor which helped to label the product as "typically Hollywood." This could be laid at the doorstep of individuals, although it was, perhaps, an offshoot and an indirect result of the mass production pouring through the few funnels. Hollywood became increasingly self-satisfied, snug, complacent, and these characteristics became evident on the screen. Life as portrayed on the screen became a Hollywood version of how life should be lived, whether in poverty or luxury, rather than how it was actually being lived.

Hollywood began wrapping itself in a bright, tight little cocoon in which it stirred gently and moved easily in its red plush surroundings. Life, Hollywood version, began to be presented as the real McCoy. We writers, directors and producers began to get ideas not from real life, but from each other's pictures. Hollywood was isolating itself with a wall of mirrors.

During the war, films were seen in far-off places, on far-off fighting fronts, and, as a result, through new eyes. And it was there, more than any other place, that the sameness of the product made itself apparent. Because the motion picture comprised the chief medium for entertainment and relaxation, because there were no outside competing distractions, because the films themselves were looked forward to with such eagerness and enthusiasm as messages from home, the machine-like treatment of the subject matter made itself glaringly evident.

Many of the men who had been film-makers, producers, directors, scriptwriters, returned from service with a firm resolve to remedy this. Many of the film-makers who had had to remain at home had the same idea, too, and were branching out for themselves. The result is that these new independent groups of film-makers are on the increase. The film-going public of today has long been familiar with such names as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Brothers, Columbia, RKO, Universal, The film-going public has often heard too the names of such stalwart independent producers as Samuel Goldwyn, David Selznick, Hunt Stromberg, Walter Wanger, Hal Wallis.

Added to these today are those of Rainbow Productions, formed by Producer-Director Leo McCarey; Preston Sturges, Robert Riskin Productions, Liberty Films, International Pictures, formed by William Goetz and Leo Spitz; Frank Ross Productions, Cagney Productions, and many others whose names and trademarks will be familiar in the future.

Each one of these producers and directors has his own particular style of film making, his own individual ideas on subject-matter and material, and the manner in which it should be treated. And each one, on his own and responsible only to himself, will as an independent producer have the freedom and liberty to carry out these ideas in the manner he feels they should be executed.

So much for the creative side. On the commercial side, the way of the independent has been made smoother, and the financial incentive enhanced, by the lifting of block booking, a system long established by the major companies. Under this system, the large studio held a distinct advantage, as well as a mighty club, over the exhibitor. Block booking was an "all or nothing" sales policy, under which the exhibitor was obliged to commit himself for a certain portion of a studio's production, whether the films turned out to be good or bad, in order to assure himself of the handful of top films that studio could be counted upon to produce.

Fortunately for the independent producer, this system has been abolished by Government decree. Pictures must now be sold individually, standing on their own merits. Nor can they be contracted for by the distributor or the producer until the exhibitor has had an opportunity to see the actual production, and bid on it in the open market. Previously, the independent was in the position of hanging on to the tail of a gigantic distribution kite. The major movie studio could take his product or not, just as it wished.

A glance at the growing number of independent producers whose films are being sold and distributed by the sales organizations of the major studios, in addition to the regular program of productions which these studios make on their own, indicates a significant trend. Today quality spells box office for the independents or the majors.

Undoubtedly there will always be big studios. Their products will continue to bear the distinguishing talents of each of the top men who run them. These pictures will have a wide audience and, no doubt, a wide appeal. But we hope they will be divided by the individual creative efforts of the independents, of which, fortunately, I happen now to be one together with Producer-Directors William Wyler and George Stevens, and production executive Samuel J. Briskin, under the emblem, Liberty Films.

The way of the independents is hard. It is strewn with failures. But the public and the American motion-picture industry will gain by their efforts.




Open letter written by Frank Capra, printed in The New York Tlmes, May 5, 1946. Reprinted in Kozarski, Richard, ed. Hollywood Directors, 1941-1976. New York: Oxford University, 1977, pp. 83-89.

See Bibliography.


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