When the so-called independents successfully bucked the MPPC and became the ruling cartel in the film business, independent cinema became the province of small outfits making movies for small and specific target audiences. For example, as early as 1915, Noble Johnson's (1881–1978) Lincoln Film Company produced films made by and for African American audiences. These so-called "race films," like those directed by the entrepreneurial auteur Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951) (who went door to door to raise money to shoot his movies), played in select urban venues and on the "chitlin circuit" (venues in the Southeast where daily life featured a strict racial segregation). Another alternative independent cinema, Yiddish films, emerged to serve the many Eastern European immigrants in the urban northeast. Featuring dialogue in Yiddish, a language that combines elements of German and Hebrew and was spoken by many first-generation Jewish immigrants, these films had their own stars and exhibition venues. Over forty Yiddish language "talkies" were made between 1930 and 1950.
After the advent of sound, the studios standardized the film program. Going to the movies in the 1930s routinely involved seeing an A (big budget) and a B (low budget) feature, along with a newsreel, perhaps another live-action short (often a comedy) and/or a cartoon. The studios made their own B movies, which were distributed primarily to fill out a bill headlined by the studio's A attraction.
As demand for films to fill out double bills increased, smaller film companies emerged, giving rise to "Poverty Row." Most of the Poverty Row companies were head-quartered in Gower Gulch, a small area in Hollywood that was home to the soon-to-be-major studio Columbia, as well as a handful of well-organized and financed smaller studios such as Republic, Monogram, Grand National, Mascot, Tiffany, and some more transient production outfits like Peerless, Reliable, Syndicate, Big-Four, and Superior. The Poverty Row companies filled out film bills with inexpensive formulaic genre pictures. Though far less ambitious than the bigger studios, they made films faster than their better financed counterparts. Speed proved a distinct advantage when responding to fads, such as the singing cowboy rage in the mid-1930s. Republic was quick to exploit the fad with films featuring Gene Autry (1907–1998), such as Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935), and Grand National banked on their singing cowpoke Tex Ritter (1905–1974) in Sing, Cowboy, Sing (1937). The B western was extremely popular in the 1930s, as were cowboy stars such as Johnny Mack (1904–1974), Harry Carey (1878–1947), Hoot Gibson (1892–1962), Tom Mix (1880–1940), and the soon-to-be A-list movie star, John Wayne (1907–1979).
B action-adventure films were made to take advantage of the popularity of a previous studio film or current radio show. For example, Republic made an adventure film set in India titled Storm Over Bengal (1938), after Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) were successful for the major studios. Grand National produced a series of films featuring "The Shadow," a character on a popular radio suspense show. A tendency to reflect (writ small) the work being produced at the major studios dominated independent B-movie production at the time, suggesting a dependence on (rather than independence from) the studios for raw material. This commitment to simple genre entertainment mirrored the less ambitious aspects of studio filmmaking. Thus the notion that B-movie studios provided an alternative to studio fare seems, at least in the studio era, inaccurate.
In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in New York held a retrospective tribute to the producer Samuel Z. Arkoff and his company American International Pictures (AIP). At the time, Arkoff seemed an unlikely choice for such an honor. For well over twenty years in the film business he had clung to a single guiding principle: "Thou shalt not put too much money into any one picture." The sorts of films he produced at AIP were as far from the high art world of the museum as one could imagine.
A quick look at Arkoff's oeuvre at AIP between 1954 and 1979 presents daunting evidence of his success as a purveyor of a particular sort of teen-oriented exploitation cinema. He made over 500 films, including The Fast and the Furious (1954) , The Day the World Ended (Roger Corman, 1956), Hot Rod Girl (1956), Shake, Rattle and Rock (1956), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), The Cool and the Crazy (1958), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), Beach Party 1963), Dementia 13 (1963), Summer Holiday (1963), The T.A.M.I. Show 1965), The Wild Angels (1966), What's Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), The Trip (1967), Wild in the Streets (1968), Three in the Attic (1968), Bloody Mama (1970), The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Boxcar Bertha (1972), Blacula (1972), Dillinger (1973), The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976), and following the sale of AIP to Filmways, Love at First Bite (1979), The Amityville Horror (1979), and Dressed to Kill (1980).
With his long-time partner James Nicholson, Arkoff, a lawyer by training but a huckster by instinct, clung to a simple template, the so-called "A.R.K.O.F.F. formula": A ction (excitement and drama), R evolution (controversial or revolutionary ideas), K illing (or at least a degree of violence), O ratory (memorable speeches and dialogue), F antasy (popular dreams and wishes acted out), and F ornication (sex appeal, to both men and women). Though best known today for the Beach Party films (1963–1965) and his adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories (all directed by Roger Corman between 1960–1965), Arkoff should be remembered more for the opportunities he provided over the years to talented writers, directors and actors struggling to make it in Hollywood, including Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Peter Yates, Woody Allen, Robert Towne, Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Jack Nicholson. AIP films inevitably bore the Arkoff stamp, no matter who wrote, directed, or starred in the feature. Though he never directed a film, Samuel Z. Arkoff was one of the most prolific and influential independent filmmakers of the twentieth century.
The Fast and the Furious (1954), The Day the World Ended (1956), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), Beach Party (1963), The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967), Wild in the Streets (1968), Three in the Attic (1968)
Arkoff, Samuel Z. with Richard Trubo. Flying through Hollywood by the Seat of My Pants: From the Man Who Brought You I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Music Beach Party . Secaucus, NJ: Carol, 1992.
Clark, Randall. At a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The History, Culture and Politics of the American Exploitation Film . New York: Garland, 1995.
McCarthy, Todd, and Charles Flynn, eds. Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System: An Anthology of Film History and Criticism . New York: Dutton, 1975.
Schaefer, Eric. "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.
While the B-movie studios made films to fill out programs headlined by studio A pictures in exchange for a quick, modest payoff, exploitation filmmakers like Kroger Babb (1906–1980), a savvy carnival huckster, made films that openly defied the strictures of the MPPDA production code. Kroger is best known today for his sex-hygiene film Mom and Dad (1945), which dealt with material (venereal disease and teen pregnancy) that mainstream films could not, and did so with frankness and explicitness. Because of its prurient content, Mom and Dad could not be shown as part of a larger, legitimate film program. Instead Babb traveled with his film, renting out theaters for a weekend (an arrangement called "four-walling"), and staging his own film shows. Babb advertised his shows with lurid posters (which would have been forbidden by the mainstream industry's Production Code) promising just what the studios could not deliver: "Everything shown. Everything explained." To give the show a semblance of respectability, for many of the screenings of Mom and Dad Babb hired an actor to play the part of the noted sexologist Dr. Elliot Forbes, who, after the screening, answered questions from the crowd. Like any good huckster, Babb made a lot of money by never overestimating the intelligence and taste of his audience.
Throughout its existence, exploitation cinema depended upon an apparent defiance of commercial Hollywood, a defiance signaled by its promise of material prohibited in more mainstream fare. One popular exploitation genre in the 1950s was the nudist colony film. Films such as Garden of Eden (1955), Naked As Nature Intended (1961), and World without Shame (1962) showed ample on-screen nudity, which was forbidden by the Production Code. Claiming documentary status of a sort, nudist colony films successfully challenged previous limitations on First Amendment protection for cinema. In the precedent-setting 1957 case Excelsior Pictures v. New York Board of Regents attending a New York ban on screenings of Garden of Eden , a state appeals court found that nudity per se on screen was not obscene. Such a ruling freed exploitation cinema to go even further. In 1959, the independent filmmaker Russ Meyer (1922–2004) produced The Immoral Mr. Teas , a film about a man who gets conked on the head and acquires a gift of sorts, the ability to see through women's clothing.
Meyer's film—made very much with the Excelsior decision in mind—spawned a brief new wave of independent exploitation pictures. These more visually explicit films included a variety of colorfully termed new genres: nudie cuties (suggestive, often light comedies with nudity but no touching, such as Mr. Peter's Pets , Tonight for Sure , and Adam Lost His Apple ); roughies (depicting anti-social behavior as well as nudity, as in The Defilers  and The Degenerates 1967); kinkies (with revealing titles such as Olga's House of Shame , The Twisted Sex , and Love Camp 7 ); and ghoulies (merging kink with gruesome humor, as in Satan's Bed  and Mantis in Lace ). The common element among all these independent exploiters was on-screen nudity.
Striking a less salacious note, another group of independent filmmakers in the 1950s and 1960s took aim at the burgeoning youth culture and found a ready and willing audience. Chief among the purveyors of this slightly tamer exploitation cinema were Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918–2001) and Roger Corman (b. 1926), who together and then separately released films under the American International Pictures (AIP) and New World banners. Notable among Arkoff's oeuvre as a producer and distributor of low budget exploiters are two film
With producer credit on well over 300 films in over forty years in the business working for Arkoff at AIP and then at his own company, New World Pictures, Roger Corman became the most important and most successful purveyor of low-brow independent cinema in American motion picture history. Key titles in Corman's oeuvre (in addition to those mentioned above) include his own A Bucket of Blood (1959), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and The Trip (1967), as well as Dementia 13 (1963), Francis Coppola's first film as a director.
Another important exploitation filmmaker is George Romero (b. 1940) whose series of zombie films— Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and Land of the Dead (2005)—have acquired for the director a cult status of sorts. The blood-letting in Romero's films is so extreme that many in his intended audience—young horror film fans, mostly—find them funny. Despite an almost campy appeal, terrible acting, and low-end production values, many serious critics and reviewers seem drawn to his films as well. They have found the films profoundly political, even "important," contending, for example, that Night of the Living Dead offers a commentary on race relations, with its black American hero who is hunted in the end by a white sheriff and his vigilante posse, or that Land of the Dead should be seen as a metaphor to post-9/11 hysteria. Romero is unusual among American auteurs in that he has displayed a commitment to his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he shoots and sets most of his films. Romero is one of America's few regional auteurs.
While exploitation filmmakers like Arkoff, Corman, and Romero offered an alternative, independent cinema that pushed the boundaries of good taste and resisted the strictures of content regulation, in the 1960s a group of New York filmmakers emerged offering their own independent alternative to commercial Hollywood filmmaking. The filmmakers in this so-called "New American Cinema" borrowed from avant-garde theater and visual art and from documentary cinema to produce an alternative to the escapist cinema produced on the West Coast. Filmmakers such as Robert Frank (b. 1924) and Alfred Leslie (b. 1927) ( Pull My Daisy , 1958), Michael Roemer (b. 1928) ( Nothing But a Man , 1964), Shirley Clarke (1919–1997) ( The Cool World , 1964), and most famously John Cassavetes (1929–1989) ( Shadows , 1959; Faces , 1968) made avowedly personal films with a seeming disregard for box-office appeal. Employing realist aesthetics and improvisational acting, these films provided an antidote of sorts to the fantasy world perpetuated by the mainstream studios.
Of these New York–based filmmakers, only Cassavetes enjoyed any significant crossover success. For almost three decades, Cassavetes financed his independent films in part from money he made as an actor in mainstream pictures such as Rosemary's Baby (1968) and he brought an actor's sensibility to his work. In an effort to create the impression of realism, Cassavetes asked his actors to think, talk, and behave in character. Such an emphasis on improvisation made his films seem slow and talky to the uninitiated, but they nonetheless felt "real" and packed a profound emotional punch. In addition to Faces and Shadows , notable among his films as a director are A Woman under the Influence (1964), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Gloria (1980), all films about otherwise unexceptional people brought to the end of their rope by the pressures of everyday life.
Historians routinely locate the roots of Cassavetes's rebellion against commercial Hollywood in the avantgarde cinema of the 1930s and 1940s (filmmakers like Ralph Steiner [1899–1986], Paul Strand [1890–1976], and Maya Deren [1917–1961]), but a more proximate source lay in the various, mostly thwarted efforts at independence by movie stars and directors to gain more control over their films and by extension their careers during the so-called classical or studio era. For example, James Cagney (1899–1986), one of Warners' biggest stars, bristled at continued typecasting and broke with the studio. In 1942 he established (with his brother, the producer William Cagney) Cagney Productions, an independent production outfit. Though the move gained Cagney a modicum of freedom and independence, the cost of releasing a film made a distribution deal with a studio a necessity and thus made real independence impossible. The director Fritz Lang (1890–1976) similarly broke with the studios to establish independence, but like Cagney, Lang could not get his films into the marketplace without studio help. Cassavetes seemed to learn from the frustrations of Cagney and Lang and scaled his productions down so significantly that he maintained a degree of autonomy on the far margins of the studio system.