1892 Numerous photographic innovations appeared prior to the 20th Century, one being French Inventor Leon Bouly’s Cinématographe; designed to film, develop and project moving pictures. Eadweard Muybridge and Thomas Edison had been experimenting with moving pictures, but the Cinématographe patent was purchased by cinema’s first independent filmmakers, the Lumiere Brothers, who held film screenings in 1895.
1902 – 1910 Science Fiction Cinema is born with French Filmmaker Georges Méliés’s landmark independent movie, “A Trip to the Moon.” 16 minutes long, it was one of the first uses of special effects and animation, generating the famous image of the moon with a rocket ship in his eye. Edwin Porter released his innovative and successful film, “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903, heralding film as commercially viable entertainment.
Charles Tait put Australia on the Map of independent films with “The Story of the Kelly Gang” in 1906, releasing the first feature length movie. 1910 saw the release of the first African American independent film, William Foster’s “The Railroad Porter”, as well as the first film shot in Hollywood, D.W. Griffith’s “In Old California”.
1912 – 1915 A conglomeration of film studios, distributors, and Eastman Kodak called The Edison Trust held a monopolistic production system through the Motion Picture Patents Company. Filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith, had already begun relocation to California, making it difficult for the Edison Trust to enforce Patents. The Edison Trust disbanded and Kodak’s patent on film stock was ended. The early California filmmakers made Independent films that set the foundations of Hollywood studios.
1914 Charlie Chaplin introduces his iconic character, The Tramp, in “Kid Auto Races at Venice”, produced through the independent Keystone Studios. Italy also begins its extensive contribution to cinema with Giovanni Pastrone’s epic “Cabiria”; a film as innovative as it was controversial; it influenced Hollywood’s D.W. Griffith.
1915 D.W. Griffith released his groundbreaking film, “The Birth of a Nation”. Although it was an independent production, it set the standards for Hollywood feature films. The film was independently produced and financed on an astonishing budget of $112,000, but became the world’s highest grossing film, not surpassed until Disney’s “Snow White” in 1937.
1919 The Hollywood film industry grew by leaps and bounds, but filmmakers like D.W. Griffith once again feared studios had grown too powerful. Griffith joined fellow luminaries, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain and Douglas Fairbanks, forming America’s first independent film studio, United Artists. Meanwhile a truly independent film was being made by African American author and director Oscar Micheaux, “The Homesteader”, which he wrote, co-directed and produced.
1920 – 1929 While Hollywood churned out feature films, European filmmakers produced more experimental fare. The advent of Film Societies in Europe supported early independent films. While many of these films were produced at National film studios, filmmakers like Germany’s Robert Wiene (“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, 1920), F.W. Murnau (“Nosferatu”, 1922) and Fritz Lang (“Metropolis” 1927) Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein (“The Battleship Potemkin”, 1925), France’s Abel Gance (“Napoléon”, 1927), Spain’s Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali (“Un Chien Andalou”, 1929), were innovating filmmaking.
1929 – 1939 Sound made its way into movie theaters and in 1929 a young filmmaker directed the first British talkie, and went on to become the master of suspense. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”, tackled some explicit content, a trend continually seen in world cinema. This included another experimental film from Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, “L’Age d’Or”, released in Paris in 1930, then the 1933 Czech film “Ecstasy” from Gustav Machaty’s put the first lovemaking on-screen, and China’s Wu Yonggang’s 1934 silent movie “The Goddess” humanized prostitution.
In 1939 French filmmaker Jean Renoir released his masterful movie, “The Rules of the Game”, which prior to later masterpieces from Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, was the first “Greatest film of all time” claim.
1941 – 1948 Hollywood’s Golden Age was also a time when Film studios grew monopolies; owning production, distribution and movie theaters. The chain was broken when the United Artists gang, including Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplain, Walt Disney, Orson Welles, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda, formed the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. While these producers were involved with the major studios, their independence prevailed by filing an antitrust suit to dismantle the movie monopolies.
1943 Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti makes his debut with “Ossessione” regarded as the first Italian Neorealist film. The Neorealists utilized street actors in realistic narrative and dialogue; films such as Roberto Rossellini’s 1946 “Roma, città aperta” (Open City) and Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “The Bicycle Thief “(Ladri di biciclette) influenced a great deal of independent filmmaking. Federico Fellini was a writer for Rossellini on “Roma…” and he went on to make several groundbreaking films.
1950 Two world wars had ravaged the planet, and cinema in Europe, Asia and America were nationalistic. The Hollywood studios dominated, Europe and Asia still produced state funded films, and innovation was scarce. Yet, Art House films still circulated and a young Japanese filmmaker named Akira Kurosawa gave the world one of the most influential films of all time, “Rashomon”. Not only did the film’s techniques and multiple point-of-view narrative astound the art house crowd, it exposed a generation of independent filmmakers to Kurosawa’s vast influence.
1951 Director Howard Hawks had made quite a name for himself in Hollywood, but as an independent filmmaker he produced a landmark film, “The Thing from Another World”. His feature independent film tapped into cold war paranoia by being the first Alien Invasion movie and taught America how to “Watch the skies.” That same year saw the release of Hollywood’s alien invasion with, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
1953 A little American independent film from Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin and Ray Abrashkin called “Little Fugitive”, influenced the French New Wave movement with its naturalistic shooting and narrative style. The film was also the first independent movie to receive an Oscar nomination.
1959 It was a year of aesthetic breakthroughs for independent film. John Cassavetes’s “Shadows”, was a defining moment of American Independent cinema that used improvised performances and realism never before seen. Francois Truffaut’s film, “The 400 Blows”, kicked off the French New Wave, picking up where Italian Neorealists left off.
1960 Francois Truffaut gave his compatriot, Jean-Luc Goddard a running start by offering the filmmaker a brief scenario which became Goddard’s “Breathless”. Goddard’s style became the essence of indie filmmaking, writing dialogue just before takes and shooting guerilla style on Paris streets. Together with “The 400 Blows” and Alain Resnais’s1959 “Hiroshima mon amour”, “Breathless” defined the French New Wave.
Truffaut also raved about a filmmaker across the Atlantic, giving Alfred Hitchcock his critical due to match his commercial success. Hitchcock released his essentially independent film, “Psycho”; technically a “B-movie” distributed by Paramount. “B” was the lingering term once used for the bottom half of double features, but became known as low-budget features. The 60s saw a B-Movie boom; with exploitation films, actions films, horror movies…basically anything independent that wasn’t pornography or avant-garde.
Look for Part 2 of this history of Independent Film (1960 – 2010)