Phil Hall | The History of Independent Cinema

book_ind-cinema.jpgThe border between independent and studio production has always been permeable, and from the earliest years of film people have gone back and forth between the two worlds.







301 pages. Albany, Ga: Bear Manor Media, 2009. $21.95 (paperback)

If you want to start a lively discussion, ask a few of your cinematically inclined friends to define independent film. If you want to turn the discussion into a brawl, ask them to specify what an independent film should be. Although we’re living in something of a golden age of independent film—digital video has made it possible for just about anyone to make their own film, and they’ve been doing just that: In 2008, almost 4,000 films were submitted to Sundance, and the internet is positively swarming with video content—it’s not easy to get people to agree on what an independent film is, let alone what qualities should be displayed by a "true" independent.

Wisely steering clear of prescription, Phil Hall defines an independent film as one made outside the studio system. This is a broad but useful definition allows him to trace the history of the independent film from the very beginning of the medium up to the present day, and to include everything from industrials to Andy Warhol. So if you think indie film began with Easy Rider, I recommend that you check out Hall’s The History of Independent Cinema. You may not agree with his definition of independent cinema but you’ll almost certainly learn a few things along the way. Hall limits his discussion to U.S. films, and pornography is not included in this volume’s scope (which is fine; there are plenty of other books devoted to both topics).

The border between independent and studio production has always been permeable, and from the earliest years of film people have gone back and forth between the two worlds. For instance, Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor, who would go on to found Universal Pictures and Paramount Pictures, respectively, started out as independent producers. Laemmle was a wholesaler who began making his own films to avoid paying the fees charged by Thomas Edison’s Motion Pictures Patents Company, while Zukor got into the business after making a killing exhibiting the French import Queen Elizabeth (starring Sarah Bernhardt) in a rented Broadway theater (making him a pioneer in the fine old practice of four-walling). For that matter, D.W. Griffith produced Birth of a Nation independently, between his careers at Biograph and United Artists.

Hall moves on in succeeding chapters to cover independents in the 1930s and early 1940s (the chapter is appropriately titled "Parallel Worlds," as this is commonly termed the Golden Era of Hollywood) and minority films (e.g., those made specifically for a African-American or Yiddish-speaking audience), indie film in the era of the Hollywood antitrust decision and the birth of television, underground films (Manhatta to Maya Deren to today), documentaries (noting that many well-known documentaries, including some Oscar winners, had more than a little fiction in them), and the digital era (which dates back to the 1964, surprisingly enough). All in all, there’s a wealth of information in this volume, and it’s an excellent corrective to film histories which concentrate on the output of the major studios.

Salted throughout The History of Independent Cinema are "top 10" lists in which various filmmakers, authors and editors specify what they think are the most important independent films of all time. It’s an inspired idea and sure to spark a few discussions, which is really the point anyway, right? Agreement is so boring. Contributors to this feature include Eric Stanze (Savage Harvest, Ice From the Sun, Scrapbook), Charles Pappas (It’s a Bitter Little World), Dennis Schwartz (Ozus’ World Movie Reviews), Matthew Sorrento (, Michael Legge (Loons, The Dungeon of Dr. Dreck), Christopher Null ( and Antero Alli (The Drivetime, Crux, The Greater Circulation). | Sarah Boslaugh

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