Friday, June 15, 2012

What is a B Movie?

By Ed Garea

We often speak of B Movies on this site, as do many film fans. But there are still fans out there unaware of the term or don’t exactly know what it means. Mention the phrase “B Movie” to any filmgoer and the first thing that pops to mind is “cheap,” which is usually equated with the term “lousy.” But, just as not all “A” productions are good, not all “B productions” are bad.

The term “B” really refers to the billing the movie received on the marquee. The more costly with bigger stars “A” production was listed on top with the lesser cost with either young rising or old fading stars listed on the bottom of the marquee. But this does not denote the quality of the movies. In fact, several “B’s” are just as good, if not better, than the “A’s” they were listed below. In fact, as this column will show in the future, many readers’ favorite movies are of the “B” variety.

The roots of the B Movie go back to the late 1920s. By the end of the Silent Era 1927-29, the cost of a major Hollywood studio production might average from $100,000 at, say Universal, to about $175,000 at Fox, and $275,000 at MGM. Rising production costs hit local independent theaters hard, which led to the formation of what later were called “Poverty Row” studios. 

Studios such as Tiffany, Mascot, Columbia (although it reorganized in 1924, it was still viewed as a Poverty Row studio), and Film Booking Office of America (FBO, which later morphed into major RKO), concentrated on productions costing usually no more than $20,000. These were aimed at independent theaters, usually in small towns or local neighborhoods in the city. A couple of these films enabled the smaller theaters to avoid what was the standard programming of the time: a couple of live acts followed by one or two shorts, and then the main feature.

Independent theaters had to rely on what was known as “block booking,” in which the theater had to buy a large amount of a studio’s film sight unseen. This system, which was invented by Paramount in 1918, basically worked accordingly: If a theater wanted a film with a bankable star, they had to acquire anywhere from 13 to 104 titles of differing quality. The star vehicles were available to be pre-screened, but the others had to rented sight unseen. This became known as “blind bidding.” The owner then received the star vehicles along with others of lower cost and quality, usually starring a rising or fading star.

With the establishment of sound in 1929, a new programming setup was established. The night’s program would now begin with a newsreel, a short, and/or serial, a cartoon, and then the double feature. The majors favored their affiliates over the independents when it came to doling out the movies. Also, as the price of block booking rose, many independent owners cut down on the number of films they bought. Thus, the indies might be able to get the latest Garbo film from MGM, but the film that usually went with it to the affiliates was not given to the independents, so they filled the gap with cheaply-made films from the lesser studios. Unlike the product from the majors, which was rented on percentage, the lesser “B” pictures were available for a flat fee. These were usually Westerns (which were also great for the Saturday and Sunday matinees, when the place was packed with kids), Horror, Mysteries, and Melodramas.

For their part, the Poverty Row studios also distributed independent productions and foreign films. Lacking the necessary financial muscle to enforce block booking, they depended on a plethora of regional distributors, called “States Rights” organizations. These, in turn, peddled the blocks of product to the exhibitors (usually about 10 or so featuring a known star that made more than one movie for the studio, such as the five “Mr. Wong” films Boris Karloff made for Monogram plus The Ape, also for the studio, making it a grand total of six) for a flat fee. If the theater was able to advertise successfully, and if the star was a favorite, the theater made a good sum from this scheme.

The main moneymaker for the Poverty Row studios, and the B-units of many of the majors as well, is a genre that has fallen into sorry neglect in recent times: the Western. Westerns were cheap and easy to make on a large scale, and went over well, especially with children at matinees. They also served as wonderful opening feature attractions for the evening’s program. Republic made its money with a plethora of Gene Autry Singing Westerns, and when Gene refused to work unless he received more money, Republic began grinding out Roy Rogers Singing Westerns without missing a pecuniary beat. Western series like the Texas Rangers for PRC, the Trail Blazers for Monogram, and The Three Mesquiteers for Republic were well-received by the public. We’ll examine this genre at length in future columns.

Life at many independently owned theaters went somewhat like this: It’s 1939, and on Monday, the “A” feature is a film that had finished its first-run at the theaters owned by the major studios, let’s say Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in 1938. For the second feature, the theater runs the new Karloff “Mr. Wong” movie. On Wednesday, the bill now consisted of 1939’s Love Affair with Irene Dunne, which had just ended its run at the Paramount theaters. Paired with that is Hitler-Beast of Berlin, a cheapie with a young Alan Ladd that was produced by Producer’s Distributing Corporation. (This studio later became Producer’s Releasing Corporation, or PRC.) On weekends, two Westerns from Monogram play around the clock on the matinee and, during the evening, another major studio production that finished its run is paired with yet another Poverty Row film. Many small town theaters never even saw an “A” film, instead getting their product exclusively from States Rights distributors.

However, two events occurred that changed the fortunes of the B Movie, and by extension, that of independent theaters.

The Regina Theater (at Wilshire and LaCienega) in Los Angeles was trying to stave off bankruptcy. So on Thursday, Aug. 5, 1938, the theater began running a triple-bill of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Son of Kong, films long out of release and practically forgotten by their studios, Universal and RKO. The theater soon was doing a booming business, running the films continuously 21 hours a day to sellout crowds. Patrons that wanted to see the film formed lines around the blocks, causing the police to be called for crowd control. Universal realized that they had smash hits on their hands, and ran 500 more prints of each movie, renting them to independent theaters around the country.

Furthermore, Universal, which had given up the horror film in 1936, now began to see the profit potential these films represented and immediately put Son of Frankenstein into production. The lesson learned by the financially-plagued studio was that it was far more profitable to make cheaper films than trying to compete with MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, RKO and Columbia in making “A” products.

The other event was on the legal level. In 1940, under pressure from the courts, the major studios agreed to limit block booking to about five film packages. Not only was this a boon to the Poverty Row studios, but it also encouraged some of the smaller majors, such as Universal, Columbia, and RKO to increase their “B” output. One of RKO’s most profitable series was the cheaply-made Val Lewton horror films. They also made profits with the Mexican Spitfire series and the Saint (and later Falcon) thrillers.

Columbia countered with the Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf series. And Universal had two of the biggest box office stars in the 40s: Abbott and Costello, in addition to the immensely-profitable Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. In addition, Universal still cranked out the popular horror films, each of which did well at the wartime box office. Fox also got into the act with its highly-profitable Charlie Chan series, which actually began in the ‘30s.

This placed pressure on the Poverty Row studios to come up with unique films of their own. They began exploring other exploitable issues, such as populated Pre-Code films of the early ‘30s, and gave them a social spin to avoid censorship. Among the subjects explored were juvenile delinquency (Monogram may have been the first with Where Are Your Children? in 1943.), women’s prison movies (Again, Monogram’s Women in Bondage, 1943), teenage-oriented musicals (Edgar G. Ulmer’s Jive Junction, PRC, 1943), and teenagers/hot rods/death films (PRC’s The Devil of Wheels, 1947).

With the 1948 Supreme Court decision outlawing block booking and the practice of the studios owning their own theaters, some of the Poverty Row studios began expanding into the realm of “A” pictures. Monogram created its Allied Artists subsidiary for just that purpose, while Republic, which was beginning to experiment with “A” productions during the war years, moved ahead with even more, peaking with John Ford’s The Quiet Man in 1952. PRC, on the other hand, read the handwriting on the wall, and sold out to Eagle-Lion, who wanted the studio to produce B-movies to be linked to their British releases. In 1951, United Artists took over the studio in a corporate deal.

Then came television. While on one hand television had an insatiable appetite for old movies, it also caused many former theatergoers to stay home. This forced the major studios to invent gimmick after gimmick to attract audiences. 3-D and Cinerama were representative of the gimmickry the studios tried to give audiences an experience they couldn’t match on television. The impact of television was such that Allied Artists retired the Monogram logo and went 99% to B-movies, with only a rare “A” feature, like Friendly Persuasion (1956) and Love in the Afternoon (1957), both starring Gary Cooper.

Republic scaled back its production, concentrating on its film laboratory before throwing in the towel in 1958. RKO also died around that time after being horribly mismanaged by Howard Hughes. But there was a new kid on the block: American International Pictures, which specialized in drive-in fare for teenagers. With the boom in personal autos during the ‘50s, the drive-in theater enjoyed what could be called its golden age. Drive-ins attracted teenagers like honey attracts flies, and AIP realized early on in the game that if they tailored their product to that market segment, they could be a very profitable operation, especially with what they were spending per film. Cashing in on sci-fi, rock ‘n’ roll, JD, and later, Beach Party movies and Roger Corman’s Poe Horror films, AIP became a small but noticeable force in the industry. Meanwhile, other studios didn’t stand by idly. Universal fought back with William Alland produced sci-fi films, and Columbia with William Castle gimmick-laden horror pictures.

The 60s saw the birth of the “splatter film.” Because the censors still cracked down on nudity, independent producers began looking for other ways to be outrageous and get away with it. Herschell Gordon Lewis, a producer of “nudies,” became tired of the low profits and extremely restricted venues for his films. That, plus the fact the police could raid the theater at any time and confiscate his product. In 1963, he conceived of new excess, not of sex, but of blood, and so Blood Feast made its debut in independent theaters and drive-ins. While the authorities went crazy at the sight of a bare breast, they has no problem with a woman having her tongue cut out, and Lewis went on to make a series of profitable splatter features. 

Even Russ Meyer, king of the Nudies, went the violent route with Motor Psycho and Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, marketing them to Middle America and proving, in a strange way, radical H. Rap Brown’s pronouncement that violence is as American as apple pie.

The replacement of the Production Code with the Ratings System in 1968 opened the doors to nudity in film, and with it came the “sexploitation” film, commonly known as the “T & A” film. B-movie making veterans such as Roger Corman began not only making these sorts of movies, but also incorporating the more racy theme into his other horror and sci-fi films. 

The premiere of Easy Rider (1969) brought with it a load of copycat biker films, and Shaft (1971) opened the doors for a new kind of movie, Blaxploitation, aimed at the African-American audience. Again, these are categories that will be explored in depth in future columns. 

With the ‘80s came financial consolidation, with many of the independent producers being swallowed up by the corporate giants. Directors John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham, who previously made their films on a shoestring, were now backed by Paramount and Universal. (By the ’90s the average cost of a film was over $25 million.) The ‘80s also saw the advent of what could be called the “A/B” film: a film with an “A” budget, but “B” in subject matter. Die Hard, Total Recall, Terminator 2, and Tim Burton’s Batman are prime examples of this new category.  

If Batman, Dick Tracy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had been made in the late ‘60s to early ‘70s, they would have been much cheaper B productions.

And what does the future hold? With the cost of the average film approaching the $60 million mark, producers have become very conservative. Of the top grossing films in 2011, six were animated features and the box office champion was based on a children’s book. As the box office for 2012 is shaping up, out of the top 10 grossing films so far, three are animated, three are sequels of comic book adventures, three are franchise sequels and one is an adaptation of a children’s book. In other words, it’s all “B” material.

The serious and cheaper “B” movies can still be found, however, if not at the theatre, then certainly on DVD. And they are out there. All we need do is intensify our search. But then, film mavens have been intensively searching for interesting movies since they first became hooked on the medium

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