Day 274: Slumming On Cinema’s Poverty Row

originally published September 30, 2012

Making a low-budget movie with today’s technology is easy. Point your cell phone at your buddy on the garage roof while he wields a fake wooden sword and let the magic happen. This wasn’t always the case, which is why Hollywood once contained a structural hierarchy of low-fi pictures, from B-movies to Z-movies.

The term ‘B-movie’ doesn’t simply mean a low-budget, cheap-o flick. B-movies had a purpose, they filled a niche. Back in the 1930s, five major studios owned the market. I know, this seems outrageous that there would be such intensive media consolidation in so few companies, unlike today. Actually that’s exactly like today. Only back then, odds are the company that made the movie you just saw was probably unconnected to the company that made your non-dairy creamer, your asthma medicine, and the short-range surface-to-air missiles parked at your local military installation. We’ve come a long way.

There were other production companies that flew without that burden of high ticket sales and burgeoning profits. These were the low-budget, indie production houses of their day, known as Poverty Row studios. In the mid-30s, smaller movie theaters couldn’t afford to splash Gary Cooper’s face on their screens, so they’d turn to Poverty Row to hook them up with a multitude of cheap movies. You’ve already seen Cooper in The Virginian? Cool, you can head down the block and see a Brand X western at the cheap theater.

The A-list movies would sit in the same theater for a week, sometimes longer. But the lower-end houses could shuffle through several in a week. A lot of these movies were known as ‘quickies’, shot in less than a week and running just over an hour long. Not wanting to miss a chance to crush the lowly competition, the Big 5 studios –  MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, and RKO – jumped on board the B-train and started producing their own quickies.

Where the Big 5 had the advantage was in theater ownership. These guys owned more than three quarters of the theaters across the country, which meant they could get away with something called block booking. Theaters could get the latest big-budget blockbuster, but only if they agreed to show the studio’s B-movies also. Sneaky bastards.

Not that the theaters minded. They had to share their profits on the A-movies, but the B-movies they would get for a flat fee. Stacking the two together on a double-feature meant that the B-movies would always be profitable, even if they stunk.

By the 1940s, even Poverty Row started to get overshadowed by its two kings, Republic and Monogram Pictures. By then, half the films produced by the Big 5 studios, as well as their three smaller cousins (Universal, United Artists and Columbia) were B-movies. Add that to the output from Poverty Row, and over 75% of the films produced by Hollywood in the 1930s were B-movies.

A lot of the B-movies were westerns. These were easy to film: recycle the frontier-town sets, the horses and the hats, and you don’t need much more in the way of a budget. Sometimes a Poverty Row B-movie would get scooped up by a major, like when Columbia grabbed The Terror of Tiny Town, an all-midget western from 1938.

By the middle of the 40s, a lot of B-movies were being made in the crime genre, which could often be made just as cheaply as a western. Many of these low-budget productions make up the bulk of the Film Noir genre, which wasn’t actually named that until decades later.

The B-movie genre took an earthquake-scale shimmy in 1948 when legislation was passed that banned block booking, and ordered all movie studios to relinquish their ownership of theaters. Suddenly the owner of the local Rialto wasn’t required to show I Married A Communist simply because they wanted to make money off It’s A Wonderful Life. After that, the entire industry had to reinvent itself.

But if the 1940s was the golden age for B-movies, prime time for C-movies came a while later. C-movies was never an official designation, but it generally refers to B-movies at the bottom-end of their production budget spectrum, or even below that. Most of the cheesy sci-fi movies you’ll see on Mystery Science Theater 3000 are C-movies.

When cable TV stations started gaining popularity in the 1980s, they slapped together C-movies to fill the gaps in their schedules. These weren’t intended to win any awards, nor garner any attention. HBO and the Sci Fi Channel had 24 hours a day to fill, and cheap home-made movies would help.

But if you really want to see how low Hollywood could go, you’d have to dig a little deeper. To the Z-list.

If you have ever sat through this movie:

…then you have seen a Z-list movie. That’s Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, and some consider it to be the worst movie ever made. I might give that honor to Manos: The Hands Of Fate, which should also be tossed into the Z-list pile.

While a B-movie and C-movie will still be properly lit, edited and shot, a Z-movie holds no such guarantees. You might see a boom microphone dip into a Z-movie scene. Maybe you’ll catch a blatant continuity error, or a quick glimpse of the craft services table as the camera pans by (on a movie like this, the craft services table probably contains nothing more than a bowl of Cheetos for the cast and crew).

Sometimes a Z-movie – at least in the later years – may contain some softcore pornography. There was a market for these films in the direct-to-video world, or in the late night time-slots on Cinemax. A modern-day example of this would be 2004’s Bikini Cavegirl, which headed straight to video.

I have to wonder about the future of the Z-movie. On the one hand, movies-as-downloads are becoming a huge deal now, and if the film industry heads the way the music industry has been going, low-budget, low-quality stuff is going to be a hard sell in the future. On the flip-side, we now have roughly 50,000 cable stations to choose from, and a lot of them make a handful of cheap, in-house flicks to fill the gaps in their schedule. Also, the internet gives us an entirely new field of mass distribution based on the principles of going viral and catching the right wave of buzz-ness. What used to be the Z-movie is now the home-made indie movie.

So strap your buddy in some knock-off armor, hand him his sword and see if you can make your own Poverty Row production. Just make sure he doesn’t fall off the roof.

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