These blog posts are getting so far apart you could sail the Titanic between them. One of these days I’ll get a decent posting schedule going. At the moment I’m chest-deep in edits for Don’t Be a Hero, so between that, uni work, seeing The Avengers, and being lazy, blogging has once again fallen by the wayside.
But that’s not why I’ve gathered you all here today. Lately I’ve been watching a lot of B movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I’ve been thinking about the decline and resurrection of low-budget films and books. From about the 1920s to the 1980s, the public consumed this sort of stuff by the crate-load. Sure, a lot of it was low quality, but there was a special kind of rough-and-tumble magic in these cheaply-produced and cheaply-sold works. Often these works were lurid, touching topics deemed inappropriate or distasteful by the more prestigious producers, but they were gobbled up by the public. For novels and short stories, this was the domain of the pulps and the dime novels. It was the birthing ground of many of today’s staple genre tropes, including hardboiled private eyes, intrepid space explorers, and prototype superheroes. These cheaply-produced books and magazines made the careers of many writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Raymond Chandler, and readers devoured them. Not only that, but early lesbian pulp novels were some of the first books to explore lesbian characters and relationships (even if many of them were little more than soft porn written by heterosexual men) since the pulps were not respected enough to bother censoring. These books became highly important in the lives of many lesbians in a time when coming out was almost impossible in many communities.
Lagging a decade or two behind, the film industry started doing the same thing. In the 1940s came the rise of the B movies, and later the exploitation films, the drive-ins and the grindhouse theatres. These movies covered a broad range of genres, but violence, sex, and giant man-eating blobs were never far away. While Hollywood was the major force in cinema, many international filmmakers were cutting their teeth on B movies. In Japan, actors in Godzilla costumes rampaged through models of Tokyo, and giant space turtles with rockets for legs became friends with Japanese children. And in Italy, cannibals and zombies broke open skulls and devoured brains that looked suspiciously like spaghetti. Like with lesbian pulp fiction, these films were considered to be of low importance, so they often managed to skirt the edges of the Hayes Code that was effectively censoring Hollywood through the middle of the twentieth century. Like the pulps, many filmmakers started out making such fare, producing pictures with little financial risk. And audiences revelled in their schlocky goodness.
But through the 70s and 80s, these forms of entertainment began to decline. Small studios and publishers got bought up by larger ones, and those ones were bought by even larger corporations. It became more difficult for smaller studios and publishers to gain enough distribution to turn a profit. Budgets for producing books and movies began to increase, and as more money was sunk into their creation, these stories had to have broader and broader appeal to cover their costs. And without a doubt, some incredible books and films were made during this period, fully making use of their huge budgets to get the best people and equipment money could buy. But something was lost, as well. Many gems surely went uncreated as the old millennium turned into the new one and B movies and pulp magazines were pushed to the wayside.
But the times, they are a’changing. With the move to digital distribution, projects that might be too niche to justify large-scale physical distribution can still attract an audience. We have web-based shows and movies emerging, such as The Mercury Men and the fantastic Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Books that might never get published by a large publisher can now be produced independently or by a small house at a fraction of the cost. Creators of these low-budget films and books can afford to do unusual things and reach small niches without risking the tens of millions that might be spent by a large studio.
I don’t think we’ll see the disappearance of big publishers and Hollywood studios. There will always be profit in providing stories that appeal to large portions of the public, if the company can operate effectively and efficiently. And I think this is a good thing. Some of my favorite books and movies are very popular. But I also predict that in the next 10 years we will see an even greater rise in the prominence of independently-produced books and movies. I expect movies to lag behind ebooks a little, as the costs of entry for producing a movie, no matter how low-budget, will always be lower than writing a book. But technology has advanced and become cheaper, and now almost everyone has a computer capable of acting as a basic film editing studio. And with services like Netflix, paid digital distribution of movies will become commonplace, eliminating many of the distribution difficulties faced by small studios.
And as these new and different books and movies start becoming more widely available, I think we will also see topics that were once niche becoming mainstream. Look at the box office right now. At the top of the charts we have a continuity-driven movie about superheroes—something that has long been the realm of geeks and nerds—that was written and directed by Joss Whedon, a man that has a significant cult following but never quite broke into the mainstream. Now The Avengers is poised to gross ONE BILLION DOLLARS (read that in a Dr. Evil voice). And it deserves it, too. 10 years ago, who would’ve figured this would be happening today?
So I’m excited. The world is changing fast. There are more opportunities out there for creators than ever before. And I want another Gamera movie.