B movie or B film is a low-budget commercial movie, but not an
arthouse film. In its original usage, during the Golden Age of
Hollywood, the term more precisely identified films intended for
distribution as the less-publicized bottom half of a double feature
(akin to B-sides for recorded music). Although the U.S. production of
movies intended as second features largely ceased by the end of the
1950s, the term
B movie continues to be used in its broader sense to
this day. In its post-Golden Age usage, there is ambiguity on both
sides of the definition: on the one hand, the primary interest of many
inexpensive exploitation films is prurient; on the other, many B
movies display a high degree of craft and aesthetic ingenuity.
In either usage, most B movies represent a particular genre—the
Western was a Golden Age
B movie staple, while low-budget
science-fiction and horror films became more popular in the 1950s.
Early B movies were often part of series in which the star repeatedly
played the same character. Almost always shorter than the top-billed
films they were paired with, many had running times of 70 minutes
or less. The term connoted a general perception that B movies were
inferior to the more lavishly budgeted headliners; individual B films
were often ignored by critics.
Latter-day B movies still sometimes inspire multiple sequels, but
series are less common. As the average running time of top-of-the-line
films increased, so did that of B pictures. In its current usage, the
term has somewhat contradictory connotations: it may signal an opinion
that a certain movie is (a) a genre film with minimal artistic
ambitions or (b) a lively, energetic film uninhibited by the
constraints imposed on more expensive projects and unburdened by the
conventions of putatively "serious" independent film. The term is also
now used loosely to refer to some higher-budgeted, mainstream films
with exploitation-style content, usually in genres traditionally
associated with the B movie.
From their beginnings to the present day, B movies have provided
opportunities both for those coming up in the profession and others
whose careers are waning. Celebrated filmmakers such as Anthony Mann
Jonathan Demme learned their craft in B movies. They are where
actors such as
John Wayne and
Jack Nicholson first became established,
and they have provided work for former A movie actors, such as Vincent
Price and Karen Black. Some actors, such as Bela Lugosi, Eddie
Constantine and Pam Grier, worked in B movies for most of their
careers. The term B actor is sometimes used to refer to a performer
who finds work primarily or exclusively in B pictures.
1.1 Golden Age of Hollywood
1.2 Transition in the 1950s
1.3 Golden age of exploitation
1.5 Transition in the 2000s
2 Associated terms
2.1 C movie
2.2 Z movie
2.3 Psychotronic movie
5 External links
5.1 Interviews of
B movie professionals
Columbia's That Certain Thing (1928) was made for less than $20,000.
Soon, director Frank Capra's association with Columbia would help
vault the studio toward Hollywood's major leagues.
In 1927–28, at the end of the silent era, the production cost of an
average feature from a major Hollywood studio ranged from $190,000 at
Fox to $275,000 at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. That average reflected both
"specials" that might cost as much as $1 million and films made
quickly for around $50,000. These cheaper films (not yet called B
movies) allowed the studios to derive maximum value from facilities
and contracted staff in between a studio's more important productions,
while also breaking in new personnel. Studios in the minor leagues
of the industry, such as
Columbia Pictures and
Film Booking Offices of
America (FBO), focused on exactly those sorts of cheap productions.
Their movies, with relatively short running times, targeted theaters
that had to economize on rental and operating costs, particularly
small-town and urban neighborhood venues, or "nabes". Even smaller
production houses, known as
Poverty Row studios, made films whose
costs might run as low as $3,000, seeking a profit through whatever
bookings they could pick up in the gaps left by the larger
With the widespread arrival of sound film in American theaters in
1929, many independent exhibitors began dropping the then-dominant
presentation model, which involved live acts and a broad variety of
shorts before a single featured film. A new programming scheme
developed that would soon become standard practice: a newsreel, a
short and/or serial, and a cartoon, followed by a double feature. The
second feature, which actually screened before the main event, cost
the exhibitor less per minute than the equivalent running time in
shorts. The majors' "clearance" rules favoring their affiliated
theaters prevented the independents' timely access to top-quality
films; the second feature allowed them to promote quantity instead.
The additional movie also gave the program "balance"—the practice of
pairing different sorts of features suggested to potential customers
that they could count on something of interest no matter what
specifically was on the bill. The low-budget picture of the 1920s thus
evolved into the second feature, the B movie, of Hollywood's Golden
Golden Age of Hollywood
Main article: B movies (Hollywood Golden Age)
The major studios, at first resistant to the double feature, soon
adapted. All established B units to provide films for the expanding
Block booking became standard practice: to get
access to a studio's attractive A pictures, many theaters were obliged
to rent the company's entire output for a season. With the B films
rented at a flat fee (rather than the box office percentage basis of A
films), rates could be set virtually guaranteeing the profitability of
every B movie. The parallel practice of blind bidding largely freed
the majors from worrying about their Bs' quality—even when booking
in less than seasonal blocks, exhibitors had to buy most pictures
sight unseen. The five largest studios—Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,
Paramount Pictures, Fox
Film Corporation (
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox as of
1935), Warner Bros., and
RKO Radio Pictures
RKO Radio Pictures (descendant of FBO)—also
belonged to companies with sizable theater chains, further securing
the bottom line.
Poverty Row studios, from modest outfits like Mascot Pictures, Tiffany
Sono Art-World Wide Pictures
Sono Art-World Wide Pictures down to shoestring
operations, made exclusively B movies, serials, and other shorts, and
also distributed totally independent productions and imported films.
In no position to directly block book, they mostly sold regional
distribution exclusivity to "states rights" firms, which in turn
peddled blocks of movies to exhibitors, typically six or more pictures
featuring the same star (a relative status on Poverty Row). Two
Universal Studios and rising Columbia Pictures—had
production lines roughly similar to, though somewhat better endowed
than, the top
Poverty Row studios. In contrast to the Big Five majors,
Universal and Columbia had few or no theaters, though they did have
top-rank film distribution exchanges.
In the standard Golden Age model, the industry's top product, the A
films, premiered at a small number of select first-run houses in major
cities. Double features were not the rule at these prestigious venues.
As described by historian Edward Jay Epstein, "During these first
runs, films got their reviews, garnered publicity, and generated the
word of mouth that served as the principal form of advertising."
Then it was off to the subsequent-run market where the double feature
prevailed. At the larger local venues controlled by the majors, movies
might turn over on a weekly basis. At the thousands of smaller,
independent theaters, programs often changed two or three times a
week. To meet the constant demand for new B product, the low end of
Poverty Row turned out a stream of micro-budget movies rarely much
more than sixty minutes long; these were known as "quickies" for their
tight production schedules—as short as four days. As Brian Taves
describes, "Many of the poorest theaters, such as the 'grind houses'
in the larger cities, screened a continuous program emphasizing action
with no specific schedule, sometimes offering six quickies for a
nickel in an all-night show that changed daily." Many small
theaters never saw a big-studio A film, getting their movies from the
states rights concerns that handled almost exclusively Poverty Row
product. Millions of Americans went to their local theaters as a
matter of course: for an A picture, along with the trailers, or screen
previews, that presaged its arrival, "[t]he new film's title on the
marquee and the listings for it in the local newspaper constituted all
the advertising most movies got", writes Epstein. Aside from at
the theater itself, B films might not be advertised at all.
The introduction of sound had driven costs higher: by 1930, the
average U.S. feature film cost $375,000 to produce. A broad range
of motion pictures occupied the B category. The leading studios made
not only clear-cut A and B films, but also movies classifiable as
"programmers" (also known as "in-betweeners" or "intermediates"). As
Taves describes, "Depending on the prestige of the theater and the
other material on the double bill, a programmer could show up at the
top or bottom of the marquee." On Poverty Row, many Bs were made
on budgets that would have barely covered petty cash on a major's A
film, with costs at the bottom of the industry running as low as
$5,000. By the mid-1930s, the double feature was the dominant U.S.
exhibition model, and the majors responded. In 1935, B movie
Warner Bros. was raised from 12 to 50 percent of studio
output. The unit was headed by Bryan Foy, known as the "Keeper of the
Bs". At Fox, which also shifted half of its production line into B
Sol M. Wurtzel
Sol M. Wurtzel was similarly in charge of more than twenty
movies a year during the late 1930s.
Stony Brooke (Wayne), Tucson Smith (Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin
(Terhune) did not get much time in harness. Republic Pictures' Pals of
the Saddle (1938) lasts just 55 minutes, average for a Three
A number of the top
Poverty Row firms consolidated: Sono Art joined
another company to create
Monogram Pictures early in the decade. In
1935, Monogram, Mascot, and several smaller studios merged to
establish Republic Pictures. The former heads of Monogram soon sold
off their Republic shares and set up a new Monogram production
house. Into the 1950s, most Republic and Monogram product was
roughly on par with the low end of the majors' output. Less sturdy
Poverty Row concerns—with a penchant for grand sobriquets like
Conquest, Empire, Imperial, and Peerless—continued to churn out
dirt-cheap quickies. Joel Finler has analyzed the average length
of feature releases in 1938, indicating the studios' relative emphasis
on B production (
United Artists produced little, focusing on the
distribution of prestigious films from independent outfits; Grand
National, active 1936–40, occupied an analogous niche on Poverty
Row, releasing mostly independent productions):
20th Century Fox
Taves estimates that half of the films produced by the eight majors in
the 1930s were B movies. Calculating in the three hundred or so films
made annually by the many
Poverty Row firms, approximately 75 percent
of Hollywood movies from the decade, more than four thousand pictures,
are classifiable as Bs.
The Western was by far the predominant B genre in both the 1930s and,
to a lesser degree, the 1940s.
Film historian Jon Tuska has argued
that "the 'B' product of the Thirties—the Universal films with [Tom]
Mix, [Ken] Maynard, and [Buck] Jones, the Columbia features with Buck
Jones and Tim McCoy, the RKO George O'Brien series, the Republic
John Wayne and the Three Mesquiteers ... achieved a
uniquely American perfection of the well-made story." At the far
end of the industry, Poverty Row's Ajax put out oaters starring Harry
Carey, then in his fifties. The Weiss outfit had the Range Rider
series, the American Rough Rider series, and the Morton of the Mounted
"northwest action thrillers". One low-budget oater of the era,
made totally outside the studio system, profited from an outrageous
concept: a Western with an all-midget cast, The Terror of Tiny Town
(1938) was such a success in its independent bookings that Columbia
picked it up for distribution.
Series of various genres, featuring recurrent, title-worthy characters
or name actors in familiar roles, were particularly popular during the
first decade of sound film. Fox's many B series, for instance,
Charlie Chan mysteries,
Ritz Brothers comedies, and musicals
with child star Jane Withers. These series films are not to be
confused with the short, cliffhanger-structured serials that sometimes
appeared on the same program. As with serials, however, many series
were intended to attract young people—a theater that twin-billed
part-time might run a "balanced" or entirely youth-oriented double
feature as a matinee and then a single film for a more mature audience
at night. In the words of one industry report, afternoon moviegoers,
"composed largely of housewives and children, want quantity for their
money while the evening crowds want 'something good and not too much
of it.'" Series films are often unquestioningly consigned to the B
movie category, but even here there is ambiguity: at MGM, for example,
popular series like the
Andy Hardy chronicles had leading stars and
budgets that would have been A-level at some of the lesser majors.
For many series, even a lesser major's standard B budget was far out
of reach: Poverty Row's Consolidated Pictures featured Tarzan, the
Police Dog in a series with the proud name of Melodramatic Dog
By 1940, the average production cost of an American feature was
$400,000, a negligible increase over ten years. A number of small
Hollywood companies had folded around the turn of the decade,
including the ambitious Grand National, but a new firm, Producers
Releasing Corporation (PRC), emerged as third in the Poverty Row
hierarchy behind Republic and Monogram. The double feature, never
universal, was still the prevailing exhibition model: in 1941, 50
percent of theaters were double-billing exclusively, and others
employed the policy part-time. In the early 1940s, legal pressure
forced the studios to replace seasonal block booking with packages
generally limited to five pictures. Restrictions were also placed on
the majors' ability to enforce blind bidding. These were crucial
factors in the progressive shift by most of the Big Five over to
A-film production, making the smaller studios even more important as B
movie suppliers. Genre pictures made at very low cost remained the
backbone of Poverty Row, with even Republic's and Monogram's budgets
rarely climbing over $200,000. Many smaller
Poverty Row firms folded
as the eight majors, with their proprietary distribution exchanges,
now commanded about 95 percent of U.S. and Canadian box office
receipts. In 1946, independent producer
David O. Selznick
David O. Selznick brought
his bloated-budget spectacle Duel in the Sun to market with heavy
nationwide promotion and wide release. The distribution strategy was a
major success, despite what was widely perceived as the movie's poor
quality. The Duel release anticipated practices that fueled the B
movie industry in the late 1950s; when the top Hollywood studios made
them standard two decades after that, the
B movie would be hard
Considerations beside cost made the line between A and B movies
ambiguous. Films shot on B-level budgets were occasionally marketed as
A pictures or emerged as sleeper hits: one of 1943's biggest films was
Hitler's Children, an RKO thriller made for a fraction over $200,000.
It earned more than $3 million in rentals, industry language for a
distributor's share of gross box office receipts. Particularly in
the realm of film noir, A pictures sometimes echoed visual styles
generally associated with cheaper films. Programmers, with their
flexible exhibition role, were ambiguous by definition. As late as
1948, the double feature remained a popular exhibition mode—it was
standard policy at 25 percent of theaters and used part-time at an
additional 36 percent. The leading
Poverty Row firms began to
broaden their scope; in 1947, Monogram established a subsidiary,
Allied Artists, to develop and distribute relatively expensive films,
mostly from independent producers. Around the same time, Republic
launched a similar effort under the "Premiere" rubric. In 1947 as
well, PRC was subsumed by Eagle-Lion, a British company seeking entry
to the American market. Warners' former "Keeper of the Bs", Brian Foy,
was installed as production chief.
Often marketed as pure sensationalism, many films noir also possessed
great visual beauty. Raw Deal (1948), writes scholar Robert Smith, is
"resplendent with velvety blacks, mists, netting, and other expressive
accessories of poetic noir decor and lighting." Directed by
Anthony Mann and shot by John Alton, it was released by Poverty Row's
In the 1940s, RKO stood out among the industry's Big Five for its
focus on B pictures. From a latter-day perspective, the most
famous of the major studios' Golden Age B units is Val Lewton's horror
unit at RKO. Lewton produced such moody, mysterious films as Cat
I Walked with a Zombie
I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Body Snatcher
(1945), directed by Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and others who
would become renowned only later in their careers or entirely in
retrospect. The movie now widely described as the first classic
Stranger on the Third Floor
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a 64-minute B—was
produced at RKO, which would release many additional melodramatic
thrillers in a similarly stylish vein. The other major studios
also turned out a considerable number of movies now identified as noir
during the 1940s. Though many of the best-known film noirs were
A-level productions, most 1940s pictures in the mode were either of
the ambiguous programmer type or destined straight for the bottom of
the bill. In the decades since, these cheap entertainments, generally
dismissed at the time, have become some of the most treasured products
of Hollywood's Golden Age.
In one sample year, 1947, RKO produced along with several noir
programmers and A pictures, two straight B noirs: Desperate and The
Devil Thumbs a Ride. Ten B noirs that year came from Poverty Row's
big three—Republic, Monogram, and PRC/Eagle-Lion—and one came from
tiny Screen Guild. Three majors beside RKO contributed a total of five
more. Along with these eighteen unambiguous B noirs, an additional
dozen or so noir programmers came out of Hollywood. Still, most of
the majors' low-budget production remained the sort now largely
ignored. RKO's representative output included the Mexican Spitfire and
Lum and Abner
Lum and Abner comedy series, thrillers featuring the Saint and the
Falcon, Westerns starring Tim Holt, and
Tarzan movies with Johnny
Jean Hersholt played
Dr. Christian in six films between
1939 and 1941. The Courageous
Dr. Christian (1940) was a standard
entry: "In the course of an hour or so of screen time, the saintly
physician managed to cure an epidemic of spinal meningitis,
demonstrate benevolence towards the disenfranchised, set an example
for wayward youth, and calm the passions of an amorous old maid."
Down in Poverty Row, low budgets led to less palliative fare. Republic
aspired to major-league respectability while making many cheap and
modestly budgeted Westerns, but there was not much from the bigger
studios that compared with Monogram "exploitation pictures" like
juvenile delinquency exposé Where Are Your Children? (1943) and the
Women in Bondage
Women in Bondage (1943). In 1947, PRC's The Devil on
Wheels brought together teenagers, hot rods, and death. The little
studio had its own house auteur: with his own crew and relatively free
Edgar G. Ulmer
Edgar G. Ulmer was known as "the Capra of PRC".
Ulmer made films of every generic stripe: his
Girls in Chains
Girls in Chains was
released in May 1943, six months before Women in Bondage; by the end
of the year, Ulmer had also made the teen-themed musical Jive Junction
as well as Isle of Forgotten Sins, a South Seas adventure set around a
Transition in the 1950s
Main article: B movies (Transition in the 1950s)
In 1948, a Supreme Court ruling in a federal antitrust suit against
the majors outlawed block booking and led to the Big Five divesting
their theater chains. With audiences draining away to television and
studios scaling back production schedules, the classic double feature
vanished from many American theaters during the 1950s. The major
studios promoted the benefits of recycling, offering former headlining
movies as second features in the place of traditional B films.
With television airing many classic Westerns as well as producing its
own original Western series, the cinematic market for B oaters in
particular was drying up. After barely inching forward in the 1930s,
the average U.S. feature production cost had essentially doubled over
the 1940s, reaching $1 million by the turn of the decade—a 93
percent rise after adjusting for inflation.
The first prominent victim of the changing market was Eagle-Lion,
which released its last films in 1951. By 1953, the old Monogram brand
had disappeared, the company having adopted the identity of its
higher-end subsidiary, Allied Artists. The following year, Allied
released Hollywood's last B series Westerns. Non-series B Westerns
continued to appear for a few more years, but Republic Pictures, long
associated with cheap sagebrush sagas, was out of the filmmaking
business by decade's end. In other genres, Universal kept its Ma and
Pa Kettle series going through 1957, while Allied Artists stuck with
the Bowery Boys until 1958. RKO, weakened by years of
mismanagement, exited the movie industry in 1957. Hollywood's A
product was getting longer—the top ten box-office releases of 1940
had averaged 112.5 minutes; the average length of 1955's top ten was
123.4. In their modest way, the Bs were following suit. The age of
the hour-long feature film was past; 70 minutes was now roughly the
minimum. While the Golden Age-style second feature was dying, B movie
was still used to refer to any low-budget genre film featuring
relatively unheralded performers (sometimes referred to as B actors).
The term retained its earlier suggestion that such movies relied on
formulaic plots, "stock" character types, and simplistic action or
unsophisticated comedy. At the same time, the realm of the B movie
was becoming increasingly fertile territory for experimentation, both
serious and outlandish.
Ida Lupino, well known as an actress, established herself as
Hollywood's sole female director of the era. In short, low-budget
pictures made for her production company, The Filmakers, Lupino
explored virtually taboo subjects such as rape in 1950's Outrage and
1953's self-explanatory The Bigamist. Her most famous directorial
effort, The Hitch-Hiker, a 1953 RKO release, is the only example of
film noir's classic period directed by a woman. That year, RKO put
out another historically notable film made at low cost: Split Second,
which concludes in a nuclear test range, is perhaps the first "atomic
noir". The most famous such movie, the independently produced Kiss
Me Deadly (1955), typifies the persistently murky middle ground
between the A and B picture, as Richard Maltby describes: a
"programmer capable of occupying either half of a neighbourhood
theatre's double-bill, [it was] budgeted at approximately $400,000.
[Its] distributor, United Artists, released around twenty-five
programmers with production budgets between $100,000 and $400,000 in
1955." The film's length, 106 minutes, is A level, but its star,
Ralph Meeker, had previously appeared in only one major film. Its
source is pure pulp, one of Mickey Spillane's
Mike Hammer novels, but
Robert Aldrich's direction is self-consciously aestheticized. The
result is a brutal genre picture that also evokes contemporary
anxieties about what was often spoken of simply as the Bomb.
Rocketship X-M (1950), produced and released by small Lippert
Pictures, is cited as possibly "the first postnuclear holocaust
film." It was at the leading edge of a large cycle of movies,
mostly low-budget and many long forgotten, classifiable as "atomic
The fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, along with less
expressible qualms about radioactive fallout from America's own atomic
tests, energized many of the era's genre films. Science fiction,
horror, and various hybrids of the two were now of central economic
importance to the low-budget end of the business. Most down-market
films of the type—like many of those produced by
William Alland at
Creature from the Black Lagoon
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)) and Sam
Katzman at Columbia (e.g., It Came from Beneath the Sea
(1955))—provided little more than thrills, though their special
effects could be impressive. But these were genres whose fantastic
nature could also be used as cover for mordant cultural observations
often difficult to make in mainstream movies. Director Don Siegel's
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), released by Allied Artists,
treats conformist pressures and the evil of banality in haunting,
The Amazing Colossal Man
The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), directed by
Bert I. Gordon, is both a monster movie that happens to depict the
horrific effects of radiation exposure and "a ferocious cold-war fable
[that] spins Korea, the army's obsessive secrecy, and America's
post-war growth into one fantastic whole."
The Amazing Colossal Man
The Amazing Colossal Man was released by a new company whose name was
much bigger than its budgets.
American International Pictures
American International Pictures (AIP),
founded in 1956 by
James H. Nicholson and
Samuel Z. Arkoff in a
reorganization of their American Releasing Corporation (ARC), soon
became the leading U.S. studio devoted entirely to B-cost productions.
American International helped keep the original-release double bill
alive through paired packages of its films: these movies were
low-budget, but instead of a flat rate, they were rented out on a
percentage basis, like A films. The success of I Was a Teenage
Werewolf (1957) thus brought AIP a large return—made for about
$100,000, it grossed more than $2 million. As the film's title
suggests, the studio relied on both fantastic genre subjects and new,
teen-oriented angles. When Hot Rod Gang (1958) turned a profit, hot
rod horror was given a try: Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow (1959). David
Cook credits AIP with leading the way "in demographic exploitation,
target marketing, and saturation booking, all of which would become
standard procedure for the majors in planning and releasing their
mass-market 'event' films" by the late 1970s. In terms of content,
the majors were already there, with "J.D." movies such as Warner
Untamed Youth (1957) and MGM's High School Confidential (1958),
both starring Mamie Van Doren.
In 1954, a young filmmaker named
Roger Corman received his first
screen credits as writer and associate producer of Allied Artists'
Highway Dragnet. Corman soon independently produced his first movie,
Monster from the Ocean Floor, on a $12,000 budget and a six-day
shooting schedule. Among the six films he worked on in 1955,
Corman produced and directed the first official ARC release, Apache
Woman, and Day the World Ended, half of Arkoff and Nicholson's first
twin-bill package. Corman would go on to direct over fifty feature
films through 1990. As of 2007, he remained active as a producer, with
more than 350 movies to his credit. Often referred to as the "King of
the Bs", Corman has said that "to my way of thinking, I never made a
'B' movie in my life", as the traditional
B movie was dying out when
he began making pictures. He prefers to describe his metier as
"low-budget exploitation films". In later years Corman, both with
AIP and as head of his own companies, would help launch the careers of
Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert Towne, and Robert De
Niro, among many others.
In the late 1950s,
William Castle became known as the great innovator
B movie publicity gimmick. Audiences of Macabre (1958), an
$86,000 production distributed by Allied Artists, were invited to take
out insurance policies to cover potential death from fright. The 1959
The Tingler featured Castle's most famous gimmick,
Percepto: at the film's climax, buzzers attached to select theater
seats would unexpectedly rattle a few audience members, prompting
either appropriate screams or even more appropriate laughter. With
such films, Castle "combine[d] the saturation advertising campaign
perfected by Columbia and Universal in their
Sam Katzman and William
Alland packages with centralized and standardized publicity stunts and
gimmicks that had previously been the purview of the local
The postwar drive-in theater boom was vital to the expanding
B movie industry. In January 1945, there were 96 drive-ins
in the United States; a decade later, there were more than 3,700.
Unpretentious pictures with simple, familiar plots and reliable shock
effects were ideally suited for auto-based film viewing, with all its
attendant distractions. The phenomenon of the drive-in movie became
one of the defining symbols of American popular culture in the 1950s.
At the same time, many local television stations began showing B genre
films in late-night slots, popularizing the notion of the midnight
Increasingly, American-made genre films were joined by foreign movies
acquired at low cost and, where necessary, dubbed for the U.S. market.
In 1956, distributor
Joseph E. Levine
Joseph E. Levine financed the shooting of new
footage with American actor
Raymond Burr that was edited into the
Japanese sci-fi horror film Godzilla. The British Hammer Film
Productions made the successful
The Curse of Frankenstein
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and
Dracula (1958), major influences on future horror film style. In 1959,
Embassy Pictures bought the worldwide rights to Hercules, a
cheaply made Italian movie starring American-born bodybuilder Steve
Reeves. On top of a $125,000 purchase price, Levine then spent $1.5
million on advertising and publicity, a virtually unprecedented
The New York Times
The New York Times was nonplussed, claiming that the movie
would have drawn "little more than yawns in the film market ...
had it not been [launched] throughout the country with a deafening
barrage of publicity." Levine counted on first-weekend box office
for his profits, booking the film "into as many cinemas as he could
for a week's run, then withdrawing it before poor word-of-mouth
withdrew it for him." Hercules opened at a remarkable 600
theaters, and the strategy was a smashing success: the film earned
$4.7 million in domestic rentals. Just as valuable to the bottom line,
it was even more successful overseas. Within a few decades,
Hollywood would be dominated by both movies and an exploitation
philosophy very much like Levine's.
Golden age of exploitation
B movies (The exploitation boom)
B movies (The exploitation boom) and Midnight movie
Despite all the transformations in the industry, by 1961 the average
production cost of an American feature film was still only $2
million—after adjusting for inflation, less than 10 percent more
than it had been in 1950. The traditional twin bill of B film
preceding and balancing a subsequent-run A film had largely
disappeared from American theaters. The AIP-style dual genre package
was the new model. In July 1960, the latest Joseph E. Levine
sword-and-sandals import, Hercules Unchained, opened at neighborhood
theaters in New York. A suspense film, Terror Is a Man, ran as a
"co-feature" with a now familiar sort of exploitation gimmick: "The
dénouement helpfully includes a 'warning bell' so the sensitive can
'close their eyes.'" That year,
Roger Corman took AIP down a new
road: "When they asked me to make two ten-day black-and-white horror
films to play as a double feature, I convinced them instead to finance
one horror film in color." The resulting House of Usher typifies
the continuing ambiguities of B picture classification. It was clearly
an A film by the standards of both director and studio, with the
longest shooting schedule and biggest budget Corman had ever enjoyed.
But it is generally seen as a B movie: the schedule was still a mere
fifteen days, the budget just $200,000 (one tenth the industry
average), and its 85-minute running time close to an old thumbnail
definition of the B: "Any movie that runs less than 80 minutes."
With the loosening of industry censorship constraints, the 1960s saw a
major expansion in the commercial viability of a variety of B movie
subgenres that became known collectively as exploitation films. The
combination of intensive and gimmick-laden publicity with movies
featuring vulgar subject matter and often outrageous imagery dated
back decades—the term had originally defined truly fringe
productions, made at the lowest depths of
Poverty Row or entirely
outside the Hollywood system. Many graphically depicted the wages of
sin in the context of promoting prudent lifestyle choices,
particularly "sexual hygiene". Audiences might see explicit footage of
anything from a live birth to a ritual circumcision. Such films
were not generally booked as part of movie theaters' regular schedules
but rather presented as special events by traveling roadshow promoters
(they might also appear as fodder for "grindhouses", which typically
had no regular schedule at all). The most famous of those promoters,
Kroger Babb, was in the vanguard of marketing low-budget,
sensationalistic films with a "100% saturation campaign", inundating
the target audience with ads in almost any imaginable medium. In
the era of the traditional double feature, no one would have
characterized these graphic exploitation films as "B movies". With the
majors having exited traditional B production and exploitation-style
promotion becoming standard practice at the lower end of the industry,
"exploitation" became a way to refer to the entire field of low-budget
genre films. The 1960s would see exploitation-style themes and
imagery become increasingly central to the realm of the B.
Motorpsycho (1965) was not hard to market. It had director Russ
Meyer's reputation for eroticism; the biker theme ("MURDERcycles")
that would soon prove its popularity in historic fashion; and that
trendy title word—psycho.
Exploitation movies in the original sense continued to appear: 1961's
Damaged Goods, a cautionary tale about a young lady whose boyfriend's
promiscuity leads to venereal disease, comes complete with enormous,
grotesque closeups of VD's physical effects. At the same time, the
concept of fringe exploitation was merging with a related, similarly
venerable tradition: "nudie" films featuring nudist-camp footage or
striptease artists like
Bettie Page had simply been the softcore
pornography of previous decades. As far back as 1933, This Nude World
was "Guaranteed the Most Educational
Film Ever Produced!" In the
late 1950s, as more of the old grindhouse theaters devoted themselves
specifically to "adult" product, a few filmmakers began making nudies
with greater attention to plot. Best known was Russ Meyer, who
released his first successful narrative nudie, the comic Immoral Mr.
Teas, in 1959. Five years later, Meyer came out with his breakthrough
film, Lorna, which combined sex, violence, and a dramatic
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), made for about
$45,000, would ultimately become the most famous of Meyer's
sexploitation pictures. Crafted for constant titillation but
containing no nudity, it was aimed at the same "passion pit" drive-in
circuit that screened AIP teen movies with wink-wink titles like Beach
Blanket Bingo (1965) and
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1966), starring
Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. Roger Corman's The Trip
(1967) for American International, written by veteran AIP/Corman actor
Jack Nicholson, never shows a fully bared, unpainted breast, but
flirts with nudity throughout. The Meyer and Corman lines were
One of the most influential films of the era, on Bs and beyond, was
Paramount's Psycho. Its $8.5 million in earnings against a production
cost of $800,000 made it the most profitable movie of 1960. Its
mainstream distribution without the
Production Code seal of approval
helped weaken U.S. film censorship. And, as William Paul notes, this
move into the horror genre by respected director
Alfred Hitchcock was
made, "significantly, with the lowest-budgeted film of his American
career and the least glamorous stars. [Its] greatest initial
impact ... was on schlock horror movies (notably those from
second-tier director William Castle), each of which tried to bill
itself as scarier than Psycho." Castle's first film in the Psycho
Homicidal (1961), an early step in the development of the
slasher subgenre that would take off in the late 1970s. Blood
Feast (1963), a movie about human dismemberment and culinary
preparation made for approximately $24,000 by experienced nudie-maker
Herschell Gordon Lewis, established a new, more immediately successful
subgenre, the gore or splatter film. Lewis's business partner David F.
Friedman drummed up publicity by distributing vomit bags to
theatergoers—the sort of gimmick Castle had mastered—and arranging
for an injunction against the film in Sarasota, Florida—the sort of
problem exploitation films had long run up against, except Friedman
had planned it. This new breed of gross-out movie typified the
emerging sense of "exploitation"—the progressive adoption of
traditional exploitation and nudie elements into horror, into other
classic B genres, and into the low-budget film industry as a whole.
Imports of Hammer Film's increasingly explicit horror movies and
Italian gialli, highly stylized pictures mixing sexploitation and
ultraviolence, would fuel this trend.
Production Code was officially scrapped in 1968, to be replaced by
the first version of the modern rating system. That year, two
horror films came out that heralded directions American cinema would
take in the next decade, with major consequences for the B movie. One
was a high-budget Paramount production, directed by the celebrated
Roman Polanski. Produced by B horror veteran William Castle,
Rosemary's Baby was the first upscale Hollywood picture in the genre
in three decades. It was a critical success and the year's
seventh-biggest hit. The other was George A. Romero's Night of
the Living Dead, produced on weekends in and around Pittsburgh for
$114,000. Building on the achievement of B genre predecessors like
Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its subtextual exploration of social
and political issues, it doubled as a highly effective thriller and an
incisive allegory for both the
Vietnam War and domestic racial
conflicts. Its greatest influence, though, derived from its clever
subversion of genre clichés and the connection made between its
exploitation-style imagery, low-cost, truly independent means of
production, and high profitability. With the Code gone and the X
rating established, major studio A films like
Midnight Cowboy could
now show "adult" imagery, while the market for increasingly hardcore
pornography exploded. In this transformed commercial context, work
like Russ Meyer's gained a new legitimacy. In 1969, for the first time
a Meyer film, Finders Keepers, Lovers Weepers!, was reviewed in The
New York Times. Soon, Corman would be putting out nudity-filled
sexploitation pictures such as Private Duty Nurses (1971) and Women in
In May 1969, the most important exploitation movie of the era
premiered at the Cannes
Film Festival. Much of Easy Rider's
significance owes to the fact that it was produced for a respectable,
if still modest, budget and released by a major studio. The project
was first taken by one of its cocreators, Peter Fonda, to American
International. Fonda had become AIP's top star in the Corman-directed
The Wild Angels
The Wild Angels (1966), a biker movie, and The Trip, as in LSD. The
idea Fonda pitched would combine those two proven themes. AIP was
intrigued but balked at giving his collaborator, Dennis Hopper, also a
studio alumnus, free directorial rein. Eventually they arranged a
financing and distribution deal with Columbia, as two more graduates
of the Corman/AIP exploitation mill joined the project: Jack Nicholson
and cinematographer László Kovács. The film (which
incorporated another favorite exploitation theme, the redneck menace,
as well as a fair amount of nudity) was brought in at a cost of
$501,000. It earned $19.1 million in rentals. In the words of
historians Seth Cagin and Philip Dray,
Easy Rider became "the seminal
film that provided the bridge between all the repressed tendencies
represented by schlock/kitsch/hack since the dawn of Hollywood and the
mainstream cinema of the seventies."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new generation of low-budget film
companies emerged that drew from all the different lines of
exploitation as well as the sci-fi and teen themes that had been a
mainstay since the 1950s. Operations such as Roger Corman's New World
Pictures, Cannon Films, and
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema brought exploitation films
to mainstream theaters around the country. The major studios' top
product was continuing to inflate in running time—in 1970, the ten
biggest earners averaged 140.1 minutes. The Bs were keeping pace.
In 1955, Corman had a producorial hand in five movies averaging 74.8
minutes. He played a similar part in five films originally released in
1970, two for AIP and three for his own New World: the average length
was 89.8 minutes. These films could turn a tidy profit. The first
New World release, the biker movie Angels Die Hard, cost $117,000 to
produce and took in more than $2 million at the box office.
The biggest studio in the low-budget field remained a leader in
exploitation's growth. In 1973, American International gave a shot to
young director Brian De Palma. Reviewing Sisters, Pauline Kael
observed that its "limp technique doesn't seem to matter to the people
who want their gratuitous gore. ... [H]e can't get two people
talking in order to make a simple expository point without its
sounding like the drabbest Republic picture of 1938." Many
examples of the blaxploitation genre, featuring stereotype-filled
stories revolving around drugs, violent crime, and prostitution, were
the product of AIP. One of blaxploitation's biggest stars was Pam
Grier, who began her film career with a bit part in Russ Meyer's
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). Several New World pictures
The Big Doll House
The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage
(1972), both directed by Jack Hill. Hill also directed her best-known
performances, in two AIP blaxploitation films:
Coffy (1973) and Foxy
Blaxploitation was the first exploitation genre in which the major
studios were central. Indeed, the
United Artists release Cotton Comes
to Harlem (1970), directed by Ossie Davis, is seen as the first
significant film of the type. But the movie that truly ignited
the blaxploitation phenomenon was completely independent: Sweet
Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) is also perhaps the most outrageous
example of the form: wildly experimental, borderline pornographic, and
essentially a manifesto for a black American revolution. Melvin
Van Peebles wrote, co-produced, directed, starred in, edited, and
composed the music for the film, which was completed with a loan from
Bill Cosby. Its distributor was small Cinemation Industries, then
best known for releasing dubbed versions of the Italian Mondo Cane
"shockumentaries" and the Swedish skin flick Fanny Hill, as well as
for its one in-house production,
The Man from O.R.G.Y.
The Man from O.R.G.Y. (1970).
These sorts of films played in the "grindhouses" of the day—many of
them not outright porno theaters, but rather venues for all manner of
exploitation cinema. The days of six quickies for a nickel were gone,
but a continuity of spirit was evident.
Piranha (1978), directed by
Joe Dante and written by
John Sayles for
Corman's New World Pictures, is an action-filled creature feature, an
environmentalist cautionary tale, and a humorous parody of Jaws. It
was one of many exploitation films to mimic the design of Jaws' famous
poster, "with its promise of titillating thrills."
In 1970, a low-budget crime drama shot in 16 mm by first-time
Barbara Loden won the international critics' prize
at the Venice
Film Festival. Wanda is both a seminal event in the
independent film movement and a classic B picture. The crime-based
plot and often seedy settings would have suited a straightforward
exploitation film or an old-school B noir. The $115,000
production, for which Loden spent six years raising money, was
Vincent Canby for "the absolute accuracy of its effects,
the decency of its point of view and ... purity of
technique." Like Romero and Van Peebles, other filmmakers of the
era made pictures that combined the gut-level entertainment of
exploitation with biting social commentary. The first three features
directed by Larry Cohen, Bone (1972), Black Caesar (1973), and Hell Up
in Harlem (1973), were all nominally blaxploitation movies, but Cohen
used them as vehicles for a satirical examination of race relations
and the wages of dog-eat-dog capitalism. The gory horror film
Deathdream (1974), directed by Bob Clark, is also an agonized protest
of the war in Vietnam. Canadian filmmaker
David Cronenberg made
serious-minded low-budget horror films whose implications are not so
much ideological as psychological and existential: Shivers (1975),
The Brood (1979). An
Easy Rider with conceptual
rigor, the movie that most clearly presaged the way in which
exploitation content and artistic treatment would be combined in
modestly budgeted films of later years was United Artists'
Electra Glide in Blue
Electra Glide in Blue (1973), directed by James William
The New York Times
The New York Times reviewer thought little of it: "Under
different intentions, it might have made a decent grade-C Roger Corman
bike movie—though Corman has generally used more interesting
directors than Guercio."
In the early 1970s, the growing practice of screening nonmainstream
motion pictures as late shows, with the goal of building a cult film
audience, brought the midnight movie concept home to the cinema, now
in a countercultural setting—something like a drive-in movie for the
hip. One of the first films adopted by the new circuit in 1971
was the three-year-old Night of the Living Dead. The midnight movie
success of low-budget pictures made entirely outside the studio
system, like John Waters'
Pink Flamingos (1972), with its campy spin
on exploitation, spurred the development of the independent film
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), an inexpensive
20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox that spoofed all manner of classic B
picture clichés, became an unparalleled hit when it was relaunched as
a late show feature the year after its initial, unprofitable release.
Even as Rocky Horror generated its own subcultural phenomenon, it
contributed to the mainstreaming of the theatrical midnight
Asian martial arts films began appearing as imports regularly during
the 1970s. These "kung fu" films as they were often called, whatever
martial art they featured, were popularized in the United States by
the Hong Kong–produced movies of
Bruce Lee and marketed to the same
audience targeted by AIP and New World. Horror continued to
attract young, independent American directors. As Roger Ebert
explained in one 1974 review, "Horror and exploitation films almost
always turn a profit if they're brought in at the right price. So they
provide a good starting place for ambitious would-be filmmakers who
can't get more conventional projects off the ground." The movie
under consideration was The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Made by Tobe
Hooper for less than $300,000, it became one of the most influential
horror films of the 1970s. John Carpenter's Halloween (1978),
produced on a $320,000 budget, grossed over $80 million worldwide and
effectively established the slasher flick as horror's primary mode for
the next decade. Just as Hooper had learned from Romero's work,
Halloween, in turn, largely followed the model of Black Christmas
(1974), directed by Deathdream's Bob Clark.
On television, the parallels between the weekly series that became the
mainstay of prime-time programming and the Hollywood series films of
an earlier day had long been clear. In the 1970s, original
feature-length programming increasingly began to echo the
B movie as
well. As production of
TV movies expanded with the introduction of the
ABC Movie of the Week in 1969, soon followed by the dedication of
other network slots to original features, time and financial factors
shifted the medium progressively into B picture territory. Television
films inspired by recent scandals—such as The Ordeal of Patty
Hearst, which premiered a month after her release from prison in
1979—harkened all the way back to the 1920s and such movies as Human
Wreckage and When Love Grows Cold, FBO pictures made swiftly in the
wake of celebrity misfortunes. Many 1970s TV films—such as The
California Kid (1974), starring Martin Sheen—were action-oriented
genre pictures of a type familiar from contemporary cinematic B
Nightmare in Badham County
Nightmare in Badham County (1976) headed straight into the
realm of road-tripping-girls-in-redneck-bondage exploitation.
The reverberations of
Easy Rider could be felt in such pictures, as
well as in a host of theatrical exploitation films. But its greatest
influence on the fate of the
B movie was less direct—by 1973, the
major studios were catching on to the commercial potential of genres
once largely consigned to the bargain basement. Rosemary's Baby had
been a big hit, but it had little in common with the exploitation
style. Warner Bros.' The Exorcist demonstrated that a heavily promoted
horror film could be an absolute blockbuster: it was the biggest movie
of the year and by far the highest-earning horror movie yet made. In
William Paul's description, it is also "the film that really
established gross-out as a mode of expression for mainstream
cinema. ... [P]ast exploitation films managed to exploit their
cruelties by virtue of their marginality. The Exorcist made cruelty
respectable. By the end of the decade, the exploitation booking
strategy of opening films simultaneously in hundreds to thousands of
theaters became standard industry practice." Writer-director
George Lucas's American Graffiti, a Universal production, did
something similar. Described by Paul as "essentially an
American-International teenybopper pic with a lot more spit and
polish", it was 1973's third-biggest film and, likewise, by far the
highest-earning teen-themed movie yet made. Even more
historically significant movies with B themes and A-level financial
backing would follow in their wake.
Main article: B movies (1980s to the present)
Most of the
B movie production houses founded during the exploitation
era collapsed or were subsumed by larger companies as the field's
financial situation changed in the early 1980s. Even a comparatively
cheap, efficiently made genre picture intended for theatrical release
began to cost millions of dollars, as the major movie studios steadily
moved into the production of expensive genre movies, raising audience
expectations for spectacular action sequences and realistic special
effects. Intimations of the trend were evident as early as
Airport (1970) and especially in the mega-schlock of The Poseidon
Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1973), and
The Towering Inferno (1974).
Their disaster plots and dialogue were B-grade at best; from an
industry perspective, however, these were pictures firmly rooted in a
tradition of star-stuffed extravaganzas. The Exorcist had demonstrated
the drawing power of big-budget, effects-laden horror. But the tidal
shift in the majors' focus owed largely to the enormous success of
three films: Steven Spielberg's creature feature Jaws (1975) and
George Lucas's space opera
Star Wars (1977) had each, in turn, become
the highest-grossing film in motion picture history. Superman,
released in December 1978, had proved that a studio could spend $55
million on a movie about a children's comic book character and turn a
big profit—it was the top box-office hit of 1979. Blockbuster
fantasy spectacles like the original 1933 King Kong had once been
exceptional; in the new Hollywood, increasingly under the sway of
multi-industrial conglomerates, they would rule.
"Too gory to be an art film, too arty to be an exploitation film,
funny but not quite a comedy": 168 private investors backed Blood
Simple's $1.5 million budget. Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen
brought a striking visual style to the 1984 noir. In one repeated
motif, writes David Denby, "automobile headlights threaten people
doing surreptitious things in the dark."
It had taken a decade and a half, from 1961 to 1976, for the
production cost of the average Hollywood feature to double from $2
million to $4 million—a decline if adjusted for inflation. In just
four years it more than doubled again, hitting $8.5 million in 1980 (a
constant-dollar increase of about 25 percent). Even as the U.S.
inflation rate eased, the average expense of moviemaking would
continue to soar. With the majors now routinely saturation
booking in over a thousand theaters, it was becoming increasingly
difficult for smaller outfits to secure the exhibition commitments
needed to turn a profit. Double features were now literally
history—almost impossible to find except at revival houses. One of
the first leading casualties of the new economic regime was venerable
B studio Allied Artists, which declared bankruptcy in April 1979.
In the late 1970s, AIP had turned to producing relatively expensive
films like the very successful Amityville Horror and the disastrous
Meteor in 1979. The studio was sold off and dissolved as a moviemaking
concern by the end of 1980.
Despite the mounting financial pressures, distribution obstacles, and
overall risk, many genre movies from small studios and independent
filmmakers were still reaching theaters. Horror was the strongest
low-budget genre of the time, particularly in the slasher mode as with
The Slumber Party Massacre
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), written by feminist author Rita Mae
Brown. The film was produced for New World on a budget of
$250,000. At the beginning of 1983, Corman sold New World; New
Horizons, later Concorde–New Horizons, became his primary company.
In 1984, New Horizons released a critically applauded movie set amid
the punk scene written and directed by Penelope Spheeris. The New York
Times review concluded: "Suburbia is a good genre film."
Larry Cohen continued to twist genre conventions in pictures such as Q
(a.k.a. Q: The Winged Serpent; 1982), described by critic Chris Petit
as "the kind of movie that used to be indispensable to the market: an
imaginative, popular, low-budget picture that makes the most of its
limited resources, and in which people get on with the job instead of
standing around talking about it." In 1981, New Line put out
Polyester, a John Waters movie with a small budget and an old-school
exploitation gimmick: Odorama. That October The Book of the Dead, a
gore-filled yet stylish horror movie made for less than $400,000,
debuted in Detroit. Its writer, director, and co-executive
producer, Sam Raimi, was a week shy of his twenty-second birthday;
star and co-executive producer
Bruce Campbell was twenty-three. It was
picked up for distribution by New Line, retitled The Evil Dead, and
became a hit. In the words of one newspaper critic, it was a
"shoestring tour de force."
One of the most successful 1980s B studios was a survivor from the
heyday of the exploitation era, Troma Pictures, founded in 1974.
Troma's most characteristic productions, including Class of Nuke 'Em
Redneck Zombies (1986), and
Surf Nazis Must Die
Surf Nazis Must Die (1987),
take exploitation for an absurdist spin. Troma's best-known production
is The Toxic Avenger (1985); its hideous hero, affectionately known as
Toxie, was featured in several sequels and a TV cartoon series.
One of the few successful B studio startups of the decade was
Rome-based Empire Pictures, whose first production, Ghoulies, reached
theaters in 1985. The video rental market was becoming central to B
film economics: Empire's financial model relied on seeing a profit not
from theatrical rentals, but only later, at the video store. A
number of Concorde–New Horizon releases went this route as well,
appearing only briefly in theaters, if at all. The growth of the cable
television industry also helped support the low-budget film industry,
as many B movies quickly wound up as "filler" material for 24-hour
cable channels or were made expressly for that purpose.
By 1990, the cost of the average U.S. film had passed $25
million. Of the nine films released that year to gross more than
$100 million at the U.S. box office, two would have been strictly B
movie material before the late 1970s: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and
Dick Tracy. Three more—the science-fiction thriller Total Recall,
the action-filled detective thriller Die Hard 2, and the year's
biggest hit, the slapstick kiddie comedy Home Alone—were also far
closer to the traditional arena of the Bs than to classic A-list
subject matter. The growing popularity of home video and access
to unedited movies on cable and satellite television along with real
estate pressures were making survival more difficult for the sort of
small or non-chain theaters that were the primary home of
independently produced genre films. Drive-in screens were rapidly
disappearing from the American landscape.
B movie operations adapted in different ways. Releases from
Troma now frequently went straight to video. New Line, in its first
decade, had been almost exclusively a distributor of low-budget
independent and foreign genre pictures. With the smash success of
exploitation veteran Wes Craven's original Nightmare on Elm Street
(1984), whose nearly $2 million cost it had directly backed, the
company began moving steadily into higher-budget genre productions. In
1994, New Line was sold to the Turner Broadcasting System; it was soon
being run as a midsized studio with a broad range of product alongside
Warner Bros. within the
Time Warner conglomerate. The following
year, Showtime launched
Roger Corman Presents, a series of thirteen
straight-to-cable movies produced by Concorde–New Horizons. A New
York Times reviewer found that the initial installment qualified as
"vintage Corman ... spiked with everything from bared female
breasts to a mind-blowing quote from Thomas Mann's Death in
At the same time as exhibition venues for B films vanished, the
independent film movement was burgeoning; among the results were
various crossovers between the low-budget genre movie and the
"sophisticated" arthouse picture. Director Abel Ferrara, who built a
reputation with violent B movies such as
The Driller Killer
The Driller Killer (1979) and
Ms. 45 (1981), made two works in the early nineties that marry
exploitation-worthy depictions of sex, drugs, and general sleaze to
complex examinations of honor and redemption:
King of New York
King of New York (1990)
was backed by a group of mostly small production companies and the
Bad Lieutenant (1992), $1.8 million, was financed totally
independently. Larry Fessenden's micro-budget monster movies,
such as No Telling (1991) and Habit (1997), reframe classic genre
Frankenstein and vampirism, respectively—to explore
issues of contemporary relevance. The budget of David
Cronenberg's Crash (1996), $10 million, was not comfortably A-grade,
but it was hardly B-level either. The film's imagery was another
matter: "On its scandalizing surface, David Cronenberg's Crash
suggests exploitation at its most disturbingly sick", wrote critic
Janet Maslin. Financed, like King of New York, by a consortium of
production companies, it was picked up for U.S. distribution by Fine
Line Features. This result mirrored the film's scrambling of
definitions: Fine Line was a subsidiary of New Line, recently merged
Time Warner empire—specifically, it was the old
exploitation distributor's arthouse division. Pulp Fiction
(1994), directed by
Quentin Tarantino on a $8.5 million budget, became
a hugely influential hit by crossing multiple lines, as James Mottram
describes: "With its art house narrative structure, B-movie subject
matter and Hollywood cast, the film is the axis for three distinct
cinematic traditions to intersect."
Transition in the 2000s
Main article: B movies (1980s to the present)
By the turn of the millennium, the average production cost of an
American feature had already spent three years above the $50 million
mark. In 2005, the top ten movies at the U.S. box office included
three adaptations of children's fantasy novels, one extending and
another initiating a series (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,
respectively), a child-targeted cartoon (Madagascar), a comic book
adaptation (Batman Begins), a sci-fi series installment (Star Wars:
Episode III – Revenge of the Sith), a sci-fi remake (War of the
Worlds), and a King Kong remake. It was a slow year for Corman:
he produced just one movie, which had no American theatrical release,
true of most of the pictures he had been involved in over the
preceding decade. As big-budget Hollywood movies further usurped
traditional low-rent genres, the ongoing viability of the familiar
B movie was in grave doubt. New York Times critic A. O. Scott
warned of the impending "extinction" of "the cheesy, campy, guilty
pleasures" of the B picture.
B movies are not necessarily "schlock".
Shane Carruth made the
sophisticated science fiction film Primer (2004) for $7,000. According
to critic Adam Lemke, Carruth's "cramped, claustrophobic
mise-en-scene" exemplifies a "subtle yet austere visual style that
never succumbs to the restrictions of his limited budget".
On the other hand, recent industry trends suggest the reemergence of
something like the traditional A-B split in major studio production,
though with fewer "programmers" bridging the gap. According to a 2006
report by industry analyst Alfonso Marone, "The average budget for a
Hollywood movie is currently around $60 m, rising to $100 m when the
cost of marketing for domestic launch (USA only) is factored into the
equation. However, we are now witnessing a polarisation of film
budgets into two tiers: large productions ($120–150 m) and niche
features ($5–20m). ... Fewer $30–70 m releases are expected."
Fox launched a new subsidiary in 2006, Fox Atomic, to concentrate on
teen-oriented genre films. The economic model was deliberately
low-rent, at least by major studio standards. According to a Variety
Fox Atomic is staying at or below the $10 million mark for
many of its movies. It's also encouraging filmmakers to shoot
digitally—a cheaper process that results in a grittier,
teen-friendly look. And forget about stars. Of Atomic's nine announced
films, not one has a big name". The newfangled
B movie division
was shut down in 2009.
As the Variety report suggests, recent technological advances greatly
facilitate the production of truly low-budget motion pictures.
Although there have always been economical means with which to shoot
movies, including Super 8 and 16 mm film, as well as video
cameras recording onto analog videotape, these mediums could not rival
the image quality of 35 mm film. The development of digital
cameras and postproduction methods now allow even low-budget
filmmakers to produce films with excellent, and not necessarily
"grittier", image quality and editing effects. As Marone observes,
"the equipment budget (camera, support) required for shooting digital
is approximately 1/10 that for film, significantly lowering the
production budget for independent features. At the same time, [since
the early 2000s], the quality of digital filmmaking has improved
dramatically." Independent filmmakers, whether working in a genre
or arthouse mode, continue to find it difficult to gain access to
distribution channels, though digital end-to-end methods of
distribution offer new opportunities. In a similar way, Internet sites
YouTube have opened up entirely new avenues for the
presentation of low-budget motion pictures.
The terms C movie and the more common
Z movie describe progressively
lower grades of the
B movie category. The terms drive-in movie and
midnight movie, which emerged in association with specific historical
phenomena, are now often used as synonyms for B movie.
The C movie is the grade of motion picture at the low end of the B
movie, or—in some taxonomies—simply below it. In the 1980s,
with the growth of cable television, the C grade began to be applied
with increasing frequency to low-quality genre films used as filler
programming for that market. The "C" in the term then does double
duty, referring not only to quality that is lower than "B" but also to
the initial c of cable. Helping to popularize the notion of the C
movie was the TV series
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988–99),
which ran on national cable channels (first Comedy Central, then the
Sci Fi Channel) after its first year. Updating a concept introduced by
TV hostess Vampira over three decades before, MST3K presented cheap,
low-grade movies, primarily science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s,
along with running voiceover commentary highlighting the films'
Ed Wood has been called "the master of the
'C-movie'" in this sense, although
Z movie (see below) is perhaps even
more applicable to his work. The rapid expansion of niche cable
and satellite outlets such as Sci Fi (with its Sci Fi Pictures) and
HBO's genre channels in the 1990s and 2000s has meant a market for
contemporary C pictures, many of them "direct to cable" movies—small
budget genre films never released in theaters.
Often called "the worst film ever made", Ed Wood's ultra-low-budget
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) has become the most famous of all Z
Main article: Z movie
Z movie (or grade-Z movie) is used by some to characterize
low-budget pictures with quality standards well below those of most B
and even C movies. Most films referred to as Z movies are made on very
small budgets by operations on the fringes of the commercial film
industry. The micro-budget "quickies" of 1930s fly-by-night Poverty
Row production houses may be thought of as Z movies avant la
lettre. The films of director Ed Wood, such as Glen or Glenda
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)—frequently cited as one of
the worst pictures ever made—exemplify the classic grade-Z movie.
Latter-day Zs are often characterized by violent, gory or sexual
content and a minimum of artistic interest; much of which is destined
for the subscription TV equivalent of the grindhouse.
Psychotronic movie is a term coined by film critic Michael J.
Weldon—referred to by a fellow critic as "the historian of marginal
movies"—to denote the sort of low-budget genre pictures that are
generally disdained or ignored entirely by the critical
establishment. Weldon's immediate source for the term was the
Chicago cult film
The Psychotronic Man
The Psychotronic Man (1980), whose title character
is a barber who develops the ability to kill using psychic energy.
According to Weldon, "My original idea with that word is that it's a
two-part word. 'Psycho' stands for the horror movies, and 'tronic'
stands for the science fiction movies. I very quickly expanded the
meaning of the word to include any kind of exploitation or
B-movie." The term, popularized beginning in the 1980s with
publications of Weldon's such as The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film
Video magazine, has subsequently been adopted by
other critics and fans. Use of the term tends to emphasize a focus on
and affection for those B movies that lend themselves to appreciation
^ "B-film motion-picture commercial grade". Encyclopedia Britannica.
^ Hirschhorn (1999), pp. 9–10, 17.
^ Finler (2003), pp. 41–42; Balio (2003), p. 29.
^ See, e.g., Taves (1995), p. 320.
^ Balio (1995), p. 29. See also Schatz (1999), pp. 16, 324.
^ See Finler (2003), pp. 26, 41–43, 47–49.
^ Finler (2003), pp. 18–19.
^ Taves (1995), pp. 326–27.
^ See, e.g., Balio (1995), pp. 103–4.
^ Epstein (2005), p. 6. See also Schatz (1999), pp. 16–17.
^ a b Taves (1995), p. 325.
^ Taves (1995), p. 326.
^ Epstein (2005), p. 4.
^ a b c d Finler (2003), p. 42.
^ Taves (1995), p. 317. Taves (like this article) adopts the usage of
"programmer" argued for by author Don Miller in his 1973 study B
Movies (New York: Ballantine). As Taves notes, "the term programmer
was used in a variety of different ways by reviewers" of the 1930s (p.
431, n. 8). Some present-day critics employ the Miller–Taves usage;
others refer to any
B movie from the Golden Age as a "programmer" or
^ Balio (1995), p. 102.
^ Finler (2003), pp. 26, 111, 116.
^ Tuska (1999), pp. 183–84.
^ See Taves (1995), pp. 321–29.
^ Adapted from Finler (2003), p. 26.
^ See Taves (1995), p. 323; McCarthy and Flynn (1975), p. 20. In its
peak year, 1937, Grand National did produce around twenty pictures of
^ Taves (1995), p. 313.
^ Nachbar (1974), p. 2.
^ Tuska (1974), p. 37.
^ Taves (1995), pp. 327–28.
^ Taves (1995), p. 316.
^ See, e.g., Taves (1995), p. 318.
^ Quoted in Schatz (1999), p. 75.
^ Naremore (1998), p. 141.
^ Taves (1995), p. 328.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 73.
^ Schatz (1999), pp. 19–21, 45, 72, 160–63.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 16.
^ Schatz (1993), p. 11.
^ See, e.g., Finler (2003), pp. 4, 6.
^ Jewell (1982), 181; Lasky (1989), 184–85.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 78.
^ Schatz (1999), pp. 340–41.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 295; Naremore (1998), p. 142.
^ Robert Smith ("Mann in the Dark," Bright Lights 2, no. 1 [fall
1976]), quoted in Ottoson (1981), p. 145.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 173, table 6.3.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 232; Finler (2003), pp. 219–20.
^ Finler (2003), p. 216.
^ See, e.g., Dave Kehr, "Critic's Choice: New DVD's," The New York
Times, August 22, 2006; Dave Kehr, "Critic's Choice: New DVD's," The
New York Times, June 7, 2005; Robert Sklar, "
Film Noir Lite: When
Actions Have No Consequences," The New York Times, "Week in Review,"
June 2, 2002.
^ Jewell (1982), pp. 218, 219.
^ For a detailed consideration of classic B noir, see Lyons (2000).
^ Finler (2003), pp. 214–15.
^ Jewell (1982), p. 147.
^ Schatz (1999), p. 175.
^ Naremore (1998), p. 144.
^ See Mank (2001), p. 274.
^ Strawn (1974), p. 257.
^ Lev (2003), p. 205.
^ Lasky (1989), p. 229.
^ See Finler (2003), pp. 357–58, for top films. Finler lists The
Country Girl as 1955, when it made most of its money, but it premiered
in December 1954.
The Seven Year Itch
The Seven Year Itch replaces it in this analysis
(the two films happen to be virtually identical in length).
^ See, e.g., Matthews (2007), p. 92; Lyons (2000), p. 53.
^ Lev (2003), pp. 60–61.
^ Hurd (2007), pp. 10–13.
^ Muller (1998), p. 176; Cousins (2004), p. 198.
^ Jewell (1982), p. 272.
^ Maltby (2000).
^ Schrader (1972), p. 61; Silver (1995).
^ Shapiro (2002), p. 96. See also Atomic Films: The CONELRAD 100.
^ Kinnard (1988), pp. 67–73.
^ Lev (2003), pp. 186, 184; Braucort (1970), p. 75.
^ Auty (2005), p. 34. See also Shapiro (2002), pp. 120–24.
^ Strawn (1974), p. 259; Lev (2003), p. 206.
^ Lentz (2002), p. 17.
^ Cook (2000), p. 324. See also p. 171.
^ Denisoff and Romanowski (1991), pp. 64–65, 95–100, 105.
^ Di Franco (1979), p. 3.
^ Corman (1998), p. 36. It appears Corman made at least one true B
picture—according to Arkoff, Apache Woman, to Corman's displeasure,
was handled as a second feature (Strawn , p. 258).
^ Rausch and Dequina (2008), p. 56.
^ Heffernan (2004), pp. 102–4.
^ Heffernan (2004), pp. 95–98.
^ Segrave (1992), p. 33.
^ Heffernan (2004), p. 161.
^ Matthews (2007), p. 91.
^ a b Cook (2000), p. 324.
^ Nason (1959).
^ Hirschhorn (1979), p. 343.
^ Thompson (1960).
^ Quoted in Di Franco (1979), p. 97.
^ Per Corman, quoted in Di Franco (1979), p. 97.
^ Quoted in Reid (2005a), p. 5.
^ Schaefer (1999), pp. 187, 376.
^ Schaefer (1999), p. 118.
^ Schaefer (1992), p. 176, n. 1.
^ Gibron, Bill (July 24, 2003). "Something Weird Traveling Roadshow
Films". DVD Verdict. Archived from the original on 20 October 2006.
^ Halperin (2006), p. 201.
^ Frasier (1997), pp. 7–8, 13.
^ Frasier (1997), pp. 9–11, 90; Denisoff and Romanowski (1991), pp.
^ Frank (1998), p. 186; McGilligan (1996), p. 183.
^ a b Cook (2000), p. 222.
^ Paul (1994), p. 33.
^ Rockoff (2002), pp. 32–33.
^ Langford (2005), p. 175.
^ Heffernan (2004), p. 221; Cook (2002), pp. 70–71.
^ Cook (2000), pp. 222–23.
^ Heffernan (2004), pp. 190, 200–1.
^ Cook (2000), p. 223.
^ Canby (1969).
^ Di Franco (1979), pp. 162, 165.
^ See, e.g., Mathijs and Mendik (2008), p. 167; James (2005), pp. 282,
398; Cagin and Dray (1984), pp. 66–67.
^ Cagin and Dray (1984), pp. 61–66.
^ Financial figures per associate producer William L. Hayward, cited
in Biskind (1998), p. 74.
^ Cagin and Dray (1984), p. 53.
^ See Finler (2003), p. 359, for top films. Finler lists Hello, Dolly!
as 1970, when it made most of its money, but it premiered in December
1969. The Owl and the Pussycat, 51 minutes shorter, replaces it in
^ From 1955: Apache Woman, The Beast with a Million Eyes, Day the
World Ended, The Fast and the Furious, and Five Guns West. From 1970:
Angels Die Hard, Bloody Mama, The Dunwich Horror, Ivanna (aka Scream
of the Demon Lover; U.S. premiere: 1971), and The Student Nurses. For
purchase of Ivanna: Di Franco (1979), p. 164.
^ Di Franco (1979), p. 160.
^ Kael (1973), p. 269.
^ Willis (1997), p. 254, n. 30.
^ Lawrence (2008), p. 27.
^ Cook (2000), p. 260.
^ Van Peebles (2003).
^ Haines (2003), p. 69; Landis and Clifford (2002), pp. 117–21.
^ Haines (2003), p. 49; Landis and Clifford (2002), pp. 3–4.
^ Hunter (2009), p. 17.
^ a b Merritt (2000), p. 229.
^ Quoted in Reynaud (2006). See Reynaud also for Loden's fundraising
efforts. See also Reynaud, Bérénice (1995). "For Wanda". Sense of
Cinema. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ Williams (1996), pp. 171–73.
^ Wood (2003), pp. 118–19.
^ Kauffman (1998), pp. 118–28; Williams (1996), pp. 198–200.
^ See, e.g., Milne (2005), p. 389.
^ Greenspun (1973).
^ See, e.g., Stevenson (2003), pp. 49–50; Hollows (2003); Staiger
(2000), p. 112.
^ Merritt (2000), pp. 254–57.
^ Hoberman and Rosenbaum (1983), p. 13.
^ Cook (2000), pp. 266–71; Desser (2000).
^ Ebert (1974).
^ For the film's cost: West (1974), p. 9; Rockoff (2002), p. 42. For
its influence: Sapolsky and Molitor (1996), p. 36; Rubin (1999), p.
^ For the film's cost and worldwide gross: Harper (2004), pp. 12–13.
For its influence and debt to Black Christmas: Rockoff (2002), pp.
42–44, 50–55; Paul (1994), p. 320.
^ Waterman (2005), pp. 38–39.
^ Schaefer (1999), p. 224; Goodwin (1987), p. 341.
^ Levine (2007), pp. 114–15.
^ Paul (1994), pp. 288, 291.
^ Paul (1994), p. 92.
^ Heffernan (2004), p. 223.
^ "Superman (1978)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
Major film studio#Organizational lineage
Major film studio#Organizational lineage for a record of the
sales and mergers involving the eight major studios of the Golden Age.
^ David Handelman ("The Brothers from Another Planet," Rolling Stone,
May 21, 1987), quoted in Russell (2001), p. 7.
^ Denby (1985), p. 52.
^ Finler (2003), p. 42. Prince (2002) gives $9 million as the average
production cost in 1980, and a total of $13 million after adding on
costs for manufacturing exhibition prints and marketing (p. 20). See
also p. 21, chart 1.2. The Box Office Mojo website gives $9.4 million
as the 1980 production figure; see "Movie Box Office Results by Year,
1980–Present". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the original on 30
December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ Lubasch (1979).
^ Cook (2000), pp. 323–24.
^ Collum (2004), pp. 11–14.
^ Canby (1984).
^ Petit (2005), p. 1481.
^ Cost per Bruce Campbell, cited in Warren (2001), p. 45
^ David Chute (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, May 27, 1983), quoted in
Warren (2001), p. 94.
^ Kraus, Daniel (October 30, 1999). "Tromatized!". Salon. Retrieved
^ Morrow (1996), p. 112.
^ Berra (2008), p. 74.
^ a b "Movie Box Office Results by Year, 1980–Present". Box Office
Mojo. Archived from the original on 30 December 2006. Retrieved
^ "1990 Yearly Box Office Results". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the
original on 6 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-29. Dick Tracy
literally had been
B movie material—the character was featured in
four low-budget RKO films in the 1940s. For how espionage and
crimebusting thrillers were long "widely regarded as nothing more than
B-movie fodder," see Chapman (2000), pp. 46–50.
^ Heffernan (2004), p. 225.
^ Finler (2003), p. 379.
^ Finler (2003), pp. 287, 290.
^ O'Connor (1995).
^ Johnstone (1999), p. 16.
^ King (2005), pp. 167, 170–75.
^ Maslin (1997).
^ Mottram (2006), pp. 197–98; Wyatt (1998), p. 78. For details of
the film's distribution, see Lewis (2002), pp. 286–88.
^ Mottram (2006), p. 75.
^ "2005 Yearly Box Office Results". Box Office Mojo. Archived from the
original on 17 January 2007. Retrieved 2007-01-02.
^ See, e.g., Rausch, Andrew J. (2000). "
Roger Corman on Blair Witch
Project and Why Mean Streets Would Have Made a Great Blaxploitation
Film". Images. Retrieved 2010-08-13. Saroyan, Strawberry (May 6,
2007). "King of the Killer B's". Telegraph. Retrieved
^ Scott (2005).
^ Lemke, Adam. "Primer, Directed by Shane Carruth". DVDBeaver.
Archived from the original on 2009-02-25. Retrieved 2010-06-22.
^ a b Marone, Alfonso (2006). "One More Ride on the Hollywood
Roller-coaster" (PDF). Spectrum Strategy Consultants. Archived from
the original (PDF) on 3 February 2007. Retrieved 2006-12-29.
^ Zeitchik and Laporte (2006).
^ Fleming, Michael (April 19, 2009). "Fox Folding Atomic Label".
Variety. Retrieved 2010-04-27.
^ Rabiger (2008), pp. 7, 10; Davies and Wistreich (2007), p. 5.
^ See, e.g., Komiya and Litman (1990).
^ Oppermann (1996).
^ See, e.g., Campos, Eric (December 12, 2005). "David Payne: Do Fear
Film Threat. Archived from the original on March 10,
2007. Retrieved 2006-10-20.
^ See, e.g., Taves (1995), p. 323.
^ See, e.g., Quarles (2001), pp. 79–84.
^ McDonagh, Maitland (July 17, 2006). "Sad News: Psychotronic Video
Magazine Gives Up the Ghost". TVGuide.com. Archived from the original
on 2007-10-12. Retrieved 2006-12-26.
^ Ignizio, Bob (April 20, 2006). "
The Psychotronic Man
The Psychotronic Man (interview with
Michael Weldon)". Utter Trash. Archived from the original on 11
September 2006. Retrieved 2006-10-20.
^ See, e.g., Schneider and Williams (2005), pp. 2, 5; Syder and
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Look up b movie in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
B movies at Curlie (based on DMOZ)
The Biology of B-Movie Monsters analysis by Professor Michael C.
LaBarbera, University of Chicago
Dwight Cleveland collection of posters, Margaret Herrick Library,
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
B movie professionals
The Astounding B-Monster Archive
Search My Trash
Amateur press association
Tracker (MOD) music
Experimental musical instrument
Cinema of Transgression
No budget film
No Wave Cinema
Open-source video game
Independent soft drink
Independent circuit (wrestling)
Independent TV station
Do it yourself
Do it yourself (DIY ethic)
Social peer-to-peer processes
Hong Kong action
Commedia sexy all'italiana
Mo lei tau
Commedia sexy all'italiana
Exploitation film template
New French Extremity
New French Extremity
Cinema of Transgression
New French Extremity
Food and drink
Girls with guns
Mouth of Garbage
Rape and revenge
Commedia sexy all'italiana
Mexican sex comedy
Slice of life
Sword and sorcery
Australian New Wave
British New Wave
Kitchen sink realism
Cinéma du look
Cinema of Transgression
European art cinema
French New Wave
German underground horror
Nigerian Golden Age
Grupo Cine Liberación
Hollywood on the Tiber
Hong Kong New Wave
Iranian New Wave
Japanese New Wave
New French Extremity
Nuevo Cine Mexicano
Praška filmska škola
Romanian New Wave
Kitchen sink realism
Yugoslav Black Wave
Classical Hollywood cinema
Film à clef