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THE PRODUCTION OF COWBOY FILMS

... AND THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS WHICH FACED THE POVERTY ROW PRODUCER


Occasionally I receive questions and two of the most common are: "why were so many of the B westerns done so cheaply" and "why didn't the production outfits do a better job on quality".  Let's begin with a little background on the studios and small production companies of that period:

"Gower Gulch" does not refer to the location in Death Valley, but to an area roughly located and centered at Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California. This was near the major and minor studios and production companies of the time, including those that did low budget westerns.  The surrounding area became known as "Gower Gulch" because it was a hangout for studio cowboys and assorted extras and bit players waiting for a casting call.

A variety of companies set up shop near Sunset and Gower, and their cash flow/profit situation and high mortality rate led to the nickname "Poverty Row".  In many cases, these small production outfits were not full-fledged studios.  They had offices on Poverty Row - they had no lots, soundstages and such, and had to rent/lease facilities to churn out their films.  A few did have their own production facilities, and two that come to mind are Grand National (which later became part of PRC) and Nat Levine's Mascot Pictures (which had earlier been the Mack Sennett studio and in the mid 1930s, became the base of operations for Republic Pictures).

The terms "B film", "B western", et al were slang creations which came about because many of the studios had separate and distinct production units/departments for their higher budget/often in color films (called A films or A productions) vs. their less expensive/often in glorious B&W offerings (called B films or B's).  Within several of the studios, there were even sub-groups within their B organization - for example, one might be dedicated to turning out westerns, while another specialized in serials or shorts, etc.  One of the most recognized B film units was the Columbia Short Subjects organization which churned out scores of two-reel comedies with the Three Stooges (and others).

The term "B" was also used to loosely define studios and production companies - for example, MGM was clearly identified as an A company, but also did B grade movies.  Opposite of MGM were outfits whose sole product was low budget westerns, mysteries, melodramas, etc., and names that come to mind are Monogram, Republic, Mascot, Chesterfield, Grand National, World Wide, Tiffany, Ambassador-Conn and PRC.

The A and B designations also defined a pecking order and caste system that was present in Hollywood.  For example, folks working at MGM and Paramount were often deemed to have "made it" in Tinseltown.  Those working at Monogram or even 1930s Columbia were considered less fortunate.  And of course, if a player was doing a serial, they were either a newcomer "on the way up", or a veteran "on the way down" the Hollywood ladder of stardom and success.



(Courtesy of the Robert Webb Family)

Above - the Hollywood home of Reliable Pictures in the mid 1930s at the corner of Beachwood and Sunset Boulevard.  Bernard B. Ray and Harry S. Webb were the bosses of Reliable Pictures, and on the sign, you might be able to make out the names of three of Reliable's stars - Tom Tyler, Jack Perrin and Richard Talmadge.  The facilities were torn down in the 1990s, but did serve as soundstages 1 and 2 for Columbia Pictures.


The overall issues of "cheapness" and "quality" relates specifically to the financial wranglings of that time, and a significant issue was the distribution and showing of the films.  The distribution was complex, chaotic, and there were many nuances and variables depending on the time period, studio, etc. This dissertation is not meant to be an all-encompassing, in-depth history of the issue, but rather an overview.  For simplicity sake, I've separated the distribution process into three groupings:

1. Major studios owned their own theaters and film distribution.  (This would change in the late 1940s due to an antitrust decision which forced the major studios to divest their theater chains.)

From a cowboy film perspective, this meant that a George O'Brien western for RKO or a Johnny Mack Brown for Universal would make more money and play at better theaters than a Tom Tyler oater for Reliable Pictures or a Reb Russell cheapy done by producer Willis Kent.  And a Tom Tyler Reliable would get more play dates than a film from a bottom-of-the-barrel producer such as Robert J. Horner or Denver Dixon (Victor Adamson).

2. Several of the larger B studios, such as Republic and Monogram, arranged their own network of film distributors which operated like franchises.  Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) operated similarly in the 1940s.

3. The bulk of the so-called Poverty Row or Gower Gulch B movie producers and production companies could not afford their own distribution networks and certainly did not own any theaters.  To get their film product into movie houses, they furnished their output to independent exchanges and distributors who handled films for a variety of companies.  These were the "states rights distributors" and "states rights exchanges".  Basically, the Poverty Row producer/production company sold the exhibition rights to their film for a flat fee and for a given period of time.  In return, the exchange could book the picture an unlimited number of times in as many theaters as they could.

During the 1930s, there were various low budget producers and companies trying to peddle their movies ... and this created some competition. For example, a distributor would place a higher value on films with popular cinema stalwarts such as Tom Tyler and Bob Steele, but had limited interest in the likes of Bill Cody, Reb Russell, Buffalo Bill, Jr., etc.

These exchanges were responsible for the actual distribution of many B westerns as well as independently produced serials, melodramas, comedies, detective flicks and sundry other programmers.  The customers of these exchanges were thousands of little theaters located in small towns across the U. S. as well as neighborhood movie houses in cities and large population centers.

Sales people from these exchanges interfaced with the theaters in their distribution area, and arranged for contracts on the films.  For cowboy films, the negotiations afforded the theater owner the option of selecting which range hero was popular and would generate maximum ticket sales.  When all of this was completed, the exchanges ordered the number of prints they needed (and they, not the film producer, generally paid for the prints).  This practice allowed the distributors to minimize the number of prints of a film. 

The term "exchange" related to the practice of the theater owner returning a film that he had shown, and exchanging it for a new movie.

The distributor also had a film "booker" whose job was to coordinate the scheduling and delivery of films to the theaters.  Thus, after many months, or perhaps even a year, a particular film would have played in all of the movie houses within a distributor's jurisdiction/area.


Keep in mind that the Poverty Row film was peddled to the theaters based on a flat (fixed) fee ... or several fee tiers based on the theater size.  For example, a theater with 150 seats might pay $10.00 for a western, while a larger movie house with an audience capacity of 300 might be charged $20.00.

The cheap western was generally packaged in a block of 6-8 films, and the theater owner would normally commit to showing the entire series. Generally speaking (dangerous term), the filmmaker and distributor did NOT receive any revenues based on ticket sales, number of showings, percentage of the gross, etc.


Following is an OVERLY SIMPLIFIED example covering the financials, negotiations with the independent film exchanges/distributors, et al.


The Producer:

  • Producer X's production costs for an 8 film series is about $80,000 (about $10,000 per picture). Always concerned and nervous about getting a return on investment, he telephones and personally visits dozens of independent film distributors in hopes they might buy his films.
  • He markets his new cowboy series to Distibutor Y which covers many theaters in several states in the Southern U. S.
  • After negotiations, Distributor Y agrees to pay Producer X a flat fee of $8,000.00 for the 8 film series. The agreement covers a five year period and allows the distributor to show these an unlimited number of times in any/all the theaters in his area.
  • Producer X then deals with another exchange/distributor ... and another ... and hopefully, at the end of all this, there will be a profit as well as extra cash to finance some new cinema adventures.


On the right is a tradepaper announcement on Tim McCoy's 1938-39 series of oaters for Sam Katzman's short-lived Victory Pictures company.

Note the references to the many independent, states rights film exchanges that had booked the series. Each was negotiated separately.



(Courtesy of Les Adams)

(Courtesy of Les Adams)


The Distributors/exchanges:

  • Distributor Y peddles the eight film series to 300 of their theaters. The larger, classier, first run theaters will get the movies first and pay a fee of $10.00 per film. Lesser/smaller movie houses may not play the films for months, and may get it for a reduced fee. The (inexact) math: 8 films X 300 theaters X $10.00 = somewhere around $24,000.00.
  • After paying the $8,000.00 to Producer X, the exchange/distributor will pocket about $16,000.00. But it could take many months to get that money (as the available film prints have to circulate down to all of the theaters).
  • Three years after the initial release, the exchange decides to re-release the series at a cost of $5.00 per film per theater, and peddles it to 100 movie houses within their jurisdiction. The math: 8 films X 100 theaters X $5.00 = $4,000.00. The exchange gets to keep all the $4,000.00 since they had acquired the series for a 5 year period in the initial negotiation with the film producer.



(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
On the left is an advertising flyer from a Maryland film distributor for one of Ken Maynard's later westerns, WHIRLWIND HORSEMAN (1938).

This anemic film was produced by Max and Arthur Alexander and carried the logo of Grand National Pictures.

Maynard would do some other oaters for Max and Art, but these would be done under the banner of Colony Pictures.

In the late 1930s, the owner of a small theater might pay $10.00 or so for this film, and could run it any number of times. In reality, it could only be shown a few times since the audience base was small and customers wouldn't pay to see the same ol' film again.

Generally, the local theaters had schedules for Friday/Saturday, Sunday/Monday, and the Tuesday - Thursday period.



(Courtesy of Minard Coons)
On the left is a theater advertisement for THE RANGE BUSTERS, the initial entry in the trio series which was released by Monogram Pictures in 1940.  Note the additional films/shorts that were also part of this Friday night cinema extravaganza.

Pay particular attention to the admission prices: 30 cents for adults and 15 cents for kids.  These ticket prices show the main issue with low budget B films - they had to be done very inexpensively and peddled at extremely low rates since the ticket prices of the day were so low.

And remember this ad reflects 1940 ticket prices. A decade earlier, ticket prices were in the 5 and 10 cent range. And there was "dish night" or "bingo night" or other giveaways to entice the patrons into these little hometown movie houses.

Couple of other items to note in this ad: Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were radio's Amos & Andy, and they made the THE LION TAMER short in 1934.  I'm unsure of the Bing Crosby short, but it probably is one of the two-reelers he made for Mack Sennett in the early 1930s.  The bottom of the ad lists Tex Ritter's TROUBLE IN TEXAS as a coming attraction and this film was initially released in 1937 by Grand National.  Thus, this theater was going to run a movie that was 3 years old, and they might have even shown this during the initial release.  In 1940, when this ad was run, Ritter and his producer Ed Finney were doing their films at Monogram, since Grand National had gone belly-up.


Remember that many of the independent producers didn't have "deep pockets" full of cash.  They had to bankroll their next film or two with the profits made on their current release(s).  Occasionally, a low budget film would become a "hit", and as such, it would be screened more than the average.  However, the money gained from that popularity and additional showings never made it back to the independent producers, since they had already sold the film to the exchanges.

Over time, the filmmakers became familiar with these exchanges and the total $$$ they could expect to receive from the distributors/exchanges.  There were many Poverty Row producers and production companies during the 1930s, and they and their films are often denoted as "indies" (short for independent).  Names coming to mind include:


Albert Victor Adamson (aka Denver Dixon and Art Mix)
Sam Katzman - Victory Pictures
Bernard B. Ray & Harry S. Webb - Reliable Pictures, Metropolitan Pictures
William Pizor - Imperial Pictures
Maurice Conn - Ambassador-Conn
Louis Weiss - Weiss Productions, Stage & Screen
Nat Levine - Mascot Pictures


Wheeler Winston Dixon has authored several cinema related books, and his Producers Releasing Corporation, A Comprehensive Filmography and History (McFarland and Company, Inc., 1986) includes some interesting statistics (on pages 85-97) about theaters, attendance and film distribution. He assembled that info from Department of Commerce, Census Bureau and other sources.  Several of those statistics are noted below:

  1938
----------
1941
----------
Total number of theaters 17,541 16,951
Theaters w/ seating capacity of 200 - 500 7,303 7,854
Theaters w/ seating capacity of 200 or less 1,912 2,109


Other tidbits from Dixon's book include:

As noted earlier, most western programmers were marketed to the exchanges in blocks of 6 or 8 films.  And the initial entry in that 6 or 8 film series was often used as a preview during the "sales pitch" and negotiations. Thus, many of the producers put more $$$ and quality/content into the first film. However, this often caused the later entries in the series to be the victim of extensive budget cutting.

Some lucky producers and production outfits were able to attach themselves to studios which had their own distribution channels.  Several examples come to mind: Ken Maynard did a batch for producer Larry Darmour in the mid-1930s, and these were done through Columbia.  The Criterion productions with James Newill as Renfrew of the Mounted were initially handled by Grand National, and after the financial failure of that firm, the Renfrew yarns were picked up by Monogram.

One of the best remembered of these Poverty Row gamblers was Nat Levine, the boss/owner of Mascot Pictures.  In 1935, Levine paid Tom Mix a reported $40,000 to star in THE MIRACLE RIDER chapterplay, and that salary was well beyond the normal for a serial hero of that day.  But Levine believed that Mix's name was still a draw to the Saturday matinee crowd ... he also felt that he could increase his fees for the film ... and there were 15 episodes, with each bringing in $$$.  Levine judged correctly as THE MIRACLE RIDER purportedly had a $1 million dollar profit during the initial theatrical release.

Another example is producer Willis Kent who did the Reb Russell westerns in the mid 1930s.  The Kent/Russell collaborations were cheap ... I mean really inexpensive.  But there was no other option for Kent as his total film production costs were dictated by the fees he could receive from the states rights exchanges.  For example, if Kent had doubled his costs, he would not have been able to peddle the flicks at twice the rental rate.  Simple mathematics!

In direct contrast were the Hopalong Cassidy films from Paramount.  Those westerns were given higher budgets, simply because Paramount was involved in the productions and handling the film releases.  The Hoppy pictures also played in better theaters which were located in areas with larger populations, and this resulted in a higher gross and profit.

Western film expert Les Adams, who co-authored Shoot-Em-Ups, worked for a man who owned theaters in Lubbock, Texas, and provides the following insight:

"A theatre owner in Lubbock owned several theaters ranging from a first-class/first-run to a couple of second-runs and three or four houses dealing in westerns and B-features.  My work wasn't involved with the theatres, but I asked a lot of questions about how films were booked, etc.  His grind-house theatres (particulary in the 1930s and 40's) followed the Sunday-Monday / Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday / Friday-Saturday schedule.

Two of them (the Cactus and the Plains) always had double features (primarily films from 2-5 years after original release), while the jewel of the grind-house group (the Lyric) showed only single, first-run westerns, features and serials from Republic and the B-stables of Columbia, Universal, etc.  The Gene Autrys were the only westerns to make the Sunday-Monday schedule at the Lyric.  The rest got Friday-Saturday.  The only first-runs the Cactus and Plains got was from the "Indies" (independents).  The Republic, RKO, Columbia, Universal and Paramount western offerings always hit the Lyric first, and never as a double feature.  A year or two or more later, they would hit the Plains and Cactus as part of a double feature.

The Arcadia theatre in Lubbock showed double features, but one of the films would change every day, for example:

Monday: Chip of the Flying U and Boys of the City
Tuesday: Boys of the City and Rio Rattler
Wednesday: Rio Rattler and Keep 'Em Slugging
Thursday: Keep 'Em Slugging and Prairie Thunder
Friday: Prairie Thunder and The House of Frankenstein
Saturday: The House of Frankenstein and Bar 20 Rides Again (plus a ten-year-old serial )
Sunday: Bar 20 Rides Again and The Fugitive Sheriff

It didn't take me long to figure out if I went to the Arcadia every day, I was guaranteed to see one of the films I saw yesterday.  I soon worked out an every-other-day attendance."



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Let's take a fanciful/farcical look at the goings-on with a producer of 1930s cowboy films ... the names below have been changed to protect the innocent.

The year is 1935.

Poverty Row producer B. B. "Big Biz" Whiplash is gonna churn out another western series, and the name of the first film is BELCH VALLEY RAIDERS.  Whiplash has produced dozens of low budget sagebrush adventures (and other B grade films), and his revenue from the exchanges/distributors averaged about $20,000 for each flick. His films aren't shown in the higher class movie houses that cater to A films or even B grade movies from the likes of Universal and Columbia - most of Whiplash's cinematic endeavors are shown in scores of small town theaters and neighborhood movie houses that were prevalent at that time. And most wound up as the second feature on a double bill at the Saturday matinee.

BELCH VALLEY RAIDERS is initially budgeted at $8,000. Half of the $8,000 goes to Whiplash's company to produce and finance the film; $500 is paid to the star who also furnishes his own range costume; the director gets $500 for directing and also writes the script/story; and $3,000 is used for everything else, including the remaining cast members, production crew, rental of sets, rental of cayuses, film editing, etc.

The star of this "Mighty Whiplash Production" is Tex Majestic, a veteran of a few mediocre westerns, none of which are of the "singing" variety.  Tex is 5 feet eleven inches tall, and briefly played some lukewarm football at a California university.  However, his enhanced Tinseltown biography notes that he's 6 foot 2 inches, an All-American college football star, and was raised on a ranch in Montana where he learned to ride, shoot, and bust broncos.

Whiplash has also hired a once popular vaudeville comedian by the name of "Whiskers" McDoogle to portray Tex's sidekick.  Over his many years in vaudeville and movies, Whiskers became known as a "pratfall comic" who could also fiddle a fiddle and sing in an irritating nasal voice. He also had a reputation for alcohol consumption. The interplay between Tex and Whiskers - along with the falls, mugging, hijinks and singin' - will use up about 5-10 minutes in each yarn, thus further reducing production costs which might have been spent on exterior locations and action content.

B. B. is a bit worried about the acceptance of his new sagebrush hero, and in particular, the impact on his profits. Seems that other "indie" producers, who are B. B.'s direct competition, are turning out westerns with bigger names like Bob Steele, Tom Tyler and Jack Perrin, and those flicks will get more playing time. He's also heard rumors about a new film company being formed called Republic Pictures.

Someone asks Whiplash if they can add a musical score. Public domain classical music is available for nothing, so B. B. says "sure" while chomping on a fat cigar. Then someone suggests that the film be enhanced by adding stuntwork along with a camera truck to film some chase sequences. The stuntmen, camera truck, extra riders, rental of a running insert road, and an extra day of shooting would add $500 to the cost.

B. B. chomps down on his cigar, raises one eyebrow in disbelief, and quickly responds with some expletives that equate to "nope!". From behind a cloud of cigar smoke, B. B. also adds "don't you know that Tex is a lousy rider ... he was born and raised in New Jersey!".

Whiplash and his production folks continue to mull over the storyline. The script calls for the heroine, who was "back East attending school", to return home via stagecoach to help her father fend off a gang of cattle rustlers. Whiplash quickly revises this to have the gal arrive via automobile. She'll drive Whiplash's personal car, a shiny black convertible, thus avoiding another fee for renting a stagecoach, team of hosses, and a driver. Of course, Whiplash will charge $50 against the production costs for use of his personal vehicle.

The supporting cast includes a head baddie, four henchman, the heroine's father, a lawman, and a couple posse members. Most are hired as "day players", which simply means that they are paid one-day-at-a-time. The heroine's father appears in only a few scenes before being killed off. The director will shoot all the scenes involving him in one day, thus the old actor will receive pay for a single day of work. A couple of the henchman and one posse rider have done tunes and guitar pickin' in other western films as members of various musical groups. The three will do a song around a campfire while Tex and the heroine chat about the rustlin' and death of her father. A decade earlier, one of the henchman had a brief fling as the hero in silent westerns, but with advancing age and the arrival of the sound, he moved into support roles, generally portraying a gang member. He's a pretty good rider and about the same size as Tex Majestic. He'll get an extra day of work and a few extra bucks in his pay envelope by doubling Tex in the ridin' scenes (thus insuring that the hero will not be injured which could curtail production and cause a budget overrun).

The plot also includes a cattle drive, and to save $$$, they'll use stock footage from some silent westerns. Alas, they view their library footage and all the cattle scenes have the hero wearing a dark shirt, a brace of six-shooters, a white hat, and riding a white hoss. But our BELCH VALLEY RAIDER hero wears a black hat, white shirt, single gun and rides a paint. Whiplash bellows "Gadzooks, find some other stock footage ... better yet, get Tex to change his uniform ... and where the h#*! can we find a white horse for rent!"

Whiplash interjects another last-minute change. His daughter Wendy Whiplash is home from college for the Summer and has dreams of becoming a Hollywood starlet. Her dad hires her to portray the girl friend of the heroine - she'll have a line or two of dialog and her $200.00 salary further reduces the available cash to pay for the other cast and crew members.

The planning and cost-saving for another "Mighty Whiplash Production" continues ...


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