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What is a 'B-Movie'? PDF Print E-mail
Written by by Ron Bonk   
Jan 10, 2005 at 02:00 AM
The question probably posed to me most is "What is a B-Movie?" Trying to zero in on what a B-Movie is can lead to some pretty heated debates. I've heard some people insist that the only true B-movies existed during the 30's and 40's when the practice was first started with the original Hollywood Studios. Others, when asked, say B-Movies are independent movies, movies made outside of the Hollywood influence. Others call up memories of sensational poster art from the 1950's-1970's, showcasing movies heavy on exploitation or outrageous themes. Some people think all horror movies are B-Movies and visa-versa (it IS probably the most wildly used genre within the B-Movie realm). And others say B-Movies are stupid movies, senseless and goofy, the "B" standing for "bad". Well, they are all right and they are all wrong. B-Movies, once so easily defined as the second billed, cheaper production of a double feature showing, has expanded to fit movies or all types - all genres on all levels of production. To best understand what a B-Movie is, one must know the history of B-Movies. I've put that together for you in brief below, and I think in the end you'll understand why the B-Movies are still making a mark on so many productions being made and seen today, and being enjoyed not by just the underground cult movie loving crowd, but by mainstream movie goers the world over as well.

B-Movies were introduced during Hollywood's "Golden Age", a time period when the Studios owned the theaters they exhibited in. Facing dwindling Depression-era attendance, these Studios began to rely on various promotional methods to punch up their showings. Besides decorating their main release with cartoons and newsreels, many of these productions would be paired with a second cheaper movie, a "b-movie". Many of these movies were not produced by the Studios but were in fact made by outside production companies, or better known as "Poverty Row" companies. Republic, Monogram, and Majestic were among the better known Poverty Row production companies, producing mostly Westerns and serials such as the Charlie Chan series and The Bowery Boys movies. As opposed to the "A" movies, these "B" features were sold at a fixed rate for use, not relying on box office for a profit. Later, the success of "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" gave rise to the horror genre, which quickly became the most popular "B" movie genre. Today, the line between horror film and b-movie is almost completely blurred.

In 1948, a Supreme Court decision forced the studios sell their theatres. With that decision, the pairing of "A" and "B" movies came to an end, no longer a profitable venture for the studios. But "B" movies were far from dead. They re-emerged, this time playing alone or with other "B" movies, most prevalent at the outside "Drive-In" Theaters. Their focus changed - since these "B" movies no longer were forced to appeal to a mainstream audience, the "B" zeroed in on a more on targeted audience, most often males between the ages of 15-35. Subject matter and content previously taboo became more and more fodder for the "B" movie studios that were constantly seeking "A" movie success. "B" Movies became a testing ground for controversial material, and success there was not overlooked by the studios. Subject matter that performed well for the independent studios was soon produced in a more sanitized version and released for mainstream consumption by the Studios. Because of this practice, B-movies continued to constantly evolve, going into more and more unique subject matter as the decades wore on. Producers were always on the lookout for a new "angle", leading storylines to become more and more exploitive and dependent on outrageous and downright silly storylines. Gradually, this lead to the term "B-movie" becoming synonymous with "bad" movie. In the 1960's, with the Production Code falling by the wayside, came the rise of even more explicit motion pictures. Burlesque shows and nudist films inspired the "Nudie Cuties". Audience cravings and a glut of product lead to "harder" productions, first producing the "Roughies, Ghoulies and Kinkies" and then full out XXX. And cheesy sci-fi and horror flicks known for men in rubber monster suits gave way to more realistic and bloody horror and action motion pictures. Movies like Herschel Gordon Lewis' film Blood Feast (1963) and Night of the Living Dead (1968) changed the face of B AND A movies.

Also changing the face, and definition of B-movies, around this time was the fact that many of the young filmmakers entering Hollywood were weaned on B-movies as children. B-Movie "style" was being seen more and more in the "A" Movie picture. Filmmakers like George Lucas, Sergio Leone, Steven Spielberg, Sam Peckinpah, George Romero, John Carpenter and Martin Scorcese produced movies like Jaws, Halloween, Star Wars, The Dirty Dozen, The Getaway, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Exorcist, The Omen and Taxi Driver that brought b-movie style, subject matter and tone to the major studio releases on "A" movie budgets. B-Movies were being consumed on a mainstream level, and audiences loved it.

The introduction of the video format in the 1980's further changed the face of "B"-movies. Now "B" movie more often refers to productions that forgo the once standard theatrical release and instead go "direct to video". Companies like Troma and Full Moon are among the leaders in the current "B" movie field, but even ultra small studios like Sub Rosa Studios, with it's multiple divisions across the U.S., continue to make a strong impact on the "B" movie scene. And the Hollywood studios continue to exhibit the influence of "B" movies on their storylines and talent. Movies like "The Mummy", "The Phantom Menace", "Scream" and "The Blair Witch Project" show how the influence of "B" movies is alive and well. The "B" landscape continues to produce material that mainstream audience want and "A" Studios will forever try to emulate.

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