Entertainment in the Margins of the American Film Industry

Yannis Tzioumakis. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 1. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.

This chapter examines the business of entertainment in the vibrant independent sector of the American film industry. Since the early 1980s, this formerly marginal sector of American cinema has been responsible for the production of a large number of aesthetically and politically challenging films that have found considerable commercial exposure, to the extent that several critics have talked of an “independent movement” within Hollywood cinema.1 By the end of the 1980s, this movement had become a sizeable force in American cinema as the incredible commercial success of sex, lies, and videotape (Soderbergh, 1989), the popularization of Sundance Film Festival, and the rise of Miramax as the quintessential distribution company of independent fare brought low-budget films by (mostly) young filmmakers and made away from the majors much closer to a mainstream audience.

Since then, the label “independent” has been claimed by a large number of films, filmmakers, producers, production companies, and distribution companies as it was seen to connote “a particular brand of quality that was perceived as absent from the considerably more refined (and expensive) but impersonal mainstream Hollywood productions.” As a result, it became increasingly difficult to define what an independent film is, while even major productions have been keen to play up the “independent card,” such as The Aviator (Scorsese, 2005) which, according to its producer, was “the biggest independent movie ever made, unless you count Lord of the Rings.” Not surprisingly then, the business of entertainment in the independent sector became a blurry subject, especially when the majors created subsidiaries (“the Classics divisions”) firstly to make profit from non-American art house films but later with the explicit purpose of claiming a piece of the American independent film market. With companies such as United Artists Classics, Sony Pictures Classics, and Fox Searchlight distributing and (later) financing famous independent films such as Lianna (Sayles, 1983), Safe(Haynes, 1995), and Boys Don’t Cry (Peirce, 1999), respectively, it became incredibly difficult to argue that these companies are not part of the institutional apparatus of American independent cinema, despite the fact that their corporate parents are conglomerates with massive financial power and the companies against which independent cinema often defines itself.

Even though these developments have been shaping the independent sector in recent years, especially post-1989, they were nevertheless anticipated to a great extent by the practices and conduct of business of Orion Pictures, a motion picture company that went into business in the late 1970s. As I’ve argued elsewhere, Orion is an exceptional case in the American film industry. Originally an independent production company attached to a major studio (Warner), Orion quickly left the major and entered the film distribution business, becoming an independent production and distribution company that financed productions in-house while also purchasing distribution rights of films from other independent production companies. This means that Orion plied its trade across the independent spectrum (financing, commissioning, purchasing distribution rights, and distributing) as this had been emerging in the 1980s, while it was also one of the first companies to form a classics division, Orion Classics, in 1983. For that reason it makes an excellent case study to understand the direction(s) the business of filmmaking took within the context of contemporary American independent cinema.

The main focal point will be the production history of House of Games (Mamet, 1987), one of the low-budget films Orion financed and distributed but that was produced by Filmhaus Productions, the production company of respected independent producer Michael Hausman (with producing credits in Silkwood [Nichols, 1983] and The People vs Larry Flint [Forman, 1996]). What makes House of Games an interesting example is that the film was made by a first-time director and was also characterized by a distinctive aesthetic, in line with what audiences have come to anticipate from an “indie” film. As our discussion will demonstrate, the distinct aesthetic effects the film conveyed, which were the product of an unusual narrative construction and use of visual style, must be firstly attributed to the fact that the film was conceived, developed, produced, and distributed away from the majors, which would never allow a film such as House of Game to become the film it became. On the other hand, Orion could. Specifically, the company’s practice of preselling the rights for its films to raise production finance so that Orion would not put its own money in line and the company’s legendary reputation for being “always open to the offbeat or ‘serious’ idea” and “sensitive to filmmakers” created an institutional arrangement that allowed a first-time film director, such as Mamet, unprecedented freedom to make his film according to his own very specific aesthetic vision.6

Following this arrangement, Mamet and Filmhaus organized the production of the film in a way that differs substantially from the dominant mode of production that has characterized mainstream American cinema from its early days and has remained generally unaltered post-1960, despite several changes in the industry. As a sort of preface, I cite Mamet’s statement on his experience as the director of House of Games: “what a joy to be on a project that was not a collaboration,” a comment that can be read as a direct criticism of the hierarchy entailed in the detailed division of labor that characterizes the mode of production of mainstream “classical” films. Instead, Mamet and Filmhaus utilized a somewhat less hierarchical model, one that has a long standing tradition in independent filmmaking since John Cassavetes revolutionized the sector in the late 1950s and that continues to our times.

Before examining the institutional configuration that the phrase “Orion Pictures Presents a Filmhaus Production of a David Mamet Film” signifies, a brief discussion of what independent filmmaking actually is and how it evolved alongside mainstream cinema is in need.

Independent Filmmaking and American Cinema

Independent film production has always coexisted alongside studio production in American cinema and has taken many forms and functions. For instance, during the studio years (mid-1920s to late 1940s) the label independent could be attached to prestige-level pictures made by producers such as Samuel Goldwyn, Walt Disney, and David O. Selznick who used United Artists (and later other companies) to release films they made through their respective production companies. Among these independent films one could find films such as Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939) and The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, 1946), films widely considered mainstream Hollywood productions under the studio system, which nevertheless were produced by Samuel Goldwyn through his independent company and distributed by United Artists and RKO, respectively.

The same label, however, could also be attached to low-budget pictures (such as the singing cowboy western Rainbow Over Texas [F. McDonald, 1946]) produced and distributed by Poverty Row studios such as Republic Pictures or Edgar G. Ulmer’s famed B noir Detour (1945) produced and released by Producers Releasing Corporation and destined for the low part of double bills in the 1930s and 1940s. The label independent could also be attached to ultra-low-budget films that targeted the various ethnic populations in America, which were produced, distributed, and exhibited mainly outside the California-based film industry. Oscar Micheux’s films such as Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925), which were made completely outside Hollywood and targeted black audiences, are characteristic examples of this type of independent cinema.

During the 1940s and 1950s, however, a cluster of sociocultural factors including demographic shifts (especially the wave of suburbanization), the rise of consumer culture, and the consolidation of television as the primary entertainment medium had been gradually shaping an American society with an increasing number of leisure options. With theater attendance declining constantly since 1947 (despite the studios’ attempts to emphasize the cinema experience through the introduction of widescreen technologies in the early 1950s), it was clear that cinema-going became a secondary activity in postwar America. All these factors led to an industrial and economic restructuring in the American film industry, the main manifestation of which can be seen in the dissolution of the studio system, the concentration of the majors on the production of fewer but more expensive films, and on the strict control of the distribution sector.

These changes in the industry changed the format of independent filmmaking. Since the 1950s, prestige-level, top–rank independent production became increasingly “dependent” to the majors as they adopted this type of production after the dissolution of the studio system and were happy to concentrate on financing and distributing while letting other, smaller corporate entities deal with the production process. Films such as The Defiant Ones (Kramer, 1958) and Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960) were financed and distributed by majors (United Artists and Universal, respectively) but were produced by companies owned by Stanley Kramer and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Equally, low-end independent filmmaking continued to exist in the somewhat different form of exploitation filmmaking that companies such as AIP, Dimension, New World Pictures, and filmmakers such as William Castle and Roger Corman practiced from the 1950s onwards. Furthermore, hubs of independent filmmaking activity continued to exist outside California, such as the New American Cinema Group that was based in New York and emphasized an anti-Hollywood approach to film production and distribution. John Cassavetes, an extremely influential independent filmmaker, started his career as part of the group but quickly distanced himself from filmmakers such as John Mekas, Edward Bland, and Lionel Rogosin who were pulled toward the noncommercial avant-garde cinema.

Some of these trends continued largely unaltered to our times. For instance, one could argue that Titanic(1997), a film that epitomizes mainstream Hollywood production at its most excessive, is an independent film because it was produced by James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment and financed and distributed by Fox and Paramount, much like Spartacus in the 1960s. And the same can be suggested for low-budget exploitation filmmaking, which found new avenues of financing with the advent of new distribution and exhibition technologies (video, cable, Pay TV, satellite and, recently, DVD and the Internet), which have made certain film genres (horror, pornographic, martial arts films) very cheap to make and with guaranteed distribution in the video and cable market.

The advent of new distribution outlets, however, became beneficial for another format of independent filmmaking, which lay a much stronger claim to the label independent than the other formats. The introduction of all those distribution technologies signaled the creation of new exhibition outlets, all of which needed sufficient product to operate cost-effectively. At a time when the majors were distributing just over 100 films a year on average, it was clear that demand for films would be staggering. Exploiting their existing film libraries (licensing their old films for exhibition in the cable and video markets) was one of the main measures the majors took, but the demand was mainly for new product. This became particularly evident in the mid-1980s when the home video market showed a tremendous growth (from 1,850,000 VCR sets in 78,000,000 households [2.4% penetration] in 1980, the number reached 32,000,000 in 87,400,000 households [37.2% penetration] in 1986, on the way to 67.6% penetration three years later). With pay cable subscriptions exceeding slightly the numbers of VCRs in 1986 (32,500,000 subscriptions), it was clear that any film producer stood a good chance to have their film released in one or more of the nontheatrical markets, often regardless of the film’s quality and regardless of whether the film received theatrical distribution.11

With the majors increasingly focusing on the production of a handful of blockbusters per year, it was left to independent production to come up with the rest of the product required to sustain the majors’ immense distribution pipelines, cater for the various tastes of different audiences, and generally support the film market in this time of expansion. The mid-1980s, in particular, witnessed a substantial rise in independent film production that provided the necessary diversity of product that the majors were in no position to supply. With ample production finance available primarily via the preselling of home video (and in most cases, cable) rights to numerous new distributors, which were established to exploit specifically these highly unusual circumstances (Vestron, Vidmark, Full Moon, etc. in the video area; HBO, Showtime in cable), independent film production became responsible for a huge variety of films. This diverse production fed the majors’ distribution apparatus but also catered for distinct niche markets such as the art-house market or different minority markets.

The good market conditions for independent filmmaking reached a major threshold in 1989. That year and largely due to the hype surrounding Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape, as well as other participating films such as True Love (Savoka) and Heathers (Lehmann), the until-then little-known U.S. Film Festival became headlining news. With the Sundance Film Institute also achieving public visibility and with companies such as New Line Cinema and Miramax scoring incredible box office figures with small, idiosyncratic films such as House Party (Hudlin, 1990) and sex, lies, and videotape, independent cinema stopped being associated entirely with low-budget, esoteric films for the art-house market. It suddenly became commercial and therefore an attractive proposition for all kinds of industry practitioners and, of course, for the majors.

The company that exploited these new conditions better than anyone was Miramax. Although Miramax existed since the late 1970s as a distribution company of mostly foreign art films, the success of sex, lies, and videotape, which Miramax distributed theatrically, put the company firmly on the map. For a short period of time the company operated primarily through purchases of distribution rights of films from the increasing number of festivals that showcased the new American independent films. Since the mid-1990s, though, Miramax adopted the “Orion model” and proceeded in the finance of films that other independent companies would produce. In this manner Miramax was able to cultivate relationships with successful filmmakers such as Anthony Minghella, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith. However, unlike Orion, which maintained its corporate autonomy throughout its history, Miramax accepted a conglomerate takeover by Disney in 1993, becoming then one of the “major independents … hybrid production and distribution companies that were allowed a large degree of creative autonomy after they were taken over by a conglomerate parent.”

With Disney’s backing Miramax dominated the market while independent production flourished under two more “systems.” The first was under the auspices of independent distributors, the number of which—not surprisingly—multiplied after 1989. The vast majority of these distributors (such as Cinecom and October) were not in the business of finance and production and therefore operated strictly through purchasing distribution rights of completed films (much like the way Miramax operated before the takeover by Disney). The second system was under the aegis of the classics divisions. Originally, the classics were subsidiaries established by the majors to distribute non-American films in the United States as certain European art films such as Truffaut’s La Dernier Metro (The Last Metro) and Beineix’s Diva made rentals of $1.9 million and $2 million in 1980 and 1981, respectively, demonstrating clearly the potential for profit in that market.

Soon, however, the classics started buying the distribution rights of American independent films and, in effect, competing against Miramax and the independent distributors for product. By the mid-1990s, the competition had reached such levels that soon the classics divisions (with the backup of their parent companies) followed Miramax’s example and started financing films that were “independent in spirit,” something that independent distributors were in no position of doing because no independent, with the possible exception of Lions Gate, had a financial base wide enough to finance productions that cost up to $15 million like Fox Searchlight could without even having to ask for permission from 20th Century-Fox, its parent company.

By the end of the 1990s and early 2000s there was so much “indie” product in the market that the label started losing its appeal. As Variety reported, “after a decade of inflated expectations met with erratic B.O. returns ‘indie’ has lost much of its rugged appeal. It’s become shorthand for movies that are small in concept, weren’t produced with the bottom line in mind and were released by companies that are going out of business.” But even if the label started losing its cache, and other appellations such as “niche” or “specialty” started being used instead, the existence of an exceptionally large number of exhibition platforms (including television channels that exclusively screen independent films such as the IFC Channel and the Sundance Channel) that are in constant need of product ensured that independent films were still business as usual.

Despite being made in the late 1980s and before the watershed year of 1989, the production background of House of Games demonstrates a number of characteristics that anticipated the direction independent cinema took. Specifically, the film was produced by an independent company, Filmhaus, after the company secured financing (approximately $5-6 million) by an independent distributor, Orion Pictures. Orion raised the financing through the preselling of the distribution rights of the film (domestic cable and Pay TV, foreign theatrical, foreign video), in effect securing exhibition for a film with a first-time director, no stars, and no other selling point. To explain why this was not a fluke but part of the business practices of the most successful independent company of the 1980s, we need now to turn our attention to Orion Pictures.

The Orion Pictures Factor

Orion Pictures belongs to a particular group of distribution companies that competed with the established powers for much of the 1980s. Along with Cannon, the De Laurentis Entertainment Group, and Miramax, Orion Pictures entered the film business as a production company at a time when demand for feature films had been increasing due to the proliferation of distribution outlets, especially cable and video. The company was formed in 1978 by a group of ex-United Artists executives headed by Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin who disagreed with the policies imposed by Transamerica, United Artists’ parent company. Almost immediately, Orion established a distribution deal with Warner who set up a $90 million financing arrangement for the newly formed company. The deal saw Orion becoming Warner’s (and Hollywood’s) first “satellite” film production company in the same way that Warner’s music division had a number of satellite labels (Warner/Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra, and Asylum) under its orbit; labels that were autonomous in terms of management and creative decisions but that had to use Warner’s distribution apparatus to put their product in the market.

Although the arrangement between Warner and Orion, with its substantial financing and its seemingly favorable terms, gave the five executives an excellent opportunity to re-enter the film business at a time when the average negative cost for a film was still relatively low, it nevertheless proved to be problematic for both partners. Questions of authority and control over Orion’s projects were raised even within the first six months of the partnership. Marketing and distribution, in particular, became a moot point in the two companies’ conduct of business as Warner had the ultimate say in such matters. Thus Orion-produced films with some box office potential did not manage to find an audience partly because of the way they were handled upon their release by the major, such as A Little Romance (G. R. Hill, 1979), a love story that featured Laurence Olivier and, especially, The Great Santini (L. J Carlino, 1979), a gritty drama with Robert Duvall that was released on three different occasions with modified marketing campaigns.

Furthermore, Warner’s foreign distribution offices were empowered to veto the release of Orion’s films if they thought that they would not perform well in specific markets, which could deprive Orion of potential profits. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Orion was not in a position to deliver Warner the stratospheric profits that the expensive, effects-laden, action/adventure-oriented films were bringing to the other majors. With Orion’s line of credit set at $90 million, it was obvious that the company could not afford to make such films. As a matter of fact, Orion had to pass on Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg, 1981) due to its high cost and the principal players’ demands from the film’s gross. As a result, the deal between the two companies lasted only four years (1978-1981). During the period, Orion produced 23 films for the major with only 2 box office hits, 10(Edwards, 1979) and Arthur (Gordon, 1981).

After the termination of the contract in 1981, Orion made the decision to venture into the distribution business by taking over Filmways, an independent distributor that had emerged through a merger between American International Pictures and Filmways in 1978. With a distribution apparatus in place and a library of more than 800 titles from Filmways that could be exploited in the video and cable markets, Orion proceeded to make a number of deals to raise production and marketing funds. Strictly adhering to a philosophy of minimum economic risks, the company started preselling the ancillary distribution rights of its upcoming films to a number of parties. These deals included an agreement with RCA/Columbia for foreign theatrical and video rights; with HBO for cable and pay-TV rights; with Vestron for home video rights; and agreements with foreign distributors, some of which were willing to buy the whole Orion roster of films (in the area of 8 to 12 films per year). With the receipts from theatrical distribution in the U.S. market and the funds from preselling the rights of its films in all other ancillary markets, Orion accumulated substantial capital to self-finance films for theater and television exhibition and therefore start competing directly with the majors. By early 1985 the company was in a position to finance and distribute at least one picture per month and, in the words of Eric Pleskow, the company’s president and CEO, “to be as voluminous a supplier of motion pictures to the world as any other company.”

Arguably, the most important deal Orion made during the first half of the 1980s was with HBO. The spectacularly successful pay cable channel had already become one of Orion’s main stockholders when the latter went public, acquiring 8.5 percent of the company and providing the main financial pillar of Orion throughout the period from 1982 to 1985, which saw a series of deals between the two companies, bringing substantial capital to Orion. The partnership was further extended in February 1985 when HBO and Orion signed new deals according to which the former acquired the nonexclusive pay cable rights for the next 14 Orion films as well as the domestic home video rights to 40 films from Orion’s (ex-AIP, ex-Filmways) library. According to Variety, only the 1985 deals with HBO brought Orion funds within the region of $50-$75 million, bringing up the level of total revenue that the company generated from its partnership with HBO (since 1982) in excess of $150 million. As a result Orion was able to self-finance a record 17 pictures scheduled for release in 1986, including Mamet’s debut feature.

Very early, Orion Pictures established a reputation for making “quality films,” for being “a sanctuary for creative filmmakers,” and for “nourishing chancy, low-budget properties.” If one takes a look at the Orion library of titles, one will find critically acclaimed films by Woody Allen (all his films from Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy [1982] to Shadows and Fogs [1992]), as well as Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1983), Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club (1984), Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (1988), and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). One would also find Paul Verhoeven’s first American feature, Robocop (1987), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) and Kevin Costner’s Oscar-ridden Dances with Wolves (1990).

In 1987, Orion Pictures demonstrated a remarkable achievement for an independent company by capturing the largest share in the American film market. Three of its 1986 films, Platoon, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Hoo-siers, received 18 Academy Award nominations collectively and shared 6 Oscars. Platoon’s domestic gross surpassed the $100 million benchmark, and the company invested bigger sums in its 1987-1988 releases. Furthermore, it established a new distribution arm for the American home video market (Orion Home Entertainment) and ventured in the television market with the very successful series Cagney and Lacey. Additionally, Orion Classics, a semiautonomous division Orion had set up in 1984 to distribute mostly non-U.S. films, had two big hits in Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette (1986) and Manon des Sources (1986), which together grossed $10 million in the U.S. box office.

Orion, however, did not manage to repeat the success of 1987. Excessive spending (by the company’s standards) and a series of flops culminating in the extremely poor $459,000 gross of The House on Carroll Street (Yates, 1988) brought Orion back to a normal 4.2 percent in 1989 and 5.6 percent of the American film market share in 1990. The financial success of the 1990 western Dances with Wolves raised Orion’s stake to 8.5 percent in 1991. However, even though Orion Pictures managed to repeat the success of Costner’s film in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs, a film that also scooped all five major Oscars in March 1992, it finally went bankrupt in November 1991. Its library of titles was subsequently bought by Kirk Kerkorian, already owner of the M-G-M and United Artists film libraries.

This brief account of the history of Orion Pictures reveals certain interesting issues regarding the industrial/economic background of House of Games. The first important parameter is that the film was financed by a company that was considered to be friendly toward creative filmmakers and consequently thought to exercise minimum control over the creation process or, at least, less control compared to the traditional majors. As Mike Medavoy, Orion’s head of worldwide production, stated, Mamet’s “body of work as a playwright—Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross—was reason enough for us to give him a shot at directing.” Secondly, it is clear that the film was produced during the most successful period of Orion’s history (1986-1987), a fact that potentially reinforced the degree of freedom Mamet enjoyed during the production of the film. Finally, through the distribution deals with HBO, RCA/Columbia, and various foreign distributors, Orion not only managed to provide the full budget for the film with zero financial risk for themselves but also to secure exhibition both in the United States and abroad for a feature with no established director or marketable stars. With global distribution and exhibition secure and with a financer-distributor not in the business of “interfering with the [production] process” the filmmaker was in a position to make the film according to his—very specific—vision and hence avoid potential compromises in creative decisions.

Unlike filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, Joel and Ethan Coen, or Gus Van Sant, who retained creative control of their first movies through independent financing and sometimes self-distribution, Mamet managed to achieve this rare feat (for a $5 million production) within the independent structure of “Orion Pictures presents a Filmhaus production of a David Mamet film.”

First-Time Film Director

Prior to House of Games, Mamet had already achieved fame in Hollywood with two star vehicle scripts for big studios. The first was an adaptation of the James M. Cain novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) for the Lorimar/M-G-M production of Bob Rafelson’s same-titled film (1981) with Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange. The second script was also an adaptation, this time of Barry Reed’s novel The Verdict, for the Fox production of Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) with Paul Newman. Mamet was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the second script in the 1982-1983 Academy Awards. The critical and commercial success of these films and of a string of “off-Broadway” and foreign productions of some of his plays,37 which culminated in the presentation of the Pulitzer Prize for Best American Play to Glengarry Glen Ross in 1984, provided Mamet with substantial clout, which he subsequently used for achieving his objective, to make the transition from playwright and screenwriter to film director.

In 1985, Mamet began to work on two scripts. One was an assignment for Paramount, The Untouchables (De Palma, 1987), loosely based on the successful television series of the same title. The second was a screenplay based on a short story written by himself and Jonathan Katz under the working title The Tell, which later became House of Games. His decision to direct the latter himself stemmed in many ways from a wish to retain the copyright of his written work in the medium of cinema. Accustomed to authorship rights in the terrain of theater, where he enjoyed a much greater fame, and as his screenwriting reputation was growing stronger, Mamet became more sensitive to the issue of defense of his intellectual property in his cinema career. In particular, the fate of Sexual Perversity in Chicago (1974), the first adaptation of one of his early plays, which hit the screens as About Last Night… (Zwick, 1986) and had very little to do with the themes and the spirit of his original play, provided the spark in Mamet’s desire to make the leap behind the camera. As Mamet put it in one of his essays:

I have never been much good as a team player or employee, and it was difficult for me to adjust to a situation where “because I say so” was insufficient explanation. When you write for the stage, you retain the copyright. The work is yours and no one can change a word without your permission. When you write for the screen you are a laborer hired to turn out a product, and that product can be altered at the whim of those who employ you. (original italics)

As his work on the script for The Untouchables continued and in the wake of creative differences with Art Linson and Brian De Palma (the screenwriter had submitted four drafts of the screenplay, but the producer and director of the film wanted further changes), Mamet’s interest in directing House of Games led him to reject packages that gave him the screenwriter’s credit but stipulated the appointment of an already established filmmaker to direct the film. These proposals mainly originated from big studios and included the complementary terms of a big-budget production and the signing of stars for the two central roles of Margaret and Mike. The studios’ reluctance to finance an expensive production headed by an individual who was driven by his wish to maintain control of his work as a writer can be mainly understood as a refusal to grant a first-time writer-director the final cut of the film, a condition that was nonnegotiable for Mamet.

Mamet’s persistence in this issue, which, apart from his views about copyright, can be explained by the major role language plays in his plays and screenplays, essentially left him with one option, to finance and produce the film independently. This option generally entails certain fundamental characteristics that shape the production of a film in very specific ways, especially during the mid-1980s when independent production had started flourishing but had yet to reach the frenzy of the late 1980s and early 1990s. These characteristics include: low budget, unknown actors, financial insecurity, and often, no guaranteed distribution. Those features, however, are counterbalanced by the considerably higher degree of freedom a filmmaker enjoys as opposed to studio-controlled film production. It is not surprising then that Mamet chose to go independent because in his opinion “good moviemaking require[d] not conspicuous expenditure but disciplined imagination.”

Mamet’s decision to reject studio packages and embrace independent filmmaking to maintain control of his written material paved the way for other playwright-screenwriters who also made the leap to directing. A year after Mamet, Sam Shepard’s first feature as a writer-director, the rural drama Far North (1988), was also produced independently (a collaboration between Circle JS Productions and Nelson Entertainment—the latter an independent production company specializing in horror films that had decided to branch out to prestige drama) and distributed by Alive Films, a short-lived distributor of the 1980s. Shepard chose a similar arrangement for his second (and for the time being last) directorial effort, the western Silent Tongue (1994), which was produced as a collaborative project by three independent companies (Mire, Belbo Films, and the French Canal+) and distributed by Trimark Pictures, a company in the mold of Orion that went out of business in 2000 and whose library of titles is now controlled by the largest contemporary independent production and distribution company in U.S. cinema, Lions Gate Entertainment.

Equally, Neil La Bute, the only American playwright besides Mamet with a significant filmmaking career, had his first film, the controversial drama In the Company of Men (1997), produced independently (by Canadian-based Alliance Atlantis) and distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, the classics division that has traditionally enjoyed the largest degree of autonomy from its parent company, Sony Pictures. More generally, for writer-directors who wanted to retain creative control over their films, independent filmmaking was the only option, and Mamet’s deal with Orion and Filmhaus became a formula that was copied in the future.

A Filmhaus Production of a David Mamet Film

The independent producer whom Mamet approached with the script for House of Games was Michael Hausman. Until 1986, and via his company Filmhaus, Hausman had been associated with a variety of films spanning from key independently financed and released features such as Alambrista! (Young, 1977) and Heartland (Pearce, 1980) to independently produced but studio-financed and distributed films such as Mikey and Nicky (May, 1976) and Places in the Heart (Benton, 1984). Hausman’s credits, furthermore, extended to other areas of film production such as production manager in The Heartbreak Kid (May, 1972) and as second unit or assistant director in films such as Rich Kids (Young, 1979), Hair (Forman, 1979), Silkwood (Nichols, 1984), and Desert Bloom (Corr, 1986).

Hausman’s experience in the film production business and his knowledge of the craft of filmmaking were instrumental in Mamet’s attempt as a first-time director. As Mamet himself has documented in one of his essays, Hausman was the driving force behind the organization of the film’s production. Strictly adhering to the axiom “all mistakes are made in preproduction,” the producer ensured the smooth operation of the film’s production by planning carefully the stage of principal cinematography and by developing a close working relationship with the director. Hausman also received another credit in the film as a second assistant director, helping Mamet with the technical aspect of the film, an aspect to which Mamet admitted complete ignorance prior to shooting House of Games. Furthermore, Hausman secured financing and distribution by making a deal with Orion Pictures who advanced the money by preselling the film’s rights to a cable distributor (Home Box Office) and to foreign theatrical distributors on an individual basis.

Although the role of Michael Hausman was fundamental in these areas of the production of House of Games, further evidence suggests that the film’s mode of production was not a clear instance of the package-unit system that typified Hollywood cinema since the 1950s. According to this system of film production:

A producer organised a film project: he or she secured financing and combined the necessary laborers (whose roles had been previously defined by the standardised production structure and subdivision of work categories) and the means of production (the narrative property, the equipment and the physical sites of production).

Even though Hausman’s work in securing financing and arranging the means of production generally conforms to this definition of the package, there are certain elements—specific to the production—that indicate transgressions from this definition. This is especially at the level of the division of labor and the role of the director in the overall organization of the production. Before discussing the exact nature of those transgressions and the ways they have shaped the production of the film, we need to examine the properties of the House of Games package.

The main ingredients of the package, gathered by Hausman, included the director, his script, the organization of production by Filmhaus (which also supplied the lower echelon workers for the film), and the complete financing of the project by Orion. However, within this structure, there was a second “mini-package” put together by Mamet that included the more creative aspects of the production such as the actors, the music composer, the set designer, and the costume designer, all previous collaborators on his work in the theater. This type of arrangement has not been a rare phenomenon in low-budget productions, as the director is normally bestowed with the power to select the principal players provided that he or she remains within the allocated budget. Furthermore, there has been a long-standing tradition in independent (and often studio) filmmaking where a director has worked with the same players in film after film. From John Cassavetes who employed actors Gena Rowland, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, and Ben Gazzara; editor Tom Cornwell; cinematographer Al Ruban; and composer Bo Harwood in a series of films he wrote and directed to more recent independent filmmakers such as Kevin Smith who used actors Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Jason Mewes; composer David Pirner; production designer Robert Holtzman; and editor-producer Scott Mosier in the majority of his films, the independent sector is full of examples of filmmakers who work consistently with a small and trusted circle of friends and collaborators.

What makes House of Games interesting in this respect, however, was that the majority of Mamet’s key collaborators had very little or, in many cases, no experience whatsoever in filmmaking prior to House of Games, despite years of experience in theater production, particularly in producing Mamet’s plays since the 1970s. Specifically, the music composer, the production designer, and the costume designer of the film had never worked in cinema before Mamet’s first film. Also, actors such as W. H. Macy, Mike Nussbaum, and J. T. Walsh had previously appeared only in a handful of film productions, whilst other actors in key parts such as Ricky Jay (the man from Vegas) and Steve Goldstein (Billy Hahn) made their cinema debut in House of Games. Additionally, and following traditions in American theater (and in independent cinema), some of the players took on more than one role in the production of the film, such as Scott Zigler and Patricia Wolff who are credited as actors and production assistants, Ricky Jay who is credited as actor and consultant in confidence games, and, of course, Michael Hausman, who is credited as producer and second assistant director.

This second mini-package functioned as an ensemble, an intricately linked group of creative units whose contribution to the production and aesthetics of the film is far greater than the sum of individual contributions. This suggests that the division of labor during the production of the film did not follow the strict hierarchy that has traditionally characterized the mode of production of mainstream Hollywood films. The transgression in the division of labor from the dominant model does not imply that there was no pecking order in the production process or that Mamet, as the film’s director, did not have the final say in such questions as frame composition or editing. Rather, it demonstrates that the creative aspect of the film’s production was, more forcefully than is usual, shaped by the dynamics of a group of players whose long-time collaboration on stage under Mamet’s tutelage influenced both the nature of the division of labor in the upper ranks of the film’s production and eventually the aesthetics of the film.

In transferring distinct practices from stage to film production and assimilating these to traditions of independent filmmaking, Mamet demonstrated that, unlike Hollywood mainstream cinema, which is considerably more resistant to “foreign” influences, independent cinema is a mode of filmmaking that is open to influences from other media and modes of productions (such as theater and the working methods of theater companies). In this respect, Mamet’s success in assimilating his theater-originating methods of work to independent cinema’s tradition of filmmakers working with a small circle of friends and collaborators in film after film paved the way for the introduction of further outside influences that made American independent cinema even richer in terms of the directions it could follow.

A characteristic example here is Kevin Smith, who burst into the independent scene only a few years after Mamet and introduced an equally distinct mode of filmmaking. As noted earlier, Smith also worked with a small circle of friends and collaborators who have participated in most of his films. In this case, such a system of production has provided the filmmaker with the freedom to create a distinct filmic universe that exists across all his films and that is realized through relentless cross-referencing of characters, narrative events, and “in-jokes” from all his films. This practice reached a remarkable extent in 2004 with his film Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, which contained so many references to his previous films that lack of prior knowledge of Clerks (1994), Mallrats (1996), Chasing Amy (1997), and Dogma (1999) can render Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back incomprehensible. With other independent filmmakers importing new ideas and practices (Smith’s inspiration for such a universe was the medium of comic books), one can only expect that American independent cinema will continue to be a locus of innovative trends that expand the language of cinema.

The “Mamet Aesthetic”

House of Games tells the story of Dr. Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse), a clinical psychologist who, in her attempt to help one of her patients, becomes involved in a series of adventures with a gang of con artists led by Mike (Joe Mantegna). Although Margaret believes that she has been allowed access to the planning and execution of one of the gang’s elaborate tricks to fleece an unsuspected businessman, she finally comes to understand that it was she who had been the “mark” of the con all along. The film ends with Margaret’s violent reaction to the realization that she had been “played” by the con artists and her recognition of a surprising truth about herself.

This narrative premise functioned as a vehicle for the articulation of a number of distinct themes, which characterized Mamet’s previous work as a playwright and which include: the destiny of the lumpen proletariat in corporate America, the education of the innocent, the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, the meaning of everyday transactions, and the truth behind deceptive appearances. More importantly, however, this narrative premise was mainly realized through the use of a specific set of stylistic choices whose particular combinations signaled the beginning of a distinct aesthetic view that came to permeate all future Mamet films. This view can be seen as a product of an amalgamation of theoretical concepts and ideas that stem from Mamet’s readings of the Aristotelian concept of narrative unity, the Eisensteinian theory of montage, the Stanislavskian notion of physical acting, and the assimilation of the last to particular patterns of speech delivery by Mamet’s actors. These were developed by Mamet and a group of theater actors and practitioners, many of whom are present in the credits of House of Games.

More specifically, Mamet’s distinct aesthetic view relies upon a use of film style that sits uneasily with the notion of classicism in American cinema. This is because, although narrative construction in Mamet’s films follows for the most part the basic principles of classical narrative (causal coherence, continuity, and character motivation), it often departs from those principles and follows a logic of its own. These departures are mainly manifest in several clear breaks from the rules of social and/or cultural verisimilitude, which immediately provide the story with a high degree of implausibility compared to a classical narrative. Equally, the film style employed to support such a narrative generally adheres to the rules of continuity and transparency, though, on several occasions, it also breaks those rules and consequently evokes a strong sense of constructedness and/or artificiality. These effects are mainly conveyed through the frequent absence of realist conventions in parts of the film’s mise-en-scène, including frame composition, camera movement, and editing. For this reason, although the film style is at the service of the narrative, it also comments on the narrative and breaks the spectator’s engagement with the story in ways that a classical style would never do.

This paradoxical (for an American film) relation between narrative and style has its roots in Mamet’s view of realism as a discourse that should seek to “express” rather than to “convince.”51 For Mamet, style should be used to serve the aesthetic integrity of the film, which is not necessarily constructed according to externally imposed standards of realism and verisimilitude. What Mamet seems to object to here is the use of a film style that does not “respect” the central idea of the film as it is put forward by the written text, which, of course, explains the filmmaker’s stern opposition to any changes made to his scripts. As Joe Mantegna stated in an interview: “He [Mamet] has painstakingly, specifically created his dialogue to get whatever impact he expects to get out of it. … 99 times out of 100 I’ve done everything he’s written as written.”

More importantly, however, Mamet’s objection stands as a powerful critique of a stylistically determined mode of film practice such as the mainstream classical Hollywood cinema. Given the fact that the classical Hollywood cinema favors a specific use of film style that serves a particularly constructed narrative and a mode of production that has traditionally treated the screenplay as work-in-progress and excluded the screenwriter from the stages of film production and postproduction, it is obvious that Mamet’s approach to filmmaking stands firmly outside such a mode of film practice. This is the reason why Mamet’s style strikes critics as artificial and unnatural, despite the fact that it is organically connected to narratives that are often contrived and implausible.

Mamet’s distinct approach to filmmaking and his refusal to comply with pillars of classical filmmaking in House of Games (but also in his later films such as Homicide [1991], Oleanna [1994], The Spanish Prisoner [1997], The Winslow Boy [1998], and State and Main [2000]) locate him firmly at the core of the independent sector of American cinema, at a time when independent cinema was gathering momentum before the “watershed” year of 1989. It is important then to acknowledge his contribution during the “lean” years of American independent cinema and to place the distinct formal and aesthetic propositions his films made alongside ones made by other important parental figures of “indie” filmmaking, such as John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, Spike Lee, Victor Nunez, and Gus Van Sant.

Furthermore Mamet’s focus on narratives about grifters and confidence tricks reinvigorated a type of film that had been popularized in the 1970s and early 1980s with The Sting (G. R. Hill, 1973) and The Sting II (Kagan, 1983). Following Mamet’s House of Games, a number of similar films were made, almost all paying homage to Mamet and almost all by independent companies. These include: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) distributed by Orion; The Grifters (Frears, 1990) distributed by Cineplex ODEON; Traveller (J. N. Green, 1997) distributed by October Films; Mamet’s second con artist film The Spanish Prisoner (Sony Pictures Classics); Where the Money Is (Kanievska, 2000) distributed by USA Films; Confidence (Foley, 2003) distributed by Lions Gate Films; and Criminal (Jacobs, 2004) distributed by Warner Independent Pictures.

A brief discussion of a scene from House of Games will demonstrate Mamet’s distinct aesthetic vision, highlight the film’s almost anticlassical aesthetics, and illustrate its status as a con artist film.

A House Full Of Games or “That’s What You Thought You Saw”

After a patient of hers threatens to commit suicide because he can’t pay a large gambling debt and therefore the gangster (Mike) whom he owns the money to would sooner or later kill him, Dr. Margaret Ford breaks the codes of her profession and goes herself to the debt holder to convince him to leave her patient alone. As it turns out, Mike (the gangster) is not as tough as Billy had implied and is willing to forget Billy’s debt, provided that Margaret would help him beat one of his opponents in a card game in-progress. What Margaret has to do is pretend that she is Mike’s girlfriend and look for a specific signifier in his opponent’s behavior during the game, a “tell,” as Mike puts it, that would signal whether his opponent is bluffing or not. Margaret accepts Mike’s offer and joins him in the back room where some serious money is at stake in a game of poker. During the previous scene, however, the spectator finds out that Billy’s debt to Mike is a mere $800, a piece of information that Margaret, rather implausibly, misses. This consequently implies that there are other latent reasons for Margaret’s direct involvement with Mike and his company, reasons that have to do with her compulsive, and therefore not clearly motivated, character.

While the spectator has formed the expectation that Margaret, the proficient psychologist, will catch the tell and be instrumental to Mike’s objective to beat his opponent from Vegas and consequently achieve her own goal (protect her client), editing and narration play a number of tricks to the spectator. In the early parts of the scene the man from Vegas is strictly framed either between Mike and Margaret who occupy the two sides of the frame or in the corner of individual frames, “surrounded” by the other card players. Such stylistic choices and the way the compositions are edited suggest that the man from Vegas is “trapped,” and there is no way that he can come out as the winner of the game.

In latter parts of the scene, however, editing and narration seem to suggest a different outcome for the game. This time the man from Vegas takes a central position in the frame, and it is Mike and Margaret who are isolated from the group and play “against” them. The compositional isolation of Mike and Margaret from the other players juxtaposed with the central position of the man from Vegas (who is now the character spatially “supported” by the other present characters) shifts the balance to his favor and prepares the spectator, who is still expecting that Margaret will help Mike win the hand, for a narrative surprise.

When the man from Vegas wins the hand, the first subsequent shot is of Mike and Margaret shocked from the defeat. Slowly, Mike leans backwards and ends up off screen leaving Margaret alone in the frame, totally isolated from the rest of the card players. The relation of this shot to the previous group of shots seems to suggest that Margaret is responsible for their defeat, a piece of narrative information that stands at odds with what the spectator has previously witnessed, namely, Margaret following Mike’s instructions and catching his opponent’s tell.

Finally, two subsequent shots of two card players who are peripheral to the story seem to create an idea that ends up informing the rest of the film. Even though the narrative value of both these minor characters is too insignificant to suggest that those two shots connote a particular idea, the equal duration of the shots (2.5 seconds each) and, especially, the highly stylized nature of the compositions (both shots were filmed with wide-angle lenses that distort the distance between camera and object; both shots were photographed from unusual camera angles while also there is a lack of background diegetic sound at that point), along with the break they introduce to the pattern of the scene, provide them with an added value for the spectator’s understanding of the real meaning of the scene. The two shots come to reinforce the idea of a set up, of a constructed reality that Margaret is shortly to discover and the spectator is invited to discover at that exact moment.

In light of discovering the true meaning of this scene as a set up to con Margaret out of her money and not as a trap to trick the man from Vegas (as both the main character and the spectator originally thought), one can begin to understand Mamet’s use of style in House of Games as a means to visually support an idea, namely, that the development of the narrative does not occur through the actions of a psychologically motivated protagonist who wishes to achieve a goal. In other words, film style is used to negate the unfolding of a “classical” narrative and to imply the existence of a second, more powerful, and up to that point, latent narrative agent whose goals, at the last instance, frame the actions of the main protagonist. This narrative agent is eventually concretely personified in the characters of the con men (and in particular the character of Mike) but only in the final scenes of the film.

Furthermore, throughout the poker game sequence the rules of cultural verisimilitude are broken repeatedly demonstrating further the very specific logic Mamet’s story follows. Even if the spectator does not have any knowledge or experience of card-playing, he/she should be in a position to question the plausibility of several events that take place in the scene. Thus, the fact that Mike nods to Margaret that he is holding three aces (after spending considerable time explaining to her what a tell is) is the first clue that this is not a “real” game. Later on, Mike reveals his cards without covering the bet (if accepted, the check should have been written in advance and placed in the pot). After threatening Mike and Margaret with a pistol, the man from Vegas puts the weapon down on the table (running of course the danger of having the pistol taken by any one of the other players). In the midst of all this, Joey watches calmly the whole incident from a distance and is not ordered to move to a place where he can be visible to the man from Vegas. All the above actions clearly deny any sense of verisimilitude in the scene.

Mamet also makes a number of other stylistic choices that succeed in discarding the armor of an externally imposed realism from the film. The most obvious one is the staging of confidential information “within earshot of characters who don’t hear them.” For instance, Mike tells Margaret to keep looking for his opponents tell while sitting opposite him at the poker table; Margaret tells Mike that she caught the tell while standing only a few feet away from the man from Vegas; and so forth. Rosenbaum has rightly argued that Mamet uses conventions of theater space, which, unlike the usual conventions of filmic space, allow such staging of conversations.

The poker game sequence is a blueprint for understanding the rest of the film as the events depicted in this scene are replicated in a much more elaborate way throughout the rest of the film. Thus, in this scene, Margaret agrees to play Mike’s girlfriend to help him fleece the man from Vegas and discovers that she was the actual mark of the con. In the rest of the film, Margaret agrees to play Mike’s wife to help him con a businessman only to discover that she was the mark of the con once again, only this time Margaret does not realize it until after handing them over $250,000 of her savings.

House of Games did not prove the commercial success Orion, Filmhaus, and David Mamet might have hoped. The film grossed $2,585,639 at the U.S. box office, which means that it did not manage to recoup its negative costs. The failure of the film could partly be explained by the distributor’s decision to center the advertising campaign for the film on Mamet’s transition from a writer to a filmmaker, while also highlighting the film’s generic status as a tense noir thriller. Opting for such an approach the distributor directly targeted audiences familiar with Mamet’s theatre and literary background rather than dedicated cine-philes who patronize art cinemas and watch low-budget indie films. For instance, in the film’s trailer there is no reference to Mamet’s Oscar nomination for The Verdict or his association with The Postman Always Rings Twice, both commercially successful films.

Despite its commercial failure, however, House of Games did its job in introducing Mamet the filmmaker in American cinema, and in the following years, the once full-time playwright and screenwriter made the transition to a full-time filmmaker with nine feature films in 20 years, the vast majority of them low-budget independent productions (Mamet still writes plays but at a much slower pace than in the 1970s and 1980s). Furthermore, the film’s independent status, primarily exemplified by the financer/distributor’s “hands-off” approach to creative decisions during the production process and its ability to guarantee complete financing and global distribution and exhibition for the film allowed Mamet to transport his distinct dramatic approach from theater to the medium of cinema and therefore maintain his idiosyncratic “voice,” which had made him one of the most important contemporary American playwrights, in a different medium. In terms of production practices, this creative freedom manifested mainly in the way the division of labor was arranged at the top echelon of the production crew. This is where a number of creative players were allowed a much more significant input in the production process, to the extent that the term collaborative business (a term that normally—and ironically—designates a strictly hierarchical and detailed division of labor in Hollywood cinema) was put into question. For that reason, the film’s mode of production can be seen as different from the production mode that, according to Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, has exemplified historically mainstream classical American cinema.


In many ways, the production history of House of Games points toward the name of the game in the post-1989 years when major independent distributors such as Miramax and New Line Cinema, the classics divisions, and larger independent distributors such as Lions Gate have followed Orion’s steps and have institutionalized American independent cinema. From the independent “movement” in the early 1980s, which consisted of a small group of films per year, American independent cinema has now become a relatively distinct category of filmmaking both in the global entertainment industry and in public discourse. With the existing distribution companies branching out into financing independent productions alongside the more traditional buying of distribution rights of completed films, Orion’s impact is evident. This is even more so when companies such as Miramax and New Line recently invested in multimillion dollar productions such as Shakespeare in Love(Madden, 1998—$24 million budget), Confessions of A Dangerous Mind (Clooney, 2000—$35 million budget); and The Four Feathers ($80 million budget) all three for Miramax, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Jackson, 2002-2004) for New Line Cinema, in the same way that Orion gambled with the expensive revisionist western Dances with Wolves in 1990.

The institutionalization of American independent cinema has succeeded in making a particular brand of filmmaking marketable at a global level and in effect helped a very large number of personal, idiosyncratic, and offbeat films receive theatrical distribution and often find an audience. And as Orion allowed a filmmaker such as David Mamet to make films with a very particular anticlassical aesthetic that goes against fundamental Hollywood rules, other independent distributors took chances with films that pushed the envelope in terms of aesthetics and representations often getting into uncharted territory. Thus, Miramax allowed filmmakers such as Kevin Smith to make films such as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), which has so many references to other Smith films that it might prove incomprehensible to audiences with no prior knowledge of Smith’s previous films. After seeing it at Sundance, independent distributor Artisan (now part of Lions Gate) purchased the rights to The Blair Witch Project (Myrick and Sánchez 1999), a horror-home movie-in-the-woods shot with a digital camera that had little chances of a commercial theatrical release; the film, a spectacular success, proved well worth the risk. And Focus Features, Universal’s classics division, financed and distributed Ang Lee’s controversial Brokeback Mountain (2005), a modern-day western featuring gay cowboys, a taboo subject in the genre as defined by the films of the majors.

Whether major independents, independents, or classics divisions, in the financing, production, and/or distribution business, these companies have managed to create an institutional apparatus that differs from the one that characterizes mainstream Hollywood cinema. Despite the differences, though, this apparatus has existed in a symbiotic relationship with the majors, making for a well-oiled entertainment machine that covers all audience tastes and preferences.