The BAAS Marcus Cunliffe Travel Award enabled me to gather new material on George A. Romero’s film production company Laurel Entertainment Inc. and track developments within American independent film, writes Tom Fallows. My visits to Columbia University in New York and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh demonstrate how geographic, economic, legal and institutional forces feed into independent films as cultural objects.
The BAAS Marcus Cunliffe Travel Award provided me with an opportunity to obtain research materials from the United States crucial to my analysis of American independent film. My PhD project offers the first academic study of the key US film production company Laurel Entertainment Inc., established in 1973 by film director George A. Romero and his partner Richard P. Rubinstein. Romero is best known as the director of a series of zombie films, including 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, and his ability to craft commercial, yet politically challenging low budget genre films which made him one of the most culturally significant independent filmmakers working in America. Based in
Pittsburgh, Laurel’s geographical separateness from mainstream production was unprecedented and my work aims to offer new insight into the industry of independent film, demonstrating how economic, legal and institutional forces feed into and help dictate such cultural objects.
In this media industries investigation, I am reliant on an array of empirical data, including corporate records and interviews with industry figures. Particularly, I had been looking for Laurel’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) documents from 1980-1988, a series of governmental reports containing rare financial and corporate information. These materials proved unavailable in the UK, and in fact are so scarce that even in the US the complete set could only be obtained by visiting two institutions. I therefore began my search at Columbia University’s Butler Library in New York, where, thanks to Head of Access and Operations Michael Lillard, the SEC microfiche files were waiting for me upon arrival. Though incomplete, these wide-ranging materials immediately suggested a more rapid growth in company infrastructure than I anticipated, moving quickly away from Romero’s filmic output to facilitating an eclectic array of in-house talent by as early as 1983. This move placed emphasis on more saleable product and contradicts preconceived notions that position independent filmmaking above marketplace concerns.
To obtain the rest of these documents, it seemed only fitting to travel to Pittsburgh, the city at the core of Laurel’s production activity and home of Romero’s alma mater Carnegie Mellon University. Carnegie’s economics librarian Roye Werner had been instrumental in pointing me to the existence of these SEC files at the start of my project, but following her retirement, Jill Chisnell graciously picked up where Roye left off. As we loaded the documents onto the microfiche reader, Jill and I noted Laurel’s numerous literary acquisitions, including Thomas Bell’s iconic novel on immigration and the Pittsburgh steel industry Out of This Furnace. Laurel’s intent to adapt this into a feature film suggests a fascinating diversification from their usual genre output, expanding a current understanding of the company’s artistic and marketplace intentions.
On day three at Carnegie Mellon I began pouring through the University’s archival collection of regional newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the North Hills News. These articles demonstrated Laurel’s close ties to regional space. Not only did they attempt to build a studio in Pittsburgh, but their interaction with the local community uncovered additional, and sometimes unusual, means of funding. This ranged from business firms investing in tax shelter schemes, to ice rink owners enticed into collaboration by the glamour of film production. In these press interviews, Rubinstein and Romero talk candidly about synergetic moves into publishing and television, and such activities appear to have been heavily influenced by these investment opportunities.
The assistance and expertise offered by university staff during this research trip far surpassed my expectations. But the ease in which I obtained materials here was in stark contrast to my interaction with the film industry itself. Much of my time in New York and Pittsburgh was spent chasing an assortment of former Laurel personnel, many of whom refused to confirm dates and times, lost e-mails, backed out at the last minute, didn’t return calls or spent the entire duration of my trip asking me to call back tomorrow. While awaiting confirmation, I decided to visit several locations pivotal to Romero’s work, starting with Laurel’s former offices downtown. I then headed out to the Monroeville shopping mall, the setting of Romero’s 1978 consumerist satire Dawn of the Dead, before continuing my zombie hunt to Evans City, home of the iconic graveyard seen at the start of Night of the Living Dead. Rather than simply a pop culture pilgrimage, these locales gave valuable insight into the spatiality of this filmic centre and here I was a uniquely positioned to consider Laurel’s physical relationship with the region. How important this space was in shaping aspects of filmic aesthetic, identity and business practicalities demands further enquiry.
Only a few days before leaving, I was contacted by Tony Buba, an independent filmmaker who worked closely with Laurel during their formation in 1973. In turn, Tony introduced me to Tom Dubinsky, a film editor who began his career as an apprentice at the company. Both agreed to be interviewed (at a coffee shop and an Orange Julius respectively) and they went into considerable detail regarding their polymorphic roles as cameramen, editors, sound editors and actors, shedding new light onto corporate infrastructure. This was particularly useful since the majority of their experiences pre-dated the records kept by the SEC.
These primary interviews suggest Laurel began as a post-Fordist company with a relaxed attitude to traditional modes of production, allowing a period of experimentation and creativity. The SEC documents meanwhile show a growing professionalism. Accordingly, as stock and shareholder profit became a primary incentive, product was increasingly standardised. Finally, regional newspapers and locations place this in a socio-economic context, giving grounding to Romero’s specific investigations into American culture and politics. Already this research has revealed much about the often-hidden infrastructure of independent film, suggesting alternatives for economic survival, while complicating notions of creative autonomy so central to analysis of independent film.
At this stage, the collated research still has a lot to reveal, particularly as I begin to interpret the vast economic data contained in the SEC filings. Taken as a collective, the information gathered on this research trip will give solid foundation to my exploration of Laurel Entertainment and developments within American independent film. Fundamentally, it is the intent of this analysis is to extend an existing critical terrain to encompass a previously neglected area of American cultural production. The generous contribution of BAAS has been a major step towards fulfilling this ambition.
Tom Fallows is a PhD student at the University of Exeter.