The year 2012 marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most important events in the history of Hollywood. In 1952, Monogram Pictures announced an end to its B-movie production schedule in order to focus on its recently created A-movie unit Allied Artists Productions, thus effectively if not necessarily officially bringing the history of Poverty Row studios to an end.
Poverty Row was the name given to a group of studios that co-existed alongside the major studios like MGM and Warner Brothers by providing extremely low-budget B-movies to take their place beneath the A-movies produced by the famous studios. The economics involved in the distribution of B-movies was based on a fixed rate system that meant little risk for the big studios in terms of production, but also a razor-thin profit margin. Economic reality combined with Depression-era hunger for new product every week created a boom for studios capable of making movies quick and cheap.
In terms of prestige, Poverty Row studios like Monogram, Republic Pictures, Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), Eagle-Lion Films and others sat below not only major studios producing Oscar winners like 20th Century Fox, but below minor studios like Universal which made tons of money producing horror movies, but collected few little gold statuettes. If you want to chart the career path of a famous actor, check out whether he started out with a studio like Republic-like John Wayne-or ended up making movies on poverty row-like Bela Lugosi.
Those who denigrate the films made by Poverty Row studios as a whole make the same mistake that is still made today, even by those in the industry who should know better. Equating production values with cinematic value has led to a serious underappreciation of many of these movies as well as to awarding a busload of Oscars to a film like "Titanic." James Cameron's film certainly has better production values than any film produced by Poverty Row studios, but you could watch that multiple Oscar winner every day for a month and still not uncover anything in its script as emotionally resonant as what you find in "Detour" or anything in Cameron's direction as artistically challenging as Orson Welles' "Macbeth.
The best analogy for those unfamiliar with Poverty Row movies can actually be found by comparing the situation to the music industry. On October 11, 1977 the band Kansas released their album "Point of Know Return." The album is a textbook example of highly polished production values and sounds as clean and polished as the floors of Buckingham Palace. Sixteen days later "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" was released. The album is a textbook case of a collection of songs that seem almost entirely lacking production values.
The Sex Pistols album has gone on to become one of the most influential and important albums in rock history. Meanwhile, the Kansas album has relegated to the dustbin of history.
The point being that just because a movie-or music album-lacks the polish and professionalism of high quality production values, that does not mean it should automatically be dismissed and categorically denied serious analysis. While the bulk of films that were made by Poverty Row studios feature wildly uneven acting, unoriginal and unimaginative screenplays, direction that is indicative of tight schedules and low budgets and editing that defies physics, many of them are more entertaining that the A-movies beneath which they played and a handful of them are more philosophically profound than the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture the year they were released.
Poverty Row movies are DIY equivalent of indie-rock. They were made by people who by the nature of the game were more interested in getting a vision on-screen than in earning enough money to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills.
For more from Timothy Sexton, Yahoo!'s first Writer of the Year, check out: