Introducing the B Film: Three Horror Lobby Cards
By the early 1930s, in response to the Great Depression and its dampening effect on ticket sales, studios introduced the concept of the double feature. For the price of one movie ticket, moviegoers could see two movies. The top half of a double bill usually featured the main attraction, the A movie, while the bottom half, the B movie, was usually a low-budget production. A double bill could also consist of two medium-budget “in-between” pictures, or even two B movies. A typical line-up for a double feature, however, would consist of a newsreel, a short and/or a serial, and a cartoon, followed by the double feature.
Although the derivation of its name is uncertain, B films were usually movies filmed on tight schedules, lasting no longer than 80 minutes in length and usually shot in black and white with lesser known actors. A and B films produced the same types of movies such as westerns, musicals, comedies, horror, suspense thrillers, and science fiction movies.
The double feature became standard practice throughout the country by 1935. Movie attendance peaked in the 1940s, with an estimated seventy-five per cent of all Americans attending one movie a week. Theater exhibitors were often compelled to change their movie lineups two or more times a week in order to keep moviegoers coming back for more. By the mid 1940s the “Big Five,” which included Loews/MGM, Paramount, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO all produced B films in order to capitalize on the increasing demands for more films.
After the Great Depression and up until the late 1940s, the demand for B films continued partly because of unfair studio practices known as block-booking and blind-selling. Because studios significantly controlled film distribution, independent theater exhibitors were often forced to book the less-popular B films in order to show A films. Although studios were making fewer B films after the war, the B film’s demise came in the late 1940s, with the 1948 landmark Supreme Court anti-trust ruling, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., which ruled that Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century-Fox, Columbia Pictures, and RKO Pictures violated anti-trust laws in how films were distributed, produced, and exhibited. After this ruling, exhibitors were no longer required to show B films.