Animation World Magazine, Issue 2.10, January 1998

The Unnatural History of Independent Animated Films on 16mm.


by Karl Cohen

Once upon a time there was a world without video tape. The commerce in animation was on film and there were dozens of distributors who listed cartoons and independent animation in their catalogs. School districts and colleges were buying and renting almost anything animated that was "educational." A new theatrical show called The Tournee of Animation was showing the latest and greatest films from around the world. Animation was sometimes shown at museums, libraries and art houses.

During this period television rarely showed anything animated except television commercials and limited animation stuff made for the tube. Of course there were daily cartoon shows that showed old Hollywood films, but nobody was seriously interested in buying rights to artistic works. They wanted to keep costs low and needed quantity, not quality, to fill all the air time between the commercials.

Non-Theatrical Distribution From 1900 - 1960
Before explaining what film distribution was like at its peak in the 1960s and 70s, a quick look at the history of non-theatrical distribution and the development of the 16mm format is in order. Distribution of films to places other than theaters (non-theatrical) began almost 100 years ago. Corporations were among the first to explore non-theatrical venues. A film about the Alaskan gold rush was made by the Northwest Transportation Company in 1899 and shown at the Paris Exposition in 1900. By the early teens some salesmen representing trade associations and corporations were traveling with 35mm films and portable projectors. They presented free shows to promote their sponsors' interests.

Another small non-theatrical industry developed around pornographic films before WWI. Animators created Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure, around 1928. This funny hard-core cartoon may have been made for a private party honoring Winsor McCay by Walter Lantz, Rudy Zamora Sr., George Stallings and George Canata. Other X-rated cartoons were produced in the 1920s and 30s.

The first non-theatrical catalog of education films was published by George Kleine in 1910. He offered to lease 35mm films. Apparently his venture was a failure and one account says he never recovered the cost of printing his 336 page catalog. Kleine went on to import some of the first successful feature-length films from Italy just before WWI.

In 1921 Kleine created a non-theatrical distribution system that brought "clean" films to schools, museums and other non-commercial users. He gave users of his "Cycle of Classics" free 35mm projectors and charged a per reel fee plus 65% of the admission income. The venture wasn't too successful and was abandoned in 1928 with the coming of sound. His silent projectors had become obsolete almost overnight.

The educational market slowly developed in the 1920s and 30s. Kodak introduced 16mm safety film in 1923. In the 1930s home movie cameras were introduced along with black and white reversal film stocks and Kodachrome film (1936). Bell and Howell and other companies vigorously marketed their 16mm sound projectors.

To further promote 16mm as a format, Eastman Kodak went into the film rental and sales business. In the 1930s they introduced the Kodascope Library which contained 16mm prints of Hollywood features and shorts.

Several sponsored animated films were made in the 1930s. General Motors promoted itself in A Coach for Cinderella (1936), the first industrial produced in Technicolor. It was produced by the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit. The company had already animated Down the Gasoline Trail (1935) for Chevrolet and they later produced other animated shorts. Handy is best known for their post-war live-action films that glorified the product lines of GM. In the late 1950s the company had a staff of 500 and made between 150 and 200 films a year.

Another animated gem from the 1930s is The Sunshine Makers. It was directed by Burt Gillett and Ted Eshbaugh in New York at the Van Beuren Studio. It promotes the consumption of milk and was in fact sponsored by Bordens Milk.

The period from the late 1920s to the 1940s saw the beginning of artists in the U.S. using film as an art form. Among the first animated or partly-animated films to be seen by the American public were works by Mary Ellen Bute. Her films were shown at Radio City Music Hall in the late 1930s and early 40s. Norman McLaren came to the U.S. from England in the late 1930s. He worked on one of Bute's films (Spook Sport), did work for what later became the Guggenheim Museum, and was commissioned in 1939 to do a short work for NBC-TV when it was an experimental station.

In the 1940s the war brought on the rise of public information films (another name for propaganda) and some of it was animated. The 16mm format was used extensively by both the military and groups showing information films to the public. Bugs Bunny was used to sell war bonds, Donald Duck reminded people to pay their income taxes on time and Minnie Mouse recycled kitchen fats for the war effort.

After the war thousands of military surplus 16mm "JAN" sound projectors were sold to schools and other institutions at low costs. This helped make 16mm a more accessible format.

At the close of the war the company that was to become UPA made two animated films for the United Auto Workers and CIO. Hell Bent for Election was made to get out the vote for Roosevelt in 1944 and Brotherhood of Man, 1946, promoted racial tolerance. The latter was made to help the autoworkers integrate factories in the south. Both films are admired today for their use of contemporary graphic design.

Another popular animated sponsored film for the non-theatrical market was Hugh Harmon's Winky the Watchman, 1947. It was made for a dental association and it promotes the proper care of teeth. Harmon and his partner Rudolph Ising also produced a long animated work for Van de Camp Foods in their Los Angeles studio.

Some of the animated films made in the 1950s now seem unintentionally funny, like the animated turtle that tells us to "duck and cover" in case of an atomic blast, or the atomic man in John Sutherland's A is for Atom. John Sutherland Productions was formed in Los Angeles in 1945 and produced a great number of propaganda/informational films over the years.

Among the best educational films were a science series sponsored by Bell Labs. They hired Frank Capra to produce them and Dr. Frank Baxter was the host. Our Mr. Sun (1955) featured animation directed by Bill Hurtz at UPA. Shamus Culhane (NYC) provided animated sequences for three Bell Labs films: Hemo the Magnificent (1956), The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays (1957) and The Unchained Goddess (1958).

An early ad promoting the use of film projectors in schools.An early ad promoting the home use of film projectors as  entertainment.

How Non-Theatrical Animation Worked
The educational film market grew rapidly in the 1960s. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the U.S. Congress realized something had to be done to better educate the baby boomers. By the early 1960s Congress had passed the National Defense Education Act which gave enormous sums of money to school districts. Some of the money was for the acquisition of films and other types of audio visual materials like film-strips, slides and records. There was also a growing market for films at colleges, public libraries, military bases, prisons, churches and other institutions.

The basic sales tool for these companies was their illustrated catalog. In addition to the catalog, distributors often produced slick flyers and supplements intended to promote an interest in a specific film or series of films. Educational film distributors also produced study guides to accompany some of their films. Aggressive companies promoted their product lines at conventions, conferences and workshops. The annual Educational Film Library Association conference (EFLA) was a major trade show that was once attended by thousands of film buyers.

Most distributors who sold films provided free preview prints to reviewers who wrote for the trade publications (Film News, EFLA Evaluations, Booklist, Film Library Quarterly, etc.) and to potential film buyers for libraries and school districts.

Distributors also promoted their films by entering them in festivals. Print sales often increased after a film won a major prize. Festivals were also a way for school teachers and other film people to see new product. Hopefully they would then ask their school district to buy a print of something they liked.

There was once a large number of distribution companies and they varied in size and focus. Some rented a full line of entertainment features and shorts while others specialized in well-made educational films. Some companies had lots of animated shorts in their catalogs, while others had only a few titles or none. A few companies specialized in the importation and sale of shorts from Canada and other countries. Others produced their own product lines.

A number of distributors specialized in films that required them to produce the work. Weston Woods Studios turns popular children's books into animated shorts. They still acquire the film rights and then hire artists to do the artwork. Gene Deitch, who has headed his own studio in Prague since 1960, has animated several of Weston Woods' award-winning shorts.

Contracts between distributors and animators is a subject that is somewhat difficult to discuss as there is no such thing as a standard agreement. A contract might offer a payment based on a film's gross or on its' net profit. A filmmaker could receive anywhere between 15% to 40% of the gross receipts (25% to 30% was more or less the average around 1970) or 50% of the net profit. If a film with a net deal is a hit and the distributor is honest the filmmaker can make a good deal of money. On the other hand, if the distributor pads the account with meals and gifts for his friends, etc. the filmmaker may get nothing.

Some distributors mainly sold films to which they had exclusive rights. Other companies had some exclusive films to offer. They supplemented that income with the rental of films that they sub-distributed. They would buy or lease a print for a fixed price from another distributor or the producer of the film and put it in their rental collection. They kept whatever income the print produced for them. The creator of the film only made money from the sale of the print. Sub-distribution deals are non-exclusive so more than one company could buy the print and rent it. Filmmakers made money by selling as many prints as possible.

I found a contract dated January 15, 1982, between King Features Syndicate Division and a non-theatrical distributor for the lease of a print of The Yellow Submarine. It called for the payment of $1,400 and allowed the distributor to use the print for non-theatrical rentals. The contract prohibited theatrical or commercial use of the print including exhibition to a paying audience. Distributors sometimes looked the other way if the film was rented by someone who was going to ask for a "donation" at the door. The company rented the film for $100 in their 1982 catalog.

An interesting contract was offered animators by Prescott Wright when he produced The Tournee of Animation (1970 - 1986). The producer, Wright and his associates, got 50% of the gross and the remaining 50% was split among the artists. About half of the money going to the animators was split evenly and the remaining amount was split based on how long each short was. That meant a really short film got slightly less than a film a minute or two longer. As the cost of producing the show rose, the percentage the producer took changed to 55% and finally 60%.

Another type of deal was offered by Mike Getz, who ran a midnight movie series for many years. He paid $1 a minute per screening. I had one film that Getz showed many times. It turned a profit for me after I deducted production and print costs. When the print eventually came back it was covered with scratches and was barely usable, but it had made me a profit.

The Distribution Companies

The following discussion covers a few of the companies that distributed animation in the 1960s and `70s. They were selected to give a fairly good idea of how divergent one company was from another. One catalog from each company was selected for the discussion. In the course of a few years a company would add and drop titles, but no attempt was made to show how the holdings of the companies changed.

The largest distributors in the country in the 1960s and `70s didn't go out of their way to handle unusual animated product. Films Incorporated just ended their film rental business and is now a video sales company. They used to rent features and shorts including MGM cartoons. They had exclusive rights to work from MGM, 20th Century Fox and other companies. At one time they had eight offices across the nation to better serve their customers.

Contemporary Films/McGraw Hill, founded around 1950, had a 384 page catalog in 1972. It included 20 films by Norman McLaren, a large selection from Zagreb, silhouette films by Lotte Reiniger, work by John Hubley, Jeff Hale, Jan Lenica, Alexander Alexeieff, Les Goldman, Halas and Batchelor, Ernest Pintoff, Karel Zeman, Jan Svankmajer, Jiri Trnka, and dozens of other animators from around the world. The McLaren films rented for $12.50 or $10. Most animated titles rented from $10 to $15.

United Artists' UA16 catalog #5 (1975) focused on the distribution of features, but it did devote space to early Warner Bros. cartoons (1930 - 1948), the Fleischer Popeye cartoons, Woody Woodpecker (Lantz) and the Pink Panther series. Most of their cartoons were available packaged in groups of three for $25. Individual titles rented for $20 each and an 85 minute program called The Popeye Follies rented for $200.

Another great selection was available from Ivy Film (NYC). They rented Paramount cartoons by the Fleischers (Betty Boop, Gabby, silent Koko, Color Classics and Screen Songs), the George Pal Puppetoons, and animation from Famous Studios. Cartoons were rented on a sliding scale based on the size of the audience. A Betty Boop rented in 1974 for $15 if the audience was under 100 people. The top rate was $35 for an audience of over 500 people.

Budget Films, founded in 1969, claimed to be "the biggest privately-owned film archive in the world." They have ended their participation in non-theatrical distribution and now provide stock footage to the industry. Their 1979 catalog is 1 3/4" thick and contains over 800 pages. They rented vintage Hollywood cartoons from $5 - 10 each. Color Godzilla features rented for $32.50 and $34 and John Halas' Animal Farm rented for $37.50. In the 1980s they expanded their line to include a small selection of independent animated shorts. In 1989 they rented Jankovics' Sisyphus for $10, Steve Segal's Red Ball Express for $10, John Hubley's The Hat for $15, Frédéric Back's Crac! for $25 and Richard Condie's The Big Snit for $25. Animal Farm and the color Godzilla features were available for $50 each.

Small Companies Had Great Animation Collections
By the early 1970s there were several companies that specialized in experimental and independently produced films. Probably the most visible of these companies was Pyramid Films in Santa Monica. Their 1974 catalog was a slick 1/2" thick, 240 page volume. It listed films by Jordan Belson, Charles Braverman, George Dunning, Oskar Fischinger, John and Faith Hubley, Caroline Leaf, Norman McLaren, Dan McLaughlin, Frank Mouris, John Whitney, Michael Whitney, Stan Vanderbeek, and other animators. Fischinger's Composition in Blue rented for $10 and sold for $100. The Oscar-winning Frank Film rented for $15 and sold for $150. Pyramid is still in business, but the nature of their business has changed considerably in recent years.

The above sales prices date from before the Hunt family in Texas tried to corner the silver market in the 1980s. They drove the price of silver up to record highs, resulting in Kodak almost doubling the price of film stocks. When the price of silver finally fell, Kodak's prices didn't. When Kodak took all of the silver out of their film stocks, the prices still remained steady and have since gone up. Needless to say, the lab cost of a 16mm print in the 1970s was considerably less than it is today.

Working out of her home in Berkeley, California, Freude Bartlett opened Serious Business in the mid-1970s. The preface to her 1976 catalog said, "We are committed to film as an art form and our collection includes experimental and documentary work... The independent filmmaker is an artist, reflecting and commenting on the world and its meanings." She offered films by Scott Bartlett, Mary Beams, Stephen Beck, Adam Beckett, Robert Breer, Sally Cruikshank, Ed Emshwiller, George Griffin, Suzan Pitt Kraning, Pat O'Neill, Kathy Rose, Stan Vanderbeek and other artists. George Griffin's one-minute long Trickfilm rented for $5 and sold for $35 while his 4 1/2 minute The Club rented for $10 and sold for $100. Pat O'Neill's Saugus Series (18 min.) rented for $25 and sold for $250. The company grew for several years, but went out of business around 1980.

When Serious Business closed many of the animators represented by Freude signed contracts with Ron Epple's Picture Start. The company issued catalog #1 in 1981. It listed animated work by Jane Aaron, Karen Aqua, Skip Battaglia, Robert Breer, John Canemaker, Vince Collins, Sally Cruikshank, Larry Cuba, Paul Demeyer, Geoff Dunbar, David Ehrlich, Paul Glabicki, John and Faith Hubley, Flip Johnson, Norman McLaren, Suzan Pitt, Gary Schwartz, Maureen Selwood, Henry Selick, Stan VanderBeek, and dozens of other artists. Their rental and sales prices were similar to those of Serious Business and the company is no longer in business.

Years ago I asked Sally Cruikshank about her non-theatrical distributors. She said that considering her work was short and that there was not a great demand for animated shorts on television or in theaters before features, she was quite pleased with the size of the checks she had gotten from Serious Business and Picture Start. She indicated the checks were never for enormous sums, but her income from her films was several thousand dollars a year.

There were other companies with interesting animation collections as well. Creative Film Society was founded by Bob Pike in 1957. The 1975 catalog offered work by Scott Bartlett, Jordan Belson, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye, Pat O'Neill, James and John Whitney, John Hubley, the Fleischer Studio, Ernest Pintoff, and others. Pike died in 1974. His wife Angie runs the company from her home near Los Angeles.

Two important supporters of independent animation have been the late Charles Samu who imported outstanding animation from Eastern Europe, and Prescott Wright who runs Filmwright in San Francisco. Wright produced and distributed The Tournee of Animation from 1970 - 1986. He also rented individual animated titles, produced a few animated works, and is presently active in animation as a teacher, producer and consultant to the industry. In the 1970s he worked with Sheldon Renan to produce The International Animation Festival, a television series which aired on public television for three seasons.

Another important figure in 16mm distribution was Bernice Coe who founded Coe Film in 1971. Her main activity was to provide television broadcasters with short films. She began by producing packages of shows for cable television. At one time she had the television rights to thousands of films. Before she retired she helped place dozens of animated films by American independent animators on cable television.

There are other types of distributors that made/make animation available including several film co-ops (Canyon Cinema is alive and well in San Francisco) and university film libraries that rent and/or sell films. Berkeley's Extension Media Center continues to acquire works. One of their best selling titles in the 1990s has been Pat Amlin's Popul Vuh, an animated hour long work available on film and tape.

The Decline Of 16mm Film Distribution
The 16mm market for animated films is not dead, but it certainly has shrunk in size to the point that it is close to becoming an endangered species. There are several reasons why distribution of 16mm film has declined.

The first blow to the industry was the termination (about 1969) of government-funded programs that enabled school districts to buy audio visual materials. The funds for visual literacy in the early `60s fueled the rapid rise of independent film. With this subsidy for the arts gone, the industry slowly decayed.

In the 1980s the rise of distribution of films on video tape coupled with the rise of film stock prices had an adverse effect on the industry. For most consumers it no longer made sense to spend a great deal to buy a 16mm print of a work when a video copy was available for less. At first distributors tried to keep video prices high enough so they could continue to earn a profit similar to the income produced through film sales and rentals. Eventually video prices had to be cut to be competitive with companies selling tapes at mass market prices. You can still find rare material for sale on tape in the $50 to $100 range, but do these tapes sell well? The introduction of tape also changed America's viewing habits resulting in the decline of ticket sales at art houses.

Another problem in recent years has been the rising cost of doing business. It costs thousands of dollars to produce and distribute a large heavy sales catalog. Printing and mailing prices have gone up over the years. If a company's income declines, at some point it just doesn't make sense to continue running a business no matter how much the owner of the company loves film.

Though many small distribution companies have disappeared, there are still a handful of U.S.
companies still offering 16mm films for rental and sale. Visit the Animation World Network Vault for complete contact information for these companies. And for the filmmakers out there, if you have a short animated film that you would like to find a distributor for, the AWN Vault also has listings of currently acquiring film distributors which should be a good starting point. Is your company not included? Drop us a line to be added to our archive.

Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, has recently been published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University.

All images used to illustrate this article are from the ArtToday Archive (

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