The United States’ Bicentennial celebration was huge. America’s 200th birthday saturated popular culture in the mid-1970s, with Bicentennial-themed products and media. In addition, years of planning by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration culminated in a year of more formal events put on by the United States government. Many federal agencies hopped on the Bicentennial bandwagon, among them the organization that promoted American democracy abroad, the United States Information Agency (USIA). For its Bicentennial celebration, the USIA created a grant program for student filmmakers with a plan to distribute the films overseas.
The best known of these films is undoubtedly the trippy animated film 200. 200 is internet-famous, and is the reason I first learned of the USIA film grants. According to filmmaker Vince Collins, in making 200 he “put together every animatable symbol, image or icon of the USA.” Included in the film’s imagery are the official seal, the Statue of Liberty, the Woodstock logo, the Liberty Bell, and Mt. Rushmore. The film layers symbol on top of symbol, with a bald eagle hatching from a red, white, and blue egg and flying past the American Gothic farmers, the U.S. Capitol building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Abe Lincoln’s cabin, and an American bison.
The USIA launched the grant program in October of 1974, soliciting proposals from college and graduate students majoring in film, television, or communications. Applicants were required to submit a 16mm sample of previous work, and a proposal that explained how the film would relate to one of the three official themes of the Bicentennial: Heritage ’76 (focusing on the nation’s past, including Native Americans and immigrants), Festival USA (described in the application as “the richness of our diversity and the vitality of our culture”), and Horizons ’76 (planning for America’s third century). 320 applicants from 45 states submitted proposals. Fifteen students received grants of $3000 to make their films.
Stills from the first seven films distributed by the USIA.
The USIA made the first seven films available to overseas posts for a loan circuit in July 1976 in the form of a two reel 16mm program called “Series A.” In addition, the films were sent to festivals, and Vince Collins’ psychedelic animated short 200 was blown up to 35mm and made available for theatrical release in several countries. The USIA was so impressed with Collins’ work sample that the agency also purchased six prints of his other films, Euphoria and Fantasy for distribution overseas. (These titles are not preserved at the National Archives, but they can be viewed on Collins’ YouTube channel.)
We’ll be covering the rest of the “Series A” films in future posts, so stay tuned! Many thanks to Vince Collins, and the rest of the filmmakers who were willing to answer questions about their work.