Long Live Indie Film

Long Live Indie Film

Reports of its demise are exaggerated.


Independent film is at a crossroads. After a decade of outstanding growth, the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers and the maturation of an older one, the effective transformation of an industry and of an art form, the question of what independent film actually is and where it’s headed is bound to stir discussion and debate. After eleven years of directing the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps I can offer perspective from a post that has allowed me a special understanding of the trends and developments that have characterized the growth of the independent film arena.

Throughout the past ten years, the remarkable success of independent film has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat thumping out the message that independent film is dead, or has become synonymous with studio output. Simply put, this isn’t true. There are reasons one might believe this to be the case, but an examination of the broader independent arena leads, I think, to a different conclusion.

That independent film, generally speaking, has ambitions to be commercially successful is certainly true. But that does not mean it is now no more than a creature of the market, like most studio productions. Indeed, independent film at its best is still aggressively, passionately, creatively driven and original. Just look at the films. Which of this year’s Independent Spirit Award nominees–Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Requiem for a Dream; Before Night Falls; You Can Count on Me; or Chuck & Buck–could have been made as a major studio film? None. Perhaps more significant, do any of these works suggest an arena that is aesthetically indistinguishable from even high-quality studio productions like Gladiator, Cast Away or, for that matter, Erin Brockovich? To anyone familiar with these works the answer is, I think, the same. None of the Independent Spirit nominees are derivative of commercial product. None are formulaic or mainstream in their appeal.

Low-budget works like George Washington, Everything Put Together, Our Song or Urbania, all Spirit Award nominees, have even less resemblance to mainstream studio filmmaking. Each of these films was produced for less than $500,000. They deal with subjects that include homophobia, SIDS, poverty and issues of social class, race and marginality. They focus on African-American, Latina and gay protagonists. Analysts of the doom- and-gloom persuasion would undoubtedly make the point that these films all had or will have a limited theatrical release, that the bigger, more commercial independent films have been crowding out the archetypal low-budget, “truly” independent films. It’s true that what I call “indie-studio” works are released on hundreds, even thousands of screens, thus relegating smaller films to just a few theaters. But that was always true. Pessimists would also say that the competitiveness in the theatrical marketplace, the number of releases fighting for exhibition, forces most low-budget films to go directly to video–but actually there are twice as many independent distribution companies now as there were five years ago, which makes it more likely that a greater number of films will find theatrical release, however brief.

In fact, there was never a golden age for independent films. The relative success of low-budget works like Clerks, The Brothers McMullen or El Mariachi says more about their freshness and distinctiveness as feature releases than it does about an ideal past when independent film was more fully appreciated. At the same time, the changing marketplace and evolving agendas of major independent distributors have a much greater impact on the availability of low-budget work than whether independent filmmaking has gone “mainstream.” Most major independent companies used to pride themselves on finding audiences for difficult-to-market films–that is, distinctive, interesting independent work. Now, having seen how much money can be made from the more “commercial” independent films, most of these companies are loath to take on pictures that don’t have relatively easy marketing handles.

At Sundance, we usually showcase a broad range of independent cinema–traditional art-house fare, an eclectic mix of films from the archetypal independent filmmakers and some indie-studio productions. Because the latter are more visible and often most anticipated, they have become lightning rods for the press, which ignores the other films, leading some critics to charge that Sundance itself has gone mainstream. This is perhaps understandable, but it’s a misconception. Again, look at the films. The budgets of the indie-studio productions, although sometimes fairly substantial, don’t begin to approach the $50 million-plus that the average studio feature costs. Their content is almost always riskier, less generic or formulaic than studio productions, and their appeal is almost always judged to be out of the mainstream. When a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or a Traffic crosses over, it has more to do with the audience’s desire for quality and originality than it does with a marketable premise.

Even the influx of Hollywood agents and executives searching out talent or product isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the best things a festival can do for a filmmaker is get him or her out of debt. The fact that the Sundance Film Festival has evolved into a significant market for independent cinema is actually a positive development, so long as the programming doesn’t specifically cater to the commercial, something we have never done.

In fact, this year’s festival was distinguished by the originality of the work, by the absence of trends, which explains why certain films did not receive the offers from major buyers they might have been expected to at earlier fests. These include The Believer, which explores Jewish self-hatred (and won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize); Patrice Chéreau’s dark, sexually explicit Intimacy; Lift, which breaks away from the clichés about African-American experience; and Waking Life, Richard Linklater’s breakthrough, digitally animated meditation on dreamlife and consciousness. Part of the reason is price, but much of it had to do with distributors’ desire to find films with significant “upside” potential. To put it another way, they want home runs, not singles. This miniblockbuster mentality is a real barrier to seeing inventive, risk-taking independent film at your local theater. Is this a sign of a change for the worse? Perhaps. But it’s important to remember that the independent world is larger and more various than what gets distributed; what gets produced is just as, if not more, important.

Certainly the universe of independent production and distribution has evolved a great deal in recent years. Commercial and critical success has generated a much more broad-ranging and complex array of independent films than existed a decade ago. The festival has contributed to the expansion of what’s considered viable in the theatrical marketplace over the past decade, and the emergence of a broad spectrum of cinematic storytelling that focuses on previously marginal subjects, including tales about gays and lesbians, people of color, differently focused works about women and the taboo byways of day-to-day existence. The films have ranged from works like Poison and Safe to Pi and Slam, from Big Night and Welcome to the Dollhouse to In the Company of Men and Smoke Signals.

The popular image of the independent filmmaker still exists–that is, a filmmaker without resources or connections working out of his or her garage, who descends Cinderella-like into the festival ball and is chosen by the distributor prince. But most major independent distributors long ago decided that to rely solely on acquisition of films for their annual output was not necessarily the best policy for the maintenance of their corporate health. And so they produce.

This strategy often results in the kind of mainstream production that some may be reluctant to define as “independent,” but it’s unfair to paint all independent productions with one broad brush. The commercial and critical success of features like Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, Gods and Monsters, The Spanish Prisoner and You Can Count on Me and even bigger breakout hits like Fargo and Shakespeare in Love or this year’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic obscures the fact that the breadth and scope of independent production is greater than ever. There have been more than 1,000 independent feature films produced in each of the past three years. Only seventy-five to 100 of them see any kind of theatrical release, and those are not necessarily always the most interesting or daring.

An independent film that grosses over $100 million and wins Oscars is clearly much more mainstream in its appeal than most other independent productions. But unless you want to argue that by definition an independent should exist only on the fringe of cinematic culture, popularity in itself shouldn’t disqualify a film from being independent. Similarly, some feel that star-driven filmmaking is by its very nature non-independent, but one of the facts of life of independent production is that good screenwriting often attracts big-name actors and directors. And quality independent filmmaking is basically script-driven. Since the prospects for funding independents are often fueled by name actors–especially given story lines that can be elusive or challenging to general audiences–it’s not surprising that indie-studio production utilizes star power to whatever degree it can. Does this negate their independent roots? Again, not if one views these films as simply part of the overall spectrum of independent filmmaking. Likewise, in addition to the advent of what I’ve been calling indie-studio film, studios have themselves produced or distributed a number of what most critics and industry professionals think of as independent productions–for example, Paramount’s Election, Disney’s Rushmore and The Straight Story, Columbia’s Go and Warner Brothers’ Three Kings and Best in Show. All of these are modest productions, at least relatively speaking, whose creative energies originated from the independent camp.

Independent film, by its very nature, is exceptionally difficult to define. It is almost by definition personal, eclectic and diverse. When media or critics attempt to get a handle on it, often they do no more than try to identify annual trends or themes. At the festival, I am invariably asked to reduce the inherent complexity of the year’s work to a single focus, which is impossible.

Most definitions are simply inadequate. I know of at least four, two of which are circular: (1) An independent film is one that is distributed by an independent distributor–for example, Miramax, Sony Classics or Artisan. This doesn’t take into account that Miramax and Sony Classics are owned by studios, or that Miramax, say, has recently derived most of its income from genre films released by its Dimension label. (2) An independent film is one made by an independent filmmaker. But filmmakers like Ang Lee, David Russell, Steven Soderbergh and Gus Van Sant, for instance, all make films for studios and for independents. Are the Ang Lee who directed The Ice Storm and the Soderbergh who directed Traffic independent, while the Ang Lee who directed Sense and Sensibility and the Soderbergh who directed Erin Brockovich are not? For that matter, was Traffic a studio film when it was at Fox with Harrison Ford, and an independent when it went to USA with Michael Douglas? (3) An independent film is one made with financing from independent sources whose budget must fall beneath a certain level. If that’s the case, then none of the independent companies–Miramax, New Line/Fine Line, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Paramount Classics, etc.–that are owned by majors would qualify. Moreover, as costs inevitably rise, the magic budget cap naturally floats upward as well. And there’s something ridiculous about saying that funding from J.P. Morgan Chase or a major international media company would enable you to be an independent, but not money from a studio. (4) An independent film is one in which creative control remains in the hands of the filmmaker. By this definition, any A-list Hollywood director with final cut is an independent, including Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and James Cameron.

Does any of this really matter? Well, in terms of eligibility for the Independent Spirit Awards or for a given film festival it might be an issue, albeit rather limited in significance. Critically or politically, it’s only important insofar as being independent is viewed as a value judgment or a selling point, as it often is. My point is merely that the definition of independent filmmaking is both elusive and evolving, and that the way to think of independence is not as a set of exclusive categories but as an inclusive spectrum of production and distribution.

Why, then, this prolonged analysis, even defense, of independent film? Because independent filmmaking as a functioning entity does matter. It’s not just incidental that independent filmmaking has recently occupied center stage in the yearly critics’ awards and taken such a prominent place in the Oscars of the past few years. While these are surely not the ultimate measures of quality or creative accomplishment, they are accolades that recognize a film’s cultural impact. Arguments about the demise of independent filmmaking are at best a comment on the erosion of opportunities to produce outside the purely commercial realm, but more often they are also a not-so-stealthy attack on specific high-profile films, an effort at aesthetic cleansing. It sometimes seems as if the cultural purists, a k a ideologues, would rather luxuriate in marginality than deal with an independent film that has real social and artistic effect–that can be, at least in certain manifestations, a real force for social change. Is the independent film “movement” free from contradictions? No. Does it continually run the risk of being co-opted or assimilated? Absolutely. But its accomplishments, I believe, belie arguments that it has become inconsequential.

Independent filmmaking as a political/social force is far from monolithic, and even to speak of it as a movement is to imply a uniformity or coherence that it actually does not possess. But the models (from a business perspective) and the distinctiveness of the new modes of storytelling and transgressive aesthetics that it offers promise achievements during the next decade that have real significance. In an era where the dominant values of our culture are defined and delivered (or at least mediated) by powerful corporate entities, the diverse human sensibilities of individual artists have real political import, and cinema retains a remarkable ideological potency.

The changes in the world of independent filmmaking over the past decade reflect a world that now offers different possibilities and one that includes changing commercial models and expectations. The fear that the independent arena has sold out or will sell out is a perennial one, and highlights that sector of independent filmmaking that is mediocre and market-driven. But independent filmmaking is still the vanguard of the future of cinema. It’s a world that allows, even encourages, change–indeed has undergone regular transformations and continues to do so, as the old barriers and old models of independence continue to reinvent themselves. Does this distress the purists? Undoubtedly, but it’s this kind of vitality and creative energy that builds an environment where art and social change can interact and remain forces in the culture wars of the next decade.

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