"Independent" Film. What is it?
April 15, 2005 3:08 PM   Subscribe

I don't know what "independent film" means. At a time when the Weinsteins are trying to extricate themselves from Disney, it seems an appropriate question to ask. There are Indie films (non-industry money) that are supposed to imitate fancy hollywood films, there are new studios being opened outside of LA by Wealthy Christians in Denver hoping to convert through CS Lewis movies and there are Garden State, Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine etc. which are like other Hollywood films: have stars, and studio money but are marketed as "Independent Films." What makes these independent? Finally, and seemingly too infrequently, there are privately financed and self-distributed unusual films like Assisted Living which despite their obvious merits and the critic's adoration are presumably ignored by the studios, blasted by the brain-numbing EW and distributed instead by the two young first-time filmmakers Why can't we see more non-hollywood and non-hollywood espousing independent ART on the screen? Why do we let every other multi-million dollar romantic comedy be sold to us as "indy" just because it has a quirky soundtrack or aesthetic sensibility. What can we do about it? I'm going to the movies. You?
posted by tallbuildings (27 comments total)
Why can't we see more non-hollywood and non-hollywood espousing independent ART on the screen? Why do we let every other multi-million dollar romantic comedy be sold to us as "indy" just because it has a quirky soundtrack or aesthetic sensibility.

So basically, what you're saying is that the artistic quality of a movie is determined in a large part by how it is financed, as opposed to something as prosaic as the aesthetics of a movie. And that you can't find enough ART.

Yes, quite a shame that you'll have to settle for stuff that merely looks and sounds like ART until you find out how it was paid for.
posted by delmoi at 3:16 PM on April 15, 2005

i'm pretty sure that "Garden State" was just about singlehandedly financed by a guy with no real ties to the "industry".

i'm not attesting to its quality, i'm just saying. you might want to look these things up first.
posted by jimmy at 3:24 PM on April 15, 2005

Why can't we see more non-hollywood and non-hollywood espousing independent ART on the screen?

Cause people want to make money?
posted by billysumday at 3:38 PM on April 15, 2005

I really don't know anything about it either, but it would seem that an actor from a primetime network TV show would have considerably stronger ties to 'the industry' than, say, I would.

I should have clarified, but i was referring to Gary Gilbert, the film's producer.
posted by jimmy at 3:39 PM on April 15, 2005

People were making independent movies long before a bunch of Johnny-come-latelys showed up and started obsessing over the ridiculous term "indie" (or "indy", which is even dumber).

Did you know that the original Star Wars was written and directed by one guy with very little oversight, and he got to keep the copyright on the original negative too, something few (if any) of today's "indie" darlings are able to do?

And for years, John Carpenter's original "Halloween" was referred to as "the most successful independent film of all time".

I'm sure there are more examples, but you get the idea.
posted by Potsy at 3:41 PM on April 15, 2005


Even though it might have been financed by some guy without ties to the film industry, that doesn't mean it didn't rely on its star's influence in Hollywood to get other "name" actors involved in the project, cinematographers, distributors, etc. Also, a studio bought it and marketed the hell out of it. Not to say it wasn't a good movie (I personally didn't like it) but that is to say it wouldn't have sold a lot of tickets and gotten good reviews and all that jazz without Natalie Portman, Zach Braff, Peter Saarsgard and so on, IMHO.
posted by billysumday at 3:46 PM on April 15, 2005

Independent film is quickly turning into another marketing niche, like "alternative rock." All the major studios now have "indie" divisions (Warner Independent, Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics, etc.)--and they all release some good movies. One possible meaning of "independent" is that the director had complete artistic control over her film, and some of the studios have learned that a certain kind of movie prospers in that environment. "Sideways," for instance, was financed by Fox Searchlight, but Alexander Payne says he had all the artistic freedom he needed.

On the other hand, you have "independent" directors who make artsy movies with no money--but how many of them stay dedicated to the art once their small film gets picked up? There are many first time "indie" directors who were just looking for a way in, and then turned around to churn out blockbusters. (Of course there are still genuine independent distributors, like Palm Pictures and Wellspring.)

The line is getting terribly blurred. For practical purposes, on the "World/Independent Film" site I run, I interpret the term pretty loosely, as synonym of "art house" or even "quality film."
posted by muckster at 3:53 PM on April 15, 2005

My knee jerk reaction is to say that any movie that has studio money behind it is not indie. But i guess on further consideration, that gets a bit more complicated if let's say the film was produced without studio backing and then just got distributed by the studios. At what point does such a vehicle turn from indie to 'mainstream'? Does indie require self-financed marketing and distribution as well as production?

It's a fascinating question, and I think delmoi's retort is completely simplistic and misses the point. Tallbuildings said nothing about relative quality, that one is better than the other. He's talking, in a round about way, about why in an age when technology allows anyone to get out media to any number of viewers, the 'Movies' are still virtually monopolized in general mindshare by the big guys.

I think it's an important issue because, artistic merit aside, I think there is an intrinsic worth to media that is made without corporate strings attached. This doesn't mean that worth is always better, per se. A person can work on a labour of love all by themself and it can be warped and foul. Or it could be financed by a group with their own agenda that has a less than kosher purpose (Passion of the Christ, IMO). Or some so-called indie auteur could be just as driven by the profit motive as Disney.

Still, the major motion picture houses seem to have an overall consistent set of priorities that generally put marketing ahead of creative considerations 99.9% of the time, with storylines taking back seats to commercial, political and other considerations that have nothing to do with quality. That's my own opinion, anyway.

I can say with no exaggeration that given the chance to see a Jim Jarmusch or Atom Egoyan film that I know nothing about except they managed to make it for a buck twenty five versus some film that I know nothing about except that Universal spent 1 billion dollars on it and employed 'Hollywood's greatest actors/directors/stagehands/fluffers/whatever', I will choose to spend my cash on the former every single time. Hell, even if it's not one those guys... if it's someone I've never heard of. I'm sick to fucking death of blockbusters. I don't care about them. They're a cheap-ass shortcut to doing something honestly thoughtful. They get by on star power and budgets and special effects. Or star power and emotional manipulation of the crassest sort. They're written by teams who rewrite sections based on test audiences. They are, for the most part, artistically bankrupt. They are not blood, sweat, tears and an artist's vision. They are directed by marketing.

I know exactly what tallbuildings is talking about, but I have no answer, as of yet, as to what defines indy film. I'm going to have think a lot more about this.
posted by the_savage_mind at 3:54 PM on April 15, 2005

Indie is just another term for pretencious. All the same, while I detested nearly every aspect of Garden State more than partly because of the *holier than thou* vibe I got from it, I enjoyed the quirkiness of Eternal Sunshine and I *heart* Huckabees.
posted by hopeless romantique at 4:04 PM on April 15, 2005

I agree entirely with Potsy. I've long argued that Star Wars is the most successful independent film ever. It was distributed, not financed or controlled, by 20th Century Fox. All six films have been Lucas' vision and Lucas' vision alone (which recently has been more bad than good, but that's a topic for another thread.) The last five Star Wars films have been truly independently financed, mostly from revenue from the other films. I think that the reason that people snicker at this comes from the same flawed logic of tallbuildings' original post - that only artsy, boring-as-all-hell movies can be considered "indies". In fact, there are many, many extraordinary films produced every year completely outside of the studio system, but there are many, many extraordinary films produced inside the studio system as well.

Really - is Jaws any less an artistic achievement because it was made by a studio? Or Gone With The Wind? Casablanca? Raiders of the Lost Ark? Psycho? The Godfather films? (Okay, maybe only the first two Godfathers, but you get the point.)

To carry the argument to its logical conclusion, we would first have to check and make sure where Monet's money came from before we could say that he produced great art. Or Mozart. Or da Vinci (who would be 553 today, by the way).

It also pisses me off when Miramax claims that they make indies, despite the fact that they have been owned by Disney for years. We don't consider films from Touchstone or Buena Vista to be indies, when they are every bit as much a part of the Disney family as Miramax. And don't try to claim that Miramax only got funding from Disney, but that the Weinsteins were allowed to do what they want. If that was true, my Fahrenheit 9/11 DVD would have a Miramax logo on it.
posted by robhuddles at 4:07 PM on April 15, 2005

to me there's two types of indie flicks: there's the industry type and the underground type. the industry type has cropped up since the early 90's, according to an article i read in independent filmmaker magazine it means a film made for less than about 3-10 million dollars. the industry indie film still plays in movie theatres but might just stick with big metro areas. this type is considerably lucrative for a studio because of their minimal risk and huge returns. at the same time the studios get all this phony cred when they're really acting spineless compared to back when they gave directors both money and freedom to make their vision. think kubrick. these are either self financed by first timers and then bought outright at famous festivals or financed by the studio from the get go.

then there's the other type of indie movie, the ones that you'll never see or hear about by the mainstream media. you'll probably only run across if you frequent underground websites like b-independent or go to the one or two truly art-house theatres in your local metro. these are primarily horror films because that is about the only genre that according to some people can make money, but can really be about anything. bill plympton, mathew barney, early john waters, and the horde of anti-bush documentaries come to mind. I've wasted over 4 years of my life in making my own animated features and though its not very monetarily rewarding (quite the opposite) and it's taken away all my free time and friendships but at least i've got the guilty pleasure of having done something so hugely fucked up that no amount of bad or misinformed reviews and non-returned phone calls and rejection letters from cannes could ever take away my accomplishment.
posted by psychobum at 4:09 PM on April 15, 2005

For a while I went to all the art house theaters here in Seattle, trying to get my share of independent films because I wanted to see a non-hollywood perspective on cinema, and because I wanted to support brave film-making. After not too long I realized that Sturgeon's Law applies just as well to artsy independent films as it does to big-budget blockbusters -- most indy movies are utter crap, just like most big studio movies are utter crap. It doesn't matter who financed it. Not to me, as a viewer.

The way the system works now (from what I gather) is that if an independent film is good, it gets picked up by somebody, and I still get to see it. That is, if it's really profitable, it gets picked up by a major distributor, who makes a lot of money off it. If it's not necessarily a moneymaker, but is a good piece of cinema, it will get picked up by somebody like Landmark, who have smaller theaters that cater to independent and foreign films. Either way, the creme rises far enough to the top that I get to see the percentage of independent movies that are worth my money. It's not perfect, but it works pretty good, especially if you combine it with Netflix, or a good rental store, to fill in the gaps.
posted by Hildago at 4:16 PM on April 15, 2005

Truth be told, the only truly "independent" or "art" films are the ones that aren't made in America or financed by America.
posted by hnnrs at 4:31 PM on April 15, 2005

psychobum, thanks for mentioning Bill Plympton. he's a perfect example of driven indie filmmaker that puts the lie to the moronic statement above that 'indie' means pretentious. I had a great meal and conversation with Plympton a few years ago when I was helping run an indie and alternative press comics con, and I look forward to seeing his 'studio' (ie, his 'house') one day. This is a man who does his own thing from start to finish, regardless of how long it takes. He just draws frame by frame, till he gets it right. No pressure from a studio or backers to get it in on time, to make sure it appeals to this demographic or that one.

I can't know what kind of sacrifices your years of work have caused, but it doesn't seem likely that it's a waste even if it never gets any kind of widespread viewing. You've worked on a labor of love at your own speed and in your own way, and that's more than a lot of us have accomplished. Or even attempted.
posted by the_savage_mind at 4:46 PM on April 15, 2005

If you want indie films to thrive, you have to consider the flip side--distribution. Chains are forbidden from carrying indie films by contract, so theaters have to be indie, too.

But that means they can't run profitable first run studio movies, either. So you end up with university-town theaters, who have to obtain films from wherever without help, and paying retail for print rentals.

Unless these indie theaters have some special draw, they are going to lose. Even chain theaters make their profit almost entirely from concessions. Without box office hits they take a bath.

So what will that other draw be? Music? Theater? How do you bring in the crowds every night?
posted by kablam at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2005

if youve ever seen it, its not indie. nobody has ever seen an independant film.
posted by Satapher at 7:09 PM on April 15, 2005

I disagree, Satapher. Assisted Living was totally independent. All the studios shunned it. Yet it's better than trash like Garden State, the Life Aquatic, and about everything else besides Woody Allen. By the way, the new Todd Solondz is shit.
posted by oldleada at 7:37 PM on April 15, 2005

The whole thing is messed up. Robert Rodriguez had to quit the Directors Guild just so that he could have other directors included in the credits of Sin City.
posted by furtive at 7:51 PM on April 15, 2005

What can we do about it? I'm going to the movies.

I'll see any "indy" movie you give me a ticket for, provided it's shown here in Louisville somewhere.


What I do is pretty much ignore the subject. I haven't been in a movie theater since early 1998, I have my collection of Kevin Spacey flicks (a rental place was closing) and my girlfriend has several Monty Python things (it's de rigeur y'see), but I haven't seen a recent release since I rented "American Beauty" (because Kevin Spacey was in it), and while Angelina Jolie looks okay on the magazine covers at the checkout I've never seen a movie containing her nor will I bother to (unless she co-stars with Kevin Spacey). But of course nothing Kevin Spacey has acted in qualifies as "indy" so I doubt you're impressed, a reaction you're quite welcome to since I don't give a damn anymore whether I'm "k3wl" or not.

Southern Hemisphere strawberries are right tasty with pear brandy sprinkled on 'em, by the way. Let's make that the sine qua non of authentic sophistication.
posted by davy at 8:41 PM on April 15, 2005

I can't answer any of your questions about what is or isn't independent film-- but I know one thing: pretty much all Canadian films are independent...without the big names, big money, or big audience of Hollywood. And so, I'd like to plug the First Weekend Club, a free service that lets people know when an independent Canadian film is opening, so that the first weekend gets a good audience, and the film gets a shot at recognition.
posted by stray at 11:10 PM on April 15, 2005

Is being independent the new auteur?
posted by Navek Rednam at 2:20 AM on April 16, 2005

Isn't it obvious? "Independant film" means good, "studio financed" means bad.
posted by Orange Goblin at 2:36 AM on April 16, 2005

Why? because Spielberg made Jaws and Lucas made Star Wars in the mid-70s and they both made a heap of money. Not that they weren't groundbreaking and fun films, but their successes can be just as easily traced to advances in marketing and risk-taking in distribution that in these cases paid off. These two films set the stage for the 1980s, a time of studios chasing the next big one, the ever-elusive ├╝ber-blockbuster with virtually no regard to aesthetic value. I think it's no coincidence that this is around the time that blow was so big in LA. Since then, real film artists get their chance just every so often. I have to admit I'm grateful for the Coens, Jonze, Solendz, Labute and some others who have made fantastic films through the industry. I think the time is coming that film will decentralize, like porn did in the 80s, once the video cassette came out. It's going to become cheaper and easier to show movies in large-format or projection, and then a million little outfits will show movies to a million little cliques. And the cineplex will die Die DIE! Good times ahead; at least on the film front.
posted by squirrel at 4:17 AM on April 16, 2005

squirrel, you just used the words "labute" and "fantastic" in the same sentence.

::starts laughing behind her hands::
::stifles it::

personally, i'd rather read an oped in the wall street journal than have to watch actors speak unbelievably stilted lines, or see a boom mic dip into the frame (and this was on a video transfer, so don't bother quoting ebert). but that's just me, i find. the ascendancy of labute as cinematic genius makes one wish there were conservative filmmakers at least half as good as john ford.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:47 AM on April 16, 2005

Remember 10 years ago when just about everyone in the music industry could be slapped with flannel and called 'alternative'? Same thing. I'm surprised it took Hollywood so long to catch on.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:52 AM on April 16, 2005

Man, there seems to be a lot of 'holier than thou' poo thrown around in this thread. Luckily, I'm still gonna see whatever movie I want, and ignore what you bastards say.

Also, no one should take Owen Gleiberman seriously. He's a hack.
posted by graventy at 5:53 AM on April 16, 2005

I spent 4 years making my film.. Financed it myself, researched it myself, shot it myself, with a crew of one. Paying for its duplication at a DVD production house myself, and will distribute it myself. I'm not employed by a film house, never worked in the film industry. Although I did go to film school, 10 years ago.

Am I "independent"? I don't think so.

I think the term "independent film" has no meaning and is a marketing term/short-cut used to apply to anything that isn't shot in-house at a studio for a studio by that studio... and sometimes more than that. I think film people have a problem, which is that the medium of film (really, most mediums) requires you find a way of raising your head above the herd. You must do what it takes to get enough attention to get a critical mass of folks to see your work.

You end up grasping at straws. Like calling the film whatever term will make people attend.

Or, you know, plugging your film in a MeFi thread.
posted by jscott at 8:55 PM on April 17, 2005

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