Independent films are an integral part of American movie history, but distinction of the term “Indie” is continually made vague. How has the notion of an independent film evolved with the industry and what awaits movie audiences in the future? These lingering questions of Independent film can only begin to be explored in retrospect and acknowledgment of a more important element; story. As masses of home-made filmmakers are lured into independent film-making by the availability of technology, story remains central to great films.
A History of Independent Film
There are strong roots in the definition of Independent film no matter how vaguely the term is tossed around now. In its earliest days, “independent gained romantic connotation, signifying the brave efforts of rebels fighting against a powerful trust.”(1) Many of these so called rebels and Independent spirits who defied the film industry went on to become kingpins of their own movie empires.
It started at the turn of the 20th Century, when filmmakers fled westward to escape the Edison Trust, which was the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company. The Edison Trust dissolved in 1912 and gave way to the genesis of Hollywood. Then burgeoning moguls like the Warner Brothers, Goldwyn and Mayer headed west in a conglomeration of successful studios.
These producers, independently defiant in nature, established the long standing power players of Hollywood. Disney, Warner, MGM, Paramount Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox; are names synonymous even a century later with Hollywood power. Another Independent uprising was born in 1919 with the talents of actress Mary Pickford, leading man Douglas Fairbanks, comedic genus Charlie Chaplin and visionary director D.W. Griffith, in the foundation of America’s first Independent film studio, United Artists. Mary Pickford again organized the independent spirits haunting Hollywood and along with Walt Disney, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn and Orson Welles, formed a Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. This organization interrupted the monopoly chain of Paramount studios in 1942, who owned production facilities, distribution networks and movie theaters.
After World War II, the studio system grew stale, but the 60s and 70s blossomed with foreign and independent films (“Easy Rider”, “American Graffiti”, “Taxi Driver”) that riveted culture. A New Hollywood was born in a generation of luminary filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, who revitalized American cinema. Yet it was a renewed boilerplate for success for the major players, as these independently minded filmmakers had Studio support. A phenomenon which can be said developed the label of “Indie.”
There was still a cadre of independent filmmakers working outside the studios, including innovative directors such as David Lynch and John Waters. Then, quietly brewing in the background of Hollywood’s new success was Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which ushered in a new generation of independent films at the Sundance Film Festival. The modern era of Independent filmmakers got their start at Sundance, as names like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Paul Thomas Anderson became forerunners of today’s “Indie” movement.
Indie vs. Independent: A New Definition
Independent films became a force outside of just being a rebellious group of filmmakers, acquiring the genre label of “Indie.” This resulted in many of the major studios branching into acquisition of films under the banner of an Indie subsidy. As Reed Martin distinguishes in his book, The Reel Truth, the current industry term of “indie film” is more appropriately “independently financed films.” He elaborates that “indie” is “a marketing term used to describe a genre of film with a certain risk-taking sensibility …or counterpart to the traditional portfolio of mainstream, general-audience ‘popcorn’ films that are the studios’ bread and butter.” (2)
A film’s Indie label carries with it this mode of independence in storytelling where studios dare not go, unless safely under their Indie branch of production. This risk taking is beyond low-budget films, with high acclaim and no box-office, inspired by triumphant tales in independent filmmaking. A comprehensive view of Independent film successes cannot be talked about without mentioning “The Blair Witch Project.“This 1999 Independent horror film was reportedly made for no more then $25,000 and reaped over $248 million worldwide. This success was surpassed by another low-budget independent horror film, “Paranormal Activity”, which saw an even smaller budget and greater return on the initial investment.
The original keeper of the flame as the most successful Independent film is George Miller and Byron Kennedy’s Australian epic, “Mad Max”(1979). Independently produced on a budget of $400,000, the film went on to gross over $100 million worldwide, which held the Guinness Book of Records title of highest profit-to-cost ratio for nearly twenty years. Under the auspice of Cinematic influence, “Mad Max” also launched the career of a young unknown, soon to be mega star, Mel Gibson.
Aside from these financially successful models of Independent films, the Indie film genre is only recently less of a crapshoot at the box-office. The influence of independent films resides more in terms of being breakthrough cinema and in the arena of critical acclaim. Arguably, some of the most influential films of all time where independent productions, a rough short list being; “Apocalypse Now” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Robert Mulligan, 1962), “Night of the Living Dead” (George A. Romero, 1968), “Stranger Than Paradise” (Jim Jarmusch, 1984), “Pulp Fiction” (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), and “Birth of a Nation” (D.W.Griffith, 1915).
The term “Independent Film” has been blurred by an estranged genre label of “Indie.” Yet, the influence of independent films is not tainted by the recent Studio hunt for the next Indie hit. Artists and filmmakers are always pushing boundaries outside the control of corporate studios. Hollywood economist and author, Edward Jay Epstein reveals that “While studios are increasingly concentrating their energies on comic book sequels, indie producers have shown great resourcefulness in exploiting original ideas, such as “Slumdog Millionaire.”” (3)
The Future of Independent Films
Francis Ford Coppola, once himself a Godfather of independent films, attests to the further freedoms of future filmmakers. In raving about new technologies, Coppola said, “You don’t have to go hat-in-hand to some film distributor and say, ‘please will you let me make a movie?'”(4) New technologies further blur the line of what an independent film may be, as anyone with a camera and internet connection can release a film. Reed Martin recognizes this phenomenon with a warning; “Raw talent, an ear for dialogue, an eye for the perfect shot, and the passion to craft something that touches and inspires audiences are increasingly the only missing part.” (5)
In the end everyone, whether Guerilla filmmaker, Indie filmmaker or studio executive can agree that what makes a great film is story. Filmmaking is a branch of storytelling, no matter how abstracted the form or central idea is. Entertainment Lawyer Jon M. Garon hits a thematic homerun from the opening pitch of his book with this dictum, “the audience pays the same price for the theater seat and popcorn whether the film’s budget was $100,000 or $100 million.” (6)
American cinema is deeply rooted in the notion of being independent, and now with new technologies sees a vast horizon of possibility. Yet, as the above authors so elementally stipulate; no matter how fiercely independent a film’s production may be; it’s greatness beings with story.
1)King, Geoff, American Independent Cinema, Performing Arts, 2005,pg 4
2)Martin, Reed, The Reel Truth, Faber and Faber Inc., 2009, pg., 73.
3)Epstein, Edward Jay, The Hollywood Economist, Melville House Publishing, 2010pg. 211
4)Kisner, Scott, Inventing Movies, CinemaTech Books, 2008, pg. 199.
5)Martin, Reed, The Reel Truth, Faber and Faber Inc., 2009
6)Garon, Jon M., The Independent Filmmaker’s Law and Business Guide, Chicago Review Press, 2009