Cinema of Outsiders: Rise of American Independent Film

This book, which was on the Best-Seller List of the L.A. Times, was recently singled out as the most popular film book in the 90-year-history of NYU Press

Is independent film a victim of its own success
Over the past decade, the mainstreaming of American indies has taken various forms:

Organizational–Independents have become institutionalized, forming an industry that does not so much run against as parallel to Hollywood. Two legit industries, mainstream and independent, co-exist, each grounded in its own organizational structure. A decade ago, the idea that such industry forces as CAA or Fox would embrace fringe players was unthinkable. But CAA represents indie maverick, David Lynch, and Fox established Fox Searchlight to produce and distribute art movies. The heavyweights’ foray into the indie sector continues in full force. The William Morris Agency recently restructured its independent film division, which is run autonomously, with the goal of boosting the agency’s status in indiehood.

Budgetary–Securing bigger budgets which allow for longer shooting schedules and better technical qualities.

Narrative–Aiming to Please at All Costs–Reviewing John Sayles’ “Lianna” (1982), Richard Corliss wrote: “Handicapped by budgets as low as $50,000, struggling with unknown actors and make-do shooting schedules, independents demand the viewer’s rooting interest to see them over the rough spots and through the inevitable langueurs.” For Corliss, the one thing independents depend on is adventurous audiences.

At present, however, the range of indies is wide and only a small proportion, the truly bold ones, require risk-taking viewers. The majority have gotten closer to the mainstream in both narrative and style. It should be pointed out that most American indies have seldom been experimental or avant-garde. Contrast Nicole Holofscener’s debut, “Walking and Talking”, with her much broader sophomore, “Lovely and Amazing”. Contrast Neil LaBute’s audacious film, “In the Company of Men”, with his third, more generic and accessible, “Nurse Betty”.

Name-Casts and Stars–In the past, it was not hip to be in little indie; it signaled that an actor’s career was in trouble. But at present, acting in an indie doesn’t mean having to say you’re sorry. Hollywood’s most bankable stars (Bruce Willis, John Travolta) are also making smaller, offbeat films. Willis told the “L.A. Times”: “Every once in a while, I’ve got to satisfy myself. I can count on one hand, and not use my thumb, the number of films in the last couple of years that I looked forward to going to work every day.”

By and large, though, indies have their own hierarchy of actors. Two dozen players dominate the field, going from one project to another. Among them, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Steve Buscemi, William H. Macy. In the 1996 Sundance Festival, Lili Taylor appeared in three competition features, including “I Shot Andy Warhol”.

“Actors who want interesting careers have to make hard choices,” said Julianne Moore, because for an indie they get paid scale.” Moore has navigated smoothly between the indie and commercial worlds, appearing in challenging movies like “Vanya on 42nd Street” and “Safe”, for which she earned critical praise. While playing in “The Lost World” and “Hanniba”l, Moore was also seen bottomless in Altman’s “Short Cuts” and topless in P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Night”s.

There’s not dobut that Matt Damon elevated the visibility of Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry”, which sharply divided critics. Similar contribution was made by Robin Williams for the commercial visibility of “One Hour Photo”, Jennifer Anniston in “The Good Girl”, Sigourney Weaver and Bebe Newirth in “Tadpole”. The use of estbalished talent doesn’t necessarily mean compromising the film’s integrity or director’s vision. Arguably, “Far From Heaven” benefited from the presence of Julianne Moore (who was not a major star when Haynes cast her in “Safe”) and Dennis Quaid.

Hype Marketing–In the past, one could make a small movie and it would find its audience through reviews and word-of-mouth. But the theatrical life span of movies has become shorter and shorter. Indies, like mainstream movies, are not afforded the proper play time to build word-of-mouth. Nowadays, everything is about marketing and being the No. 1 at the box-office, a reflection of American culture as a polarized system between winners and losers (and nothing in between).

Entertainment news of both Hollywood and indiehood has become popular and financially prosperous. The cornerstone of this news, as producer Laura Siskin observed, is the announcement of the grosses–on Sunday morning, before the weekend is over. It has become a weekly contest for who is going to win. That has filtered through the system, creating a national obsession with knowing how much money each movie (even indie) makes.

Studios make movies that they could market, that would be hits before they opened. What matters more than movies’ artistic execution is their marketability. And the movies that the studios want to make are the ones that are easier to market. For the indie world, the impact of hip marketing has taken a toll. There was so much hype over “The Blair Witch Projec”t since its premiere in Sundance that in many significant ways its actual release was anti-climactic. Like Hollywood fare, “Blair Witch” peaked before it even opened.

New Definition of Success–In the 1980s, “Liquid Sky”, “El Norte”, “Stranger Than Paradise”, “Blood Simple” showed that films can be independent and still make money. Not a lot of money, but enough to remove the stigma from the word independent–and recoup the expense. Recalled producer Christine Vachon (“Happiness”, “Far From Heaven”): “when you worked on “Parting Glances”, you were just lucky to be where it was happening. You worked 17-hours-days, but there was a passion that trickled down. You cared about the movie and the director’s vision.”

But the definition of success has changed, too, as Vachon observed: “Back then, we used to think a film was a success if it grossed over $1 million. Now, it’s not a success if it grosses over $10 million.” For Vachon, indies have become “more of an industry, because it’s impossible to get financial backing for a small film without stars. “You really need to have some good stock to get a role,” Lili Taylor told the “N.Y. Times”, “Everybody wants someone who can bring a little bit more money to the table. It’s all distribution, and the distributor says you don’t have a name.”

The talk of the town over the past six months has been the smash success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”. With over $220 million in box-office grosses, it’s the most popular indie ever made, relegating the previous record-holder, “The Blair Witch Project”, which grossed $140.5 million, to second place. Nonetheless, most of the talk about this feel-good crowd-pleaser has been on its phenomenal marketing and astonishing appeal, and with good reason. There’s not much to be said about its artistic merits, which are a notch above a routine TV sit com (it’s now being developed as a TV series). “Greek Wedding” doesn’t promote the cause of indies, and its budget, $5 million, is substantial–think how many innovative indies could bb made for such amount.

The New New Hollywood–The Return of the Middle

In the 1990s, critics lamented the disappearance of Hollywood’s middle-range, social-issue film. Paul Schrader noted: “With a few exceptions, there’s no place for a $20 to 30 million movie anymore.

The movies that studios traditionally made for award prestige value have fallen into the domain of independents. Indpendent, more often than not, is a euphemism for a small studio.”

But over the past five years, Hollywood has reappropriated the middle-ground movies, with variable artistic and commercial results: Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil” (Universal), Alexander Payne’s “Election” (Paramount), David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” (Warner), Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (DreamWorks), P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” (Columbia).

It’s now possible to make formally innovative films within the system. Take Curtis Hanson’s career, marked by smaller, atypical studio fare: The noir “L.A. Confidential”, the suave satire “Wonder Boy”s. There’s more stylistic experimentation in Hanson’s “8 Mile” or even Schumacher’s “Tigerland” than in most indies.

Cooptation–Hollywood Opens Its Gate

After a decade or so of insularity and stagnation, Hollywood finally acknowledged its drought and opened its gates. The studios are hungry for fresh, hot talent, which almost invariably bursts within indie cinema. Hollywood has always shrewdly coopted the best and the brightest, from the silent era, when Murnau, Lubitsch, and Lang were brought from Europe, through the talkies, when Broadway directors like Cukor and Minnelli were imported.

The two Spikes (Lee and Jonz), the two Andersons (Wes and P.T.) began small in the indie milieu before being lured and coppted into the system, where they have managed to do good work. But as soon as a cohort of indie filmmakers tastes respectability and is coppted into the system, there’s a new, ambitious cohort, eager to express its vision and push from the bottom.

It’s not cinema that has ended. Great films continue to be made but they represent the exception rather than the norm of filmmaking. It’s the love of cinema as a unique art form that has waned. Young people still go to the movies, but they lack a genuine passion for film, an eagerness to absorb the glorious past of world cinema. Indeed, cinephilia, as we knew it, has been defeated—forever gone is the experience of being transported by art films. Sontag and Lopate know that no amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals of the darkened movie theater. The VCR Revolution and the privatization of leisure (more people are watching movies on video and DVD than ever before. As a result, the status of film has changed too: Film has become just one out many (but not the primary one) varieties of home entertainment.

Blurring the Lines

The critic Pauline Kael expressed the dilemmas of many critics when writing about indies. “I don’t want to hear any more screeching cars or gunfights and explosions,” she told “Newsweek”. “But I dislike the drabness of a scrip-bound film like “Lone Star”, and it seems to me that what it’s saying is rather puny. And yet I can understand the people who go to it, searching for some values beyond what they get from “Twister” or “Independence Da”y. But independent films often feature subject matter at the expense of technique.” Kael may have been right about Sayles, whose last films (“Men With Guns”, “Limbo”, “Sunshine State”) were disappointing.

Nonetheless, when asked to single out the films she truly enjoyed, Kael was quick to point out “The Designated Mourner”, “Vanya on 42nd Street”, “Looking for Richard”, “The Apostle”, and the first hour of “Chasing Amy” and “Boogie Nights”, all quintessentially independents.

As always, there’s both an optimistic and pessimistic way of viewing the mainstreaming of indies and the New New Hollywood–or the breakdown of distinction between indie and studio movies. For indie guru Robert Redford, an independent film is “not necessarily a bunch of people running around SoHo, dressed in black, making a movie for $25,000. It’s simply a film that stays free as long as possible to be what it wants to be. In an ideal world, there won’t be a distinction between types of movies, just a broader menu.”


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