Indie Cinema: Prestige Rising of American Indies

It’s official: the American independent cinema has arrived! The New York Times puts indie films on its front page, and devotes a special issue of its Sunday Magazine to the independents. Time singles out Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein as one of the most accomplished Americans of 1997, running a major article on the Weinstein brothers. Entertainment Weekly commits a special issue to the independents, as do the stalwart industry trades Variety and Hollywood Reporter in their annual issues. The development of a viable alternative cinema, with its own institutional structure, may be one of the most exciting developments in American culture during the last two decades.

The success of independent films in the 1990s has prompted some critics to herald the renaissance of a vibrantly innovative cinema. Correspondingly, filmmaking has become one of the most desirable professions in the U.S. and a film degree one of the most sought-after diplomas in the academic world.

Novelists are no longer our cultural heroes; filmmakers are. In the past, young, ambitious Americans dreamed of writing the great American novel. Nowadays, their aspiration is to make the great American movie. With the entire globe looking to the U.S. for the supply of movies, the possibilities for young American filmmakers are seemingly endless.

Increased economic opportunities are certainly a factor, but passion and commitment are still the primary motivating forces. “It’s a wonderful time for independent filmmakers right now–if you have an original story, if you don’t second-guess yourself and make a Tarantino rip-off,” said Miguel Arteta, whose feature debut, Star Maps, premiered in 1997. “You have to make a story you’re passionate about, because when you make one of these movies, it’s nearly gonna kill you. You’d better like it at the end of the day.”

Indie films have gained much respectability over the last decade. One measure for the new cache is the willingness of established actors to work for practically nothing if the role is right. A growing number of key players in Hollywood’s creative community, such as directors Robert Altman and Steven Soderbergh, and movie stars like John Travolta, Bruce Willis and Tim Robbins, now commute regularly between studio and indie films.

It didn’t always used to be so. Despite his stature in the indie world, John Sayles could not always get the actors he wanted for his films. For years, agents would not even show his scripts to their top actors. “It never used to be hip the way that it is now to be in little independent movies,” Sayles recalled. “It was a signal that your career was in trouble.”

Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as Turning Point

Mainstream Hollywood product is dominating both domestic and foreign box-office charts, but it is independent movies that are creating waves and winning awards at major festivals around the world, including that most prestigious forum, the Cannes Film Festival. In 1994, for the fourth time in six years, Cannes conferred its top award, the Palme d’Or, on an American picture: Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The picture was described by French critics as a “typically American lowlife serenade,” a flashy salute to L.A.’s cool, marginal world, but American critics stressed that, if anything, Tarantino was atypical of Hollywood, that his work was a parody of America, owing a lot to European directors.

Tarantino’s victory recalled the unexpected crowning of Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape in 1989, David Lynch’s Wild at Heart in 1991, and Joel Coen’s Barton Fink in 1992, all independent movies. American indies have also grabbed the limelight outside the main competition. In the last 20 years, the Camera d’Or, Cannes’ prize for best first film, had been given to several American indies, including Robert Young’s Alambrista! (1978), John Hanson and Robert Nilsson’s Northern Lights (1979), Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), John Torturro’s Mac (1992), and most recently, Marc Levin’s Slam (1998).

European prestige is one thing, but what really counts in Hollywood is domestic visibility and box-office clout. What better measures of these indicators than the Oscar Award, the most influential award in the film world. The flowering of independents first became visible at the 1986 Oscars, when William Hurt won Best Actor for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Geraldine Page Best Actress for The Trip to Bountiful, two pictures produced by Island, a small independent company.

In 1987, all five nominees for the Oscar Award were made outside the Hollywood establishment: Oliver Stone’s Platoon, James Ivory’s A Room With A View, Roland Joffe’s The Mission, Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, and Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God. Announcing a major change, these pictures showed that Hollywood was opening up to offbeat, unusual work. The message was loud and clear: the independent are marching into the mainstream.

Howards End, The Crying Game, The Player were not only box-office smashes in 1992, they also garnered more Oscar nominations than big studio releases. This, of course, led Hollywood to seek further inroads into the independent community. Hollywood understands that indies are the soul of American film in a way that the potboilers of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) or Michael Bay (The Rock, Armageddon) never can be.

Indies and Oscar: 1996

Four of the five nominees for the 1996 Best Picture Oscar were independents, i.e. financed and made outside the studio system: The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets & Lies, and Shine. In the same year, Hollywood spent its time, energy, and big bucks churning out and marketing big-budget, over-produced, special-effects, star-studded formulas like Twister and Independence Day.

Indie films have a particularly impressive record in the writing and acting categories. Recent winners of the Best Original Screenplay Oscar have included Pulp Fiction in 1994, The Usual Suspects in 1995, Sling Blade in 1996, Good Will Hunting in 1997. Half of the 20 nominated actors in 1997 were singled out for a performance in indies, including Robert Duvall in The Apostle, Julie Christie in Afterglow, and Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights.

If you want to know more about this issue, please read my book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, paperback 2001).