What is independent film?
In just one week of this class I have a better understanding of what independent film actually is. To be honest, when I first started the class I did use the term “indie” to define what I thought was a genre of movies, but I can see now that is not the case. I thought that what made a movie indie was the content of the film, which is true to a certain degree, but it also deals largely with the context of the movie, production of the movie, and how viewers are suggested to approach the movie.
It was a surprise to me that the term independent film has been used for so long. Michael Z. Newman points out in his book, indie: an american film culture, that the term indie has been used since the 1910s. Of course the meaning behind it has changed since then, but it has always revolved around the production and distribution in regards to mainstream institutions and studios. What makes independent film culture today so special however, is the fact that the indie culture governs itself as to what is and is not indie.
One key thing Newman characterizes indie film as, is anti-Hollywood. This doesn’t simply mean that all independent film will go against all conventional notions of Hollywood cinema, or that they will be a disappointment to all audiences that are expecting a huge Hollywood hit. As we saw in class, Sex, Lies, and Videotape was an independent film that had large commercial success, but it did so in it’s own way by the director having creative control. There are plenty indie films that appeal to both indie audiences and to the masses (e.g. Garden State, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, The Big Lebowski).
It is not that independent film attempts to disrespect Hollywood films. In fact, there wouldn’t be indie film at all without Hollywood. By having a standard mainstream formula for movies to be a success in the Hollywood scene, indie cinema is allowed to play off of that and deviate from the set path. They work together in separate ways. And because the studio system recognizes that, independent film studios are established as side efforts by the major ones. For example, Miramax was a pioneer in the independent film production industry, and it was bought by Disney to allow them to produce movies that they did not necessarily want the Disney name on. Similarly, 20th Century Fox started Fox Searchlight Pictures and Paramount started Paramount Classics (now Paramount Vantage).
Because of this, it is too simple to say, all independent cinema is made on a cheap budget away from the studio. It is more accurate to say that the studio is just not actively involved. But why would a director want to suffer financially so the studio stays away? The answer is creative control.
A major thing the author describes independent film by is that form is a game, and the form is played with by the creative control the director has in making his/her film true to the way he/she imagines it to be. We saw this in Stranger Than Paradise when Jim Jarmusch doesn’t rely much on plot, but puts the emphasis on characters and their reactions with each other. It can also be seen in Memento by Christopher Nolan, as the film is played in a sort of 2-steps-backward-1-step-forward approach.
The biggest revelation I got from the book is that the story telling is not what necessarily sets indie apart from Hollywood; it is how we see and interpret the film as an audience. It is really up to us to think critically about the film and decide that a film fits into indie culture, not based solely on economic, stylistic, or thematic terms. To truly appreciate an independent film, you must find what makes it unique and what the director wanted you to see by not doing it the conventional way.