What Is Independent Film? Go Ask Ellen Page

January 14, 2014 : 9:23 pm | by Aaron Levy

Me and my friends back in highschool, still waiting on that check from Sony.

Me and my friends back in highschool, still waiting on that check from Sony.

The cover of Michael Newman’s text on independent film “Indie: An American Film Culture” bears a picture of perhaps the most recognizable character from “indie” films in recent years: Juno MacGuff, played by Ellen Page, from the film “Juno.”

I saw the film during one of its first five premieres at the Austin Film Festival in 2007 and, although I enjoyed it, immediately wondered why it was being shown. The 2007 smash hit has helped me decide what truly defines a movie as being “independent” because frankly, the term is thrown around just as loosely as the word “unique.” Is any movie actually free of outside financial and content related pressures and contrains? Probably just as often as anything in the world is actually one of a kind and literally unique. Not very often.

Many people think of indie film as being primarily defined by whether or not a given film had (significant) funding from a studio or known-to-be-mainstream production company like Disney, MGM, Paramount and the like. However, many of these enormous entities now have departments and studios designated solely to produce and distribute low-budget, potentially high-earning films. “Juno,” and “Little Miss Sunshine” are praised for their offbeat quirky nature, even with big actors and studios writing the checks. So what then makes a film truly independent?

Newman assertions are, for broad strokes purposes, fairly accurate. Independent film can be classified by having character driven stories, alternative distribution and viewing methods, a combination of modern and postmodernist styled structure and ideas staunchly opposed to those that are produced in Hollywood.

Juno was incredibly self-aware of its “indie” pedigree. It’s pop and punk rock soundtrack, coupled with Ellen Page’s witty dialogue and intricate knowledge of punk rock culture conveyed this within 20 minutes of the film’s opening. And yes, the topic of teen pregnancy ruffled a few feathers, but this film is (rather transparently) just an offbeat, relatively low-budget ($7 million) studio film.

Other than finance, the easiest way to classify independent film is alternative ways of telling a story. Whereas Juno introduced a character with a clear cut problem and room for personal growth along a linear, chronological path, true indies challenge that whole notion. It is comforting and “easy” for a viewer to watch the normal beats of storytelling unfold: The protagonist setting out on their quest, experiencing their darkest hour and ultimately succeeding or failing but learning an important lesson. However, the reality is that there are many other meaningful, good ways to express ideas and tell stories. The “slice of life” (“Kids” and “Slacker” are examples) is one of many other different ways.

Juno MacGuff is but a character on a straightforward path through the film. We learn about the characters along the way, but they aren’t what drive the film and keep it moving. The passing of the seasons and the pregnancy dictate the pace. Yes, the film originally debuted at only a few thousand theatres before getting a wide release, but realistically Fox Searchlight could have gotten the film to play at any theatre in the country after its first weekend. As soon as they saw the potential cash cow, they seized it.

My conclusion that “Juno” is not an independent film points to the bigger point which is that independent films are defined by not being afraid to offend and lose viewership because of its structure, sensibility and (possibly) low-budget appearance. Clever dialogue, a good musical score and a low budget do not an indie make.


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