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Criticwire Survey: Does "Independent Film" Still Exist?

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January 20, 2014 10:18 AM
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'Upstream Color'

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.

Q: The Sundance Film Festival played a key role in popularizing the notion of American independent film, but with the festival celebrating its 30th year and the landscape more fractured then ever, does "Independent Film" still mean anything?

Kevin Lee, Fandor, Sight & Sound

This question of "what is an independent film" has tantalized us for the better part of at least three decades, and has been answered through so many phases and filters for understanding the purpose of movies. Each attempt at answering exposes an underlying set of assumptions of how we think independent movies should define themselves within/around/against/underneath the conventions of art, industry and politics. After all this time, I wonder if it's now better to simply abandon the term. What if we instead call all movies "dependent" films? What if we focus our attention on how "independent" movies, like all movies, are subservient in some way to a given set of ideological agendas and economic forces that drive them into existence?  Our very desire for "independent" may belie a dependency on our part: a belonging within a system, coupled with a desire to break free from it, a desire for freedom that itself threatens to enslave us in it. Instead of seeking to understand that system more thoroughly, we seek to escape from it by embracing anything that offers itself as "independent". It's like a shimmering oasis at the far horizon of the desert of our culture, beckoning to us. This time, instead of rushing after it as I have so many times in the past, I'm increasingly inclined to ask myself what I might do if it's not really there. 

Robert Greene, Sight & Sound, Hammer to Nail

"Independent Film" as a sub-Hollywood genre is long-dead, but the spirit of independently produced cinema will forever remain. Startling films are consistently being made on the fringes, with the obvious winds of cheap technology and easy outlets for online distribution at the backs of artists everywhere. From Alex Ross Perry to Joshua Oppenheimer, filmmakers continue to do their thing and many eventually break through to a more mainstream context. And here's the thing: because the possibility for actually making money is so remote, the motivations for making films in the first place is being fueled by some of the more interesting human impulses (everything from political activism to the need to feed ego), which results in more interesting films. Let's call this new wave the Free Cinema.

Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News

As the author of Independent Queer Cinema, I like to think "Independent Film" is a phrase that describes those filmmakers who are creating work outside the traditional, or mainstream parameters. Writer/Directors like Todd Verow and Everett Lewis, who make great gay films on micro-budgets and on their own terms. They resist big money and "name" actors and tell original stories. I admire them because they are truly "independent," insisting on operating outside of any studio system, much like John Cassavetes did when he started directing and the term "independent film" was first coined. In this digital age, where almost anyone can (and does) make movies, Verow and Lewis continue to forge their own paths for themselves and their fans, like me. 

I think Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards both have their place, but mostly when they showcase inspiring films like Debra Granik's Down to the Bone, Joshua Sanchez's FourRestless City, by Andrew Dosunmu, and Hide Your Smiling Faces by Daniel Patrick Carbone. These are the kind of independent films that challenge and discomfit viewers, which is what all great independent films should do. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

Whatever the historical background for the concept of independent filmmaking -- working outside the studio system -- may have been, the very nature of the system has changed in such a way as to blur the lines definitively between inside and outside. The large overlap of Oscar contenders and Gotham and Independent Spirit nominees suggests that the broadest contemporary definition, centered on "economy of means," is too broad: With the studios concentrating big budgets mainly on spectacular, design- and character-centered fantasies (and nothing a priori against them), almost all director-centric projects are held to economy of means with financing by independent producers. Several more aptly stringent criteria come to mind: 1. Does the film have a domestic distribution deal in place in advance of any festival premiere? 2. Does the director get a salary? 3. Is the director getting enough of a fee to make a living? This criterion is of course variable -- one filmmaker's feast is another's famine -- but it gets to the problem faced by those who got their start in the studio era but now work on sharply reduced budgets (albeit maybe with sharply increased freedom); some might find other movie-centric ways to supplement their income (script doctoring? commercials? producing movies for others? acting?). In the case of #2 or those under the margin of #3, those who direct for little or no pay find themselves independents in Gertrude Stein's sense (the independent dependents and the dependent independents); the independent filmmaker is one who is dependent on other sources of income, whether it's a teaching job or other day job, a spouse or parent or private wealth. There's music for that, thanks to Charles Mingus.

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs, To Be (Cont'd)

I had a discussion last year with an independent filmmaker in the truest sense -- he has made two films, neither which have made it to any theater or major festival for that matter. We got onto a discussion on why you don't see more films in the United States that are closer to those of certain internationally well received directors like Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Tsai Ming-Liang. For those directors, their market is already the international market (mainly, France). These films are financed by people who already have their eyes set on international acclaim. Independent films in the United States do not go abroad, he explained. There is no market for the kind of independent cinema that doesn't fit into the Sundance or SXSW or Tribeca mold. And that's a very scary fact.

There is hope, however. Computer Chess (which did premiere at Sundance) is extraordinarily radical. Films last year from Dan Sallitt, Frank V. Ross, Amy Seimetz, Gina Telaroli, the Harvard SEL, and the entirety of what's streaming on No Budge proves there is a set of filmmakers out there who are willing to never play to "demographics" or "quadrants." If I was a filmmaker, I'd want people to see the movies I make and make a living creating them. So I don't blame anyone who caters their films to a wide audience, to make them accessible as possible. And there's nothing wrong with liking studio films or mid-budget films or things that play at Sundance. But don't call them independent, and don't praise them for being small and original films when they play directly into the same narrative structures and aesthetic choices that define the rest of Hollywood. 

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit, First Showing

This is an interesting one. Instead of getting into a long, drawn out diatribe, I'll just tell a story. A few weeks ago I was on a first date with someone and she brought it up to me that she didn't like independent movies. I resisted the urge to lecture her about generalizations (though considering there was no second date, it wasn't like I had anything to lose) and instead asked what she meant, and she said "you know, movies with actors I don't recognize and sad story lines." Basically, I tell that quick story to illustrate that I don't think the average moviegoer knows what an independent film is anymore. When I told her that technically The Wolf of Wall Street was funded independently, her mind was blown. She sees a shaky camera and thinks indie, not where the money came from or who's behind it, and that's probably a more common line of thinking than I realized.

Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That

Independent Film is a genre. An unclear, defined genre that filmmakers and studios seem to try and fit into. I also feel like it is, borderline, a derogatory term in this day and age. I don't use it that way, I rarely use the term in any way shape or form, but when I hear it used it is almost always with a negative connotation.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I grew up in the '90s when Independent cinema was the code word for hip, or groundbreaking, or Earth-shattering, or whatever hyperbole you were a fan of. At the time I thought, "Wow! These movies are made on the cheap and are doing things movies have never done before!" Then I grew up and though, "Wow, these are totally things movies have done before and I'm an idiot but still they're carrying on a tradition in cinema and that's great!" And now I think, "If I see one more shot on a 7D handheld-going-in-and-out-of-focus-for-no-reason movie about white people having relationship problems I hope I get an aneurysm to prevent the murder spree I would go on!" The blockbusters all look and feel and are marketed the same and so are the indies and everything sucks and I'm old and jaded but darn it if I can't help but feeling like cinema is in a holding pattern. Luckily there are people like Ben Wheatley and Shane Carruth out there doing the work and avoiding those modern cliches of "indie" cinema. And all across the world people are making engaged, excited, enraged works that feel alive and not like horrid vanity projects of the self-absorbed who don't care about cinema's past and only want the title Director next to their name so they can go on podcasts and pontificate on the state of a medium they think is at their service rather than the other way around. Something somewhere got broken and I don't know what it is. Probably that there really is a white noise effect and people like Celia Rowlson-Hall can't freak out average movie goers with her awesomeness. Destroy the mainstream, become the mainstream, get destroyed. That was the deal I agreed to and that doesn't happen anymore. Everything is everywhere always and trends, tricks, and cliches get latched onto, sucked up and spit out before we have had a chance to digest them. I'm sorry. I think I'm losing my mind. Guy Maddin still rules! 

Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037

For me, "independent film" is about the circumstances under which a film is made. When a filmmaker doesn't have to worry about market research or product placement or what some higher-up has to say, then that's independent, regardless of how much it costs or who's writing the checks. Likewise, a film made completely outside of all traditional forms of financing and distribution still may not be independent if there are behind-the-scenes moneymen who can dictate choices. There just aren't that many truly independent films out there these days- but that number is thankfully increasing through crowdsourcing, which is fascinating and exciting, but also doubly burdensome on the viewer. 

Andrew Welch, To Be (Cont'd)

Last week, I saw that a nearby theater had put up posters for Her and Inside Llewyn Davis in a local bookstore, with an ad underneath that read: "independent film in Denton." I don't know the ins and outs of how these movies were financed, but the wording of the ad threw me. Are these really independent films? Her may have an "indie" feel, but it still opens with the Warner Bros logo front and center. To my mind, an independent film in today's world looks more like Upstream Color. Carruth's fingerprints are everywhere on that movie creatively, but he also orchestrated its theatrical roll-out. Her and Inside Llewyn Davis aren't exactly "mainstream," but they were put out by very well-oiled operations. To say that a movie is a bona-fide "indie" today, I think you would have to consider how that movie was released and not just how it was financed or how much control the filmmaker had over the project.

Alan Zilberman, Tiny Mix Tapes, The Atlantic

Independent film has a meaning, but it's gotten more specific. It's no longer an umbrella term that applies to non-mainstream entertainment. This year's Independent Spirit Best Feature nominees, all good films, are an example of how the line between independent and wide releases are blurred (e.g. Inside Llweyn Davis is a nominee, and it's distributed by CBS films, which is hardly independent). Nowadays true "independent film" applies to work that eschews the system altogether. Shane Carruth's Upstream Color is a great example, as it was truly made without assistance from a boutique distribution company. This development is not a bad thing -- it's genuinely heart-warming that large-ish companies embrace cinema -- but it forces us to adjust what it means to make a film without the usual channels for help. 

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema

As a descriptor, "independent film" does still mean something -- consider all of the low-budget films that are released simultaneously on VOD and in theaters, something that still seems very far out of reach for anything with a moderately big budget or actors attached -- but it's not as easy to pinpoint as it used to be. When, say, The Weinstein Company has its own smaller distribution arm (Radius) to release something smaller than Philomena or August: Osage County, the concept of independent film is expanded to a near-comical point. I'd say that, ideally, a film that's crowdfunded on Kickstarter or Indiegogo is closer to a true "independent" film, but then, the upcoming Veronica Mars movie isn't that independent. "Independent film" still means something, but I think it's becoming a more crowded field, as opposed to something that's soon to be replaced.

Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, Periodical

These days I tend I think of it as more of an aesthetic descriptor than a real movement. That said, I do like the way that the "independent" American picture is in a constant cycle of reinvention, and believe that this is a fundamental element of the American film industry. Just as the New Hollywood saw a sea-change in the industry, the post-Tarantino boom of the early-90's developed in to a new hierarchy of interesting, creatively-driven HollywoodCinema (outlined in great detail in books like Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot). Similarly I wouldn't be surprised to see the current heavyweights of indie one day occupy the same kind of spots that the likes of Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell do right now. 

Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket

There was a magical time during the '90s when "homegrown" independent films were all the rage. People like Kevin Smith, Edward Burns, and Robert Rodriguez made low-budget movies by maxing out their credit cards and casting themselves and/or their friends in the lead roles. Amazingly, these films were sometimes picked up for distribution and put into theaters around the country. People would go to see them, despite the fact that they had no hype, no big stars, and lots of rough edges. Why? Because, for some reason, we valued that kind of independence in filmmaking at that time. It was cool. Sadly, that's been lost. These days, an independent film is one in which big stars take pay cuts to work on a lower-budgeted production. They are released by boutique divisions of major studios. The only true "homegrown" indie I can think of from the last decade to get a nationwide release is Paranormal Activity. While that may sound pessimistic, I also believe that we're on the cusp of major change. The rise of alternate release platforms -- such as iTunes, VOD, Vimeo, etc. -- is creating a fertile breeding ground for homegrown independent films. The smallest of the indies no longer need to be picked up by whatever today's equivalent of a Miramax is in order to be seen by a wide audience. They simply need to go through one of these other channels. My prediction is that, within the next few years, we're going to see another major indie revolution, not unlike the one we saw in the mid-'90s. I hope I'm right, because an infusion of new voices in cinema is always welcome. 

Luke Y. Thompson, Topless Robot

My honest answer: I don't care, and this argument annoys me -- just like it did in the '90s when bands were trying to out-indie each other and anyone who took a paycheck was allegedly a sell-out. Just make good films -- I don't give a crap about this indie cred argument and I never have.

Robert Levin, amNewYork

This is a tough one. In the strictest sense, an independent film is a movie produced outside the Hollywood studio system. But there are problems with such a reductive definition. The studios are headed toward a place where they just produce tent poles. It's unclear what "Hollywood studio system" even means in 2014. Clearly, the "majors" don't tell the whole story. Where do companies like Annapurna Pictures, CBS Films and The Weinstein Company fit on that spectrum? Budget doesn't seem to be an appropriate limiting factor either; in many ways, a $30 million film could be produced in the same fashion as a $200,000 production or a $50,000 film. I think of "independent" more as a state of mind than anything else, connoting a willingness to tell a real story about real people unencumbered by megalithic corporate influence. It's sad that we've gotten to a place where the standards have been so severely lowered that we need a special term for movies like that, and it's probably time to start thinking about a more useful way to consider what independent cinema really means. I wish I had the answers.

Christopher Campbell, Nonfics, Movies.com

What comes to mind right now with the term independent is all the filmmakers doing self-distribution, most of those of which I know as documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie. At the same time, that and many others are even more "dependent" movies than ever because of their crowdfunding origins. It is an increasingly complicated and circumstantial concept. And it increasingly doesn’t matter.

Edwin Arnaudin, Ashvegas

When I hear "independent film" these days, I think of something not financed and/or distributed by one of the major film studios. It may come from a smaller department within one of these large companies, but odds are it was made for less than $10 million and there’s typically a limited number of screens on which it will screen. The film might star one or many recognizable actors, all of whom took a giant pay cut because they believed in the material, but probably not someone who’s won an Academy Award in the last few years. I don’t mind using "indie film" for these kinds of movies, but for the modern micro-budget, no-name equivalents of Slacker, Clerks, and Pi, maybe something like "DIY film" is more appropriate. That term suggests that the film truly was made independent from the studio system with more than just filmmaking performed by its creators.

'Her'

Q: What is the best film in theaters?

A: Her

Other films receiving multiple votes: The Wolf of Wall StreetInside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska.


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7 Comments

  • Ww | January 23, 2014 11:08 AMReply

    What happened to the next category at sundance? They created it in 09 to appease the critics, but it seems that they gave up on its goal this year. They took out the "American" " low to no budget" part of it. Its v disheartening to see moviegoers believe any of this years next films are low budget indies.

  • JakeD | January 21, 2014 3:42 PMReply

    The American situation is anomalous. When "independent film" exists in other countries, it's typically limited to first efforts. Filmmakers judged meritorious receive public funding of one sort or another and make "art films" governed by a completely different set of narrative conventions.

    Here, when filmmakers attract notice with lesser-budgeted work, they're expected to graduate to semi-commercial Sundance competition fare, which indie institutions insist on calling "independent" and marketing as such.

    Strange to say, those who go the studio route sometimes end up making actual art films, unlike their indie counterparts, Paul Thomas Anderson being a striking example of a filmmaker enjoying relatively large budgets, while repudiating the conventions of both Hollywood and "indie" films. The Coen brothers, similarly, don't work within the conventions of either.

    In a word, "indie" is an American ghetto created by Sundance, its sister organizations/rivals on either coast and collaborating producers. The only people interested in it are those who seek vocational success through its mechanisms or those it employs.

  • Tom | January 20, 2014 8:33 PMReply

    I think today's front page of indieWIRE answers this question as this article was just above one on Star Wars Episode II: Indies exist, but don't pay the bills. The independent world is a lot like this site: not what it once was, but it still has good content and I visit often. However, the authentic "indie" identity is gone - both here and in the larger community. Once things boomed and grew in the 90's, actual independents could not sustain the house they had built once there were mouths, employees, and advertisers to pay. It's not a criticism, it just is what it is. Still, Upstream Color, Museum Hours, and Computer Chess all prove that true independent voices are still thriving and that indieWIRE, SXSW, SFFS, and The Sundance Institute all are critical in supporting those voices - even if their bills get paid by the studio "indie-as-genre" films. I have felt that IFP/Filmmaker are particularly good at finding new voices that are outside of any support system and I particularly enjoy Eric Kohn's writing here. But, are the Coens still "indie?" I don't think it matters if the work is strong.

    "Independent" was always defined by what it was not and what it was out side of, but with the boundaries blurred it is messier and, perhaps, less important. I think what we may be talking about is really "integrity" and, perhaps, "groundbreaking" in some way. You can find many independently produced films that lack these qualities and many studio films that have them. HBO produced Elephant and Sugar - two of the most interesting narrative films of that decade.

  • John Rivera | January 20, 2014 7:08 PMReply

    Yes but they're all about gay cowboys eating pudding

  • Bambie | January 20, 2014 3:27 PMReply

    Even sxsw that was supposed to be a discovery fest has fallen to the temptation of big money and stars. There are still indie movies being made, the us ones just reside in obscurity because any fest that would give it attention has become free advertising for big studio umbrella projects. Not for the rest of the world though, just here.

  • Brian W. | January 20, 2014 2:31 PMReply

    I liken this discussion to a similar one surrounding music. The "indie" genre has lost any initial meaning it had because the genre has expanded to include bands from all backgrounds and sounds. It used to refer exclusively to bands who sounded like Wilco, but now it would be hard to say that many would fit into that mold. Similarly, independent film as I first came to know it in the early 2000s referred to films that were notoriously twee, quirky and good natured, movies distributed by Fox Searchlight like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno and 500 Days of Summer, a movie that for a time inevitably made Zooey Deschanel the queen of the indie world.

    Now indie just refers to a sensation, and I'm surprised to see just about all the critics refer to it in terms of dollar value, distribution, star power or auteur ambition. Those things interest me less. But I'd find it very difficult to label something like "Before Midnight" a mainstream movie, even if it got much wider distribution or made more money than just about all of its Sundance peers. Something like "The School of Rock" on the other hand shares a director in Richard Linklater, was low budget-ish and starred Jack Black before he had the star power he does today. The cards are technically there in our traditional definitions, but that doesn't make it an indie film.

  • dinty moore | January 20, 2014 12:42 PMReply

    People have been asking this question every year for at least the past 15 years. Even the past 20.

    My answer? Sure, independent film still exists. But not at Sundance, and not at your local art house theater.

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