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How Do You Define Independent Film?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
February 25, 2013 9:03 PM
5 Comments
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It happens just about every year - a film that many don't consider an independent film wins an independent film award or two; while a film that many consider quintessentially indie, is seemingly looked over.

It happened last 2 nights ago, at the Indie Spirit Awards ceremony, which saw Silver Linings Playbook dominate, while Beasts Of The Southern Wild was left wanting. I'm sure you can figure out which of the 2 films most consider the true "indie" film.

And it didn't take very long after the Indie Spirit Awards ended for discussion on what exactly being an indie film means, to trend on social networks. But this is a conversation that the film community has been having for years now, with still no real consensus on the matter, and I don't think there ever will be one - which means, next year, expect more of the same kind conversation.

I just don't believe the answer to that question is a simple one. The lines between what we traditionally referer to as Hollywood studio cinema, and indie cinema, are so blurred today, that the term doesn't seem to really have much significance anymore, and maybe a brand new term is needed to replace it.

If you asked any group of people to define independent film, many would probably say something like, "any film made outside the Hollywood studio system," with considerations made for budget, source of funds, cast, story, distribution, and more. But you could find any number of films that move fluidly between "studio" and "indie" when it comes to 1 or more of those production/distribution aspects.

An example that I think most of you should know - George Lucas financed Red Tails with his own money - a huge investment; but, as we all recall, he said that no Hollywood studio would touch it; therefore, he had to reach into his own bank account to finance the film, at a cost of $58 million!

So is Red Tails an indie film? And if it is, would it have been nominated for an Indie Spirit Award if it were a stronger, critically-lauded film?

And if not, the question is, why not?

Given the ongoing conversation, especially after Saturday night's Indie Spirit Awards ceremony, I thought I'd pose the question of what indie cinema is to you folks, because I really don't have a simple answer myself, and I'd like to read your thoughts.

But first, I searched the web for answers to that question, and found several given by artists who work in the film industry, and whose names you'll recognize, and I thought I'd share their responses here as well.

So take a look at what they had to say on the matter, and tell us how YOU definie indie cinema.

Screenwriter/director John August:

Classically, an independent film was one that was made outside of the conventional studio system, be that Hollywood, Bollywood or Pinewood. But with the rise of the “independent” labels of the major studios, such as Fox Searchlight and Paramount Vantage, that distinction is pretty much moot. Also, consider that the last three Star Wars epics were made independently (by Mr. George Lucas). Any movie with fast-food tie-ins really shouldn’t qualify, in my opinion. I’d argue that the term “independent film” should be reserved for talking about the movie itself, rather than how it was financed. There’s a reason the word “independence” so often shows up in proximity to “revolution” — a shared spirit of frustration, anarchy and apple-cart-upsetting. From their conception, independent films aren’t just made outside of the studio system. They are made in opposition to the studio system, with its relentless need to round off the corners and soften the blows. And in standing against the status quo, independent films help to change it. Of course, my proposed redefinition of independent film can’t accommodate many of today’s darling indies, which mollycoddle their audiences with a careful recipe of quirk, warmth and family dysfunction. Just the very term “indie” seems to embody that spirit of fuzzy cuteness. I would call on filmmakers to start feeding their movies after midnight, and let their vicious little monsters roar.

Director/producer Ted Demme:

If it’s personal to a director, then it’s an independent.

Screenwriter/director Alan Rudolph:

Independent is a misnomer. By definition, it’s an oxymoron. If you’retruly independent, then no one can really categorize you and yourfilm can’t be pigeonholed. If you’re against the system, you’re partof the system by definition. I don’t think independent means againstthe system, but you’re always dependent on the money.

Actress Tilda Swinton:

Independent in my mind means free. Independent films have changed so much over the past years. For example, when I started making films with Derek Jarman in the 1980s, that was really independent film-making, going around with a Super 8 camera to make The Last of England. That was before the studios started making what I would describe co-dependent films, films that were on a leash but given the impression that they were studio-light."Independent means you are free to say what you want. It does not necessarily say you will be able to do it very easily and anyone is going to give you any money to do it. It might mean it is very uncomfortable, it might mean you work with chaos on a daily basis, though it does mean that you don't have someone breathing down your neck ... So that is what indie means to me.

Writer/director Michael Winterbottom:

I think from the point of view of making films, I just want to make the films I want to make. In a sense that is the best definition of independent, people making the films they want to make rather than working within the studio system and making a film for the studio.

And now over to you... how do you define independent film?

On the red carpet at Saturday’s ceremony, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with nominees and Film Independent executives, about the Silver Linings Playbook controversy:

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5 Comments

  • TheEbonyCinematheque | March 14, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    I've been waiting to answer this question again since it was a question on my final midterm in college in 2006. Its been 7 years since then and the complete film industry has changed, I agree with Tilda and John about those independent studio arms that started springing up around that time to produce the work the studios didn't want their name attached to but wanted to reap the profits like Hustle and Flow for Paramount, 28 Days Later and Little Miss Sunshine. These were refer to as mid-range indies because they started at a minimum of 10M, when the recession hit the big studios closed these production companies up and forced the execs here to return back to the HQ and liquidator all of the studios property -- now they only used these labels when they release these films. So.... that a little backstory on what happen to the indie film industry, studios saw the lucrative and came up with a creative way to profit from it by creating independent studio arms.

    Now on Red Tails, lemme be clear RED TAILS IS NOT AN INDIE FILM!? Its a PASSION PROJECT. George Lucas may have financed the film himself but he had access to things like ILM(industrial light and magic) to do it, things that normal independent filmmakers don't have though it was made outside the studio system - Lucas had the one thing that defines the difference between an independent film and a studio, which is one word: D-I-S-T-R-O-B-U-T-I-O-N

    Being able to be seen is what separates the indie films and studio, not to say indies don't get seen its just they don't get seen in movie theaters and are completely financed through independent means. Independent films are now primarily genre films, and for those who don't know genre films -- its any of the horror, scifi and thrillers you've seen in the last year.

    Here's my interpretation of three films that were released last year that can better explain this:

    LOOPER = STUDIO FILM
    Looper was directed and written by Rian Johnson, the guy who did the mid-range indie BRICK with Meagan Good that everyone was raving about. Looper was made on a budget of
    $30M in 2011, held for a year so the studio could spend more money on audience testing then released to a box office of almost 80M, it was released everywhere

    MAGIC MIKE = MID-RANGE INDIE
    Magic Mike was made by Steven Soderbergh, through WB - it was shot like an indie film on a script written by Channing Tatum on a budget of 7M with an all star cast and released all over the world. It made , ready for this? 115M at the box office, this is the prime example why the studios made independent arms to their company so that they could use an independent film budget and make a studio movie profit by keeping it internal.

    Now for the independent:
    THE ABCS OF DEATH - 26 directors from all over the world were given a budget of, ready for this? $5,000.00, to make a short film relating to death from one of the letters of the alphabet. The movie was co-produced and financed through a MOVIE THEATER! the iconic indie Alamo Drafthouse and the cult indie company Magnet Releasing, who just distributed the movie two weeks ago with a grand total at the box office of : $11,000. But that doesn't matter because ABCs has gone through the film festival circuit to rave reviews like its predecessor V/H/S which did a limited a release and has just completed its sequel.

    The way to approach independent cinema in this day and age is to just go out there and make your movie, with whatever you can. Then put it in a genre film festival or not prestigious but still well known like: SXSW, Fantastic Fest and so forth to garner the attention of other filmmakers and keep doing it until someone notices.

    - By: Lesia Dasah

  • Darryl | February 26, 2013 6:23 PMReply

    Independent are films that are free films that artists are bale to tell the story their way no matter budget, hvaing final cut. It's also films that don't cave in to the audience ad watered their film down so it can be liked. In essence films that are released without these politics, that say you either like my film or not but this is the film I'm making and this is the wya I want to tell the story. That's true Independence.

  • Donella | February 26, 2013 3:54 PMReply

    I've said it before... Harvey Weinstein works in mysterious ways. Beasts of the Southern Wild's production budget==$1,800,000. Their world box office return is $17,908,134. Silver Lining Playbook's production budget==$21,200,000. Their world box office return is $156,097,589.

  • Miles Maker | February 25, 2013 9:25 PMReply

    There's an independent process and sensibility that must be perceived in terms of story, creative vision and creative control to be considered indie in addition to the method of financing. Studios are abandoning budgets of $70M and below these days--leaving a wide open space for private equity players and well-funded production entities to deliver these movies to studio and international distributors. Of course this muddies the waters, which is why process and sensibilities are the ultimate determination.

  • Sujewa Ekanayake | February 25, 2013 9:18 PMReply

    Probably easier at this point to separate films by budget levels. Under $100K, over $1 million, etc. Also by what companies, if any, are supporting the project (because it can be argued that a $10K movie created & distributed by Warner Bros, if there is such a product, may have more ability in the marketplace than a $10K movie made by a first time filmmaker with no ties to a large corporation). Or, perhaps the indie label is no longer relevant - as good movies can be made well for a low price now (due to advances in technology) and most audiences want a well made movie, a good story, to watch, & do not care how the movie was financed, produced, distributed, etc. But, as a filmmaker, I am glad that the independent film idea is still alive, and that there is an eco system (blogs, film festivals, grants, indie film investors, crowd funding, etc) that supports work by new artists, in cinema, done at low budgets, new stories/perhaps not very commercial ideas, etc.

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