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How Do You Define Independent Film?

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act February 25, 2013 at 9:03PM

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.
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Eric Deggans

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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