London October 25, 1924: a group of men form a film society to secure the artistic value and future of films. In Great Britain these men kept alive as what we know today as the Independent film. I’d like to believe these men met in a dimly-lit room, like an old bomb shelter or in the attic of some friend’s business. They would have this secret location to hide the artistic film movement they supported from the ever present and growing “commercialized” Hollywood studios. In actuality they met on Regent’s Street at the New Gallery Kinema and named themselves, “The London Film Society in England.” Today Hollywood studios search for independent films that could possibly make it big on a low budget, often times found at a film festival. They are searching for the next Reservoir Dogs or Blair Witch Project. In movie history the big studios have managed to learn from Indie films while still being in opposition with them. I would argue Indie films have survived because of individual’s need for something that isn’t pre-packaged and predictable.
In 1969 a 94 minute “road” film starring Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson titled, Easy Rider revolted against the stereotypical story structure and themes. In a time when America’s youth feared the establishment, was rocked by two recent assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy, Easy Rider (1969) dared to connect with its audience. According to an article titled, “The Best Independent Films,” on makeindependentfilms.com the author states,
“This film is considered by many to be a commentary on the hippie counter-culture of the 1960s and how it clashed with the status quo conservatives of society.”
The author then explains how Easy Rider (1969), which was made for less than $400,000, opened the eyes of some Hollywood executives.
“This film also made the big studios realize that there is money to be made from independent filmmaker’s who make movies that are small on costs, but large on creativity.”
While small on cost and creative certainly describes some aspects of an independent film, there is much more to it than that. Today an independent film can be considered any film made outside a major studio or with less than half its budget support. In the early 1900s the first Indie filmmakers had to create whatever equipment they used in order to escape any lawsuits from Motion Picture Patent Corporation founder Thomas A. Edison. Thankfully, Southern California became a beautiful escape with great landscape for Indie filmmakers to make creative pieces without the law prohibiting them. Finally, in 1917 the MPPC collapsed after several court decisions discontinuing the control over the independent film industry. However, most of these independent filmmakers who were fighting the MPPC went on to form the first major studios in Hollywood. In the 1920s studios such as Paramount, MGM, Universal, Fox Film Corporation, and First National focused on filmmaking as a business. They created large production studios, which would feature the first elaborate sets, costumes, and crews (Cook, pg. 7).
Independent film can also be described by a piece of work that is artistic. Meaning not only was it not made in a major studio but also involved innovative filming techniques and creative story lines. The nature of independent films created a riff with mainstream studios in the 1930s and 40s. In “The Cinema Book” a section titled “The Studios” explains how power shifted to the front office and away from creative personnel.
“The demand was for films that would secure financial return from exhibition. A ‘good picture’ in these terms was one which had access to first-run theatres, and hence combined production values with a certain degree of predictability.”
This is why groups of people such as, “The London Film Society in England” started to sprout up. The men in the “LFSE” were the likes of H.G. Wells and George Brenard Shaw who screened short films and discussed their meaning. They also studied the work of foreign filmmakers for their new ideas and editing techniques they often provided. In America at the time the idea of independent films often times meant a “foreignee film’ which would be screened at an art house cinema. In contrast with the studios business and entertainment agenda art house cinema deployed “artistic” and “intellectual” films. According to filmreference.com the 1920s art film varied from Hollywood in many key ways.
“The art film presented a parallel experience—complex artistic films instead of entertainment narratives, intimate screening venues instead of picture palaces, intellectual journals instead of fan magazines—addressed to audiences familiar with modernist developments in literature, music, and painting.”
The movie Rashomon (1950) is an art film about a woman who is raped and murdered while in the woods. Director Akira Kurosawa introduces a twist in film narrative by telling the story through four separate character’s minds. The black and white film uses inventive techniques such as a flashback within a flashback along with lighting used from reflecting mirrors off the sun. Rashomon (1950) is a great example of art cinema that grew popular with individuals need for imaginative story structure and ambiguous endings. The growing popularity of Indie films would expand from the art-house cinema with the formation of the film festival circuit.
On makeindependentfilms.com an article states the importance of a new avenue to showcase Indie films, “People who loved independent films realized that they could promote their passion by holding a contest and make a little money at the same time.”
The pioneer festival that strived to promote unknown American independent filmmakers was established in Salt Lake City, Utah titled Utah/U.S. Film Festival. The seven-day event featured film screenings and panel discussions. Finally, in 1985 Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the festival and changed it to what we know as today, The Sundance Film Festival. Film festivals were a way for filmmakers with low budget and prestige to showcase their talents in an inexpensive way. Many great directors got their start screening films at Sundance, such as Quentin Tarantino. After the immense success of Sundance, Hollywood film studios began investing in film festivals and independent films.
Currently the big studios invest 15-17% of company grosses each year in their independent divisions; tracking films at festivals such as Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and Seattle (http://www.makeindependentfilms.com/history.htm). The infiltration of studios at festivals has led to movies like Inglorious Basterds (2009), by already well established director and writer Quentin Tarantino, to debut at Cannes Film Festival this year disguised as a pseudo-indie film. Currently a film can be considered “independent” as long as the big studios have only funded 50% of the film. Whether these movies can be considered truly independent is debatable, but it shows another aspect of Hollywood’s collaboration with the smaller industry. Fortunately true independent films will always have a place in film history as long as they can be made cheaper and establish themselves as the pioneer of creative ideas.
In 1999 The Blair Witch Project was made with a budget of $22,000. Using shaky camera work and a mixture of lighting the fake documentary follows film students into the woods in search of the infamous Blair Witch. The film had an open ending leaving viewers to their own interpretation as to the fate of the students. Whether the camera technique used in the movie was revolutionary didn’t matter to big studios, what did was the film’s final gross of $248,639,099 worldwide. The Blair Witch Project (1999) was an Indie film that showcased the new technology that any filmmaker could afford to purchase. Today, independent film festivals debut many short and full-length features created using digital video instead of film stock. This has lead to more independent filmmakers now than ever. Film festivals are showcasing both Indie films with high budgets and low-to-no budgets.
At Leicester Square in London film stars, paparazzi, and fans gather frequently for the opening of a new Hollywood movie. For one week straight the papers were filled with photos of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) starlet Megan Fox at the premiere. A movie made by Hollywood studios for the undefined masses. It didn’t matter if the movie had character depth or a controversial plot; it was driven by the Hollywood studio machine. Fortunately, today the big studios collaborate with independent filmmakers knowing they could bank off their low-budget successes. In fact in a sign of the times for Indie films British director Danny Boyle created Slumdog Millionaire (2008) with a budget of 15.1 million. The film grossed $352,849,545 and won eight out of ten academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
Art Cinema Extended Definitions.” Film Reference. 5 July 2009. Copyright 2008.
“Blair Witch Project.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 5 July 2009.
“Easy Rider (1969).” AMC Filmsite. 3 July 2009. Copyright 2009.
“Slumdog Millionaire.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 5 July 2009.
“Festival History.” The Sundance Film Festival. 5 July 2009.
“The Best Independent Films.” Make Independent Films. 5 July 2009.
Cook, Pam, and Mieke Bernink. The Cinema Book 2nd Edition. British Film Institute London: 1999.
“What Exactly Is An Independent Film?” Make Independent Films. 5 July 2009.