What Mainstream Cinema can Learn from Independent Film - Raindance


Mainstream cinema can be great, but in a lot of cases it seems to have quite literally lost the plot- formulas and trends unfortunately can often dictate box office success in the eyes of many producers, often resulting in style over substance, taken from generically predictable and overused narrative templates.

Don’t get me wrong I love stuff like Terminator and the Die Hard films but I prefer to see something that really makes me think, ideally with layers of meaning so the film can either be enjoyed as a piece of entertainment or you can glean further meaning from re-watching or rethinking the film. In some respects Independent film is the polar opposite of mainstream but some mainstream films do seem to have learned a bit about the indy mindset, such as Ryan Gosling’s underrated film- Stay with it’s unconventional transitions that tie into the narrative. I sometimes wonder if the $22 flop I saw the other day would have turned out differently in the hands of a skilled indy director with a £8,000 budget.

Mainstream cinema seems to think audiences need everything spoon fed to them and that taking risks= losing money and alienating audiences. What’s worse is that sometimes the directors vision is changed completely- Blade Runner being an example, before eventually the highly successful directors cut was released, in a lot of cases I think people would rather see the directors cut, not the ‘studio cut’.  With independent film we always get the directors cut.

This got me thinking, maybe mainstream cinema can learn something from the world of indy film.

Here are 5 things I think mainstream cinema could learn from independent film:

1) Take more risks.

Independent film often takes a leap of faith, unburdened by the vast amount of CGI or the pressure of studio executives, indy films can afford to take more risks. CGI works in small amounts when needed and sometimes it’s impossible not to use it, but practical FX always have a better aesthetic. The Evil Dead films (and reboot) thankfully have taken note of this, not just in the old low budget ones but the newer reboot .

2) Stop with the clichés already!

Independent film is hardly ever bogged down by one liners and clichés, ok so when Arny famously says “I’l be back” it works, but way to many action films are over reliant on cheesy one liners with no substance to back them.

3) Make the most of the budget. Great budgets don’t always= great films.

A lot of Hollywood films get fixated on being genre films and fitting things to an audience demographic and their expectations, thus less likely to think outside the box and more likely to be predictable at every turn. Independent films such as Run Lola Run are great examples of how a narrative can be represented, with the whole film in real time and the same event playing out in several different ways as Lola makes different decisions, its not entirely clear whether she has the ability to go back and try again or if she has simply imagined each and every scenario but it is definitely an interesting approach. The simple fact is that more money does not always equal more creativity, in many cases more money means more investors with higher stakes, usually studios, because they have s much invested they may take the reigns of control more than you would like. With the advent of crowd funding using sites such as Kick-starters and Indie Go go, the independent film community has been galvanised into producing more than ever. Just look at the indy film list so far to see the originality compared to many mainstream films. Indy films such as Shane Carruth’s Primer (and more recently upstream color) show that an intelligent film on a self-funded budget can be successful. Primer was on a meagre budget and was a time travel film like no other, with so much scientific theory ad cause & effect, the very idea of time travel seems very realistic and tangible. Shane not only was a writer/director but also the protagonist for both the aforementioned films, a wearer of many hats.

4) Don’t be predictable

Rian Johnsons Brick shows that a familiar idea placed in an unfamiliar environment can work surprisingly well. Mainstream studios would no doubt have doubted the potential, despite the excellent casting of the already successful Joseph Gordon Levitt. Brick is essentially a neo noir set in the affluent suburbs of sun drenched California, with a high school playing one of the key locations and dialogue that sounds (and for some lines is) ripped straight out of classic noir detective films such as The Maltese Falcon. Mainstream films need to step away from conventional characters in predictable locations/scenarios.

5) Indy films show diversity

Recently I saw The Place Beyond The Pines, I thought it was particularly brilliant because it had many of the hallmarks of an independent film and is arguably an indy but it’s understandable how it can be perceived as mainstream cinema.

Derek Cianfrance’s film, which had a production budget of $15 million, has added another $14 million from overseas, so its worldwide gross is up to $34.4 million.. This is however a good example of what can happen when the worlds of mainstream and indy cinema collide and I think the argument of is it indy or not is irrelevant (See note below). Without ruining things, The Place Beyond The Pines has a kind of legacy narrative with many unpredictable plot twists and compelling characters.

NOTE: Independent film is still independent if it is attached to A list actors, also being distributed by a major company still doesn’t change the independent status of the film- It’s all about 2 things- Funding and Creative Control.

Films such as Brick, were financed independently by the director, Rian Johnson and even though it was distributed by Focus and the protagonist was Joseph Gordon Levitt, it is still independent.

Finally here are a list of indy films you should definitely check out:

brick_DVD_cover1. Brick (as mentioned above)



2. Upstream Colour

Shane Carruths most recent masterpiece and canters around the idea of “who are we?” and delivers an engaging story whilst proving that once again independent film can triumph on minimal budget.


3. Primer

Scientific look at what would happen if time travel were possible.


4. Pi

Insight into the paranoid mind of a man wh
o sees and understands everything as a numerical pattern and believes he is being hunted for a pattern he has recently discovered, one that could explain everything..



5. Run Lola Run

French film that plays with the idea of time and scenarios, with each minute on screen unfolding in real time as the protagonist tries to solve a tricky predicament involving a debt.