When someone refers to a movie as an “independent”, what exactly do they mean? I recently posed this very question to a friend of mine, a bona fide film buff. His response was pretty much what I expected. He said, “An independent movie is one produced outside the Hollywood studio system”. Technically he was right, sort of. In order to fully define the complexity of the independent genre we should step back about a hundred years or so to trace its roots.
The Independent genre has transformed considerably over its hundred year evolution. It began with filmmakers resisting the control of Trusts established by early motion picture companies.
The resistance moved their operations to Hollywood, California and established the studio system. The studios reigned for several decades due primarily to the fact that they owned and controlled the production, distribution and exhibition of films which left little room for competition. Eventually antitrust lawsuits were filed against the major studios and would lead to the elimination of anti-competitive practices.
Technology then stepped in. Cameras were becoming smaller and more accessible to anyone who had an interest in making films. This led to an explosion of independently produced films. These non-studio films had many advantages over studio productions. They were able to take more risks artistically, they had the promise of greater financial returns and they were not bound by the studios self-imposed production codes. These independent films catered to a huge untapped market at the time – the youth market.
With the advent of television in the 1950’s there was a dramatic cultural shift away from the big screen to the small screen. Everyone in the film industry was losing money. To make matters worse the major studios were still unable to tap into the youth market. This would lead to the New Hollywood movement. Studio executives hiring talented young filmmakers to produce their own films with little intervention. The New Hollywood generation soon became firmly entrenched in a revived incarnation of the studio system, which financed the development, production and distribution of their films. Indeed, it was during this period that the very definition of an independent film became blurred.
Today, with the access of high-end digital film equipment available at the consumer level, independent filmmakers are no longer dependent on major studios to provide them with the tools they need to produce a film. Thanks to the falling cost of technology, thousands of small production companies can obtain the resources they need to produce entertaining films at a fraction of the cost of the big Hollywood studios. This however doesn’t mean the big studios are out of the game. In an effort to cash in on the present day boom in independent film, today’s Big Six major studios have created a number of independent-flavored subsidiaries, designed to develop less commercial, more character driven films which appeal to the growing art house market.
The bottom line here is that we are now in an age where anyone with a script and a few thousand dollars has the ability to produce and distribute a film completely on their own with zero studio involvement. Funds can be raised independently through crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter, equipment can be purchased or rented cheaply and there is a growing list of self-distribution outlets on the web.
So, now with the abridged history lesson of independent film under our belt let’s revisit our initial question, “what is an independent film”? Well, in reality there exists varying levels of independence. What it really boils down in the end is control. The ability of a filmmaker who has a vision and is able to stick to that vision with no compromises. A studio may partly fund or distribute a director’s film and yet it can still bear the title as an “independent”. With some level of studio involvement the end result may look more polished or reach a wider audience but if the director’s singular vision remains intact, in my opinion, it’s independent.
As a brief afterthought, if a filmmaker makes the decision to self-finance, self-produce and self-distribute their film then by all means they deserve the right to market, promote and boast that their film is “100% Independent”. I’d slap that label on a one-sheet for sure!
By Stephen Reilly