Rethinking Indie

As I was wrapping up the semi-final draft of the book last summer, I began finding myself increasingly drawn to the ongoing debates about the future of independent movies in the age of digital media.  I addressed these issues briefly in a guest post published over at Big Screen Little Screen and managed to work some of these ideas into the conclusion of the book.  My post–and much of what I’ve written about the topic–was informed by Mark Gill’s keynote address at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, in which Gill worried that the “digital revolution” would do irreparable damage to independent cinema.  Gill pointed to the closure of a number of major indie studios as a sign that the sky was (or is) falling, and the speech sparked an energetic debate about what counts as “independent cinema” and how digital distribution tools, in particular, were changing things.  Although these changes seem significant, a number of observers, including “Bob,” writing at the Indiepix blog, argued that these changes did not signify the end of indie cinema but merely pointed to a changing business model, one that is more dependent upon digital distribution practices such as video-on-demand and iTunes.

These issues were recently revisited, thanks in part to James D. Stern’s 2009 address at the Los Angeles Film Festival.  Given the ongoing economic turbulence and the notoreity of Gill’s 2008 speech, it’s probably inevitable that these questions remain at the forefront of conversations about independent cinema.  The financial crisis has been especially difficult for indie distributors and financiers, and the theatrical market for independent films continues to wither.  Stern makes the basic argument that making independent films will continue to be a challenge but that for filmmakers who wish to remain independent, the non-monetary pleasures (the “eggs,” to use his extended metaphor) are worth it.  But, as Stern hastens to add, digital distribution, including streaming video, may help soften these blows and evenprovide some alternatives, especially as apporaches such asNetflix, Hulu, and others continue to mature: “With streaming, we’ll all have the biggest video store imaginable, crammed into our little TV remotes, enticing us every time we turn on the set to make an impulse buy.”

That all sounds reasonable to me.  The internet has increasingly become a highly-efficient marketing (and vending) machine, anticipating our needs often well before we know we even have them, and in the case of Netflix’s finely-tuned, almost uncanny, recommendation algorithm, both anticipating and shaping our desires for entertainment.  And given Netflix’s vast database of movies available at a single click of the mouse, there are always more movies to recommend.  Those tools may do little to balance out the sheer number of movies and other forms of visual narrative being produced, but they can help shape groups of viewers around shared tastes and interests.

But what I’ve found interesting about the reception of Stern’s speech isn’t the question of whether these new models will work (although I think that’s an interesting, if loaded, question).  Instead, I’ve been intrigued to see how Stern’s speech has sparked a return to the debate about where independent films fit within the nexus of art and commerce.  These issues were originally raised by Eugene Hernandez, who was responding to both Stern’s address and the news that David Hudson would be leaving his post as author of the IFC Daily.  Eugene adds that indieWIRE has been receiving some criticism for spending so much space covering industry issues before pointing out the crucial role that David’s daily columns have served in fostering community within the film blog world.  Thus, although the commerce questions are important, I think Eugene is right to read indie film culture as an “artform” of sorts, one that produces a non-monetary value (the “eggs” Stern mentioned, maybe) for the people who participate in it.

Bob at the IndiePix blog tackles these questions more directly, essentially arguing that independent film is inseparable from commercial interests, even adding a third (possibly redundant) term, financing, to the balance.  To some extent, Bob is no doubt right.  Independent films, like any other form of “art,” cannot operate easily outside of commerce.  As Fellini stated in an oft-cited dictum, “When there is no money left, the film will be finished” (see, for example, this debate about Deleuze’s cinema books).  But I think that we’re also facing new challenges in thinking about how “independent cinema” is defined, especially as these new distribution tools, which were based in part on the model of a scarcity of theatrical screens, emerge.  Certainly terms like community are important, as Eugene observes, and there are a number of social tools–blogs, Twitter, Facebook–that help to perpetuate a certain version of indie culture, especially when financial or economic defintions of indpendent film remain cloudy.

I’m still in the early stages of thinking about some of these ideas, but I think the questions raised by Stern’s address are worth considering, especially as they help us to consider the tricky question of what it means to be “independent” in the age of social media.

2 Comments »

  1. Bob Alexander Said,

    July 21, 2009 @ 6:47 am

    I like the idea that independent filmmakers, like authors and thinking specifically of the auteur concept of filmmaking, have something to say. They have a voice, a vision, a point of view and they express that artistically. And now with new technologies, they have extraordinarily rich tools for producing their statements.

    The opposite of that is Hollywood, referred to as “industrial entertainment” in a review in the NY Times by Stephen Holden, who named the Bourne trilogy a “remarkably successful work of industrial entertainment.”

    The contrast is clear. “Industrial entertainment” is a manufactured product shaped by the rules of finance and commerce. “Independent film” is a work by an author. Selling a work of industrial entertainment is integral to that product’s economics. That’s why you did it, so you could sell it. Some products are better than others, but it was made to be sold.

    But distributing independent film (versus being an independent filmmaker) is a business, not art. It has costs and revenues, losses and profits, and is shaped by market forces and the economics of technology. IndieWire’s problem is on what grounds should it talk about both and with what balance. The filmmaker’s problem is whether she or he can do both. IndieWire probably should and the filmmaker probably shouldn’t.

  2. Chuck Said,

    July 22, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    Hi Bob, thanks for the comment. I think the term “industrial entertainment” is a useful one that would fit in nicely with most “political economy” approaches to film and media studies, and the most common version of that is certainly the high-concept property based on a character, comic book, video game, or other narrative. The point about authorship gets a little sticky when we begin to see directors such as Spielberg, Soderbergh and others who are recognized as “authors” working within the realm of industrial entertainment (such as Soderbergh’s work on the “Oceans” films, which are certainly part of an entertainment franchise).

    That being said, independent films are commodities and part of an industrial landscape, even if that landscape operates under different (often unwritten) rules and practices than traditional Hollywood studios. I’d say that IndieWire is pretty well positioned to address some of those industrial issues, but I think it’s useful to have a range of reporting on indie film cultures, with IW being one small part of that (along with Variety, Nikki Finke, Anne Thompson, Wired, and others).

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