What is Independent Cinema?

As I mentioned, I’ve been thinking about the concept of independent cinema this weekend. This question informs the paper I’ll be delivering at the MLA conference in December. In my paper, which starts from The Jacket director John Maybury’s critical comments about the Hollywood film industry. Maybury, who wasn’t shy about criticizing powerful industry figures, describes The Jacket both in terms of the European art cinema and in terms of its “subtextual” treatment of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. In the paper, I’ll be exploring the film’s allusions to and reliance upon this “European art cinema” tradition, but I want to argue as well that the film’s ostensible status as an “indpendent” also needs to be explored (the film was produced by Warner Independents).

So, here’s my question: What constitutes an independent film? I’ve been reading Chris Holmlund and Justin Wyatt’s fine collection of essays, Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream, and I’m still not convinced that there is an easy answer here. The most pessimistic answer is that “indie” is a mere marketing label cynically deployed by the major studios to attract hip, usually urban, audiences. In this regard, stylistic flourishes–handheld camera, intimate character studies, references to international art cinema, or films featuring indie auteurs (Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, or stars such as Parker Posey)–might make an idnie aesthetic recognizable. In this context, institutions such as IFP’s “Independent Spirit Awards,” which reward films for following a “spirit” of independence allow relatively major films, such as Alexander Payne’s Election to qualify as “independent.”

Such a definition, however, would render the term virtually useless as a critical tool, other than to read indie as ideological. To be sure, this isn’t an unimportant task, but given the cultural relevance associated with “indie” as a concept, the cynical reading isn’t entirely satisfying.

The “industrial” definition of independent is crucial in my reading, but that is now fairly clouded. Holmlund argues in her introduction to her book (see also Chuck Kleinhans), that independent cinema is a “relational term,” by which she means that indies range from no-budget (under $100,000) through to “tweeners” ($10-30 million) and beyond. If “independent” is taken to imply films that were not financed by a major studio, then many big budget films–arguably including Gangs of New York and Chicago–qualify. With many (or all) of the major studios now operating “independent” houses, the term again loses its flavor. I’d add here that “independent” in this ocntext is complicated along production and distribution axes as well (a film might be made “indepedently” but distributed by a studio).

It’s tempting to reclaim “independent,” either as a politically opposiional term (as Patricia Zimmermann does in States of Emergency) or as a filmmaking practice completely divorced from the media congolmerates (many political docs distributed online–from the right and left–might qualify here). But film promotional and trade materials have made such a reclamation difficult to imagine. While the documentary genre is as vibrant as ever, the indie label doesn’t fit comfortably over some of the more oppositional films, at least in my reading.

I could write at greater length about some of the questions I’m still trying to sort out, but I just realized that it’s almost 2 AM (I do have Monday off, so I won’t be a total zombie tomorrow). I’ll conclude for now that I don’t mean to sound as if I’m disparaging the “indie” concept here. As Robert Eberwein argues in “Channeling Independence” (one of the essays in Holmlund and Wyatt), many independent films and filmmakers are doing important, progressive political work, and channels such as IFC and the Sundance Channel (I’d add HBO here) often support films that might otherwise never find an audience.

I’d love to hear from both filmmakers and film scholars (and anyone else, for that matter) who read my blog. What do you think of when you talk about “independent cinema?”

16 Comments »

  1. laura Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 3:10 am

    It’s a good question. I think my first thought is usually
    “oh I just said ‘independent cinema’ as if I knew what it meant. Hope nobody calls me on that..”

    Beyond that, I would go along refining down my criteria until I got it down to films made with private money and no famous names attached. (Speaking only of narrative fiction feature films here.) Lavinia Currier’s _Passion In The Desert_, Whit Stillman’s _Metropolitan_. I seem to be willing to allow past movies that are picked up by majors near the end of postproduction or are taken on by majors for distribution.

    The concept of independent as defined by or = smaller, once-maverick production companies like New Line, doesn’t seem terribly useful, mostly because companies of that order would get bigger if they could.

    ‘World’ cinema, simply by virtue of not emanating from the culture of the major studios, doesn’t necessarily fit the profile, either. Most films made in Australia are state funded and scripts go through a selection and oversight process not materially different from what seems to happen inside Miramax.

    You can see i’m confused about this.

  2. McChris Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 9:02 am

    I usually contrast independent film with indie rock. Generally, indie rock is independent since it’s made by non-commercial bands and released by labels unconnected to media conglomerates, ostensibly allowing for a greater degree of artistic freedom and political discourse. Most definitions allow for formerly indie bands now on corporate labels like Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips to fall in the category of “indie rock.” By analogy, much of what is labeled “Independent” film hasn’t been produced or distributed without a high degree of corporate involvement.

    To play with definitions a little, I usually understand “film” to describe the medium while “cinema” refers to the cultural practice of watching films in a four-wall theater, so is there an autonomous cultural practice we can call “independent cinema”? (And do they serve vegan brownies at the concession stand?) I’ve watched IndyMedia videos on a makeshift screen in a squathouse – is that an independent cinema? But, for example, a Miramax-distributed picture screened at one of Mark Cuban’s Landmark houses, doesn’t seem very “independent.”

    I’m pretty suspicious of the “independent film” label, but I would admit that an independently financed production into the category, but those pictures seem to be few and far between. I think that while the term “independent” seems to refer to the mode of production, it mostly refers to films with particular middlebrow status markers.

    “independent film” is usually defined in opposition to studio film, but I wonder if it would be fruitful to look at it in opposition to art film. How is independent film conventional, and what does it share with studio film?

  3. Chuck Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 9:53 am

    Laura, you’re right that “major indies” like New Line don’t seem to qualify (and of course New Line is owned by Time Warner). Interesting that you would disqualify (Australian) films that receive state funding. In the US, where state funding is so minimal and usually disconnected from the industry, state funding seems to have a different status.

    I also share the qualification about “world” cinemas, but don’t have the specifics about individual film economies to back that up as well as I would like.

    McChris, the “indie rock” comparison is a productive one, and you’re right to be suspicious of describing a Miramax film at a Landmark as “independent” in any real sense of the term. I think that your final question is productive. Maybe we should shift the polarities and see “indie” in opposition to the art film or the grasroots (IndyMedia, Greenwald, etc) film.

    It’s a troubling category, and many of the interviews I’ve seen with “independent” filmmakers involve people trying to protect their career interests (which isn’t a bad thing), so they’re often trying to carve a space for indie within the studio system.

  4. Chuck Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 10:09 am

    Just happened to notice this NYT interview with Noah Baumbach, where he defines his film as indie: “It’s comically unsentimental, which I suppose is another way of saying it’s an indie movie. Yes, it’s an underdog! Please make sure people know. It cost $1.5 million to make, and we shot it in 23 days, which is very quickly.”

  5. Left Center Left Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 1:11 pm

    Thoughts on Independent Cinema

    Chuck Tryon raises an interesting question: what is independent cinema? His point in short is that if we define it as a style we risk including films which are major studio films and loses the effectiveness of the term:stylistic flourishes–handheld

  6. Chris Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 1:58 pm

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I’m not sure if I’ll go to MLA this year, but if I make it I’ll keep a lookout for your panel. I’m interested to see your argument.

  7. Chuck Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 2:43 pm

    Would certainly enjoy having you attend the MLA panel if you’re in town. Are you planning to attend SCMS?

  8. Chris Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 3:25 pm

    Wish I was attending SCMS… didn’t think I could afford a plane ticket out to Vancouver this year – they’re not cheap! I’m considering submitting to the Terror/Trauma conference at FSU – are you going to that one? It sounds like your paper on the Jacket may dovetail thematically with that gathering.

  9. Chuck Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 3:32 pm

    Vancouver isn’t cheap. Some of us from the DC area are planning to fly into Seattle and rent a car, but it’s not a cheap ticket at all.

    I’m not doing the FSU conference this time around, though I’ve done the conference in the past and met some cool people.

  10. dvd Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 4:58 pm

    I think one could in fact settle on a definition for ‘independent film’ that is not too far from what Laura suggests above: films made with private investment raised by the filmmaker, or with funds obtained entirely from the filmmaker’s own pockets (let me pause here to say: three cheers for self financing!).

    Miramax and New Line and the like are classified as independent for three interrelated reasons.

    1. The movies they finance are ostensbily made independently of the more bureaucratic studio production line (although that’s a bit of a myth, isn’t it?)

    2. Because these movies aren’t being produced by the majors, their budgets are generally much lower.

    3. The low budgets facilitate what might be perceived as an independent sensibility, both in that the technical finesse might be lower (or, conversely, more creative) and that the directors who turn to the smaller distributors for money are doing so because their visions are of a distinctly less marketable sort and therefore cannot get financing from the majors. There’s certainly a very fine line, aesthetically and economically, between these filmmakers and those who self-finance or self-produce. Todd Solondz, for example, self-financed Palindromes, and thus that film could be considered truly independent; but in a more general sense, one would have trouble distinguishing between it and Happiness, which was funded by (if I remember correctly) Good Machine. And both, of course, are considered independent.

  11. Chuck Said,

    October 10, 2005 @ 5:59 pm

    I’m tempted to agree that self-financing is crucial to any definition of “independent film,” but your third point illustrates precisely the point at which these definitions become slippery. As you note Miramax and New Line are only ostensibly indepedent, as the F9/11 saga illustrates, but the question of the “indie sensibility” complicates this relationship. In terms of an auteur like Solondz, there’s little significant differnce between Palindromes, which is self-financed, and the Good Machine supported Happiness, which is why I want to tease out the concept’s contradictions and complications.

    Certainly many of the indie houses are designed to shield the majors from boycotts or other bad press for controversial films (F9/11 again, as well as the Miramax-produced Priest a few years ago). In part, it’s this studio-indie relationship that I’m trying to unpack, especially as it concerns what can be “said” politically within the major indie studios.

    I do think that Chris is right to situate part of this indie sensibility within the domain of reception, where audiences at art houses and film festivals have contributed to the indie culture.

  12. Chris Said,

    October 11, 2005 @ 9:27 am

    I’m not sure self-financing solves the problem. If the director acts as producer and rounds up lines of credit on her own, she is still beholden to somebody; film’s a notoriously risky venture and people tend to lend only if they think there’s some chance of making money back, which may mean fewer risks, more conventional material, etc. Or if she has all the assets herself to finance the movie, we seem to be championing independent wealth as a requirement for artistic expression, which limits the subset of voices you’re going to see to the, well, wealthy.

  13. Chuck Said,

    October 11, 2005 @ 11:11 am

    I have similar reservations about self-financing (hence the slight cuation in my previous comment), especially given that some projects are far less likely to get funded than others. Laura Marks has a great discussion of this topic in The Skin of the Film, in which she argues that documentary funding tends to privilege only certain kinds of questions or approaches at the expense of more experimental ones.

  14. claire Said,

    October 20, 2005 @ 3:31 am

    hey there i agree with both of you , independant cinema is a expression of the artist we see from history many revolts against classical hollywood it”s hollywoods way of making some money mollah! off thier own conventions. independant is surposed to be free of constraints there is no such thing as an independant film for their is always strings attached for a crew, funding is needed, imput for many people is needed, independant cinema is Hollywood cashing in on another marginalised auidence diversing into all the streams they can make money out of.

    Independant films are indeed not typcasted into one set mainstream definition they are complex and often far from what we consider independant.

  15. Abby Said,

    February 2, 2006 @ 8:33 pm

    Independent film for me, was never strictly about who financed the film. I always thought of an independent film as unconventional/unusal. Basically the opposite of a blockbuster film.

  16. Jamie Said,

    July 26, 2006 @ 1:20 am

    Because the line between studio films and self-financed films is blurry and complicated, it is in my opinion that this should not be the primary consideration in determining a film independent or not.

    I think that independent films’ primary goal is not to make money, and they do not appeal to the largest possible audience. The emphasis is usually on the screenplay and not special effects. Independent films are an individualized artistic vision whose aesthetices tend to be simpler due to smaller budgets. And, finally, as Abby pointed out, themes and subject matter are often unconventional or unusual and are aimed at a niche audience.

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