I think the film critic Emanuel Levy sums up the criteria for what an independent film consists of rather well.
Two different conceptions of independent film can be found.
One is based on the way indies are financed, the other focuses on their spirit or vision.
According to the first view, any film financed outside Hollywood is independent.
But the second suggests that it is the fresh perspective, innovative spirit, and personal vision that are the determining factor. In his review of Smooth Talk, David Denby wrote, “Everything in the movie is a bit off. Like many independent directors, Joyce Chopra dislikes the Hollywood convention of tight storytelling. She just lets things play, and with an actress like Laura Dern, that strategy can lead to revelations.”
Fox Searchlight’s Lindsay Law, claims that “the most important thing when a filmmaker says he is an independent, is that somebody cannot beat him into a pulp and force him to make a movie that the financier wants. It is more iconoclastic filmmaking, without the burden of attempting to make $100 million at the box-office.”
Strictly speaking, Spike Lee has made only two indies: She ’s Gotta Have It (1986), distributed by Island, and Gi rl 6 (1996), released by Fox Searchlight. But where does Get on the Bus (1996) fit in? It was independently financed by black patrons, then picked for
distribution by a major studio, Columbia. To complicate matters further, some of Lee’s studio movies—Do the Ri ght Thi ng (Columbia) and Clocke rs (Universal)—are more independent in spirit than Girl 6. The Coen brothers’ movies have been financed and released by major studios, such as Fox (Mi lle r’s Crossi ng) and Warners (The Hudsucker Proxy), yet critics regard their work as quintessentially independent.
Krevoy also emphasizes the distribution issue: “If there is distribution attached to a film before it’s made, I am not sure how independent it really is.”
The budget’s size is a criterion too. In the past, IFP/West, which confers the Spirit Awards, limited award consideration to films with low budgets. In 1994 a Spirit nomination for the Columbia-funded picture I Like It Like That, which was budgeted at $5 million, and in 1998 several nominations for Rushmore (produced for $15 million by Touchstone) stretched the definition of “independent” past the breaking point.
Those who care about the quality of indies are concerned with the current lack of radically political and avant-garde visions, which had characterized the earlier American independent cinema. Indies have become more and more conventional, more mainstream. To what extent do indies form an alternative that’s truly different? To what extent do indies challenge the status quo? How far can indies go if they are produced and distributed within a profit-oriented system?
The media curator Bill Horrigan distinguishes between two notions of indies: those that are acceptable to Sundance and those whose contents and styles render them virtually unshowable.
Horrigan’s point of reference is the work of a particular strand of independent filmmakers, from the 1940s through the early 1970s, that includes Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, and Andy Warhol. For these filmmakers, “independent” meant opposition to the dominant media on several fronts: technological (amateur 8mm and 16mm instead of professional 35mm formats); institutional (interpersonal and communal versus corporate production); aesthetic (original and avantgarde against the conventional and generic); economic (love of film rather than love of money was the prime motivation); and political (exploring marginal and disenfranchised cultures instead of focusing on the culturally dominant).
The critic Peter Lunenfeld does not fault young directors for their desire to make large-budget productions—Hollywood has always relied on careerism for its vitality. But, for him, to do so at the expense of the history of independent cinema degrades the entire indie practice.
Given the decline of radical film practice, the question of what should be celebrated in independent cinema remains a potent one. Historical, technological, and market conditions have always dictated the agenda of independent film. At the very least, one can suggest what American independent cinema is not: It’s not avant-garde, it’s not experimental, and it’s not underground.
The first and most important force driving independent cinema is the need of young filmmakers, many of whom are outsiders, to express themselves artistically. These young artists create alternative films that are different, challenging the status quo with visions that have been suppressed or ignored by the more conservative mainstream.
Indies take the kinds of risk that are out of the question in mainstream Hollywood. “Commerce has overwhelmed art, which is why Hollywood movies aren’t as good as they used to be,” observed former Disney chair Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Indie films are “the opposite of Hollywood, where they try and make pictures that fit a pre-existing audience,” noted the filmmaker L. M. Kit Carson. “Indie films are from the gut.”
In today’s Hollywood, Chris Hanley’s Muse Productions and James Robinson’s Morgan Creek are both considered independents. Hanley has never made a picture for more than $5 million, but has tried to make all his pictures edgy and controversial.
Summary: Independent film is...
- Two different conceptions of independent film can be found. One is based on the way indies are financed, the other focuses on their spirit or vision.
- The most important thing when a filmmaker says he is an independent, is that somebody cannot beat him into a pulp and force him to make a movie that the financier wants. (Art over profit)
- If there is distribution attached to a film before it’s made, I am not sure how independent it really is.
- The budget’s size is a criterion too. With this stated, in today’s Hollywood, Chris Hanley’s Muse Productions and James Robinson’s Morgan Creek are both considered independents. Some "low-budget indies" may still cost over $1 million to make under certain circumstances.
- Those who care about the quality of indies are concerned with the current lack of radically political and avant-garde visions, which had characterized the earlier American independent cinema.
- Express themselves artistically (self-expressionism over profit)
- Indies take the kinds of risk that are out of the question in mainstream Hollywood. For this reason, indies may deal with controversial subject matter or culture that the mainstream media would never want to deal with (like queer film in the 90s, black people making love in the 80s, Italian culture in the 70s)
- A lot of indies are shot with 8mm lens or more "home-style" equipment, as opposed to a 16mm lens or wide angle lens
- Main plot is driven by sub-plots
- Story consists of balance
- Music is used to define the scene
- Lighting is used to reflect mood and atmosphere
- Seamless editing
- Satisfying conclusion with most questions answered and no loose ends
- Large budget with distribution
- There does not need to be an apparent main plot, though there can be
- Story may be more spontaneous and chaotic rather than balanced
- Music is rarely used to set the stage for a scene
- Lighting is rarely used to reflect mood
- Conclusions may be abrupt and leave the audience confused, begging for answers
- Limited budget with possible distribution
So while low-income budgets are a large factor of indies, it is not the defining factor.
Mean Streets was made on a $500,000 budget, and though it had distribution, it was not filmed in the studio by any means. When you receive financing from Hollywood, there are strings attached--the filmmaker therefore must compromise with their true vision. This limits artistic creativity. Indies are just as much about spirit and the artistic technical methods used, as they are about the budget and distribution.
Mean Streets was independent to the core. Scorsese had full artistic control, in contrast to his previous film dealing with the post-Depression era. This lead to the great Cassavetes calling Scorsese's work a "piece of [expletive]," which inspired him to do what he did best: self-expression. This lead to the creation of Mean Streets, whose characters were all based on Scorsese's life events and ideas. Scorsese had the financing and distribution, but his Mean Streets masterpiece is one of the exceptions.
He brought the Italian culture to the American mainstream, something Hollywood was afraid to do. Charlie Coppa is literally named after his parents, while a majority of the script was written while Scorsese was driving around in a car. A lot of the dialogue was improv between the actors. Further, the film was shot with an 8mm lens in the 70s. Studio film was being shot in 16mm at the ladder end of the 50s and in the 60s. This stuff simply does not happen on a studio set. This is why Scorsese is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers of all time; his bold vision was motivated by self-expression.
Hollywood wants to top box charts, and in order to do this, they must appeal to the general audience.
Edited by -Wade-, January 19, 2014 - 07:21 PM.