In 1983, when John Sayles's "Lianna" was released, Richard Corliss wrote in
Time magazine, "Handicapped by budgets as low as $50,000, struggling
with unknown actors and make-do shooting schedules, independents demand the
viewer's rooting interest to see them over the rough spots and through the
inevitable langueurs." For Corliss, the one thing independents were dependent
on was adventurous audiences. At present, however, the range of indies is
extremely wide and only a small proportion, the truly bold, require risk-taking
viewers. The rest -- that is, the majority -- have gotten closer to the
In the past, it was not hip to be in little independent movies; it was a signal
that an actor's career was in trouble. But in the 1990s, acting in indies
doesn't mean having to say you're sorry. Take Bruce Willis, one of the few
Hollywood stars to command $20 million for his mainstream movies
("Armageddon"). In 1998, Willis made a little, quirky film, "Breakfast of
Champions," an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's novel. Willis's company, Rational
Packaging, bought the book rights and raised independent financing for the $12
million film. "The film is kind of outside Hollywood," Willis told the Los
Angeles Times, stressing the gallows humor and oddball sensibility that
define his character, a wealthy Midwestern car dealer who is losing his mind.
Willis explained, "Every once in a while, I've got to satisfy myself. I can
count on one hand, and not use my thumb, the number of films in the last couple
of years that I looked forward to going to work every day [on]."
Big stars -- John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson -- have tried before to
exercise control over their careers, but usually did so by directing studio
films. Willis, however, like Robert Duvall ("The Apostle") before him, avoided
the studio interference altogether. Owning the film's negative, he enjoys the
kind of creative control he has not had in his Hollywood pictures. Willis, who
had previously appeared in character roles in other indies (e.g., "Pulp
Fiction"), is not the only major star to appear in indies. John Travolta, whose
career was resurrected by "Pulp Fiction," appears in indies ("White Man's
Burden," "She's So Lovely") as well as studio movies ("Phenomenon," "Primary
Colors," "A Civil Action"). Nicolas Cage and Nick Nolte also commute
regularly between the two industries.
By and large, though, indies, like Hollywood, have their own hierarchies of
acting and directorial talent. A dozen players dominate the field, going from
one project to another, often making as many as three films a year. Among them
are John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Steve Buscemi, and William H. Macy. Lili Taylor
is the indies' preeminent dramatic actress in the 1990s. Taylor appeared in
three features that competed at Sundance in 1996, including "I Shot Andy
Warhol." The following year, Parker Posey held the record with three films at
Sundance, where she won particularly strong accolades for "The House of
Major Hollywood stars, like Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Goldie Hawn, rarely
work in indies, unless it's a Woody Allen film. Allen may be the only major
filmmaker to mix actors from both worlds. "Actors who want interesting careers
have to make hard choices," said Julianne Moore, because for their work in
indies they get paid union scale -- about $1,500 a week. Moore has moved back
and forth between the indie and commercial worlds, appearing in some
challenging movies, "Vanya on 42nd Street" and "Safe," for which she earned
critical praise. After playing a paleontologist in Spielberg's "The Lost
World," Moore was seen bottomless in "Short Cuts" and topless in "Boogie
Nights," in a role that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote specifically for her.
When David Putnam was head of Columbia, he tried to create an ethos where
turning a film with a potential $3 million net into a film with a $6 million
net would be seen as a triumph. Putnam believed that "people create their
careers in this industry out of their perceived successes at the box office."
Needless to say, Putnam failed.
In the 1980s, "Liquid Sky," "Eating Raoul," "El Norte," "Stranger Than
Paradise," "Blood Simple," and "Desperately Seeking Susan" showed that films
can be independent and still make money -- not a lot of money, but enough to
remove the stigma from the word "independent" -- and recoup their cost. In the
1980s, said indie producer Christine Vachon ("Velvet Goldmine," "Happiness"),
"when you were working on 'Parting Glances' or 'Stranger Than Paradise,' you
were just lucky to be where it was happening. You worked 16 or 17 hours a day,
but there was a passion that trickled down. You cared about the movie and the
director's vision." But in the 1990s, the definition of success has changed, as
Vachon has observed: "Back then, we used to think a film was a success if it
grossed over $1 million. Now, it's not even a success if it grosses over 5 or
Indeed, John Horn has recently suggested "to retire the conventional wisdom on
the differences between the independent film community and the big studio
machines." While indies have typically been seen as "brassy innovators," and
the studios as the "fortresses of corporate mediocrity," a role reversal is now
taking place. The major studios are willing to invest in "edgy little films,"
allowing creative control to the filmmaker, whereas indies are becoming more
concerned with "each and every detail." The reason for this is monetary. The
typical indie-type film costs the equivalent of "pocket change" to Warners,
Disney, or Paramount, but as independent outfits start producing movies that
cost several million dollars, their executives become more frugal.
Reflecting these changes, indies are now no longer content with a modest
profit, but instead want the next "Full Monty" or "The English Patient."
Ironically, earning studio-level grosses has become a near necessity in the new
economics of independent films, which now requires a significant infrastructure
to accommodate increased demand (Miramax now has 300 employees). "The risk is
that you become your antithesis," said Fox Searchlight's Tony Safford. The
switch in indie philosophy has brought "corporate worries -- fear of
embarrassing public relations and boycotts by intolerant activists." Some fear
that this new environment will lead to a chilling of the creative environment
associated with indie filmmaking.
For Vachon too, indies have become "more of an industry." It's almost
impossible to get financial backing for a small film without stars. "You really
need to have some good stock to get a role," Lili Taylor told the New York
Times, "Everybody wants someone who can bring a little bit more money to
the table. It's all distribution, and the distributor is saying you don't have
a name." The trend of using name casts is part of a broader transformation of
the indie industry. "It is virtually impossible to get movies financed unless
you have some kind of star attached," confirms William Morris agent Cassian
If you can do a movie with unknowns for less than $1 million, you might be able
to get the financing. Otherwise you need stars. That's because the straight to
video business is virtually gone, and to make money, you either have to sell
the picture directly to Pay TV or release it theatrically, and you can't get
either of those achieved without a star. HBO won't buy it unless there are at
least two or three stars involved.
Hence, for many, "independent film" in the 1990s has become a euphemism for a
small-studio production. As Paul Schrader explained, "The middle has dropped
out. With a few exceptions, there's no place for a $20 to $30 million movie
anymore. Hollywood has dropped the ball by leaving social issues to the
independents. The movies that studios traditionally made for their prestige
value have fallen to the independents, which of course are not so independent."
The gap between indies and studio films has gotten more extreme -- a $40,000
experimental feature and a $40 million New Line film may have only one thing in
common: Kodak film stock. Even so, a middle ground has grown up, populated with
indie filmmakers who speak a language educated moviegoers can understand. It is
to this middle ground that most independents aspire.
Robert Redford also feels progress has been made toward the goal of breaking
down the distinction between independent and studio movies. For him, an
independent film is "not necessarily a bunch of people running around SoHo
dressed in black making a movie for $25,000. It's simply a film that stays free
as long as possible to be what it wants to be. In an ideal world, there won't
be a distinction between types of movies, just a broader menu."
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