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the mainstreaming of indies by emanuel levy

An excerpt from Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (New York University Press, 1999).

Emanuel Levy is a senior film critic for Variety magazine, a two-time president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and a professor of film and sociology at Arizona State University West. He is the author or editor of several books, including Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic, and George Cukor: Master of Elegance. His book Cinema of Outsiders, from which this excerpt is taken, recently appeared in paperback.

The concept that best describes independents in the l990s is that of institutionalization. Indies now form an industry that runs not so much against Hollywood as parallel to Hollywood. American culture has two legitimate film industries, mainstream and independent, each grounded in its own organizational structure. While audiences overlap for some Hollywood and indie fare, the core audience for each type of film is different too. ...

A decade ago, the idea that industry forces such as the Creative Artists Agency (CAA) or Twentieth Century-Fox would embrace fringe players was unthinkable. But CAA now represents indie cinema's guru David Lynch, and Fox established a division, Fox Searchlight, to produce artistic movies. The heavyweights' foray into the indie sector continues in full force. The big agencies now have officers who specialize in indies. The William Morris Agency recently restructured its independent film division, which has its own logo and is autonomous, with the goal of boosting the agency's status in the independent world.

Indies also have their own Oscars -- the Spirit Awards. Over the years, the Spirit Awards have grown from a small communal affair to a well-publicized event, televised on cable and attended by Hollywood's elite. The Spirit nominations are not just a kudo to caress filmmakers who work without the studio safety net. Good pictures do not always find their audiences, and one cannot trust that excellence will win out. Spirit nominations and awards can mean the difference between a career launch and a home movie.

A funny, violent noir action film such as "Pulp Fiction" didn't need the 1995 Spirit Award to avoid getting lost, but a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Mare Winningham in "Georgia" put the Spirit where it should be -- celebrating difficult fare that fights for commercial viability in a mainstream marketplace. The Spirit Awards have provided both prophecy and moral support: "Blood Simple," the Coen brothers' debut, won the Spirit Award before "Barton Fink" swept the Cannes awards six years later. "Drugstore Cowboy" put Gus Van Sant on the map long before his Oscar-winning blockbuster "Good Will Hunting" came out.

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 mainstream.

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 Yes."

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 10 million."

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 Elwes.

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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