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we're all 'independent' now

John Pierson, author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema (1996), has represented, financed or produced dozens of first-time independent features -- including Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Michael Moore's "Roger & Me," Richard Linklater's "Slacker," and Kevin Smith's "Clerks." While on a trip to a remote Fijian island for his Independent Film Channel series "Split Screen," he got the idea for his next book.

Nov. 22, 2001

"Pearl Harbor" auteur Michael Bay (the antichrist when it comes to quality, thought-provoking cinema) recently announced the formation of his low-budget, independent film unit. Showing his heart is most definitely in the right place, he told Variety, "These small films have a lot of profit potential." This makes me want to declare once and for all that it's time to stick indie film with a fork because it is so done.

But it's the damnedest thing. Good Machine, the extremely discerning and influential production shingle that has brought us Ang Lee's entire career, has become Bay's international partner. Yes, the politics of film makes strange bedfellows, and all the old-school concepts are topsy turvy. Maybe Ang Lee can pick up some mega-budget pointers from Mr. Armageddon as he prepares to direct "The Hulk" for Universal.

Now let me stop and point out that Ang Lee has been a model filmmaker whose bold choices and don't-box-me-in ambitions culminated in an artistically rich, gigantic crossover success with last year's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Nobody deserves it more. In the current Steven Soderbergh era, perhaps the very best directors can jump back and forth over the Hollywood fence until the fence flattens out on the ground. There's certainly nothing wrong with taking a studio's money and using its marketing clout for the right film, especially if it is subversive political dynamite like David O. Russell's 1999 "Three Kings" (presumably hard to come by in the 9/11 aftermath). And who amongst us doesn't want to see if studio-drafted director Darren "Pi" Aronofsky can get inside Warner Brothers (like Russell before him) and turn their franchise icon Batman into a crack-smoking math genius.

On a certain level, the key action in the indie arena has shifted into the new talent business. Who even remembers where the studios, major agencies, studio-affiliated production companies, and the Miramaxes of the world used to find directors? Now they can troll Sundance, MTV, film schools, and short-film websites to liven things up -- not to mention every other country on the planet with any film industry. It's not just that Hollywood films colonize the globe; for years Hollywood has been the ultimate brain drain, if that's not an oxymoron, on every film culture, whether it's Germany (Wolfgang Petersen), Sweden (Lasse Hallström), the Netherlands (Paul Verhoeven), Hong Kong (John Woo), France (Jean-Pierre Jeunet) or Australia (absolutely everyone except Jane Campion). Even in the semi-mythical mid-1980s golden age of American indies, some great filmmakers found their studio niche (Spike Lee, the Coen brothers) and some stayed outside (Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles). Today, everyone worth his salt still seeks some degree of control, but nobody wastes too much breath on quaint notions of independent purity anymore.

So where does this leave the down-and-dirty, up-from-the-bootstraps first-timers? Basically in a pretty tough spot due to their extreme overpopulation. The most common outcry is directed at the distribution bottleneck, which backs up all the way to key film festivals. Even Sundance, "our" debutante ball, fills many, many slots in the line-up with name-brand merchandise -- Tom DiCillo returns with his fifth straight film, or Christina Ricci slums in a small movie (backed by Michael Bay?), or iconoclastic uber-producer Christine Vachon has several new features ready to premiere. It's not completely hopeless, since the established media-machine requires that complete unknowns bubble up from the depths -- the next Neil LaBute, Todd Solondz, or Kevin Smith. (Have you noticed that this recent wave of writer-directors are writers first and directors second?) But there's only so much room at the inn. Clearly the odds of finding distribution increase exponentially with a high (perhaps award-winning?) profile at a key festival. It has been years since distributors have been able, or willing, to deal with the volume of over-the-transom submissions. Since I've watched thousands of undistributed films in my career, I'm here to tell you that they can sap your life force faster than an anthrax spore.

Intuitively, even objective observers feel that good films with diverse voices must be falling through the cracks. Obviously, it's an acute frustration for any producer with a vested interest. However, it's hard to decry "the bottleneck" when you look at the numbers. In New York City, the nation's specialized-film capital, more than 200 "consensus" independent films (not counting the likes of "Spy Kids") have opened in each of the past two years. They've come from the widest array of distribution companies and relentless, self-distributing filmmakers that there's ever been. That's four movies per weekend year-round, up to eight on busy fall Fridays. (It's now a twelve-month business, but autumn is peak season for leaves and artsy films.) In any given week, there are more than thirty non-Hollywood titles on screen.

So many choices. So many devoted screens. So many pages of ads in the papers. People often claim that theatrical releasing is a loss leader. Most of these films quickly fall by the wayside and are nearly forgotten outside the film community because the specialized audience is exceedingly finite and, despite wishful thinking, not really getting any larger. It's getting older and maybe even a little less smart. Theoretically, word-of-mouth had weeks and weeks to build in the days of yore when a film like "My Dinner With André" (1981) could find its audience. Back then there weren't sixteen films lined up right behind it. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but the competition is more intramural than indie David vs. studio Goliath. It's a hit-driven, cannibalistic, opening-weekend business just like, you got it, Hollywood. We have mighty Miramax to thank or curse as the trailblazing pioneer -- and others with deep pockets followed. So it's really many indie Davids vs. several indie Goliaths. Yet even when Miramax lets a genuine word-of-mouth sleeper like "Memento" slip by, its success does not really mirror the "André" era. On a shrewd, gradual platform release, "Memento" actually opened with big numbers -- the biggest opening ever for a film told in reverse.

In 2001, new digital technologies and Internet ubiquity have certainly not revolutionized or really even altered standard distribution channels. To some degree, digital video has changed the acquisition and completion budget landscape, since many of the top-tier festivals, like Toronto and Sundance, now have state-of-the-art digital projection. (This enables producers to preview films and gauge the amount of interest before completing a costly tape-to-film transfer.) Currently, the real revolution is taking place on the production side.

For every critically acclaimed digital feature, starting with "The Celebration," and continuing through "Chuck & Buck," "Dancer in the Dark," and "The Anniversary Party" (remember, "Blair Witch" was Hi-8), there are thousands of micro-budgeted fresh-out-of-film-school, or still-in-high-school, films. The democratization of indie filmmaking works very loosely on the following formula: every time you drop a zero from the typical budget, you add a zero to the total number of films produced. In the mid-1980s there were 100 films a year with budgets in the $250-300,000 range. In the mid-1990s, there were 1000 films with budgets dropping to the $25-30,000 range. Low-end digital features can easily fall below $2,500-3,000 even if you factor in the cost of setting up your own Final Cut Pro home editing system. Do the math. Then thank the heavens that no one actually has to watch this tidal wave of self-expression -- not even the Sundance selection advisory committee. For some intriguing reason, annual dramatic feature submissions to the festival, which have always constituted an ad hoc census for indie production, have only increased incrementally from pre-digital levels.

Once digital filmmakers have literally acquired the means of production and lowered the threshold of entry to a relative pittance, a lot of the financial pressure, which often used to trigger a manic psychology, is relieved. This could be very good news if the practice of filmmaking as an art becomes more like writing, painting, and music. Practice and woodshedding and, at least possibly, greater experimentation are suddenly the name of the game. When one production falls short, the filmmaker can move on and try, try again without acting deluded and feeling compelled to recoup or repay an onerous debt (the credit-card generation's legacy) by shoving half-baked work down everyone's throat. When art is eminently affordable, you can convert one person at a time. In the movie business, you need a larger public.

Has independent film dramatically affected the larger culture? That belief once formed the core of my faith. In their time, "She's Gotta Have It" and "Roger & Me" and "Slacker" and "Clerks" seemed like they were more than movies. Maybe not. But nowadays, between the rampaging consumerism of the disinterested youth audience and the aging, stay-at-home inertia of the boomers, I wonder who's still out there. "The Blair Witch Project," a phenomenon that illustrated how a good idea is everything, captured the teen audience for the first time in no-budget indiefilm history -- for two months. Then they moved on, and never looked back. But they'll be there to support future indies, like Bryan Singer's next "X-Men," Ang Lee's "Hulk," Soderbergh's "Ocean's Eleven," Aronofsky's "Batman," and Michael Bay's "Hiroshima" (don't panic, I'm just kidding ... I hope.)

see also

+ See FRONTLINE's interviews with independent filmmakers Allison Anders ("Gas, Food, Lodging," "Mi Vida Loca") and Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy").

+ See "The Mainstreaming of Indies," an excerpt from Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (1999), by Emanuel Levy.

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