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the real thing
Some say Hollywood bought out the indies years ago. But as experience has shown, you can't keep the truly independent spirit down. Here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with actor and producer Michael Douglas; critic Elvis Mitchell; filmmaker Allison Anders, director of "Gas, Food, Lodging" (1992), "Mi Vida Loca" (1994), and "Things Behind the Sun" (2001); and filmmaker Kevin Smith, writer-director of such films as "Clerks" (1994), "Chasing Amy" (1997), and "Dogma" (1999).

MICHAEL DOUGLAS
one of Hollywood's most successful actors and producers, he produced the 1975 Oscar-winning film "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

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You were part of what a lot of people we talk to portray as the last golden age of the studios, that explosion of films in the 1970s. How hard was it, back then, to get a film like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made?

Well, the so-called "last golden age," in the 1970s, most of those movies were independent films. It's sort of like a precursor to what I think is just about happening now. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which my father had tried to get made for six, seven years, and I for four, was turned down by every studio. Every studio in the world had passed on it. And it was only after my partner, Saul Zaentz, financed the picture out of his record company, Fantasy Records, [that we] made that picture. Originally, I think our budget was $1.9 million, and it escalated dramatically to $4 million, after all the elements came together. But nobody wanted to make that. ...

You know, "Five Easy Pieces," "Easy Rider" -- those are indie pictures; those were not studio pictures. They had relationships with studio distribution, but they were indies.

...

Is there a danger of these big companies being so careful and depending so much on marketing to determine what they make?

Well, I would like to say yes, but maybe it's the time now. I kind of feel like we're in the 1950s a little bit. It feels sometimes a little bit like after Eisenhower and Hula Hoops. ... I think you're seeing a younger generation who's got a good shit detector ... and likes not to think they're being fed by the Man. But in general, it's kind of a silly time. No one wants to think a whole lot. ...

elvis mitchell
a film critic for National Public Radio and The New York Times

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... If you're trying to make [something that] essentially is a risk into a sure thing, you're going to make the same thing, often with the same people, over and over and over again.

And when something does come out and surprise people, you get something like "Reservoir Dogs," and "Pulp Fiction" a couple years later, first of all what it does is it puts the studios in a position [where] they feel they've got to make what they call "independent film," which is now as meaningless as "alternative music" or "alternative media." They get in that game, too, so you have Miramax now being owned by Disney. And when they get something that's kind of scary to them, like "Priest," or even "Dogma," they sell it off because, again, they don't want to scare off stockholders, they don't want protesters at stockholders' meetings. Or they don't want people seeing "Dogma" and then going to protest at Disneyland.

What happened to the shining light of Miramax?

... What Miramax has always been in the business of doing is making money. ... They used to be a [place] that picked up other movies. You know, nobody wanted to make "Pulp Fiction." I was at the studio when "Pulp Fiction" got turned down three times, and that was probably the lowest number of turndowns it got, but it finally got made. But on the other hand, Miramax picked up "The Crying Game," because nobody else wanted to distribute it. ...

By being able to capitalize on these movies that are being made that kind of flew under studio radar, Miramax put themselves in the position where they were thought of as being the alternative. But now they're as much a studio as New Line, which started off as kind of a mini-major, too, or any of these other places. It's almost like now Miramax needs to have a Miramax Classics Division, where they make the kind of movies we think of as being Miramax pictures. ... You know, when you think of a picture like "Shakespeare in Love," that's a pretty expensive movie. That's not an art-house movie, or what we think of as being art-house pictures now. What Miramax does, really, are mainstream movies with big movie stars in them. You know, "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," that's a Miramax movie. That's got Nicholas Cage in it -- and not the Nicholas Cage who was in million-dollar pictures, but the Nicholas Cage who gets $20 million a movie. ...

The independents kind of died out in the mid-1980s. And what happened with a company like Miramax, [it] showed that a lot of money could be made. ... Miramax showed you could make a $100 million art-house movie. Or with something like "Life Is Beautiful," a $50 million foreign-language film.

And what that said to the studios was that, "Oh, if we pretend we're in the art-house business, the independent business, then we can co-opt that money, too." I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this to you -- or the first person to say it today -- but it's now all bottom line, where each division has to sort of produce. And, you know, Miramax is to independent film as Godiva is to designer chocolate; it's owned by Campbell's. It doesn't mean anything anymore.

...

At some point, you want to play a full room. It doesn't matter who you are. The danger is the way you want to get people into that room. ...

So you go to a film festival, and you see a movie like "Memento," which is a lot of fun. Got turned down by everybody, or people won't even offer so much money for it. And, what happens? "Memento" has now made $25 million, a huge independent hit. So now Chris Nolan's making an Al Pacino movie for Warner Bros. Again, it doesn't matter who you are -- well, for the most part, it doesn't matter who you are -- you want people to see your movies.

You make these movies so that they can be enjoyed by an audience -- that communal experience we talked about. You want a room full of people there to experience this movie and get the joke or maybe not get the joke, and that thing you wrote in your room by yourself two years ago that you, like, begged and borrowed and stole money to get made, three years later, people are enjoying it and arguing about it and asking what that ending meant and if the movie means what I thought it meant. That's what excites filmmakers, and that excites me.

...

What always fascinates me is now how quickly what feels like the independent voice is just subsumed into the middle. It took hip-hop a long time to find purchase in the mainstream, and now it's everywhere. It's part of everything. In a way, the studios are still afraid of it because what are really sort of the last independent voices are filmmakers of color, and women. I mean, women aren't the minority, although you wouldn't know it from the movie business, it's still controlled by white men.

What I'm hoping these new technologies will do is have that Eurasian lesbian filmmaker make this movie that comes out of her, that's a part of her subconscious, that overtakes the country, that excites us all about the possibilities of dreaming somebody else's dream through broadband. And then she gets to make her big-deal movie, or she makes this movie for the Internet, or digitally, that gets bought up by somebody and spills over the world, that takes over everything.

That's what I want to see happen. That's what still keeps me going to the movies every week. That's what sends me out to film festivals, is waiting to hear that voice that I haven't heard before, that hasn't yet been infected by the idea of getting a major movie star to ruin her dream, because this movie star's not going to want to do what she wants to do, but she's got these actors we've never heard of before. That's what still thrills me about this, that you can't corrupt everything yet.

ALLISON ANDERS
the director of such independent films as "Gas Food Lodging" (1992), "Mi Vida Loca" (1994), and "Things Behind the Sun" (2001), which was shot in digital video

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Was your tending to work outside of the studio system a choice you made? Is that how your career took the kind of path it did?

It's so funny, because when you asked about the film business, you know ... there's a weird part of me that still doesn't acknowledge that it's a business. ... I think that in order to make the films that I make, I have to not think about it that way. ...

It occurred to me last year that I actually achieved what I always wanted. I wanted a career like Wim Wenders. He was my hero. That was my ideal of what being a success would be, you know, that you got to go to film festivals, and people talked about your work, and you got to make the films you wanted to make, and you got to put cool music in movies. That was really all that I ever wanted. ... So in a weird way, I achieved what I wanted to.

But it's hard to remember that in the industry we work in. And I would see over the years, if Wim would get discouraged, or any of my heroes, you know, by the way that the industry works, I would think, well, why do they care? They're, like, art filmmakers. ... And now, of course, I see how it works on you. ... It's interesting. You tend to forget that you actually, you know, this is the career you wanted. It's never occurred to me I could make a dime, but money was never very important to me anyway.

...

In addition to having to compete at the box office, have you seen any other dramatic changes in the last 10 years or so? ...

Well, I think that the biggest thing was when "Pulp Fiction" had the outrageously good opening box-office weekend. ... That victory was sort of the beginning of the end for the rest of us, because very few indie films can compete in that same kind of a way. But [independent companies] always wanted that kind of success. And so they set out to duplicate that kind of success. And I think that that's when it really became a problem. It became a problem for character-driven stuff ... It takes time for people to discover those movies. ... It used to be that a critic would write something wonderful about your movie that would get people out to the movie theaters to see your film. And the movie theaters themselves were not so corporately owned ... they could let you have time.

Is the audience to blame for the state of movies today, or do you think it's the studios?

... I don't think that audiences are the problem. I really do believe that corporations have really found a way that nothing is ever enough. No success is ever enough. It used to be that our little successes were just fine. We made our money back. I've never not made my money back for distributors. So they made their money back, and that was fine. They made back what they put in and maybe a little bit more. They were happy with that. But they're obviously not happy with that any more. And they're not autonomous any more either, the independent film companies. They're all owned by bigger studios. And so that kind of put an end to the dream that we had in the early 1990s.

Miraculously, these movies still get made. But distributing them has become more and more difficult. ... You still get the movies made. A filmmaker can always scrape up money to do a movie. The passion drives it. And you'll get the money. Money's the easiest thing. But the hardest thing is finding a way for people to see your movie.

...

Why are movies important to you?

I don't know that movies are important. But I know that stories are important. Movies may disappear. They've only been around, for God's sake, for the last hundred years. ... I think that it's the need to tell stories, and that people need to be told stories. It's the old sitting around the fire, you know. ... And I don't think they really care how they get them either, but people really need them. And they'll either get them through movies or they get them a lot through TV now, which I think is great also. They'll be getting them through the Internet and any way that they can get them in the future.

...

Do you think that telling a good story will ultimately win out?

Well, I'll tell you. I think down the line, ten years from now, probably more people will remember good stories than they're going to remember ... this weekend's box office winner. They're not going to go, "Oh, I remember when 'Legally Blonde' was the box office winner." They're not going to remember that. They're going to remember some story that really meant something to them.

But I have to say, I do have my dire moments where I'm, like, "Why does this continue. ... How is this ever going to get any better?" I really think it's up to young people to really start a revolution. I'll back it up. I'm a little too old to start a revolution at this point. And it really shouldn't be people my age; it really should be younger people. ... I feel like there should be some really renegade young filmmakers out there, and, like I say, I will totally back them up 100 percent. But it really has to come from young filmmakers. And I think we did that in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. ...

In film school, I remember going, "God, the French New Wave and New German Cinema -- why can't we have a film movement? I want a film movement, too." And then one day I woke up and I was part of it. ... So it's time for somebody new to shake it up, really.

Kevin Smith
he wrote and directed such independent films as "Clerks" (1994), "Chasing Amy" (1997), and "Dogma" (1999)

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... I was really into entertainment from a young age, but never really thought about working in film. It seemed like other people did that, not people in New Jersey. So I never really considered it as a career until I was about 21. [On my] twenty-first birthday, I went to see a movie, Richard Linklater's "Slacker" [1991], at the Angelica Film Center up in New York. And it was a real eye-opening experience, because it was not the standard studio fare that I was used to seeing everywhere, was weaned on. It was kind of my first independent film. And I was really just taken aback by it, like, wow, this counts as a movie? Like, nothing's happening really, just people walking around. We don't even have one main character, it's just one character leads to the next, and leads to the next, leads to the next. It was just a string of characters talking about nothing, no plot, just a lot of dialogue. And I was fascinated by that. You know, I viewed it with a mixture of awe and arrogance. I was awed by the fact that this passed for entertainment ... that people would actually sit down and enjoy it as much as I was enjoying it. And then arrogance, because I was, like, well I could do this. I mean, if this counts as a movie, count me in, I can try this.

So I got into indie film and started studying up on the past ten years of indie cinema. People like [Jim] Jarmusch, and people like Hal Hartley and Richard Linklater ... Spike Lee, stuff like that. And really kind of built a library of sorts to draw from. And then went to film school for about four months, and dropped out, and went home and made "Clerks."

...

After "Clerks" screened at Sundance, we got a few overtures from some studio folks who had attended the festival. So we did this meet and greet thing, where somebody flew us out to Los Angeles and we sat down with a few studio folks, and basically people were very interested in seeing what I would like to re-write and direct. And not even re-write. Some people were just, like, we have these scripts, would you like to direct any of them? Which I always thought was weird, because "Clerks" is a terrible looking film. ... So I was surprised when people would ask if I wanted to direct something. Because, I don't know, I just never really thought of myself as much of a director.

...

But we did kind of get courted, but not hardcore, you know. We got a few overtures, enough to bring us out to L.A. for a visit. ... We spoke to Jim Jacks, who produced the two "Mummy"s, later on. But he had produced "Dazed and Confused," Richard Linklater's second film. And "Tombstone." He'd worked with the Coen brothers on "Blood Simple" and "Raising Arizona." And he kind of liked the idea of doing this movie we had called "Mallrats." So we got involved on a studio level there.

And it was a different experience having just made the first movie by ourselves, with no involvement whatsoever. Working with a studio, and working with a budget was different, and kind of trial by fire. It wasn't that bad, but we had to learn how to work well with others, in terms of dealing with notes -- that's the first thing you have to deal with when you're working with a studio. They'll hand you notes on your script and tell you exactly how to tell your story, like, you're not telling it right, this would make it better. And what it means is, this would make it more marketable, or this would appeal to more people than the way you're doing it.

I remember having a discussion with [a woman] who was then at Universal. ... And she's a great lady, but she said, she was talking about the story, and I said, I don't know, I just think it's kind of watering it down if we do this, if I address this note, one of these notes the studio had. And she said, yeah, but Kevin, wouldn't you like your story to be seen by as many people as possible? Like, isn't it really about reaching the widest possible audience? Could that be a bad thing? I was like, no, I guess not. And later on I figured out, it's not like it's a bad thing, but it's not necessarily for everybody.

There's some filmmakers who are definitely in it to reach the widest possible audience, because it's show business, you know. There's a lot of business involved, a lot of money to be made. And there's some people that just like to tell stories, and it doesn't matter if a hundred million people identify with it, or a thousand people identify with it. You know, there's a certain satisfaction, a certain artistic satisfaction, for lack of a better word, that kind of draws them to filmmaking. And I was one of those people. And I don't think of myself as an artist at all, but I think I'm just kind of pig-headed enough to want to do my stories my way. And without any involvement, without any tips from somebody else.

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