Auteurism and independence converged in the early 1980s as Hollywood conglomerized and the new Hollywood studios devoted their attention to blockbuster filmmaking. The audacity and creativity that had fueled the Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s got pushed out of or at least found a new home on the margins of the studio mainstream. This remained an accurate description of the Hollywood/indie divide throughout the subsequent twenty-five years even as the independent landscape slowly changed.
John Sayles is one of the most important [of] contemporary independent filmmakers. Because his loyal fan base shares his politics, Sayles has consistently been able to provide an alternative to the big bang of the often politically conservative Hollywood blockbuster. Making movies that depend on meaningful conversation and tackle significant moral issues, Sayles has produced films of ideas at a time when they seem sadly lacking in mainstream cinema.
Like his fellow cineastes Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, John Sayles got his first big break from exploitation impresario Roger Corman, for whom he wrote a screenplay for the tongue-in-cheek gore-fest Piranha (1978). A year later, Sayles earned legitimate success, winning a Los Angeles Film Critics Award for his more personal screenplay, The Return of the Secaucas Seven (1980), his debut as a writer-director. The Return of the Secaucas Seven , the story of a handful of twentysomethings trying to make sense of contemporary America, established something of a template for Sayles with its emphasis on dialogue and multiple intersecting narratives.
With the money earned for his screenplays for the Corman-produced sci-fi quickie Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and the excellent werewolf film The Howling (1981), Sayles wrote and directed Lianna (1983), a film about a young woman struggling with her sexual preference. At a time when Hollywood dealt with lesbianism as either kinky or aberrant, Sayles handled the issue with an admirable matter-of-fact realism.
Sayles took on another hot-button issue, labor relations, with his subsequent film Matewan (1987), a historical reconstruction of an ill-fated West Virginia coalminers' strike in the 1920s. And in his next film Eight Men Out (1988), about the infamous "Black Sox Scandal" of the 1919 World Series, Sayles delivered a similarly heartfelt pro-union message—noteworthy because at the time the anti-union sentiments of Reaganomics held sway in America. While the story pivots on a moral transgression, Sayles focused instead on the exploitation of the players by team owner Charles Comiskey. Though what the players do is wrong, Sayles renders the story in terms that make one crime an inevitable response to another.
Sayles cemented his reputation as a political filmmaker by focusing his attention on race issues. The Brother from Another Planet (1984) told the story of a black alien who lands in the inner city and gets hooked on drugs. The ironically titled City of Hope (1991) focused on the thorny issue of affirmative action in a small metropolis. Lone Star (1996), for which Sayles received an Academy Award ® nomination for Best Screenplay, examined Mexican-American relations in a border town and Sunshine State (2002) took a long look at the human cost of gentrification at an old Florida beachfront town abutting the one beach where African Americans could swim during segregation.
Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), Lone Star (1996), Sunshine State (2002)
Carson, Diane, ed. John Sayles: Interviews . Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
——, and Heidi Kenaga, eds. Sayles Talk: New Perspectives on Independent Filmmaker John Sayles . Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2006.
Molyneaux, Gerard. John Sayles: An Unauthorized Biography of the Pioneering Indie Filmmaker . Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 2000.
Sayles, John. Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan . Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
——, and Gavin Smith. Sayles on Sayles . Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
In the 1990s, in an effort to cash in on the "alternative market," several of the big studios added boutique, so-called indie-labels to their vast entertainment industry holdings. For example, Sony spun-off Sony Classics and Fox added Fox Searchlight. Disney expanded its holdings
by boldly acquiring Miramax, and in doing so diversified the former family-friendly company into the world of edgy independent fare. These corporate moves rendered "independent" a profoundly misleading term. The studio-owned and operated boutique houses had vast capital resources and even though, like their more independent indie predecessors, they acquired for distribution modest-budgeted, independently produced films often picked up at so-called independent film venues like the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, by century's end they had all but cornered the art-house market.
The notion of independence has always been conditional (one is always independent of or from someone or something) and partial (the marketplace has always required certain concessions to the commercial mainstream). But however these contemporary "independent" films were made and marketed they continued to offer a degree of creative freedom and market access to directors working outside the commercial mainstream.
A quick look at the important independent films in the contemporary era reveals a wide range of auteur pictures, genre movies, and niche-audience projects. Prominent among the auteur projects were two films by Quentin Tarantino—his two-part postmodern revenge fantasy Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (2004). Though Tarantino was by 2003 something of a household name and certainly a Hollywood A-list director, his continued association with Miramax and his self-promotion as a renegade Hollywood player was consistent with the concept if not the fact of independence. Much the same can be said for Steven Soderbergh, who continued to alternate projects between the studio mainstream (the popular biopic Erin Brockovich ) and the more marginal (the political tour de force Traffic , 1999).
Other directors similarly interested in forging a place for themselves outside the commercial mainstream and in doing so establishing a unique and uncompromised auteur signature followed Tarantino and Soderbergh's lead. Here again the fact of independence was less significant than the indie reputation one gained by associating oneself with even a boutique indie label. Key players here include the playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute (the surreal comedy Nurse Betty , 1999), Darren Aronofsky (the wildly stylized study of drug addiction, Requiem for a Dream , 1999), Christopher Nolan (the thriller Memento , 2000, about a man with no short-term memory caught in the middle of a murder mystery), and Todd Solondz (the sexually explicit college-set drama Storytelling , 2001). While opportunities for women directors remained scant in mainstream Hollywood, a number of young female auteurs got the opportunity to direct low budget indie features. Some delved into contemporary questions regarding gender identity (Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry , 1999), while others explored growing up female (Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides , 1999).
A number of indie titles were marketed to large niche audiences, most significantly the youth audience. The most popular indie film of all time was the teen-horror picture The Blair Witch Project (1999), a film that to great effect aped the look and style of a typical student film. Several more polished alternative teen horror films followed, many of them played with equal amounts of thrills and satire: Wes Craven's popular Scream series– Scream (1996), Scream 2 (1997), and Scream 3 (2000) and the Scary Movie franchise– Scary Movie (2000), Scary Movie 2 (2001), and Scary Movie 3 (2003)–were all distributed by Miramax's teen-label Dimension Films. While bawdy teen comedies like American Pie (1999) and its sequels ( American Pie 2 , 2001, and American Wedding , 2003) continued to be a staple among the major studio release slates, a series of darker, more troubling teenpics appeared on the indie circuit, films like Richard Kelly's exploration of adolescent madness Donnie Darko (2001), the disconcerting coming of age film Igby Goes Down (2002), the nerd satire Napoleon Dynamite (2004), the anti-establishment road trip picture Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), and the generation-next coming of age movie Garden State (2004).
Making a film on the indie circuit also offered opportunities to mainstream performers, especially movie stars, to acquire something akin to "indie cred." At the very least, it allowed glamorous movie stars a chance to showcase their talent playing "against type." For example, the beautiful African American actress Halle Berry won an Academy Award ® for her performance in Marc Foster's Monster's Ball (2001). With an unflattering haircut, little makeup, and dingy clothes, Berry played a waitress who has an affair with a racist jailer after her husband is executed. Two years later, the South African model turned star actress Charlize Theron followed Berry's lead winning an Oscar ® for her portrayal of the serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Patty Jenkins's Monster .
Diversifying into the small indie market has had its advantages for the major film companies. Though many of their boutique titles have not made them much money, they have added much-needed prestige to industry release slates otherwise dominated by empty action pictures. When boutique releases win prizes at festivals like Sundance, Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto or awards at the Golden Globes or Oscars ® , they boost the studio's reputation. Control over the indie-sector also gives the major studios something very close to complete control over the entire American cinema landscape, a degree of control that in the 21st century renders the term "independent" not only conditional but perhaps even obsolete.
Biskind, Peter. Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film . New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Goodell, Gregory. Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide from Concept to Distribution . New York: St. Martin's, 1982.
Kleinhans, Chuck. "Independent Features: Hopes and Dreams." In The New American Cinema . Edited by Jon Lewis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.
Levy, Emanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of Independent Film . New York: New York University Press, 2001.
McCarthy, Todd, and Charles Flynn, eds. Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System . New York: Dutton, 1975.
Pierson, John. Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes : A Guided Tour Across a Decade of Independent Cinema . New York: Hyperion, 1995.
Rosen, David. Off-Hollywood: The Making and Marketing of Independent Film . New York: Independent Feature Project and Burbank, CA: Sundance Institute, 1987
Schaefer, Eric. Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919–1959 . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999.