Independent Film


During the 1970s, a period historians have since termed the "auteur renaissance," an independent spirit emerged within mainstream, commercial cinema. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola (b. 1939), Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), Robert Altman (b. 1925), Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999), Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939), Terrence Malick (b. 1943), Brian De Palma (b. 1940), Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), and George Lucas (b. 1944) enjoyed an independence within the system that was unique in American film history. Auteur films like Altman's M*A*S*H (1970), Coppola's The Godfather (1972), and Spielberg's Jaws (1975) made a lot of money for the studios, all of which were struggling after an almost generation-long box-office slump. But the studios' indulgence of the auteur theory was by design temporary; it held executives' interest only as long as was necessary. Once the studios got back on their feet at the end of the decade, they abandoned the auteurs in favor of more formulaic films produced by directors who required and/or demanded less autonomy and independence.

Most of the 1970s auteur directors struggled in the 1980s: Coppola, Scorsese, and De Palma made fewer films and their work had far less impact after 1980; Altman adapted stage plays for art-house release; and Kubrick, Bogdanovich, and Malick went into semiretirement. The only two directors to continue their ascent were Spielberg and Lucas, and consequently their particular brand of entertainment cinema became the industry template.

Maggie Cousineau-Arndt and David Strathairn in John Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980).

It was counter to this Spielberg-Lucas template that a renaissance of sorts in independent cinema took shape in the 1980s. This indie scene became the site for a new American cinema, one that again mirrored on a smaller scale what had taken place in bigger films, for bigger stakes, just a decade earlier. Consider, for example, the top studio films of 1984: Ghost Busters , Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom , Gremlins , Beverly Hills Cop , and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock , all of which depended on special effects and/or star-power and were platformed as event films in wide distribution strategies that only a major studio could afford to mount.

The studios' collective embrace of the so-called event film enabled an independent film market to emerge, or perhaps it just made necessary. At a time when the studios were committed to a kind of bottom-line thinking that emphasized cost–benefit analysis (typical of production units under conglomerate ownership in any business), independence became once again a matter of cash and content. Independent films produced and released in 1984 included Jim Jarmusch's (b. 1953) stagey, offbeat comedy Stranger Than Paradise (shot in overlong single takes and in black and white); Wayne Wang's (b. 1949) small ethnic picture Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart , a character study of Chinese Americans; Gregory Nava's (b. 1949) unflinching chronicle of Mexican "illegals," El Norte ; John Sayles's (b. 1950) futurist parable Brother From Another Planet , which tells the story of a drug-addicted alien loose in New York City; Alan Rudolph's stylish neo-noir Choose Me ; veteran independent filmmaker John Cassavetes's melodrama Love Streams ; and Robert Altman's adaptation of a one-man stage play about Richard Nixon's last days in the White House, Secret Honor .

Independent films the following year included Blood Simple , the stark, deadpan neo-noir by the Coen brothers (Joel, b. 1954, and Ethan, b. 1957) that was the talk of the 1985 New York Film Festival; Susan Seidelman's (b. 1952) punk-inspired romantic comedy Desperately Seeking Susan ; Horton Foote's (b. 1916) regional comedy adapted from his stage play The Trip to Bountiful ; and Martin Scorsese's After Hours , a film that tracks a single eventful night in the life of one very unlucky New Yorker. That a filmmaker of Scorsese's reputation had to turn to the indie scene to make a movie speaks volumes on the state of the industry at the time.

While independence afforded these filmmakers a degree of creative freedom, it also relegated their films to a modest art house release. Very few independent films have crossed over into commercial theaters in any big way. Among the few that have are Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino (b. 1963), distributed by Miramax in 1994, which grossed over $100 million, as did the surprise 1999 teen horror picture The Blair Witch Project for Artisan. A few film festival winners like Steven Soderbergh's (b. 1963) sex, lies and videotape (1989) or David Lynch's (b. 1946) Mulholland Drive (2001) have crossed over to modest mainstream commercial successes, but these are rare exceptions. For every crossover success such as Napoleon Dynamite (2004), a droll comedy produced for $400,000 that earned over $40 million, there are hundreds of independent films that reach only small audiences and are hurried into DVD and video release. These films seldom turn much of a profit.

Niche films (that is, films produced by and for a very specific and small target market) comprise essential indie product lines, but almost never enjoy crossover success. For example, lesbian-themed films such as Go Fish (1994), The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995), High Art (1998), and Better than Chocolate (1999), which are thematically similar but very different in tone and content, all earned about the same amount ($2 million). Such relatively dependable but modest payoffs await any reasonable effort at meeting the needs of the lesbian audience, which might be acceptable for a small outfit like TriMark, distributor of Better than Chocolate ; but for the big studios in the 1990s such action was distinctly small time.

Niche films are consistent, modest moneymakers because niche audiences are starved for films about people like themselves. Many of these films are written and directed by women and people of color—who, in Hollywood studios, are seriously underrepresented behind the camera and in the front office. The ranks of 1980s and 1990s indie filmmaking is a who's who of "minority" and distaff filmmakers: Charles Burnett ( The Glass Shield , 1995), Lisa Cholodenko, Martha Coolidge ( Valley Girl , 1983), Sofia Coppola ( The Virgin Suicides , 2001, and Lost in Translation , 2003), Rusty Cundieff ( Fear of a Black Hat , 1994), Vondie Curtis-Hall ( Gridlock'd , 1997), Julie Dash ( Daughters of the Dust , 1991), Tamra Davis ( Guncrazy , 1992), Cheryl Dunye ( The Watermelon Woman , 1996), Carl Franklin ( One False Move , 1992), Leslie Harris ( Just Another Girl on the IRT , 1992), Nicole Holofcener ( Walking and Talking , 1996, and Lovely and Amazing , 2001), Reginald Hudlin ( House Party , 1990), Leon Ichaso ( Crossover Dreams , 1985), Tamara Jenkins ( Slums of Beverly Hills , 1998), Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons ( Eve's Bayou , 1997), Jennie Livingston ( Paris is Burning , 1991), Maria Maggenti, Gregory Nava, Kimberly Pierce ( Boys Don't Cry , 2000), Matty Rich ( Straight Out of Brooklyn , 1991), Nancy Savoca ( True Love , 1989, and Dogfight , 1991), Penelope Spheeris ( The Decline of Western Civilization , 1981), Susan Seidelman ( Smithereens , 1982), Jill Sprecher ( The Clockwatchers , 1997, and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing , 2001), Julie Taymor ( Frida , 2002), Robert Townsend, Rose Troche, Luis Valdez ( Zoot Suit , 1981), Wayne Wang, and Anne Wheeler. Add to the list above openly gay male directors or directors who specialize in gay-themed films, such as Gregg Araki ( The Doom Generation , 1995) and Todd Haynes ( Poison , 1991), and it becomes clear how much and how completely independent cinema, which is showcased almost exclusively at art houses and/or in limited theatrical runs, is at once marginal (to the commercial cinematic enterprise) and marginalized.

Most of even the best-known indie titles—including those that fall into more traditional commercial genres—make far less of an impact at the box office than one might suspect. The Addiction (1995), Bodies Rest and Motion (1993), Box of Moon Light (1997), The Clockwatchers (1998), Fear of a Black Hat (1993), Federal Hill (1994), Female Perversions (1997), Heathers (1989), The House of Yes (1997), Just Another Girl on the IRT (1993), Killing Zoe (1994), Matewan (1987), Men With Guns (1998), Naked in New York (1994), Party Girl (1995), Simple Men (1992), and The Underneath (1994) are among the most highly regarded, well-known, and popular films, but they all made $1 million or less at the box office—1/100 as much as the average blockbuster.

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