"Independence" is in many ways the Holy Grail in the film business—something most everyone who makes movies strives for but can never quite attain. To be independent in the film business denotes a freedom from something, whether the vicissitudes of the commercial market or the matrix of companies that dominate the production and distribution of motion pictures in America. Such an independence can be attained only by degree. So long as a feature is screened in commercial theaters and/or aired on pay or network TV, so long as it carries a PCA seal or MPAA rating system designation, independence is a relative term.
What then is meant by the term "independent film"? At bottom, independence is attained within either or both of the two principal and intersecting characteristics of the movies as a medium: the artistic and the commercial. Huntz Hall (1919–1999), an actor famous for his appearances in the Bowery Boy B movies of the 1940s, once mused that you can recognize an independent film with a simple test: if the whole set shakes when someone slams a door it's an independent film. Though reductive and true for only the least ambitious of independent pictures, Hall's quip hints at the larger budgetary concerns of the vast majority of independent films. What we have come to recognize as an independent aesthetic—small-ensemble casts, limited use of exterior and location shooting, and an emphasis on conversation over action and exciting special effects stems primarily from an effort to stay within tight budgets. There is a mantra shared by independent directors: "Talk is cheap; action is expensive." When budget considerations loom over a production, it is always cheaper to film two people talking in a room than a car chase or a UFO landing in Washington, D.C.
Independent films are also recognizable by how they are "platformed" in the entertainment marketplace, by the way promotion and advertising is handled, and by selective versus saturation distribution. Big films are released into thousands of theaters all at once, while with some independent titles, only a handful of prints are available for screening at any one time, and they are screened almost exclusively in small, so-called art-house theaters. At every stop along the way in the various commercial venues available for films in the United States, independent films are at once marginal and marginalized. Independence thus assumes a distance from the commercial mainstream that is systematically and industrially maintained.
Two Hollywood adages that inform independence are worth considering here. The first is a bastardization of an H. L. Menken quip: "When they say it's not about the money, it's about the money." In other words, what makes a film independent is its stake in the commercial marketplace: limited access (to big commercial venues) results in almost every instance in limited box office. An independent film is thus defined by the money it makes (not a lot) and the audience it reaches (a select, small group). The second adage is even more to the point: "You take the money, you lose control." It is generally believed that independence has something to do with a refusal to make concessions. To that end, the Independent Spirit Awards, founded by FINDIE (the Friends of Independents) in 1984, annually celebrate the "maverick tradition" of independent film in America. But such a maverick tradition, evinced in some producers' and directors' refusal to kow-tow to industry pressures, is founded on the relative commercial inconsequence of the films in question. A degree of independence is possible only when films make so little money they simply are not worth the studios' time or effort to own or control. The strange fact of American filmmaking, especially in the modern era, is that a director—even an unknown and inexperienced director—can expect to enjoy far more creative autonomy working on a $1.5–3 million so-called independent film than on a $15–30 million studio picture. The minute significant studio investment is in play, the minute significant box-office is at stake, a filmmaker's independence is subject to second-guessing by executives whose primary task is to protect the company's bottom line.
While the relation between independent and mainstream or commercial cinema has been an important question in every nation that has had an established film industry—Japan, India, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, for example—what follows surveys the history of American independent cinema beginning with the very first alternatives to Edison's early films and the cartel he subsequently founded. Of interest as well are the niche films that proliferated in the early years of studio Hollywood, the Poverty Row B-genre pictures of the 1930s–1950s, exploitation cinema from the 1920s through the 1960s, the so-called new American cinema avant-garde in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and the various independent cinemas that emerged as Hollywood conglomerized and monopolized the entertainment market after 1980.