Year of the Indie

Line up last march’s nominees for the Best
Picture Oscar and you might think you’re in
indie heaven. From Paul Haggis’ complex Crash and Bennett Miller’s perceptive Capote to Ang Lee’s gay-friendly Brokeback Mountain and George Clooney’s media-savvy go here Good Night, and Good Luck, it’s a thrilling list
for moviegoers fed up with sequels, spin-offs
and Hollywood studio-think in general.

Independent voices are nothing new, of course, and they’ve had
more than one glory period in the past. Among those credited with
jumpstarting the phenomenon are John Cassavetes with Shadows in
1959, John Sayles with Return of the Secaucus 7 in 1980 and Jim
Jarmusch with Stranger Than Paradise in 1984.

Terry Zwigoff directs Art School Confidential (2006).

But many feel indies are reaching a new pinnacle. While movies
like Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge had production and distribution
money from giants like Warner Brothers and Twentieth Century
Fox, their stories and styles reflect the distinctive touches of the
independent spirits who brought them from initial concept to Oscar nominated
fame. Movies with minimal studio input are also rising in
importance—look at Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Roman
Polanski’s The Pianist, for instance. Every major studio now has an
indie or “classics” branch to serve the growing number of moviegoers
frustrated by the sameness of big-money tentpole pictures.

Not that anyone expects lavish budgets and star-studded casts
to vanish any time soon. “I like to think audiences are losing their
patience with the drek the studios are giving them,” says director
Terry Zwigoff, whose boldly independent career stretches from Crumb to Art School Confidential. “But those corporate marketing
machines are sophisticated adversaries, and even I find it difficult to
resist the big marketing blitz that makes you think you’re going to
miss out on some huge event.”

How should independent directors strike back? Zwigoff ’s recommendation
is to make movies that don’t go out of fashion the way
blockbusters do. “In a couple of years nobody wants to see those overhyped
films again,” he argues, likening the average studio production
to a pile of fast food hamburgers. “The public has to be weaned away
from them. People know what to expect, and on some level they like
that familiarity. But they drive away thinking, ‘I don’t feel so good!’”

Buzzed-about indies like Brokeback
Mountain
and Capote aside, not
everyone thinks the independent scene
is at a high point now. “It was much
easier 10 years ago to work with low
budgets and non-Hollywood actors,”
says writer-director Mary
Harron, whose career stretches
from I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho to this year’s The Notorious Bettie Page.

Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman in Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005).

“It’s true that movies
like Capote and The Squid and the Whale show a real break with
Hollywood storytelling,” Harron continues, “and it’s really exciting
when visionary directors like David Cronenberg and David Lynch
make experimental films that get into the mainstream. Yet even a
movie like Crash, which has some tough subject matter, has almost
a Hollywood cast and ends up being somehow uplifting, since that’s
what audiences embrace. Financing an independent production
can be easier now—there are more places to go because the studios
have indie-film operations—but casting can be more difficult since
everyone is trying to get the same actors. There’s always pressure to
repeat what has succeeded before.”

While the independent scene and Hollywood may overlap in seeking
noteworthy stars and audience-soothing stories, the relative size
of production budgets is likely to remain decisive in defining the
indie spirit. This doesn’t mean indie films require bottom-range budgets
to stake out their difference from mainstream fare, however.

“Hollywood has a corner on high budgets,” says Baltimore Sun
critic Michael Sragow, “and being dirt cheap used to be a hallmark
of many independent films. But some good directors I’m talking to
now are interested in $15 to $17 million movies. We could be seeing a
return to the mid-range movie, which has become almost a vacuum
in the past 10 or 15 years.”

A different view comes from Gary
Meyer, owner of the Balboa Theater in San
Francisco and a Telluride Film Festival
programmer. He feels the most important
trend right now is the explosion of ancillary
markets, which tend to level the field
between independent releases and all but
the biggest studio productions.

George Clooney and David Strathairn in Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). Paul Haggis
directs Don Cheadle in
Crash (2005)

“DVD and other ancillary distractions
are changing the entire industry,” Meyer
says. “When you spend thousands of dollars
building a home theater, you have to use it
a lot to justify the investment! So people
are deciding there are only a few movies
a year they need to see in theaters, and I
predict that theatrical screens could shrink
from about 37,000 now to less than 10,000
within the next decade. Movies with lowend
budgets will be hit hardest, and midrange
movies will have a tougher time than
ever. Lots of people are happy to skip The
Da Vinci Code
theatrically when they know
Netflix will have it in a few weeks.”

That said, observers generally agree that
the indie scene’s increasingly high profile is
encouraging more frequent investments in
original, offbeat projects.

“As the studios find themselves bereft
of ideas,” says David D’Arcy, a widely
published film journalist and critic, “they
go to the ‘minor leagues’ and give higher
budgets to less-known people with fresh
material. It’s a hit-or-miss process, and the
people who hit—Quentin Tarantino, Ang
Lee—may percolate up and become part of
the establishment. Even when their budgets
rise and their platforms get grander, the
best of them keep introducing themes far
more challenging than the industry, with
its amazing stupidity and stultification, is
normally willing to accommodate. Look at
Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Steven
Soderbergh… The list goes on.”

Not everyone feels independent production
is sparking a sea change in American
film. One doubter is indie director Alan
Berliner, whose latest documentary, Wide
Awake
, takes a personal look at insomnia. While some saw last spring’s Oscar show
as a celebration of the indie spirit, Berliner
feels it represented little more than an off
year for the studios.

“Several of the big-name presenters
seemed bored,” he says. “That’s because
Hollywood needs to feed off its own mythos
of hype and glamour, keeping Emerald City
bright and polished in order to sustain the
pumped-up illusions… of the dream machine
that is America’s most important export.

Paul Haggis directs Don Cheadle in Crash (2005)

“The industry is not becoming more
independent,” Berliner continues. “And
even if it were, a counterculture always gets
[engulfed] by the spoils and splendor of
the powers that surround it, becoming an
establishment in its own right—prickly, ugly
and ripe for revolution.”
Similar views come from longtime film critic Judy Stone, whose latest book is Not Quite a Memoir: Of Film, Books, the World.
“Movies like Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck were all
made with studio cooperation,” she asserts,
“and on certain levels they’re not independent
films at all. Of course Brokeback Mountain has a gay theme and was probably hard to
finance, but truly independent visions have
an even more difficult time getting funded
through Hollywood channels.”

Noting that movie reviews are another key
factor in the indie versus studio equation,
Stone asserts that mainstream periodicals
are swayed more by the money of big
advertisers than by the adventurousness of
independent artistry. “When a critic gives
a rave review to a [small] movie it’s likely
to get printed below the fold or even in the
restaurant section,” she says, “while the
review of a blockbuster runs at the top of the
page—even if it’s negative! The publishers
are dumbing things down.”

Jarret Reid as Green Paint Guy in Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential (2006).

Skeptics like Stone and Berliner see no
easy exit from the constraints on funding,
distributing and marketing that have always
put independents at a disadvantage vis-à-vis
Hollywood’s low-risk, made-by-committee
fare. Yet the steady growth of classics studio
branches, coupled with the surprise success
of indies as different as Lost in Translation and Finding Neverland, leads some
observers to a more optimistic view.

“The studios win when their independent
film branches get award nominations and
respectable grosses,” says Meyer. “This
opens up avenues for filmmakers at all
points on the spectrum, and I’d argue that
even Munich shows a bit of the independent
spirit—it’s structurally interesting, it takes
risky positions, it doesn’t have huge stars.
It wasn’t a huge box-office success, either,
and it might have done better if an indie
[studio] wing had been allowed to handle
it. The independent wings are good at
acquiring, producing and marketing
[offbeat] films with the special care they
need. Studios will benefit on the bottom
line if the big guys let the indie guys do
what they do best.”

Audiences can benefit as well. “American
independents have exerted a growing influence
on both the filmmaking industry and
the filmgoing public,” says Graham Leggat,
the San Francisco Film Society’s executive
director. “And this influence is now pervasive
and significant as an alternative and
antidote to the overwhelmingly mediocre
Hollywood product that fills most screens.
I only hope it continues.” MM

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