INDEPENDENCE in the movies is a cri de coeur and an occasionally profitable branding ploy, but mostly itâ€™s a seductive lie. For much of American movie history it has been shorthand for more aesthetically adventurous films, bolder in form, freer in spirit and at times more overtly political than those churned out by the Hollywood studios. Once we were one nation under the movie screen, indivisible, with liberty and Shirley Temple for all, but independent film gave us new ways of looking, or so the story goes. Never mind that John Cassavetes, the patron saint of independent cinema, struggled for attention and dollars for much of his filmmaking career.
The current line on independent film, depending on whoâ€™s doing the spinning and why, is that itâ€™s dead, in crisis or at least in trouble. The death notices are mainly attributable to the recent closing and retrenchment of a handful of small companies, though the biggest shock occurred earlier this year when Time Warner, the multinational that owns Warner Brothers Entertainment and HBO, dismantled three of its subsidiaries â€” New Line Cinema, Picturehouse and the paradoxically named Warner Independent Pictures â€” firing hundreds and absorbing others into the host body.
The news has inspired passionate response, as well as the usual gloom and doom. Certainly it is bad news for those who have lost their jobs, but Iâ€™m not persuaded that it means all that much for true independents, those who have never worked inside the studios, never wanted to and probably couldnâ€™t if they tried. I donâ€™t think it means much for Kelly Reichardt, who made the lovely independent film â€œWendy and Lucy,â€ and is unlikely to direct the next comic book blowout, because her aesthetic sensibility and worldview are of no economic use and interest to the studios or to most audiences either. Thatâ€™s not a bad thing, not even remotely, especially for those who think films have worth beyond their box office returns.
As long as thereâ€™s been a Hollywood, there has been an off-Hollywood, outsiders and mavericks who show their movies any which way they can, at film societies, art houses and ethnic theaters. There was always overlap between these worlds, but it wasnâ€™t until the 1990s and the ascendancy of Miramax Films that that the two became so interdependent as to be, at times. nearly indistinguishable. History was on Miramaxâ€™s side: In the 1980s, while Hollywood was bingeing on blockbusters, the sleepy independent film world was jolted awake by Jim Jarmuschâ€™s downtown cool, Spike Leeâ€™s urban style and the provocations of other D.I.Y. free-thinkers offering something new, different, electric. They were punks with cameras, and they shook the dust off a moribund scene.
It was an exciting moment â€” I still remember the horrendous tinny sound at the Quad Cinema in Manhattan, where I first saw â€œSheâ€™s Gotta Have Itâ€ â€” and galvanizing. It felt as if a new generation had sprung up, the first identifiable American cinema movement in years. Like John Cassavetes, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank, Lionel Rogosin and others, Mr. Jarmusch and Mr. Lee had turned the camera into a means of self-expression with passion, poetry, attitude and not much money. One micro-budgeted feature after another followed from newcomers like Joel and Ethan Coen (â€œBlood Simpleâ€), Wayne Wang (â€œDim Sumâ€) and Gus Van Sant (â€œMala Nocheâ€). Some were amateurish, others slick, but nobody seemed to be auditioning for Hollywood. Well, maybe the Coens.
Miramax capitalized on this movement, turning that spirit into a brand. When the Walt Disney Company bought Miramax in 1993, one industry analyst explained the deal as â€œa further step in the diversification of the studio away from too much reliance on the animated product line.â€ With few exceptions, the independent film world was happy to help Hollywood diversify in return for a piece of the action. The largest nonprofit independent membership organization, then called the Independent Feature Project (the Los Angeles chapter later seceded), decreed that studio movies were eligible for its annual Spirit Awards. Since 1994, almost every top Spirit Award winner had its feeding tube stuck in a studio, beginning with that yearâ€™s â€œPulp Fiction,â€ Miramaxâ€™s $100 million-plus payday.
Over the past decade and a half a substantial infrastructure has grown up around independent cinema, which now includes producers, distributors, exhibitors, festivals, organizations, cable channels, how-to guides, publications and blogs. Indie film has its own stars, auteurs and even its own orgy of self-congratulation in the Spirit Awards, which are attended by some of the same people who wear pricier threads to the Oscars the very next day. In February, Angelina Jolie, nominated for â€œA Mighty Heartâ€ (released by Paramount Vantage) strolled into the awards with a baby bump, Brad Pitt and a security detail. She lost to Ellen Pageâ€™s baby bump in â€œJunoâ€ (Fox Searchlight).
Seated some distance from Brad, Angie and the holy zygote was Ronald Bronstein, a New York filmmaker who had been nominated for a special Someone to Watch award for â€œFrownland.â€ This $50,000 jackpot is given, to quote the event organizers, â€œto a talented filmmaker of singular vision who has not yet received appropriate recognition.â€ That sounds like a classic description of most independent directors, but in an indie world so dominated by studio thinking and taste, a film like â€œFrownlandâ€ comes across as so different (so weird) that it has to be segregated from the big show.
With its grubby milieu and rivers of mucus, â€œFrownlandâ€ isnâ€™t a calling-card film or a Hollywood tale told on the cheap. It was never going to attract a mass audience, and I doubt that Mr. Bronstein would disagree. Itâ€™s a tough, prickly (grainy!) film, and Iâ€™ve thought more about it than I have about most of the big studio productions Iâ€™ve seen this year. Most studio films are enormous nets, designed to scoop up the largest possible global audience. The specialty divisions, in turn, aim for niche audiences with more talk, less action (thanks to Quentin Tarantino, sometimes both); would-be auteurs or the real deal; and as many talking points as the Democratic National Convention (racism and sexism bad, multiculturalism good).
Most of these niche films are nice, polite films of the sort you hear about on National Public Radio in between sob stories and pledge drives. Some are indelible works of art. Most are disposable, and many look, sound and play out, beat for beat, like Hollywood movies with lower budgets. Their provocations are superficial, tiny jabs against putative political correctness, like those of the pregnant teenager in â€œJuno.â€ These are not films that will ever create a new wave; they barely make a ripple, and intentionally so, since each ripple might threaten possible revenue. Better to make audiences smile than make them squirm, better to reassure them than shake them up, better to stay safe than say, â€œSorry, Mr. Murdoch.â€
For my part, I am honestly sorry to see those small studio companies go, but their closings say less about independent film than they do about Hollywood. Some of the best American films of the past decade, including Paul Thomas Andersonâ€™s â€œThere Will Be Bloodâ€ (Paramount Vantage and Miramax), have been put out by specialty divisions, and itâ€™s an open question whether corporate giants that close these units, like Time Warner, have the will to bring out movies that canâ€™t be summed up in one sentence. Itâ€™s also an open question how Hollywoodâ€™s retreat will affect the indie infrastructure. The infernal buzz machine seemed quieter at this yearâ€™s Sundance and Cannes festivals, despite quality films like â€œMommaâ€™s Man,â€ â€œSugar,â€ â€œWendy and Lucyâ€ and â€œBallast.â€
Lance Hammerâ€™s â€œBallast,â€ an elegiac, rapturously lovely story set in the Mississippi Delta and featuring a cast of unknown black actors, would have been news in any year, but it means more now because itâ€™s another reminder that independent filmmaking means more than signing with Fox Searchlight. And, indeed, of these four films I just mentioned â€” all idiosyncratic, intensely personal, stylistically venturesome, nonformulaic â€” only â€œSugarâ€ will be released by a studio division, Sony Pictures Classics. â€œMommaâ€™s Manâ€ is being released by tiny Kino International and â€œWendy and Lucyâ€ will reach theaters later this year courtesy of a newcomer, Oscilloscope Pictures. Mr. Hammer originally signed on with IFC Films, but, believing he could improve profits without a middleman, especially in todayâ€™s overcrowded market, has decided to release his movie by himself.
He has some help, namely the indie executive turned consultant Steven Raphael, who is part of a new, fast-growing D.I.Y. movement that has sprung up largely because there are not enough distributors ready and able to release the current flood of movies. With the support of some publicists, Mr. Hammer and Mr. Raphael will attempt to do what usually takes an army of handlers and entire studio departments to pull off. Mr. Hammer is creating the poster artwork and making the trailer, and together they are booking mainstream theaters and also taking â€œBallastâ€ around the country to universities, film clubs and art centers, just the way many independents have sought and found audiences for decades.
Mr. Hammer and Mr. Raphael are cautiously optimistic about the filmâ€™s chances when it opens in New York on Oct. 1. But it will be tough no matter how elegant the poster or positive the reviews. Great films open and close before they can find an audience, even when cushioned by the love of the critics or studio dollars. The means of production may be in more hands than ever before, but getting audiences into theaters is also more difficult. Even with their numbers thinned, specialty divisions duke it out by spending more, monopolizing theaters and wooing the entertainment news media. Like their big-studio brethren, they try to buy their opening weekends.
If all the studios followed the lead of Time Warner and got out of the indie film business, it might help a film like â€œBallastâ€ find its way into the larger world, though thatâ€™s no guarantee. And perhaps thatâ€™s the wrong way to look at it. Guarantees are for washing machines, after all, not art, and films like â€œBallastâ€ and â€œWendy and Lucyâ€ donâ€™t need big distributors, a mass audience or a Spirit Award to prove their worth. Like the finest independents, they arenâ€™t trying to emulate Hollywood, and while Michelle Williams has the lead role in â€œWendy and Lucy,â€ it isnâ€™t the kind of film that can be sold on a starletâ€™s smile. Like â€œBallastâ€ it will make its way into theaters, where it will be much loved and remembered long after it leaves.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 14, 2008
A picture caption last Sunday with an article about the impact of the closing of independent film studios misidentified the movie in which Flo Jacobs was shown with Matt Boren. It is â€œMommaâ€™s Man,â€ not â€œMommaâ€™s Boy.â€
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