Thursday, August 31, 2006

What is the definition of independent cinema?

For years, the mainstream perception of independent cinema was of a film made on the cheap with a group of unknown actors and a quirky story. Classic examples include Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Robert Rodriquez’s El Mariachi. But now things are becoming muddled.

The media claims that the 2006 Academy Award nominations were stacked with what they referred to as indie films including Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Crash and Syriana. While these films are certainly daring and challenge Hollywood conventions and themes, in their scale can they really be considered indie?

“What is truly independent are the ones out there self funding and scrapping money together and making films with their mobile phones and whatever else,” says Adam Hodgkins, a film professor at the University of Westminster.

Patrick Towell, the Chief Executive of Golant Films, voices a similar sentiment saying, “I always thought independent meant independent of a large vertically integrated studio type company.”

The confusion has been brewing for a decade. After the announcement of the nominations in January, Richard Corliss of Time magazine noted that the Oscars had not been as dominated by non-blockbusters since 1997, when four so-called indie nominees The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets & Lies and Shine were in the running.

“Then as now, an ‘independent’ company was a subsidiary of a big studio,” wrote Corliss. “The division, though, remains clear: studios make their regular movies to earn money, and their indie movies to earn prestige.”

In the last decade or so the major studios have been establishing companies like Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent and Paramount Classics to produce films that if are not truly independent at least want to seem as if they are an alternative to Hollywood.

“You can have a kid from a posh family that ends up being a Goth as a good analogy for an indie film that comes out of a studio,” suggests Towell.

The mission statement that appears at Warner Independent’s web site paints a noble, even awe-inspiring image of what they want to put into the world.

“More and more, serious film makers are drawn by story and character, not by genre or budget or the potential for mass popularity. Warner Independent Pictures aims to be a home to films that are adventurous, intimate, personal, taboo breaking and experimental and to artists who explore the unexamined with courage and insight and in ways that shed light on the human condition.”

How much of that is true and how much is just spin is up for debate. It all sounds fine and dandy, but for many the word independent is a wincing point. Zeb Ian, one of many of aspiring filmmakers trying to make it in the industry is frustrated by the confusion of terms.

“Independent used to mean below a million, now even five million dollar budget movies get into ‘independent’ film festivals. What’s independent about that? Perhaps independently rich, but at that cost the movie is already being backed significantly,” says Ian.

It is not that Warner Independent and the like are not making provocative, thought-provoking films, it is whether these films can be considered indie.

“It depends why you are defining independent. What’s your purpose?” says Towell. “If you are looking at it from a cultural point of view and you’re kind of talking about an independent voice and an independent point of view, are those kind of major funded independent labels culturally independent? Politically independent?”

In the case of Film Independent, who puts on the Independent Spirit Awards they are defining it for the purposes of deciding which films are eligible for nomination.

The nominating committee defines a film as being independent if it has a uniqueness of vision and an original, provocative subject matter. As for where the money comes from, to be considered independent a percentage of the financing must come from independent sources.

However, as of 1994, Film Independent stopped defining independent strictly based on financing. They have placed their budget cap at $20 million, which many would claim is hardly independent of anything.
The Independent Spirit Awards are about awarding films that retain the spirit to dare to be different, and still possess that passion and drive that inspires filmmakers to make their first film.

A spokesperson for Film Independent says that companies like Warner Independent are still independent because of the subject matters they choose and risks they take.

“They are willing to take a chance, they are willing to go with first time directors, go with non-celebrities, non-stars to star in their films and they’re willing to take risks like tough subject matter.”
Edward Porter, a film critic for The Sunday Times also thinks it has less to do with money, and more about the content.

“I suspect most filmmakers would say independence is control over the final cut, regardless of where the money is coming from,” says Porter.

Yet, according to Hodgkins, these subsidiary companies have merely learned a trick from the music industry. At the end of 1980s, record labels started buying indie labels, but keeping them under their original monikers since they featured allegiance they would lose otherwise. Hodgkins believes the same ideas are now at play in the film industry.

“They discovered the value of niche and niche is the term used in the film industry for art house,” says Hodgkins.

At the end of the day, no matter how noble the studios paint their intentions, it is merely a strategic business move.

“They will give certain degrees of autonomy, but then they will impose business structures over and above what is going on,” says Hodgkins.

Daniel Katz of the distribution company THINKFilm also questions whether films that come out of the Warner Independents of the world are what they say they are and goes back to the most basic definition that independent is “anything not financed by a major studio.”

Katz believes the studio funded indie film is not independent, but they are also not typical studio fare. They may feature Hollywood gloss and be backed by Hollywood money but films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, Sideways and other “indie” favourites are not usual mainstream fodder. They are something else. So, then the question remains: what are they?

Essentially these films could be labeled studio-funded independent, but in addition to being a contradiction of terms, it hardly rolls off the tongue. The answer is probably to coin another word altogether for independent. Hodgkins already dropped two possible options: niche and art house.

Art house refers to the sort of cinemas and art centres that show films that are not mainstream. This would include the true indies, the studio funded indies and foreign films and thus is perhaps too broad. On the other hand, maybe not. After all, the studio indie companies do release all those type of films.

Another possible option is specialist films, which as defined by Peter Buckingham of the UK Film Council are films that feature some or all of the following qualities: genre bending, complex, challenging subject matters and an innovative or unconventional storytelling style. Specialist films also include documentaries, classics and foreign.

This seems to be an accurate reflection of the films coming out the studio subsidiary companies and is almost a verbatim, albeit more succinct, reiteration of Warner Independent’s mission statement.

In this light, films that are truly independent are merely a sub-category of niche, specialist, or art house films. Again, the problem with each of these words is they are too broad and we still lack a proper term specifically for studio funded indie films.

Towell may have the answer: pick an arbitrary word to define the films coming out of these so-called indie companies. Therefore, from now on studio funded indie films are called banana films.

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