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date: 24 May 2022

(p. 579) Evolution of Modern-Day Independent Filmmaking

(p. 579) Appendix 1 Evolution of Modern-Day Independent Filmmaking

There was a time when landline phones where the only means of communication in the film industry. There were no indie trade organizations or studio specialty divisions, HBO had just been born, cable television was a luxury, videocassette machines cost between five hundred and seven hundred dollars, and foreign-language films were the main source of alternative cinema. In the late 1970s, some alternative American films, such as Between Time and Timbuktu (Fred Barzyk, 1972), Coming Apart (Milton Moses Ginsberg, 1969), and Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972), began creeping out of crevices and were being shown outside the system.

The venues for such films were independent campus film series, cinema classes, and local repertory film houses, which would mix in some of the emerging American underground films with foreign fare and finally spearhead the new American wave of film making.

The first organized event to showcase these films exclusively took place in, of all places, Salt Lake City, Utah. In 1978, a local Mormon, Sterling Von Wagam, and his sidekick, Lori Smith, created a film festival that would be devoted exclusively to films made in the United States outside the studio system. They called it the United States Film Festival. The films they found for the first year were The Whole Shootin’ Match by Eagle Pennell, Joe and Maxi by Joel Gold, Girlfriends by Claudia Weill, and Martin by George Romero.

(p. 580) Why were so few films available for this pioneering festival? The studio system had made it incredibly difficult for someone to make a feature film outside of studio lots. But the roadblocks that were put up by the studio system actually worked to shape the style and content of the early indie films. Because they did not have access to studio facilities and did not have to hire union labor, early indie filmmakers were forced to wear many hats in the filmmaking process. John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Joan Silver, Robert Young, Rob Nilsson, and Gus Van Sant would write, direct, edit, carry lights, run the camera, and at times act. Money was scarce, and the lack of cash had a big effect on locations, actions, actors, and the actual look of the film—the grainy quality of 16-millimeter blown up to 35-millimeter. There was no money for shooting permits, so guerrilla-style sets were the norm. The cameras of choice were 16-millimeters, as they were available through college campuses or pawn shops. Friends and neighbors would be cast in key roles; the family home or local town would double as location. Limited takes resulted in changes made on the fly, the script often rewritten to save time or as new opportunities arose.

Equipment rental houses did not want to do business with fly-by-night productions. There was only one lab that would even deal with this new breed of filmmaker as a credible artist, DV-Art, based in New York City. Its owner, Irwin Young, is the godfather of modern-day independent filmmaking—he took risks with this new breed of artists that fostered the careers of many of the early pioneers.

This seat-of-the-pants filmmaking created unique styles that emerged from the intense, personal energies devoted to all aspects of the process, and out of this chaos in the late seventies came a groundbreaking new breed of cinema unlike anything that had been done before in the United States—films like Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977), Northern Lights (John Hanson, Rob Nilsson, 1978), Return of the Secaucus 7 (John Sayles, 1980), and She's Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986).

Suddenly, it was a boomtown. There were new indie distribution companies—Atlantic Releasing, Island Alive, Circle Releasing, the Samuel Goldwyn Company—creating new outlets for these films. Critics were starting to take notice; studios were creating divisions of alternative cinema. A new breed of entrepreneurs emerged who wanted to live outside of the studio system. These companies collaborated with the filmmakers, creating guerrilla marketing tactics, playing films in rogue cinemas—independent like the films themselves—and keeping the integrity of the director's vision in the release plans.

UA Classics was the indie branch of the venerable United Artists, staffed entirely by people under the age of twenty-five. They were cinephiles who had come out of college film schools, where they ran film series. This unit was the worst nightmare of the old-school distribution world. They took the skills they used to run bare-bones college film series to the marketplace. They did everything in-house, including postproduction and publicity; they had their filmmaker friends work with them on creating trailers; they sold the films to renegade art houses instead of powerful movie chains. It was the beginning of big changes in the old-school system. Hollywood took notice. In 1982, the indie company Island Alive received the Best Actor Oscar for William Hurt in The Kiss of the Spider Woman (Hector Babenco) and Best Actress for Geraldine Page in Trip to Bountiful (Peter Masterson). All in all, during the 1980s about two hundred indie companies came and went.

In the 1980s, technology began to have a tremendous influence on the independent movement. Artists who had started their careers with Super 8 and 16-millimeter, moved to Super 16-millimeter. The trick was always how to blow up these formats to 35-millimeter, which was the only format that theaters had to project films at the time. DV-Art labs (p. 581) pioneered again. If you look at the 16-millimeter blowups in the early eighties, you could barely see the picture through the grain of the print. The process improved every year.

Videocassettes and pay cable emerged as new revenue sources for the studios in the 1980s. The studio system tried to keep these new distribution channels closed to the indie movement. The power brokers who controlled these markets were not interested in programming indie films or selling them in the video marketplace. The video world was mass market, commodity driven, and the distributors had no interest in opening venues for alternative cinemas because they did not think there was an audience for them.

But the emergence of director-centered films that made money began to change people's minds. Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather (1972) and Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) are films with artistic vision and a unique cinema style made by directors who had worked their way into the studio system. Most important, the films made a great deal of money. Doors opened.

Big business, even Hollywood big business, is not happy if it is not getting a piece of the pie, and so things began to change in the indie world. As the nineties approached, many of the boomtown companies had gone bust. They had grown, and the businessmen and their accountants took the reins and pushed these indie companies to go public, changing their structure, making them more dependent on films that made big profits—studio films and exploitation films as well. If the films failed, the company could easily go bankrupt.

The United States Film Festival began as the Woodstock for indie cinema. Filmmakers gathered there in the late eighties to exchange ideas and recommend nonunion personnel to work on films, while union cameramen, editors, and other professionals took their vacation time to go to this festival to see some of the mothers of invention on-screen. New movies were born out of informal conversations on the streets. Then something happened that, for better or worse, changed the indie movement forever: the festival moved to Park City, Utah, and Robert Redford's Sundance Industry wanted to push its brand name further in the mainstream marketplace, so it bought the United States Film Festival. This changed the dynamic of the festival, which had become the center of the American indie world. Many Hollywood people owned condos in Park City, so that during its first year, people from Arnold Schwarzenegger to studio heads to other Hollywood businessmen started to invade the streets of the indie world. The machine had started to find its way into the mainstream.

Hollywood agents descended on the festival to sign up new talent. Some indie directors started to aspire to break into Hollywood, and a low-budget film accepted to be screened at Sundance would help them get to the next level in the studio food chain. Christopher Guest best tells this story in his film The Big Picture (1989): a story about a young idealistic film director who wins a short film contest and is swallowed up by Hollywood and spit back out. Not all filmmakers were being seduced by the headlines from the festival, which rapidly turned into a commercial marketplace, where money and distribution deals became more important than who received honors for filmmaking. In many instances, success at Sundance became the invitation to Hollywood dreams. Sex Lies and Videotape (1989) put Steven Soderberg on the fast track to studioland. More and more followed in Soderberg's footsteps. The eighties came to an end.

Indie film still faced many of the same challenges. Union employees still could not work for independent productions. A number of nonunion techies moved like migrant workers from indie film to indie film. The blowups were looking better. Slowly the ancillary markets were letting pictures through the crack in the door. Still the video and cable dollars (p. 582) for those films were dismal compared to their potential. And the unique style each film had in the eighties started to conform to what was quickly becoming a genre, the indie film.

By 1990 one only specialty studio division remained, Orion Classics. But in 1991, its parent company went bankrupt, and the door was finally closed on the entrepreneurs of the eighties. Most of their personnel had started to be absorbed by the studios or found other lines of work.

Events were put in motion for changes indie world. Only a few indie companies survived the attack of the studios—Samuel Goldwin Co., New Yorker Films, Miramax—but these were on the ropes. Sony, under Peter Guber, decided to resurrect a studio specialty division, and the people from Orion Classics came over. The first film they released was Howard's End (1992), produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory. The film did $25 million at the box office (a big number at the time), and the studio machines smelled the money. The next year Disney bought what was left of Miramax, and Universal put together a joint venture with Polygram Records to form Gramercy Pictures. The game was on again for the indies.

Around this time there occurred one of the most significant events to affect the indie movement. The studios were withholding productions in New York City to try to break the union's request for pay increases. Many of the rank and file were desperate for paychecks, and the craft unions cut a deal with the indies to keep their members, even if it meant working for less pay. The East Coast Contract” reduced wages for movies. This changed the indie world for good. Now almost anyone who had the cash could make a movie with studio production values created by studio technologies.

Big-name actors felt more confident taking a chance on indie films now that they were assured of quality production values. Studio money and private investors became more available. Equipment rental was easier with people from the system running the films. Bond companies became involved. The indie world became “the off-beat studio film.” Now a studio or television director could try to revive a career without the obstacles that were part of the eighties independent scene.

Agents started to move talent who needed a career boost into indie films for cheap rates. This in turn got the attention of the Academy chiefs. With name stars, indie films moved even farther into the main stream. Recognizable names in the films created bigger value in the ancillary markets. Cable and video could generate more revenue. The Oscars started to recognize a number of indie films every year. Howard's End won best actress for Emma Thompson, best art direction, and best writing. Sundance became the unofficial marketplace to sell indie films for piles of cash and then integrate the directors into the studio system.

The nineties became the studio specialty division decade. Most of the indie companies had been squeezed out of the marketplace. Cable networks like Bravo sprang up devoted to specialty products. HBO included indie films in its deals with studios and its specialty divisions: Fox Searchlight, Warner Independent Pictures, Lion's Gate, and Paramount Classics joined Sony Pictures Classics as “independent” branches of big studios. As mentioned, Bob and Harvey Weinstein sold Miramax to Disney and have formed their own production company. The steady move from film to high-definition video has made production easier and cheaper without sacrificing visual quality. Filmmaking itself is in the process of moving into and out from the online world, where film companies are now scouting for new talent. The indie world may be captured by the studio machine, but the spirit of independent filmmaking remains.