WHAT EXACTLY IS AN INDEPENDENT FILM?
Defining the phrase independent film is a little bit like trying to
define the word "art". It can be different for each person. The line between big
studio films and small art-house type films has become blurred in recent decades
due to the infiltration of the "big six" Hollywood film studios at film
The technical definition of the phrase independent film is: any movie
that was funded with less than 50% of money that came from one of the "big six"
major film studios, which are Columbia Pictures (MGM and UA), 20th Century Fox,
Walt Disney Pictures/Touchstone Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount
Pictures and Universal Studios.
The not so technical and somewhat more difficult to apply definition of the
phrase independent film is: any character-driven film that is made
outside the traditional Hollywood film system with a very small budget and keeps
the artist/filmmaker's original vision intact without corporate corruption, with
an emphasis on character development and a strong, original and/or controversial
The heart of the independent film industry has always been in the film
festival circuit, but it really began to take hold of it in the late 1970s. The
Sundance Film Festival was created in 1978 to showcase unknown talent and bring
more film production business to the State of Utah. Sundance was a
humble little event in the beginning. It was all about showcasing independent
films and independent filmmakers.
But the film festival circuit has changed a lot since 1978. Hollywood stars
are now showing up in the films that play at festivals like Telluride,
Seattle, Toronto, Santa Barbara and Sundance in an effort to experience a piece of the
hard-core acting side of the film industry, which is something they rarely get
to experience in big-budget studio films.
The big studios have followed the movie star's path and now the film festival
circuit is full of movies that are cast with big names pretending that nobody
knows they are famous, and funded (50%) by splinter divisions of all the major
film studios (Sony Pictures Classic, Fox Searchlight, Miramax Films, Warner
Independent, Paramount Classics, Focus Features, etc...). Are these types of
films actually "independent films"? The answer to that question is very much
open to interpretation by the individual.
Some small independent films achieve nothing more than critical
acclaim at film festivals while others achieve that, as well as financial
success. This can happen if a "buzz" is created about a small film. Independent
film distribution companies can offer a decent deal for independent films
that do well at film
festivals. They need to supply movies to hundreds of countries and thousands
of cable and satellite TV channels all over the world. The film festival
circuit provides them with a lot of good, yet cheap films to purchase.
But every once in a while a small independent film gets so much media attention
at a film festival that it is purchased by a major film studio and
screened in major theaters all over the country. Case in point; The Blair Witch
Project. The first official public screening was on January 23rd, 1999 at the
Sundance Film Festival. Writer-directors Daniel
Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez made this film for $25,000. By the end of the
festival they sold their movie for 1.1 million dollars to Artisan Entertainment,
who then went on to make $248 million dollars with this little movie!
When a small film hits the Big Time it is no longer considered to be an independent
film. This is because of the not more than 50% major studio funding
stipulation that exists in the definition of the phrase independent film. Even though the small film was produced on
a shoestring budget, the marketing budget that the major studio implemented when
they purchased the film put it way over the 50% funding category.
While the term independent film may be defined only in the eye of the
beholder there is one certain characteristic that all true independent
filmmakers possess that the large studios will never have, and that is the
willingness to take risks when they tell their stories.
The "big six" film studios are large corporations, and corporations of that
size do not allow risk-taking in their business practices. They will only invest
in actors and stories that have already been proven to make a lot of money. This
may lead to to financial success, but it will also lead to creative stagnation.
It is this very reason that will always prevent them from completely controlling
the film festival circuit and the independent film industry.
Independent films are ultimately about original and creative story-telling by
independent filmmakers who are not afraid to try new techniques or put their creative and financial
necks on the line.