A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle has got me thinking about independent film and whether I should go to film school. In “Independent Film Festival: Rebels in reel time,” Jeff Ross, the founder of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, discusses what it means to be independent in 2008.
Ross likens independent film to pornography, saying that you know it when you see it. But when he tries to pin down a definition it doesn’t get much clearer. He says, “There’s an aesthetic to indie films. It used to mean films like Clerks and Slackers, Jim Jarmusch, things like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean outside or inside the studio system.”
In other words, the term “independent” no longer has anything to do with whether or not a film was produced independently of a major studio. So what has happened to independent filmmaking?
Over the past 20 years, it became easier for smaller films with smaller budgets to get noticed. Look at El Mariachi, the 1992 film shot for $7,000 that won the Audience Award at Sundance and gave Robert Rodriguez his start. For a brief moment in history, any film school graduate with a camera and decent editing skills could shoot the next big little film, hoping to make a splash at Sundance, SXSW or their local film festival.
This all changed when the average moviegoer started seeing independent films. Hollywood saw a market for films aimed at an adult audience and wanted to cash in. And so, gave birth to the “independent studio” (an oxymoron if ever there was one).
Enter a slew of “independent” films backed by major studios like Sony, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. With co-financing of films, it has become difficult to distinguish a small budget studio film from a truly independent one.
Even though major studios have co-opted the term “independent,” things are not necessarily bleak. Recent successes like No Country for Old Men (Miramax and Paramount Vantage) and Juno (Fox Searchlight) have proven that a market still exists for smaller, character-driven films.
Is it still possible for a student from an online film school or digital film school to get recognized on the film festival circuit? Sure. But it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the shifting expectations of independent film. Creativity and solid production values are still essential, but the target audience is widening.
“I think indie means thinking man’s entertainment,” says Ross. “Fun movies that aren’t spoon-fed but don’t feel like work. My shorthand is art films with car chases.”