The term “independent film” has evolved since the early days of its inception in the 1980s American film scene. The shift from the 1970s American New Wave auteur dominance, including the works of film-school-educated directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, and others to the modern day blockbuster-mindset engineered by the success of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) left the American film industry at a crossroads by the early 1980s. While the vast majority audiences continued to support mainstream blockbusters, the absence of European New Wave-influenced American films in the vein of the movie brat generation left a hole in the industry that would soon be filled by another source: Homegrown American films made largely outside or entirely separate from major Hollywood studios.
The 1980s are considered the maturation and golden age of modern American independent filmmaking. Smaller studio pictures and chump-budget independent (“indie”) flicks filled the empty niche that American New Wave movies like Taxi Driver (1976), Easy Rider (1969), and The Godfather (1972) left behind once the major Hollywood studios abandoned their support of the movie brat auteurs for more readily commercially successful and more easily controllable blockbuster projects.
Since the 1980s through today, however, the moniker “independent” or “indie” film is and always has been largely a subjective, and in many cases, superfluous term. Independent films, whatever that name in fact means, still operate according to the primary laws of commerce and art that govern all motion pictures: There must be resources available to produce them, and their must be an audience willing to pay to see them. As such, many indie films are in fact far more expensive than their initial, “official” budgets may suggest. Countless small budget films have seen their costs ballooned by orders of magnitude due to things like advertising and music licensing. A good example of this is Robert Rodriguez’s feature-film debut, El Mariachi (1992) originally produced for only $7,000 but later distributed and marketed for well over $1 million (still a chump budget even by the early 1990s standards, but you get my point).
Furthermore, in the wake of the cult, sleeper success of many early non-blockbuster, non-Hollywood American films of the 1980’s, many major studios recognized the marketability of smaller, more “artistic” films and soon extended their tentacles to enclose what had previously been considered averse reactions to the Tinseltown movie machine. More or less all major movie studios today have “independent” studio branches that oversee and fund smaller feature projects that are marketed toward the arthouse crowd, those who follow professional film criticism, and in general the more snobbish of the movie-going public. Divisions like Sony Pictures Classics and “major-minor” movie studios such as Miramax and New Line Cinema that produce mammoth projects like The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) continually blur the line between what is considered “independent” and what is considered mainstream Hollywood.
Further blurring the lines between mainstream and niche, arthouse cinema are films like Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), A Beautiful Mind (2001), and Little Miss Sunshine (2006) that seem to combine the classic (now cliched) indie formula of dysfunctional families, quirky characters, and pretentious moral themes with an almost sanitized, Hollywoodified sheen and schmaltz that morph them into psuedo-mainstream blockbusters. Many will no doubt argue that films like these are plenty distinct from the likes of an Avengers (2012) or a Fast and Furious 6 (2012) or the plethora of other high-concept action movies that remain Hollywood’s marquee moneymakers, and they will have a point, but my own point is that the independent American film has come a long way from the likes of David Lynch’s infinitely dark, seedy, disturbing Blue Velvet (1986) to something akin to American Beauty.
The modern American independent film has become much more clean, family friendly, lucrative, and by extension, awards-friendly than it used to be. I don’t know if I would call this “selling-out” per se, but the style has become much more mainstream than vintage David Lynch or Steven Soderbourgh, and rarely for the better; additionally, the indie-label’s consistent refusal to accept smaller action or science-fiction films (non-dramas) into the arsty-fartsy fold is aggravating and snobbish. This is what cynics like me mean when we constantly refer to movies as “Oscar-bait.”
Moreover American indie films have developed such a long list of tiresome cliches of their own that the American independent film formula differs from the Hollywood blockbuster formula only such that they have replaced bombastic action-dumbness with boring familial drama-pretentiousness. They’ve substituted one set of tiresome, cheesy cliches for another. If you think about the philosophy or idea behind independent film productions primarily as a reaction to mainstream cinema, than theoretically (or ideally) non-major studio films shouldn’t resort to any narrative formula at all, though most of them clearly do. Unnecessarily weird or quirky characters, dysfunctional families, and heavy-handed moral themes oozing in politically correct, supposedly anti-establishment snarkiness that desperately try to argue that the movie you’re watching is a lot deeper and more genuine than it really is have become the bread and butter of American independent cinema.
What irks me most about the indie label and most cinephile’s glowing reactions to it is their inflated sense of pride and snobbish attitude. People need to realize is that these “unique,” quaint indie-style films are often every bit as cliched and safe as most of the big budget mainstream productions they’re supposedly trying to rebel against.
Independent filmmaking used to be this edgy, gritty format. Back in the 1980s stuff like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the Coen Bros’ Blood Simple (1984), and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) were the image of the non-major studio movie, and it’s since devolved into overrated, sanitized “mainstream-sidestream” bores like American Beauty, Nebraska (2013), Juno (2007), and the like. Hindi-Indies like The Lunchbox (2013) are simply the South Asian equivalent of that.
In other words, I don’t think films like The Lunchbox, Nebraska, Philomena (2013) or Boyhood (2014) are breathes of fresh air at all but rather a different type of stale, overused air. Films like these are the cinematic equivalent of hipsters —- they try so hard to rebel against a perceived inferior norm with a distinct air of undeserved, unearned superiority, and have essentially become part of the mainstream at this point. Sure, they’re not playing at every wide-release theatre, but they’re playing at every single art and indepedent theatre at the expense of equally or greater talented independent genre (i.e. non-drama) films and generally sweep awards circuits every year.
I cannot stress enough how tiresome and bland I find these “indie dramas,” movies that are ostensible reactions to the loud, dumbass, FX-driven tentpole blockbusters that dominate most cineplexes. To me, they’re even more boring and far less cinematic than a Transformers (2007-2017) or a Fast and Furious (2000-present) or the average superhero movie, all popular blockbuster trends I dislike.
Why am I so annoyed at this trend? Well for one, I don’t think these newer brands of supposed indie-flicks are as good as the older ones (at least not the popular ones that get all the critical attention and awards nowadays) nor are they serving the reactionary purpose of independent filmmaking, and two, these films perpetuate their pretentious, snobbish attitudes to the cinephile crowds around them. I find it insufferable that, as a movie-lover myself, I must constantly be lumped in with the same group of coddled, over-educated trust-fund kids and art-school graduates whose idea of a captivating movie is listening to a disheveled, annoying teenager whine for three hours.
In the end, I think it’s the snobbery I can’t stand the most. I don’t like ignorance, apathy, or laziness with regards to popular cinema, either, but for my part, I don’t see the modern independent film culture as a desirable alternative. I just see it as another batch of mediocre to bad movies —- they’re just bad in a different way, and generally way more boring.
A FINAL CLARIFICATION: How I distinguish between “major studio Hollywood productions” versus “independent American cinema” (see those categories listed under English Language Film Industries on the upper right portion of your screen) is, as can be inferred from the above essay, more based on a sliding scale of definitions than a purely binary separation of big-budget, mainstream Hollywood blockbusters and smaller budgeted, independently financed dramas. Plenty of larger budgeted genre pictures, such as the 2022 box office bomb, Moonfall (budget = ~$140 million), have been produced outside the current (April 2022) “Big Five” major studios of Universal, Paramount, Sony, Warner Bros., and Walt Disney Pictures, all of which are subsidiaries of larger American or multinational parent corporations. By the same token, major Hollywood studios often finance smaller, more modest dramas in anticipation of yearly awards ceremonies.
Further complicating this picture are the existence of “mini-major” studios, Hollywood-based competitors (e.g. Lionsgate, Eros STX, Amblin Partners, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, etc. the latter of which was a former major studio) with a fraction of the domestic market share of the Big Five, as well as multibillion-dollar production companies like Legendary Entertainment, which produce many tentpole blockbusters (e.g. the recent MonsterVerse [2014–2021] franchise) but aren’t involved in distribution. In general, if a picture is primarily financed by any of the aforementioned major or mini-major studios, I classify them as “Hollywood films,” with everything else made in the USA classified as “independent.”