What is Independent Filmmaking?

By Vincent LoBrutto

In filmmaking circles there have been many classic arguments. Defining avant-garde, experimental films has gotten a lot of mileage as has the endless tirades over what is cinema verite. Recent forays concern Italian neo-realism, some raving it never existed as a legitimate movement, claiming The Bicycle Thief and Open City are just dramatic films, not a new form. Others deny such a thing as neo-noir, sticking to the original critical definition as a black-and-white film made during the post-war era that concerns impending doom, a femme fatale etc.

While others codify, analyze and pass imperial judgement on what is to be what, filmmakers go out and make movies. Often, it is the academic and theoreticians benefit to narrow or sub-divide a film movement in order to make a name for themselves in the Academy, carve a niche or satisfy the pressure of the "publish or perish" conditions in which they serve. 

Filmmakers love to write manifestos like Dogma 95 to rebel against the last manifesto someone made to separate themselves from the previous factions. Then, there is the relentless debate that began when America en masse first heard the term Independent Film. It was 1989 and Steven Soderbergh just turned the film industry upside down with sex, lies and videotape. The independent film was born! - HA!

Of course independent filmmaking had been around since the dawn of filmmaking. Actually, before the major studios were created all filmmaking was independent. During and after the system dominated the Seventh Art, brave souls with passion, nerve and a head full of dreams made movies. Their films just weren't particularly accessible to or accepted by the public.

Indies are in, they have been for a time now. To the general publics who read Entertainment Weekly, watch Entertainment Tonight and go to their local multiplex and Blockbuster Video module, just about every film is independent. Indie is good! (Just like most everything these days is cool). Independent films have become a genre not a manner or philosophy of producing a film.

Five years ago I was asked by Greenwood publishers to write a sourcebook on independent filmmaking, an encyclopedia of indie film A to Z. Here are some notes on the odyssey as I am about to hand in my manuscript.

The first challenge was formulating a working definition of independent filmmaking, a paradigm to guide selection of entries and the parameters of the book's scope. The ideologues insist an independent film must be created totally outside the studio and corporate machine. Under these restrictions many filmmakers are eliminated because a major or a distributor whose parent company is a major distributes their films. Some say the budget must be low, the subject should be cutting edge or that the technique and production values must be in direct opposition to the big budget star-driven commercial films they disdain. Many critics and historians dismiss projects of independent spirit, content and approach if money and the establishment is behind them, Many filmmakers start indie then go studio using independent filmmaking as a means to an end. The purest indies are iconoclasts like John Cassavetes and John Sayles but few have been so pure. Actually, purity isn't the issue. Independent filmmakers work on the "By Any Means Necessary" principle to get films made with their vision intact. Often the process attracts strange bedfellows. The sex, lies and videotape phenomena created a false impression to the public who were starved for honest films about people and were tired of blockbusters jammed with car chases and explosions. Now they wanted it real and unadorned with artistic excess.

Within a few years the new independent film movement became codified by the audience, the marketplace and even the filmmakers themselves. The public wanted independent films and didn't know or care much how they got to their screens. Independent films became the status quo more than a reaction against the conventions imposed by decades of studio and corporate conformity.

Before the major studios formed the entire medium wasn't accessible to everyone, but companies like Biograph, Triangle and others made films. Moviemakers experimented with narrative and technique creating a cinematic language. The studio's systemized movie production. Independent filmmaking during the 1940s and 1950s came right from the studios. B-Movies were designed as a companion to the main feature. They were given small budgets and minimal scrutiny. The directors were able to deal with more daring subject material and were able to experiment with cinematic storytelling. Many B-Movies were independent in spirit but were made under the auspices of the system. In the sixties experimental film exploded. Film artists made non-narrative short and very long films. Direct cinema explored non-fiction reality with lightweight, portable equipment that liberated them from narration and the old cumbersome restrictive tools. The Movie Brat Generation later named The American New Wave grabbed 8mm and 16mm cameras. In the 1970s Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, Raphealson and an army of "young turks" took over Hollywood. They started indie and by the end of the decade excess had taken its toll. The 1980s was the decade of the indie. A new generation reacted to the excesses of the past and put their money, commitment and faith into the art and craft of cinema. The industry runs on money. If indie make money - make indies.

So my search was for the filmmakers with integrity that had an invisible gun to their heads to communicate cinematically. My standard was to expand the reader's conception of independent filmmaking. Just some of what I found includes the notion that independent film comes in many forms, industrials, classroom films, Blaxploitation, punk, no-wave and my favorite the Cinema of Transgression.

The cinema began independent. The money machine will always try to systemize, market, manufacture and fabricate. Now in the twenty-first century the tools are in the hands of the masses - electronic cinema and digital technology delivered that. Venues are changing. The public and the industry will always move on to the next big thing, If what they say about life extension in this new millennium is true there will be plenty for me to say about independent film when I write the 3001 edition.