Indie Goes Mainstream

02.05.2016 |

The “indie” film is older than you think. In 1919, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks founded United Artists in an effort to escape the “studio system” that was, for some, already stifling creativity in a brand new industry. The history of independent film is as interesting and complex as the studio-centric history we’ve been focusing on. But since we don’t have time for a full-fledged lecture series, we’re going to dive into an important era of independent film: the 1990s.

The Sundance Institute was created in 1978 with many goals, including the development of cinema as an advanced art form and the cultivation of emerging talent in the filmmaking community. For many years, successful independent films were outliers and often focused on niche audiences. Horror films were especially popular among the “indie” crowd, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Filmmakers could mount independent productions with small budgets, small crews, and with total creative control.

The annual Sundance Festival served as the platform from which many of today’s best known actors, directors, and producers made their first big splash. Joel and Ethan Coen made their debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, while others like Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino arrived years later.

Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival

By the 1990s, independent films had greatly contributed to or rejuvenated the careers of many actors. Audiences enjoyed the unique stories that offered a more subtle experience than the loud, big-budget blockbusters the studios provided. New production companies and studios were founded to meet the production demand. Miramax, New Line Cinema, and Castle Rock Entertainment were among those new studios.

Word eventually got around, and the big studios wanted to wet their beaks. Many acquired smaller studios to develop “arthouse” departments of the larger conglomerate. This is why you might see a film produced by Fox Searchlight, Paramount Vantage, or Focus Features.

By the new millennium, Hollywood was pumping out thousands of movies each year in three categories: blockbusters from the big studios, indies from the conglomerate-held independent studios, and microbudget films contracted by very small production companies.

Now let’s briefly discuss distribution. When 20th Century Fox makes a big budget movie, they oversee the actual production of the film. They also controls the sales, marketing, and distribution efforts to ensure the movie is seen at the right cinema by the right people at the right time. Distribution also involves marketing the movie for home purchase (Blu Ray or DVD) and on-demand digital platforms (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). When Fox Searchlight produces a film, there may be less red tape in terms of production, but the corporation will still handle distribution.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Meanwhile, a tiny production company makes a microbudget (very low budget) film on their own dime and shops it around to film festivals, producers, or the big studio like 20th Century Fox. This is true indie filmmaking, where acquiring a film’s rights is akin to venture capitalism and angel investing. When an independent film receives buzz at a film festival, several studios may engage in a bidding war over the film’s rights. At Sundance 2016, Fox Searchlight purchased a small independent movie called The Birth of a Nation (not to be confused with the 1915 film) about a US slave uprising in the 1830s. The purchase price? A cool $17.5 million, the biggest Sundance sale to date.


Did You Know?

Independent film helped popularize the documentary as a film genre. Earning nearly $120 million, Michael Moore’s indie doc Fahrenheit 9/11 is the highest-grossing documentary of all time. It also won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in southern France.


Five Films to Watch

Pulp Fiction

El Mariachi

The Blair Witch Project

Sex, Lies, and Videotape



Recommended book

“Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Inven ted Modern Horror” by Jason Zinoman


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