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David Poland

By David Poland

What Is Indie?

This came up in another post…

Disney’s new Miramax allegedly will have a $300 million budget. Focus, Searchlight and WIP are around and/or over the $150 million a year that Miramax was given – a lot of loose cash back then – when they went to Disney.

Eternal Sunshine, Huckabees and A Very long Engagement were all budgeted at over $20 million this year.

What is indie?

39 Responses to “What Is Indie?”

  1. Joe Leydon says:

    Does “indie” refer to size of budget, or state of mind? Robert Altman works in and out of the system, John Cassavetes acted to pay for his own films, Stanley Kubrick had backing from Warners, Hal Hartley and Henry Jaglom rely on outside investors… But wouldn’t you agree all these guys are/were independent filmmakers?

  2. Don says:

    It’s a state of mind maaaaaan.
    An “excuse” for a studio to try and stay chic with a “non mainstream” type of film. That way the money guys can say they have “a number of indie films on the slate.”

  3. Barry says:

    An independent filmmakers is really that guy that still has to hustle a bit to rustle up some cash to just barely get the film made. Anyone getting a $20 million budget is beyond “independent” and is firmly working within the industry. Which is not always a bad thing, but it must be recognized!

  4. Clay says:

    It’s not a matter of studio vs. indie… it’s all about the type of film and who’s making it. Wes Anderson’s films are “independent” despite rather high budgets because you know they aren’t compromised.

  5. KamikazeCamel says:

    I never use the term “Indie” because it is such an undefinable term. “A Very Long Engagement” cost something north of $50mil did it not? NOT INDIE. Plus, it certainly doesn’t feel like an indie! But then while “I Heart Huckabees” COST $20 mil or more, it feels like an indie. It feels like the kind of movie that nobody would want to make (studio types).
    It’s a fickle term. To a lesser extent so is the term “Arthouse” because some films that screen in arthouses are not actually arthouse movies such as the before mentioned “A Very Long Engagement” and so forth.
    But, we also need to remember that when the whole “indie”/”arthouse” revolution thing came around these studios couldn’t put $20mil budgets but now they can and do in a means to reach a greater audience.
    …i dunno.

  6. L&DB says:

    I will tell what should be considered indie. The
    new I Heart Huckabees DVDs. Selling a regular DVD
    along side a SPECIAL EDITION DVD that cost nearly
    30 bucks and did not go on sale anywhere? That’s
    some INDIE BULL**** right there.
    Sideways fans; youre next.

  7. bicycle bob says:

    face facts. miramax is a studio now. they can come off as indie or support indies but they’re a studio

  8. Terence D says:

    Huckabee’s may have been the worst movie of 2004. What a waste of talent on that film. It is unwatchable.

  9. Ray Pride says:

    “Indie” is attitude: all else is a journalistic epithet as useful as when a movie is described as a “cult hit.” (“Cult hit”=”won’t ever see a dime.”)

  10. NathanielR says:

    ‘Huckabees’ unwatchable? Really? How did I sit through it three times, then, and laugh heartily at each go round?
    I agree that the term “indie” is useless. And, strangely, it’s the independent film community that helped make it useless -like the ISA awards which routinely dropped awards on studio stuff masquerading as indie and threw token nominations here and there to really independent work.

  11. Lota says:

    Indie may be transitory, a training program for Independent thinking directors who aren’t inside the studio system (yet).
    Someone who independently gets enough cash (themselves or from a bunch of people) to make a movie and pay actors Indie SAG rate, they get it to a festival where it’s seen and bought, then it was indie-made. If the same director gets 20 million from a studio and gets final cut, well it might be independently thought out, but s/he still has to answer to a studio/investors since they paid for it, so I don’t see that as Indie even though the director might have alot of freedom and it didn’t cost alot.
    Wasn’t the first Billy Jack Indie in reverse? Wasn’t it studio co-financed (was it Warners or Universal?) then became Indie becasue the rights were bought back by Tom Laughlin after which he independently 4-walled it across america? It was before my time…but I remember a cousin talking about it as a big event in the early 70s because it became such a phenom. Perhaps the biggest Indie hit ever vs. its initial cost.

  12. Chucky in Jersey says:

    Let’s cut the snob crap and call a spade a spade.
    Miramax is owned by Disney (has been since 1994). Focus is owned by Universal. United Artists (the imprint) is owned by MGM.
    Fox Searchlight distributes through 20th Century Fox. Fine Line distributes through New Line. WIP distributes through Warner Bros.
    Sony Pictures Classics shares ownership (but not distribution) with Columbia. Paramount Classics shares ownership (but not distribution) with regular Paramount.
    Thus, any upmarket/arthouse picture from those studios is NOT “indie”!

  13. bicycle bob says:

    indie is now the term used for any movie not with a 100million buck budget

  14. Mike says:

    Yeah, but Chucky, if the filmmakers didn’t have these corporate entities behind them when they took the risk and made the films, and then sold them to these companies, why aren’t they indies? They were independent in putting the film together, rather than taking studio money first. It’s the difference between a Garden State and a Cold Mountain. Who cares who finally puts them out there for the world to see?

  15. bicycle bob says:

    u think cold mountain wasn’t a studio film?

  16. spiderdan says:

    I’ve always thought “independent,” in film terms, meant independent of major studio financing. That the filmmakers and producers put up the dough, took the movie to a festival and sold the distribution rights to a studio. Maybe I was mislead.
    Either way, it seems the word is just a media catch-all for “low-budget movie playing in one theatre in the nearest big city starring actors you may or may not have ever heard of.”
    This discussion reminds me of the phrase “alternative music.” What was it the alternative to? And once Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins were on every station on the dial, was it still the alternative? We needed an alternative to the alternative. I guess “modern rock” wasn’t edgy enough for the focus groups.

  17. Terence D says:

    Using the word “indie” is purely an advertising and marketing tool. And also keeps expectations down for the film itself.

  18. Geoff says:

    I think the whole “indie” term has been watered down. Miramax used to be the studio of Fresh, The Crying Game, Trainspotting, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape – ballsy little films that they used their marketing muscle to get exposure for. But starting with The English Patient – Talented Mr. Ripley, Shakespeare in Love, Chicago, Cold Mountain, there are really just putting out old fashioned mainstream entertainments aimed at a ’40’s sensibility (BIG STARS, BIG EMOTIONS, BIG DRAMA) that the real studios aren’t doing as much, any more.
    That said, every once in a while, they promote a City of God or In the Bedroom and remind me of the Miramax of old. I know that Weinstein gets a lot of guff, but you have to give him credit for getting audiences to see films like City of God. How he passed up on Memento, though, I’ll never understand.

  19. Geoff says:

    And people forget that even though they were already owned by Disney, Miramax had a real good streak going on in the mid’-’90’s, where it seemed like every film that I really dug came from their studio – Pulp Fiction, Swingers, Flirting wtih Disaster, Trainspotting. I have to admit that they used that Disney money well, for a while.

  20. Mark says:

    Lets be fair. It wasn’t hard to buy hard Pulp, Trainspotting, etc. Not like they’re genuis’ for pricing the other companies out of the water. They have as many failures as hits.

  21. Geoff says:

    Oh, and one more thing. Notice how Dave didn’t include Sideways in that group. The film apparently cost over $20 million. I guess he loves it too much to lump it in with the others. But one question I have to ask is
    HOW THE HELL did that film cost that much? It had no stars, there were no sets, and the locations were near LA. Man, it looked like it should have been cheaper than Garden State and it actually cost almost as much as Ray, which looked like a big budget film?!. Only Alexander Payne could take $20 million and make a film that looks like it cost $4 mill. I guess he’s the reverse of Spike Lee.
    I know, I know, Payne is my whipping boy. But the guy just bugs me when he claims to be reclaiming the ’70’s drama for us. Sorry, Alex, but guys like Chris Nolan (see Insomnia) amd Todd Field (see In the Bedroom) beat ya to it.
    If you’re gonna talk the big talk, have the skills to back it up. You would have never seen Cassavettes just abandon his best character (Maya) and stick some dick jokes in the third act of any of HIS films. Him and his writer, Jim Taylor, are just the Farrelly Brothers with critical cred. Rant over.

  22. Mark says:

    Jeff, you obviously don’t know the economics of the movie business. There is a reason Sideways looked like it wasn’t costing a lot. Because a lot went into the production that made you think it was a simple story with a simple setting. Give credit to the director, producers, designers and the set people for making the minimal look look so good.

  23. Geoff says:

    I don’t pretend to be an expert on the economics of the movie business. I am not going to give credit to Payne and his crew for not being able to do what less lucky filmmakers have been doing for years – making the most of their money to tell a simple story. $20 million could have been easily spent on four or five films, with similar scale, from a variety of up-and-coming filmmakers. Sideways is as much a reflection of the budget problem with Hollywood as Van Helsing, which probably looked like complete crap for the over $150 million they spent on it. Wasting money is wasting money. When a simple drama costs that much, studio’s will continue to see a safer investment in films like Constantine. That’s the sad part.

  24. jeffrey boam's doctor says:

    at least he knows G comes before J in the alphabet. And he’s bloody right about Payne too.
    this indie argument is as old as the grey hair is long on Chris Gore’s balls. Move on.

  25. Martin says:

    It’s pretty simple stuff, Indie – not financed by a corporate entity. The term indie has nothing to do with quality, attitude, or the like.

  26. David Poland says:

    One thing that amuses me is the notion that “compromise” is a determining factor in this discussion.
    Of course, most makers of small films have to compromise greatly. If Alexander Payne had not gotten the kind of box office on” “About Schmidt” that he (and Jack) did, we might well have seen “Sideways” starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
    Meanwhile, George Lucas is the most “indie” filmmaker there is. He pays for his movies himself and compromises for no one.
    And of course, Graham King has been calling “The Aviator” an independent film from the start.
    Then there are films like “Napoleon Dynamite,” which was made completely independently of Searchlight, but was released by the Dependent. Meanwhile, a movie like “Shaolin Soccer” is made independent of a studio, but is completely compromised by Miramax in its release.
    Is “Ray” indie or not? Born Into Brothels, paid for by HBO? The company that released “Tarnation” was just bought by The Genius Company so they could build their library.
    I don’t really think there is an answer here… but I do think it’s an interesting discussion.

  27. Martin says:

    Indies are films financed outside of typical hollywood financiers, and are not backed by large corporations. If an indie is bought by a large corporation and changed, or say millions are spent to improve its look, its sound, etc. it is no longer an indie film. If you want to get right down to it, a real indie doesn’t have a real straight path to distribution, certainly not in theaters. Many indies have to pay to get a small number of showings. For the most part, true indies are now relegated to video and tv lives. Most of the best indies right now are documentaries.

  28. Jon S says:

    Chantal Akerman has said that the only real independent filmmakers are the ones who own their own prints and negs and with whom you have to deal personally if you want to show their work. By that (admittedly extreme) definition, only Russ Meyer, Chantal, and a very few others are true independent filmmakers.

  29. Joe Leydon says:

    >>For the most part, true indies are now relegated to video and tv lives.<<
    But Martin: If a movie is picked up by a DVD distributor or a TV outlet, cable or broadcast, how is that different from being picked up by a theatrical distributor?
    And as for docs: If you’re funded by PBS, or even ITVS, does that make you less independent?
    I don’t claim to have the answer for any of this. I’m merely suggesting that indie, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If, as many people in this blog have claimed, Martin Scorsese had to recut “Gangs of New York” to please Miramax — does that make him less of an independent than Clint Eastwood, who gets final cut on all his movies?

  30. bicycle bob says:

    if ur gonna be in business with martin s, u can’t go chopping up his movie. ur getting what u paid for. prestige. where does miramax get off?

  31. Ray Pride says:

    To Jon’s shortlist of filmmakers fitting Akerman’s def: Jim Jarmusch.

  32. Mark says:

    Too bad Jarmusch can’t tell a story.

  33. KamikazeCamel says:

    Sigh. More Miramax bashing.
    Forget the fact they did indeed produce/release many great great GREAT movies and let’s all focus on the fact that they also, as of the last 7 or so years, decided to produce their own movies with the intent of making money.
    That’s a shocker for ANY studio. How dare Miramax want to make money. It’s as if they ought to keep slugging it out in the dugout for all eternity and never see a dime from movies.

  34. Randall says:

    Miramax was always about making money. You can buy the hogwash about making good movies but they’re all about money.

  35. Joe Leydon says:

    At what point did wanting to make money become a bad thing? Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard directed TV commercials, Robert De Niro pimps for American Express, and Alex Haley helped finance his writing of “Roots” by scripting “Super Fly T.N.T.” When RKO signed Orson Welles, the powers that be didn’t say, “OK, now we’ve got someone who will forever change filmmaking by making the greatest movie ever made.” They said, “OK, we got that guy who raised such a ruckus with the ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast, let’s see if he can make some big bucks for us.” So Harvey and Bob W. want to make money? Well, so what? Companies that don’t make money don’t stay in business, and companies that don’t stay in business don’t release movies. Frankly, I’ve never quite understood the reasoning of people who complain about the money made by movie stars, rock stars, superstar athletes, studio executives, etc. I mean, it’s not like the money is coming out of YOUR pocket, is it? And trust me on this: If Miramax didn’t spend, say, $100 million on “Cold Mountain” (or whatever the hell that movie cost), that wouldn’t mean they’d make 100 $1 million movies, or even 200 $500,000 movies, instead. No, they’ll likely make another $100 million movie. Or two $50 million movies. And maybe they’d make enough of a profit to keep releasing smaller movies as diverse as “Undisputed,” “I’m Not Scared,” “Hero,” “The Last Kiss,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” etc.

  36. KamikazeCamel says:

    “Miramax was always about making money. You can buy the hogwash about making good movies but they’re all about money.”
    Well if that’s the case then EVERY SINGLE STUDIO IN THE WORLD should claimthe same thing. As Joe Leydon said, if you’re not making money you’re not in business. And I’d quite frankly LOVE to sit through a Cold Mountain (which I didn’t mind, actually) or a Talented Mr. Ripley (which I thought was great! when did this “big budget miramax” become a horrible movie?) to be able to see “City Of God” “The Hours” “Strictly Ballroom” “Muriel’s Wedding” “sex lies and videotape” and so on.

  37. Martin says:

    no one is saying capitalism is a bad thing, but when art is (in some cases) made lesser in the name of the $, of course there will be outrage, justifiably so. Which, again, does not mean capitalism is bad, it just aint as great as art.

  38. Mark says:

    Miramax has twice as many failures as hits. Be they do a good job of keeping that talk down. It hasn’t been a good business model the past 5 years for them. But they are all about money and making money. The big lie is that they are about indies or art or helping filmmakers. Its hypocritical. They are a studio. For better or worse. And studios have a responsibility to make money.

  39. Win says:

    Cinema culture pervades almost every area of life today. And with the greater demand and popularity of cinema, comes greater profits. In the light of outsider cinema however, I contend that such filmmakers’ inner inspirations are unscathed by the quest for power.
    Within the context of this definition, I will need to define what is meant by inner inspiration. Inner inspiration comes from a person’s cumulative history along with their personal relationship with the transcendent. Therefore, inner inspiration will be different for everyone and moreover, because it entails one’s personal relationship with the transcendence, is very difficult to ascertain.
    Power is another term that will need further discussion. By “quest for power” I am specifically referring to one’s goals in producing a film. The goals of creating a film are dependent on the filmmaker’s values at that time and I would argue that if greed, hatred, or delusion are present in the filmmaker, the film cannot be considered independent. Taken a step further, capitalism and consumerism are driven by these manifestations, so for a filmmaker to be unscathed by power, they must be void of capitalistic and consumerist concerns.
    Within this definition of outsider cinema, there will always be space for independent filmmakers to explore. However, even with a working definition of outsider cinema, it can still be very difficult, as a viewer, to decide if a film is in fact outsider. To be sure, this can only be obtained with a thorough and most probably personal understanding of the filmmaker because ultimately both inner inspiration and values are a personal affair.
    However, I contend that with minimal due diligence, one can determine with some certainty if a film should be considered outsider or not. Here, I have specified film and not filmmaker on purpose. A person’s worldview or value system is liable to change over time, as the cumulative tradition shapes an individual’s personal relationship with the transcendence and vice versa. Therefore, looking at a series of films to determine if a certain filmmaker expresses a constant inner inspiration or value system is not of concern. Instead, we must look at each film independently and try to understand what the filmmaker was experiencing at that point in time. Specifically, it is of utmost importance that the film was not influenced by monetary concerns. Therefore, any constraints made by financiers will render a film non-outsider.
    This is an important distinction because the presence of greed, hatred and delusion breed more of the same. Therefore, once these values have entered a film, the filmmaker is only adding fuel to capitalism and consumerism.

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin