When we launched indieWIRE ten years ago today, July 15, 1996 we immediately began to try to define the term “independent film.” In the very first issue we wrote about the sale of the Angelika Film Center to a local New York movie circuit and we’ve debated the term ‘independent’ internally and on our web pages ever since. Of course, it’s a discussion that predates iW. Back in 1974, as our former indieWIRE senior editor Anthony Kaufman noted on his blog this week, indie film insiders in New York (notably Amos Vogel) were questioning the future of independent cinema, even then in the pages of Film Comment. The often heated dialogue continues.
What Is Indie?
While teaching an annual class at The New School in Manhattan last month, dubbed “The Art and Industry of American Independent Cinema,” I lead a group discussion about the definition of ‘independent film’ and after we went back and forth for awhile, one student wisely wondered why we needed to bother with such a debate. I’d argue that such a discussion is still a valuable one, though, as it forces those of us who have chosen to work in some fashion outside of the dominant Hollywood film industry to question our roots, motives, and goals.
Independent film is a continually evolving cinema in constant tension with the dominant structure from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Perhaps within that conflict is where we often find the most intriguing work. Writers and filmmakers have sounded the death knell of independent film for years and yet new voices continue to emerge before they either fade way, morph into popularly accepted creative filmmakers, or go on to re-imagine ways to challenge audiences. Even though distribution of new work remains the single greatest challenge facing the independent filmmaker, the continual growth of new channels for marketing and releasing movies will revolutionize the often-archaic system used to distribute movies today. If history is a lesson, we’ll probably see more change in the next few years than we have seen in the last ten since indieWIRE was launched.
What’s great about American independent film over the past 30 years or so, at least to me, is that it is either as rich and alive, or as dead and derivative, as we each want it to be. That’s the case now as much as it’s been at any time than in the past ten years of indieWIRE. When I see the first-person, DIY ethos exhibited in “Tarnation,” “Funny Ha Ha,” “Cavite,” “Four Eyed Monsters,” “The Puffy Chair,” and even “Shortbus” I remain, as usual, quite optimistic about the future.
The Evolving Community
The online community that preceded the forming of indieWIRE was an online site (first on AOL, then on the Internet) dubbed iLINE. The idea was born shortly after a group of us met at Sundance in 1994 and began gathering regularly in chat rooms and hosting online Q & A sessions with Kevin Smith, Bryan Singer and other young filmmakers we’d befriended at Sundance in the early 90s. We called iLINE the “indiefilm cybernetwork” for a time and, underserved by the Hollywood trade papers, we felt our growing online group of filmmakers needed a news and information source to bind it together. So, we created a daily newsletter that was emailed to just a few hundred readers each night in the early days (growing to some 4,000 people in the first year). Approximately 2,600 or so daily email editions later, we have more than 30,000 people receiving the free email newsletter that links to the latest news and information available on the indieWIRE.com website.
Speaking personally, probably the greatest inspirations for indieWIRE were Filmmaker Magazine, Daily Variety, and John Pierson‘s 1996 book, “Spike Mike Slackers and Dykes.” I felt that if we could somehow merge those three into a daily source of news and information, we’d be on the right track.
One of the earliest concepts for iLINE was the creation of an online network of filmmakers that could log on from anywhere in the country to meet each other. We imagined thousands connecting via our online hub, but the daily email took priority. It wasn’t until earlier this year that we quietly launched indieLOOP, a new section of the site that offers filmmakers the chance to do exactly what we wanted iLINE to do, and it only took us ten years to get there. As I write this there are 2,500 people who have joined as members of the young online community.
I couldn’t let the moment pass without acknowledging our patron saint, filmmaker (and early iLINE member) Sarah Jacobson, a woman whose work was not seen by a mainstream audience, but whose impact will be felt for a long time. Besides coining the term ‘indiewood’, Sarah advocated passionately for the idea of DIY filmmaking, a mentality that is important to emerging filmmakers now more than ever. “What is DIY, you might ask?,” Sarah wrote in indieWIRE nearly ten years ago, introducing our special section on the topic back in November of 1997, “Well, it’s a term co-opted from the punk rock movement and it stands for Do It Yourself. For as buzzword-y as the label is, it stands for a very important concept in the independent world — the idea that you don’t need a big company or lots of money to validate you.”
“Lately in the mainstream media there has been lots of excitement over ‘indie’ films,” Sarah wrote at the time, “But that excitement has turned into Indiewood with it’s own set of bullshit rules and limits. Not only do those pressures inhibit creativity, it’s not what I want as a filmmaker.” Along the way, as indieWIRE grew (and until her death in 2004), Sarah was an important internal advocate for films, filmmakers, and DIY cinema.
Ten Years and Our Team
To me, ten years seems like such an important milestone for a small Internet publication that remains independently owned and operated. Over the past year, we considered how we might mark the occasion, there was talk of a big party, or special web content but then the day-to-day demands of running this company justifiably always took precedence. Two months ago, as we prepared to leave for Cannes, we realized that our landlords at the AIVF would be closing their doors after more than 30 years in business and we began to imagine our future without a physical office, in an experiment that is working for now.
So, for now we’ll mark our 10th anniversary by taking this brief moment to look back and at the same time committing ourselves to remaining focused on the wide range of independent and international films, filmmakers and industry. And as we have for ten years, we’ll aim to highlight discoveries, exploring new films, filmmakers, trends, issues, companies and people. We do that in many different ways — both online and offline — here at our base in New York City and also at festivals, events and in countless other cities where we, or our many contributors and readers, may report from.
I’ve used the word “we” quite a bit here, so I’ll end this with a number of shout-outs. Mark Rabinowitz was the key co-founder back in 1996 and he stayed with us for a number of years, while Cheri Barner and our first editor Roberto Quezada-Dardon, made their way to other areas of the business. Our longtime Associate Editor Brian Brooks, began writing for us within our first year and then moved to NYC to join the staff more than six years ago, while James Israel, who handles advertising and marketing duties for indieWIRE today, joined us from AIVF a few years back. I also have to single out Susan Gerhard, editor of SF360.org, a joint publication with the San Francisco Film Society covering the San Francisco film community.
Notable early staffers, most of whom wrote for absolutely no money in the early years, included Mike Jones, Mark Feinsod, Aaron Krach, Mary Sampson, and Jeff Green. Anthony Kaufman, Maya Churi, Maud Kersnowski were important early staffers, while Wendy Mitchell, Andrea Meyer, Erin Torneo, Matthew Ross, Jacque Lynn Schiller, Chaya Kornreich, and Jen Vitale are gone but not forgotten; they each contributed significantly to indieWIRE, particularly during the four years that we published IFC Rant magazine with the IFC. And not to be overlooked are the other early iLINE and indieWIRE team, rounded out by the tireless work of Diane Becker and Tim LaTorre. Not to mention, many interns over the years and countless freelance writers who continue to be our eyes and ears everywhere — including our regular columnists: Jonny Leahan, Steven Rosen, Jason Guerrasio, Kim Adelman and the aforementioned Anthony Kaufman — and, of course, the fine writers at Reverse Shot who offer their opinions on new movies each week in indieWIRE.
On the ad sales and marketing side, how could I overlook Jeryll Adler and Eva Saleh, two women who separately worked long, hard hours to develop the ad side of our young company.
Last but certainly not least, are the three other people who have guided indieWIRE into the evolving business that it is today, namely Karol Martesko, Ken Tabachnick and of course Brian Clark, as well as the key staff at GMD Studios in Winter Park, FL who are involved with the day-to-day operation of the business, especially Tammy Kearns, Andy Cowan, JD Ashcraft, Jim Rhoades and Jamie Miller.
At indieWIRE, we’ve had an exciting, educational, and sometimes overwhelming ten years trying to stay on top of the expanding international independent film community, including continual coverage of indie, documentary and foreign language films, not to mention daily industry news, regular film festival reports, weekly filmmaker interviews, and movie reviews. On the indieWIRE.com site, we continue to develop special sections for high-profile film festivals, host filmmaker and industry blogs, showcase resources and tools for both emerging and established filmmakers, and capture the colorful side of things.
So in conclusion, I must pat our team on the back by reminding us that we were awarded the Webby for best film website, praised as “The virtual ‘Daily Variety’ of the independent film scene” and called a “must read” by Variety, cited as the “online heartbeat of the world’s independent film community” by Forbes, and singled out by Roger Ebert as the “best indie crossroads” in an article about film sites. We’ve greatly appreciated the attention and links from all over the place.
I also want to thank the many advertisers and sponsors who have supported our work and yet appreciated our independence and owe a significant debt of gratitude to the filmmakers, executives, publicists, festival organizers and other insiders who keep us informed and aware of what is going on in our world so that we can share that news and information daily. Thank you for your support and encouragement.
And finally, to all of the regular readers and members of indieWIRE whose feedback, input, and ideas continue to shape the company and lead us in new directions. I am personally most grateful to you. Thanks for taking a moment to look back with us.
Let’s keep it going!
Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of indieWIRE.