by The indieWIRE Staff
[Considering the question "Is 'Episode I: The Phantom Menace' an independent film?", some members of the indieWIRE staff sat down to express there opinions, thoughts, and general rants about the whole "Star Wars" phenomenon. In honor of the opening of the first chapter in "Star Wars" trilogy today, we offer their views.]
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The new issue of Premiere Magazine includes the publication's annual survey of the most powerful people in Hollywood. There, at number 10 is George Lucas, his job title described plainly as an "Independent Filmmaker."
At a recent indieWIRE staff meeting, someone (probably me) suggested that Lucas' Star Wars prequel "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," is an independent film. Well, in one sense it is, after all, it was financed by Lucas. By Variety standards, this film is independent, right along with the bunch of other non-studio financed films that the Hollywood trade painfully labels "indie." Using their definition, "Episode I" is certainly more independent than "Shakespeare in Love," which lead the latest so-called "year of the indie" at the Oscars, but was financed by Miramax (a division of Disney) and Universal Studios (the studio owned by Seagrams).
The bigger issue is that for many people (my age) within the truly indie filmmaking community, "Star Wars" impacted our ongoing commitment to a life in the movies as much as any film by John Cassavetes, Orson Welles,Spike Lee, The Maysles Brothers, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, or John Sayles, among others. In fact, long before many of us knew the names of the aforementioned acclaimed filmmakers, we had experienced a defining moment watching "Star Wars" on the big screen in the Summer of 1977. More than two decades later we are trying to re-capture that moment, realizing along the way that we (and George Lucas) may have actually aged a bit.
I will be one of the last to deny the excitement of a well-made, big budget, effects ridden Hollywood blockbuster. When I see a big Hollywood flick, I often go on the first day, with a bunch of friends. Grabbing some popcorn and a Coke, I settle in for a couple hours, hoping to re-capture the great moments of childhood and teenage movie going. I'll do the same today, as a bunch of the indieWIRE crew and our friends head to the Zeigfield along with all the other geeks who spent hours getting tickets to one of the first showings of "Episode I." Independent or not, I can't wait!
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Any film that has a multi-billion dollar tie-in with the toy industry, no matter how independently envisioned, just isn't an independent film. However much Lucas worked outside of the Studio System to create "The Phantom Menace" and however much he heralds in new "indie" technologies -- like his proposed digital production and exhibition -- his project is of such magnitude, of such public fascination, of such budgetary expense that it can not be an independent film. It's a complicated matter, sure. Using the mere dictionary definition of the word "independent" would make Lucas one of the gang: synonyms include "autonomous," "self-reliant," "individualistic," "unconstrained" -- he's all of them.
But while Lucas adheres to these meanings, it's a fundamental error to call him an independent because he's got something else -- immense power. Independents don't have power, independents are outside of power -- they don't concern themselves with it (ideally, they just want to do their thing.) They lack magnitude, they lack publicity and they lack, above all, money. George Lucas does not lack money. Calling "Star Wars" an independent film is like calling Starbucks "liberal" because they offer health benefits to their employees. Sure, the guy serving you frappuccinos has dental -- but in the mean time, his employers are taking over the world.
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For some time there has been an absurd debate running around some corners of the film world (and the indieWIRE office): Is "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" an independent film? Well, of course it's not, right? I mean, it cost somewhere in the vicinity of six gazillion dollars (actually, its budget has been estimated at around $120 million)
and it's being distributed by Rupert Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox, a major Hollywood studio. It has Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and a computer graphics-created (and if advance word is to be believed, highly irritating) creature named Jar Jar Binks. Okay, so Neeson and McGregor aren't exactly Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson, but they aren't Maury Chaykin and Tom Waits, either. (Wouldn't that be a hoot!?)
On the other hand, this film is all about George Lucas. He owns it, right down to the air molecules that fill up the sprocket holes. He even probably owns the melted Milk Duds your shoes will stick to when your six year-old nephew begs you to take him to the theater at the beach in mid August so he can see it for the seven billionth time, screaming: "I
don't care what you say, I think Jar Jar is cute and funny, not a 'barassment, like you're always saying..." Sorry, back to the discussion at hand.
The American Heritage College Dictionary defines independent as "Free from the influence, guidance or control of another or others; self-reliant: an independent mind," and "Not dependent on or affiliated with a larger or controlling group or system" and "Financially self-sufficient; self supporting."
I'm gonna split hairs, here folks. Clearly, by these definitions, "Phantom Menace" is independent. However, anyone who claims that it is an indie film ought to have their head examined. When that's done, they ought to be put in a pit with Jim Jarmusch, Kenneth Anger, Atom Egoyan, Albert Maysles and the ghosts of John Cassavetes and Sam Fuller with hundred dollar bills glued to their body. George Lucas makes Hollywood films outside of the Hollywood system, by paying for them himself and selling the distribution rights, largely due to one of the biggest business blunders of the twentieth century. When 20th Century Fox decided to give the rights to everything related to "Star Wars" to Lucas --sequel rights, merchandising, characters -- they lost out on a multi-billion dollar empire, and Lucas earned the right to forever make any film that he wants, release it on his terms and merchandise the hell out of it, without giving up a penny of the royalties. Independent, yes. An independent film? No way.
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I think the indieWIRE staff would all agree that whether "The Phantom Menace" is an independent film is not nearly as important as how good a movie it is. We were all raised on the Star Wars Trilogy, we've all been one of the characters for Halloween and we can all say that, no matter the outcome of today's opening, "Star Wars" will always bring back certain memories of time and place, and that's what makes these movies so important. So, why bother pressing the issue -- "Is 'Star Wars' an independent film? -- when its much more fun to talk about what we remember about the first time we saw it...
I remember the plaid bell bottom pants and blue poncho I was wearing when I walked into the movie theatre. I remember running through the basement of the local YWCA at age 6 to find my brother after he'd seen "Star Wars" for the 5th time. I remember wanting to be Princess Leia so badly I would wear a white sheet and my hair in buns. I remember falling in love with Luke Skywalker. After finding out Luke was Leia's brother I remember falling in love with Hans Solo. I remember the electronic flashing red lights in the chest of my brother's homemade Darth Vader Halloween costume. I remember going to JC Penny's to buy jeans and coming out with action figures. But most of all I remember sitting around on a lazy summer day, me and my big brother having just gotten soft serve from the ice cream truck, dreaming about the sky, space, the universe, the force. The world had opened up.
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"Star Wars" was the first movie experience I ever had. It was seminal in that it was the moment I realized the power of cinema. Mind you, I was 7 years old and didn't fully realize the experience I had (or what the word seminal meant), but over the years I've come to understand it more clearly. It was the movie that made me love movies. It was a full
throttle emotional experience -- excitement, laughter, anticipation, tears. That experience became the foundation for my passion of film. Not just seeing movies. I devoured magazines, books, etc. I didn't expand the fantasy into film school, but I've closely hovered around the periphery of the industry in my career for years.
Star Wars evokes memories of a childhood long gone. My parents wouldn't let me and my 5 year old brother see it until they "approved" of it's appropriateness. Apparently, there was some violence and scary creatures in a bar scene (or this was a cheap ploy by my father, a huge sci-fi fan, to see it again). It was probably the only common ground my brother and I walked on during the first 18 years of our lives. He collected action figures. I collected bubble gum cards. We both wore out the 8-track soundtrack from the movie on my parents' stereo.
More importantly, "Star Wars" provided me with my first strong female role model. Can any American girl born of my generation deny the impact of Princess Leia on their young, late 70's psyche? We didn't have Girl Power, Madonna, or Buffy. We had Carrie Fisher - young, beautiful, strong-willed, and intelligent. Yes, she was a princess, but not of the
same ilk as Cinderella. She was strong enough to assert her ideals, participate in her independence, and still be female. She hung with the boys, but she didn't have to become one.
Yes, we've all seen it so many times. But the swelling of John Williams' score in a darkened theatre makes me giddy with so many happy memories and feelings. It brings the excitement of going to the movies flooding back. And isn't that the power of cinema? The experience of transporting yourself into another world and feeling emotions without actually living through the moment. I've already got my box of Junior Mints stashed away.
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Is "The Phantom Menace" an independent film?
The answer to this question is a total inversion of the old Biblical saw; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Here, you can say that the flesh, the surface, is willing, and independent to a fault. George Lucas paid for the whole damned thing himself, wrote it, directed it, oversaw every tiny element of the filmmaking process. And the entire process went down completely outside
the Hollywood studio system. Fox is essentially a glorified distributor. But as for the spirit, well, it's weak. I mean, he didn't pay for the thing by maxing out 10,000 credit cards, now did he? It's hard to wrap the brain around the idea of a $120 million sci fi epic with merchandising deals up the wazoo as "indie," and reconciling that film with "Pi" or "The Blair Witch Project" is unthinkable. Indie? Hollywood? Who knows. Let's just hope it isn't a huge, stinking, steaming pile of crap.