Is Gibson's "Passion" An Independent Film?
by Eugene Hernandez
The opening week success of "The Passion of the Christ," which made more than $135 million through Monday (in its first six days of release), inspired another installment in an occasional indieWIRE office discussion about the definition of independent film. This chat arose as we considered whether the film should be included on the indieWIRE: BOT which tracks weekend grosses for specialty and independent films in theatrical release. We decided to include the film in our tracking but also sought some input from the heads of the major independent and specialty distribution companies and indie guru John Pierson. Some of the chiefs that we emailed on Tuesday quickly responded, while others remained silent.
"Self-financed, personal vision, made for an underserved audience that doesn't see its interests on screen, released by an independent distributor - of course, it's independent with a capital 'I'," noted John Pierson, summing up the definition well. Virtually all distributors who responded were in agreement.
"How could it not be independent?" asked Magnolia Pictures head Eamonn Bowles, "its scale is massive, but that's because of demand. Does success rule out being independent? It's been privately financed and, like or loathe it, was made more for artistic expression than commercial calculation." Bowles added that the film being embraced by devout viewers should have no bearing on whether or not it is defined as independent. Michael Silberman, head of IDP, concurred, noting that its screen counts should not be a benchmark for determining the film's independence. "It was not financed by a studio nor was it distributed through a studio's machinery," Silberman reiterated.
"This is a rare case where the scale of the film, as well as that of its release, would seem to defy any previous definitions of 'independent,'" explained THINKFilm head of distribution Mark Urman. "That said, like it or loathe it, this is probably the most independent, personal, non-corporate movie undertaking one could imagine. If 'The Passion of the Christ' isn't "independent" -- financially, creatively, morally, ethically, and philosophically -- then what is?"
The fact that the movie, which Hollywood would not embrace, was made and released outside the studios is something that Icon Productions, Mel Gibson and Bruce Davey's company, is proud of. "It is encouraging in terms of the way we could continue to do feature movies, not needing a studio to distribute -- there is life after the studios." Davey told indieWIRE on Sunday.
"It is about as independent as one can get, certainly wasn't developed by a studio, wasn't financed by a studio, wasn't released by a studio. I don't know of any individual (Gibson) who has ever put so much of his own money on the line for any movie," explained IFC Entertainment president Jonathan Sehring.
"I agree with whoever it was at indieWIRE who insisted that 'The Passion of the Christ' is a true example of distribution outside the system, although if his success at this level continues much longer, Bob [Berney] will soon have to be considered 'The System' against which all other approaches are measured," offered Richard Abramowitz. "'The System', such as it is, rejected the film, and using personal resources, whether in the hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars, certainly suggests independence."
A pair of company chief's noted that the film is in some ways indefinable. "You should probably put it in it's own category - the film defies categorization," added IFC's Sehring. An exec at an Indiewood company said that he was not sure how to characterize the movie, but added anonymously, "I think you should invent a new category and call it weird freak of nature movie with religious zealot overtones -- this one should be in a category all by itself."
And not everyone agreed that the film is independent. "I'd vote no," offered indie distributor Marcus Hu, "'Passion' was directed by Mel Gibson, cost $25 million and was funded by a very non-indie spirit if you ask me."
What do you think?