You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

Why Indie Films Must Resist Hollywood

Why Indie Films Must Resist Hollywood

Back in the year 2007, the independent film world was in the grips of its new-found ascendancy, with huge successes like “Juno,” “No Country for Old Men,” “Atonement,” and 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.” Just prior to its imminent collapse in 2008, the sky didn’t seem to be falling; on the contrary, for Indiewood, the sky seemed to be the limit. It was at that time that I wrote a piece called “Why Indie Films Must Resist Hollywood” (at FilmCatcher.com, long defunct, which I recently found again in the vaults of the Internet Archive’s WayBackMachine). I wanted to re-post the story, not only to reiterate its message, but also to suggest how some of its argument may be outdated.

The piece’s main argument was to criticize the recent trend of Hollywood-ized, de-fanged indie cinema. But with breakout indies like last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and this year’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Mud,” and “Spring Breakers” (!), I have to say that it seems like specialty divisions and the audiences they target have become fairly open to more daring or unconventional material. Maybe it hasn’t changed that much. Maybe it’s just that my standards have changed. Or maybe audiences and distributors are realizing that indie films need to provide more radical alternatives to Hollywood to stay alive.

Anyway, read the piece and let me know if you agree or disagree. Have things changed for the better? Or is Indiewood still a sad reflection of its more established big brother?

Why Indie Films Must Resist Hollywood

By Anthony Kaufman

With the Sundance Film
Festival only a few weeks away, now is the time to reflect on what
independent film is truly about: party-crashing, Paris Hilton sightings
and multi-picture deals. If Sundance once typified the heart of indie
film – precious dramas about the plight of Hispanic immigrants or a
young awkward teenager coming-of-age – the preeminent winter film
festival also exemplifies what’s gone wrong with it: $50,000 Celebrity
Gift Bags, sponsor CESAR Canine Cuisine, and blackberry-tapping
Hollywood agents aglow with blue light during the world premiere of a
new film directed by Jake Paltrow (brother of Gwyneth).

It’s a
little too easy to hate on Sundance. It’s not the fest’s fault that
Hollywood’s descended upon it like a vulture to carrion. When the media
industry sees what it likes, it can’t resist the impulse to suck it up
and spit it out, whether Grunge music, kid-lit bestsellers or 1980s TV
shows. Indie film is no different.

Let’s blame Hollywood, then,
for cultivating a culture of commodification and major paydays wherever
it reaches its long, slick and slimy tentacles. But that doesn’t mean we
can’t put fault on filmmakers, too.

Take two recent breakout
Sundance and indie-film phenomena: “Hustle and Flow” (2005) and “Little
Miss Sunshine” (2006). If, for the sake of argument, independent film is
independent from Hollywood, then why were two of the most high-profile
films to come out of the festival in recent years so similar to studio
films? With their formulaic underdog plots, charismatic protagonists,
standard filmmaking technique and triumphant conclusions (however tinged
with a bit of irony), “Hustle and Flow” and “Little Miss Sunshine”
reflect the Hollywood-ization of indie film from the inside out. Easily
digestible, these movies make even pimps, whores, and suicidal
depressives the sort of fun-loving people that everyone can enjoy. (For a
classic counterpoint, check out Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Life of Oharu” or
for a more contemporary take, there’s Eric Steel’s recent devastating
documentary about San Francisco bridge suicides “The Bridge.” Needless
to say, neither feature rousing musical numbers.)

After all,
“Little Miss Sunshine” was originally set up at one of the Hollywood
studio divisions anyway, before it ended up back in their laps. A few
years before in 2003, Peter Hedge’s dysfunctional family Thanksgiving
dramedy “Pieces of April” was in the same boat: Though originally
conceived as a studio division project, the movie was tossed out on the
streets, then made independently, and then acquired at Sundance by the
same studio at Sundance in headline-grabbing fashion (“UA Picks Up
‘Pieces’ for $4+ Mil”). And with overtly sentimental touch-points and a
sitcom-like array of racially diverse, quirky supporting characters,
it’s no wonder. “Pieces of April” is about as “indie” in spirit as a
holiday episode of “Will & Grace.”

Maybe we should blame “My
Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the most successful independent film of all time
(not counting “The Passion of the Christ”). A big-hearted conventional
romantic comedy that traffics in every Hollywood cliché in the book,
“Greek Wedding” was less a triumph of independent cinema as a victory
for long-hackneyed movie and sitcom tropes finding their way into
low-budget film, from the conservative overbearing father to the
cantankerous grandmother to the love that breaks all borders theme. It’s
worth noting that “Greek Wedding” director Joel Zwick had a long
established career in television, from “Laverne & Shirley” to “Bosom
Buddies” to “Full House.” We can quibble about the definition of
independent film until our tongues go dry, but TV sitcoms, no matter how
one spins it, are not the template.

And neither are network TV
dramas, Mr. Paul Haggis. The acclaimed writer-director of surprise
“indie” Oscar-winner “Crash,” Haggis began his career writing for shows
like “thirtysomething,” “L.A. Law” and “Family Law,” and arguable not
much has changed about his style and substance since relocating to the
world of independent film. Despite the number of audiences and critics
who praised “Crash,” the film is the kind of simplistic, sentimental
agency-packaged star-studded junk that one day should be relegated to
the discount DVD video-store bin. Fiercely committed acting aside,
“Crash” is filled with forced, shorthand trickery to create hollow
statements about race without a shred of humanity at its core, with
resolutions coming fast and furious — sprain your ankle, heal your
prejudices, hug your Hispanic maid.

This is what happens when
mainstream – that’s not independent – choices and modes infests and
corrupts the character-driven low-budget movies that once dared to be
different from NBC primetime.

In the 1990s, Good Machine, the
New York based film company, cultivated the work of visionary American
directors (Hal Hartley, Todd Solondz, Ang Lee, Todd Haynes) and produced
a handful of indie touchstones (“Simple Men,” “Happiness,” “The Wedding
Banquet,” “Safe”). In 2002, the company was co-opted by Hollywood and
transformed into Focus Features, a specialty arm of Universal Pictures,
where the only director to remain from the Good Machine days is Ang Lee.
As a studio unit, Focus has done a laudable job of making some
well-crafted mid-budget films, from Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” and
Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” to David Cronenberg’s “Eastern
Promises” and Joe Wright’s “Atonement.”

But however celebrated,
these films lack the edge, excitement and experimental boldness that
defines the truly independent film. Except for the occasional scenes
(Viggo Mortensen’s fully naked bathhouse fight scene in “Promises”; a
stunning wartime tracking shot in “Atonement”), the films are
conventional mainstream entertainments meant to crossover into as wide
an audience as possible. Some say this is a sign of the growth of
independent film. But it’s also the gravestone that marks its potential

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: News and tagged

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox