Sample text for The declaration of independent filmmaking : an insider's guide to making movies outside of Hollywood / Mark Polish, Michael Polish, and Jonathan Sheldon.


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What Makes a Film Independent?

It's hard to say exactly what is or isn't an independent film. Most people think of financial limitations as the hallmark of an indie, but a low budget is by no means a definitive marker. If that were the case, pornography and soft-core cable movies would have to be considered independent films. Perhaps the best way to approach a definition is to define what independent film is independent of. Certainly, part of this is being unattached to the major Hollywood studios, Hollywood micro-studios, or Hollywood production companies, which ordinarily prioritize financial gain before artistic endeavor.

This should be seen for what it is. It is entirely understandable that with tens of millions of dollars on the line, profitability has to be an imperative for a studio and its film executives. To them, movies are products. To ensure profitability, studios test-market and edit a film accordingly, control the casting, make mandatory script changes, and demand contractual control over fundamental creative decisions that will have an impact on the essence of the film. Historically, the independent filmmakers' gospel has been to shun decisive creative interference. The films they made were, thus, divorced from the Hollywood studio system. An independent film was the way for a director to show a studio what he or she was capable of without its involvement.

Creative independence in the film world is risky because the chance of success is so remote. Of the thousands of films made each year with private equity (money that comes from an outside source), only a small number are accepted into the Sundance Film Festival or another major festival, and of those, even fewer get picked up for distribution. The ability to secure private equity often has more to do with the state of the economy than the quality of a screenplay. But for a first-time independent filmmaker, private equity is usually the only option to pursue. The creative upside to this is that being removed from the "hit-making" devices of Hollywood allows a young filmmaker to find his or her own voice. This is the other part of what independent connotes. Whatever the story, an independent film attempts to tell it in an original, visionary way. Attempt is the key word here, because it doesn't mean the film is brilliant or even good, but it does imply that the filmmaker is trying to express his or her vision as an artist. Of course, this is a subjective evaluation. However, we contend it is quite like the obscenity definition given by the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart: "You know it when you see it."

Unfortunately, this interpretive nature of independent film's definition has allowed virtually any movie that is just slightly left of center to hide in the oeuvre of independent film. Savvy Hollywood marketers now regularly label low-budget films, regardless of their artistic ambitions, as "indies." Independent film as a catch moniker is so broadly used nowadays that it has been reduced to the equivalent of a "fat-free" label on cheese. These "independent" studio films are directly affiliated with the Hollywood studios and were born through their devices. Not that they are all bad films, but many of them do not embody the values or the struggle of independent film.

Independent film started to become more of a brand than a movement by the mid-1990s, after several independent films crossed over into the mainstream. When Hollywood smells money, it soon invades. And why not? Hollywood saw a cheap product grossing ten, twenty, or even a hundred times its cost- and recognized a chance to turn a huge profit. Would-be commercial filmmakers saw an opportunity to show Hollywood that they didn't need big budgets to have a commercial success. Thus was the birth of what we call cheap mainstream. The success of cheap mainstream created a lottery-ticket market for independents where suddenly the little independent film festivals became a marketplace for selling indies to Hollywood. Independent film was no longer a small niche movement; it had become a brand. And indie success by Hollywood standards was measured by a film's crossover potential: whether it could eventually move from the art-house crowd to the masses.

While this book isn't intended as a history lesson on independent film, some historical perspective is worth researching. If you're interested, there are many thoroughly researched tomes chronicling the rise of New Wave cinema from Europe, through the beginning of American independent cinema, to present-day indie filmmaking. Our goal in writing this book was to illustrate a point about the realities of getting indies made in today's marketplace.

By 1997, when we were making our first film, Twin Falls Idaho, the indie atmosphere had wafted into the backyard of Hollywood. Even with our budget of $500,000, there was pressure from the investor and producers to make our movie more accessible, to create a film that would appeal to the malls of America. But we knew the story we wanted to tell wasn't right for a committee process of test marketing and editing. While we wanted to protect the investment, we felt we shouldn't have the kind of burden Hollywood puts on filmmakers making $20 or $30 million movies. Our first concerns were to protect our voice and vision as filmmakers, and we believed that Twin Falls would be a worthwhile film only if it was made without dubious compromises.

As we started to edit Twin Falls, there was a disagreement between the producers and us on how the film should be cut. It had to do with length and chronology. One producer suggested we start the film with a flashback and voice-over, which would have dumbed the story down for a mainstream crowd. While the producers' points could be valid from a commercial standpoint (other than the serious suggestion that we trim the film down to ninety minutes so that it could play on airplanes, which even Hollywood movies don't undertake until an airline has licensed the film), we simply disagreed.

Things became more contentious when Twin Falls was subjected to a private test screening, where one of the producers gave out scorecards to an invited audience so they could rate the film. Suddenly, we were being subjected to the mainstream marketing machine when that wasn't part of our original deal. Moreover, this didn't make sense for the film; the subject matter wasn't mainstream. There was no way we were going to rework this film into the standard Hollywood criteria, and, besides, we didn't have the money or resources to reshoot even if every scorecard wanted the same unanimous change. We knew that even if 80 percent of the audience didn't want one of the twins to die, we couldn't please them even if we had wanted to. Ultimately, the only thing the test screening accomplished was to make everyone involved very insecure about the choices we had made as filmmakers.

These types of conflicts are more the norm than the exception in today's independent film marketplace. Many filmmakers, after the Sundance high of screening (and for some of them selling) their movie in Park City, wake up to a nightmare of recuts and test marketing. Protecting the independence of a film doesn't stop after production is wrapped. Many independent filmmakers think that once they have locked picture, the war is over, that the film is creatively protected. But in reality, an indie is still vulnerable after it is sold and while the distributor is focused on selling the film.


Copyright © 2005 by Mark Polish and Michael Polish

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Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Motion pictures -- Production and direction.
Independent filmmakers.