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Culture Warrior: A Magnolia By Any Other Name

By  · Published on July 12th, 2011

Last week, as I watched Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber, I noticed that the trailers on the rental Blu-Ray were all of titles sharing space at the top of my queue: titles like Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, Kim Ji-woon’s I Saw the Devil, and Jason Eisener’s Hobo with a Shotgun. All, I quickly realized, had been released by the same studio, Magnet Releasing, whose label I recalled first noticing in front of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. After some quick Internet searching, I quickly realized what I should have known initially, that Magnet was a subsidiary of indie distributor Magnolia Pictures.

The practices of “indie” subsidiaries of studios has become commonplace. That majors like Universal and 20th Century Fox carry specialty labels Focus Features and Fox Searchlight which market to discerning audiences irrespective of whether or not the individual titles released are independently financed or studio-produced has become a defining practice for limited release titles and has, perhaps more than any other factor, obscured the meaning of the term “independent film” (Sony Pictures Classics, which only distributes existing films, is perhaps the only subsidiary arm of a major studio whose releases are actually independent of the system itself). This fact is simply one that has been accepted for quite some time in the narrative of small-scale American (or imported) filmmaking. Especially in the case of Fox Searchlight, whose opening banner distinguishes itself from the major in variation on name only, subsidiaries of the majors can hardly even be argued as “tricking” audiences into thinking they’re seeing an independent film.

But the fact that Magnolia, a “true indie” distributor by comparison (which, yes, is a subsidiary of corporate ownership by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, but is distinguishably different from the offshoot-of-studio-filmmaking model), holds a subsidiary banner I find rather confusing and perplexing. While small-scale distributors like Magnolia succeed no doubt by marketing shrewdly to niche audiences, their releases are of a variety incomparable to the majors. Each year Magnolia releases foreign films, documentaries, and true American indies which distinguish themselves from the conventions of the mainstream alternative. Why, if Magnolia is already a distributor characterized by both niche and variety, is it at all necessary to carry certain titles with an alternate banner, or arguably a subsidiary all its own? This move, I think, characterizes the present and future of independent, imported, and small-scale studio filmmaking more readily than the boundary-blurring subsidiaries of the majors.

The House Style

By the 1930s, American motion picture studios had developed their signature “house styles.” An effort at emboldening a specific set of audience expectations could be easily achieved uniformly by the vertically integrated studio system: studios owned the talent (performers, filmmakers, and crew) and the great majority of movie theaters at which to exhibit their product. So, before their monopolized formula was broken up shortly after WWII, studios were able to create defining signatures by their company of talent and employment of genres. Warner Bros., the home of James Cagney, was known for its edgy, hard-boiled entertainment, while MGM, the studio that brought audiences Gone with the Wind, was known for its epics and lush production values. This is not to say that studios stuck strictly and exclusively to certain genres, but it had been established that to see a studio logo meant you were about to see a certain type of film, an association accentuated by the fact that one had to visit certain movie theaters to view films by particular studios.

Obviously, this strict style of system is no longer in place, but that is not to say that studio logos have become meaningless. More so than house styles, studio logos are now more directly associated with franchises: Sony/Columbia and Spider-Man, Warner Bros. and Batman/Harry Potter, Paramount/DreamWorks and Transformers, Summit and Twilight, etc. Yet although the majority of time and energy by studios is directed at manufacturing franchises, they choose not to rely on those alone. Every year studios are expected to release other films: thrillers, romantic comedies, potential Oscar contenders, kids’ movies, etc. And while the genre fare released by studios every year is characterized by repetition and the conditioning of expectations, in terms of individual studio plates the mandate is, if you’ll permit my limited interpretation of the term, a healthy variety of the above.

However, the house style has seen its most orthodox modern interpretation by indie studios and subsidiaries. In fact, the emergence of a market for American independent cinema has to be credited largely toward subsidiaries. Orion Classics, offshoot of Orion Pictures, released in the 80s and early 90s important foreign imports like Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire (1987), and Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) while also releasing seminal American independent films like Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) and Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991). Miramax, which ultimately became owned by Disney, broke the mold even further with Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough works. In short, the opening logo of these distributors meant audiences came to expect a certain kind of niche entertainment, even if the only consistent relayed by that that iconographic association was that the film presented is something one would never see after a Warner Bros. or Columbia Pictures banner.

Fast-forward to the early and mid-2000s, where subsidiaries like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features embolden specific expectations related to quality and style. With youth-cult hits like Zach Braff’s Garden State and Jared Hess’s Napoleon Dynamite (both 2004), Searchlight embraced fully the easily imitable aesthetic of indie quirk before bestowing bona-fide blockbusters with quirk overload Juno (2007) and the schizophrenically transnational Slumdog Millionaire (2004). Focus, on the other hand, carried with it associations of talent, artistry, and prestige enlivened by their aggressive Oscar campaigns and their revisited collaborations with distinguished talent (e.g., Jim Jarmusch, Joe Wright, Bill Murray, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry, Ang Lee). In short, studio subsidiaries not only promised “indie” programming (whatever that may mean at any given time), but emerged as brands carrying with them, conditioned expectations in tow, their own house styles.

Conventionalizing the Unexpected

And that brings us to today. Fueled by forward-looking means of distribution through avenues like on-demand programming, major-studio-unattached indie distributors like IFC Films and Magnolia are able to release an astounding variety of titles each year. But they’ve broken their distribution labels into segments for specifically-directed programming: IFC Midnight, Sundance Selects, Magnet Releasing (Focus did something similar with its alt-label Rogue Pictures, before that was bought by mini-major Relativity Media).

The implication here, of course, is the same as what informed the Classical Hollywood house styles: that different logos should bring forth different sets of expectations. The distinction is most apparent in the Magnolia/Magnet example. The shared syllable “mag” ties the names together, but “magnet” refers to a blunt iron instrument used to exhibit magnetism, while “magnolia” brings to mind an ornamental flower. The intended meaning is obvious. The name “magnet” ostensibly refers more appropriately to the studios’ output of genre fare (which, as the lack of subtlety in the title implies, is often particularly violent entertainment), while “magnolia” fits with their platform arthouse fare (I Am Love) and elite political documentaries (Alex Gibney’s work).

But my question, once again, is why would indie distributors even need to segment their name in order to push for this small-scale equivalent of a house style? IFC and Magnolia have released some of the more interesting titles of the past year, and their films are of interest by the simple virtue of attempting something different from studio convention. The way this company distributes entertainment isn’t even conventional, so why even bother to divide labels that attempt only to serve at, well, establishing convention? After all, a Magnet release like Rubber exists only to explicitly defy any notion of convention, genre, or the barest of expectations one has coming into a movie, so what exactly is the Magnet logo supposed to tell me (or prepare me for) that the Magnolia logo wouldn’t? Do they not want discerning audiences to know that the same studio who brought them I Am Love also made Hobo with a Shotgun widely available?

Indie distributors have made names for themselves in the past thirty years by their willingness to back material that defies norms, categories, and traditions, whether those be the false distinction between high and low entertainment or the unimaginative and repetitive patterns of studio output. I prefer my indie house styles to be ones of constant invention and surprise. When I watch a movie like Rubber, the last thing I want is to have a pretty good idea of what I’m in for.

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