Indies For Everyone: How Small Movies Got Big in a Bloated Summer

By  · Published on August 27th, 2013

During the summer of 1998, one of the two multiplexes in my modestly sized hometown devoted one of its sixteen screens to limited release films throughout the entire season. They showed a range of small, non-mainstream narrative works from that surprisingly indie-rich summer, including Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo ’66, Wayne Wang’s Chinese Box, James Toback’s Two Girls and a Guy, Don Roos’s The Opposite of Sex, Whit Stilman’s The Last Days of Disco, Neil LaBute’s Your Friends and Neighbors, and Mr. Jealousy, a film that almost nobody remembers Noah Baumbach made.

Despite their nearby availability, I saw approximately zero of these films.

I was thirteen years old, and my parents maintained their strict no-R policy. But it was enough for me that the names of these films showed up in the local paper, and that I saw their posters displayed through smudged plexiglass outside the box office as I bought my ticket to see Jane Austen’s Mafia! for the third time (I’m not kidding). I told myself I was perfectly content with the likes of Godzilla, Small Soldiers, and that other Avengers, but I patiently looked forward to the day when I was brave enough to sneak into (and, a few years later, pay to see) these movies so that I could figure out what this trailer was all about. I wasn’t yet experiencing blockbuster fatigue, just bottled excitement that there were new and weird and envelope-pushing movies that existed out there.

But apparently, my multiplex’s experiment was a failure.

Come the summer of 1999 (a supposedly stellar year for risky movies), no certified indie flick or foreign films graced that lonely screen. My hometown didn’t show up in 1998, so in 1999 this tiny branch of a massive theater chain certainly wasn’t going to spare one of its Phantom Menace screens for a movie about a cherry-haired German woman in a very big hurry. So, like any other child of the ’80s and ’90s, I waited until these films showed up (if they showed up) at the local video store.

In contrast to those years listening to Third Eye Blind at the twilight of the millennium, 2013 seems like something out of science fiction. Counterprogramming during the studios’ biggest months of the year is something of a crapshoot compared with, say, risky movies released during awards season or slower months like February or August. Since the simultaneous establishment of the blockbuster mentality and a new American independent cinema in the 1980s, it seemed like a movie had to make an unprecedented smash to be heard at all amongst the cacophony of sequels and pre-Hasbro Michael Bay stimuli (that is, if you lived in a city with less than a half million people).

The Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and sex, lies and videotape were labeled nothing short of runaway phenomena upon their respective releases, apparently shocking Hollywood with the fact that people like to take a break from getting sunburned by seeing a scary movie, an aggressively safe family rom-com, or Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows. The multiplex slate, often planned years in advance, was only interrupted if a game-changing financial miracle happened.

This past summer didn’t suddenly alter the decades-old system as much as it bore the rich, tasty fruit of the many gradual changes that have been taking place over the last few years. 2013 was a disappointing summer for decidedly predictable mainstream fare, but it was also one of the stronger summers for counterprogramming in recent memory. And that’s not only because this summer had some worthwhile midstream releases (Fruitvale Station, Mud, Blue Jasmine, Before Midnight, Frances Ha, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, The Spectacular Now) and even some truly weird acts of near-greatness (The Act of Killing, Computer Chess, Almodovar’s I’m So Excited), but because there was such an abundance of readily accessible moving image material that offered a continuous alternative to the now conspicuously limited options at AMC on a Friday night.

Video On Demand

Sure, renting and buying movies on iTunes or through a cable service has been a thing now for a few years, but this summer the alternative platform seems to have both exploded and solidified this alternative as a system. Indie distribution labels like IFC, Magnolia, and Drafthouse have taken notable advantage of non-theatrical exhibition platforms, making advance releases into something of an event.

Prince Avalanche, A Teacher, Passion, The Canyons, Drinking Buddies, Only God Forgives (it’s hard to keep track of such things as these venues thankfully aren’t subject to “box office” competition, but Refn’s film reportedly provided one of the iTunes’s biggest releases), and a litany of other titles that came and went and stayed have effectively removed the stigma of straight-to-video and demonstrated an important step in surmounting geographic limitations of limited release fare to cosmopolitan cities. Ostensibly, people in Manhattan and North Dakota can simultaneously be the first to see a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. Though this system has normalized pretty quickly (and the above movies still did perform in theaters at the same time), it’s arguably more unprecedented than an ’80s James Spader indie making bank.

I’m certainly not suggesting that, by virtue of their platform and indie status, or by virtue of the physical accessibility of these sometimes aesthetically inaccessible films, that these are by default a “better” choice than whatever is at the multiplex. The point is that these indies don’t have to compare to, or attempt to make their voice heard against, the overwhelming influence of the studios at all.

There exists a venue for competing tastes and sensibilities completely outside of the theatrical release-date system that previously dictated the terms of credibility and availability. And such films are often complemented by their medium of availability. Most of these are small, if not bare-minimal, films. A threadbare narrative like Drinking Buddies or Prince Avalanche (or something as bizarre as Only God Forgives or, better yet, Berberian Sound Studio) can certainly benefit from the communal experience of a movie theater, but such films can also provide a welcome respite, an intimate experience that can’t be replicated in a place always at risk for unwanted interruptions. Leave the giant screens for Pacific Rim as long as movie theaters aren’t the only place to see new movies.

TV On The Internet

One of the major reasons that Hollywood has made a routine of dominating the summer season is television’s hallowed tradition of rarely offering anything new. At the most recent turn of the century, the big studios only had the likes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Survivor to threaten to keep audiences at home. With our binge-viewing habits and the notable travel of “quality TV” from pay cable to basic cable, that threat is much more potent, and comes in the name of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, etc.

But Orange is the New Black – perhaps the most talked-about media object this summer – maintained a significant place in the cultural dialogue that, I can only assume, correlates with a ubiquitous presence in front of the eyes of viewers. And keep in mind that this is the same summer that a new season of Arrested Development was released.

I can point you to piece after piece about why TV is more interesting now than it ever was (I even made my requisite contribution), but for my purposes here I think it’s high time to acknowledge that there exists something of a collective pathology to contemporary television viewing that Netflix has (perhaps without much foresight) benefited from. And while I have no way to prove that more people would have seen 2 Guns had we not been watching the former stars of American Pie and That ’70s Show on streaming “television,” it certainly seems that TV in its myriad forms has regained its rightful spot in offering a truly competitive screen like it did in the 1950s.

Final Thoughts

These platforms don’t necessarily make for “better” movies or TV or in-between media, and they still require a certain degree of economic (and even cultural) privilege for access, but this summer did make a pretty convincing case for contemporary summer options outside of “event” movies that carry eight-figure advertising budgets vying to convince you to see them. For the moviegoer jaded in the face of tentpole mania, the fact that The Conjuring outperformed The Hangover Part III and the unbridled irreverence of This is the End reigned over truly spectacular flops like The Lone Ranger, After Earth, The Internship and R.I.P.D. might be a small economic victory that’s comforting enough in of itself.

But the blockbuster mentality – particularly its franchising tendencies – is not likely to end or slow down soon, no matter what Steven Spielberg says.

The vast restructuring of Hollywood, if such a thing is even possible at this point, would be a very gradual process. So in the meantime, I think it’s okay to be pretty damn happy that summer counterprogramming no longer has to “counter” anything. Narrative indies and other non-tentpole forms of moving image entertainment now have a voice that they never had before, and one might not even need to step into a theater to see the most worthwhile movies of a season. Take that, 1998.

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