Features and Columns

Talking Heads: The Sundance Also Rises

By  · Published on January 21st, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as NoWaveSurfer and KeatonRox2738 in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the purported death of indie films that’s reported upon faithfully every year (at least 4 times a year). In the face of the Independent Film’s best friend festival beginning this weekend, we tackle the real question:

Indie films can’t actually be dead, can they?

Landon: ? ?So it’s Sundance. That time of year where big names flock to the ‘Big Love’ state to celebrate independent film whether by doing big business, flocking to parties, or maybe even sitting down and watching a movie. But in recent years there’s been something of pessimism or even cynicism about the whole ordeal centering on the idea that “American independent film” as we knew it in the early days of Sundance no longer exists.

So Cole, is independent filmmaking dead? Please check yes, no, or maybe so and pass the note back to me.?

?Cole: ? ?No. (passes note back)?

Landon: ? ?Okay then! Great talk!?

Cole: ? ?Would you mind defining “independent filmmaking” first??

??Just so we can drag this conversation out a little longer.?

Landon: ? ?See, that I think is the problem with this whole notion. But I think it has to do with the idea that in the age of the so called story crisis there isn’t a marketplace for real “outsider” filmmaking anymore, and the only recourse is that studio subsidaries (like Focus and Fox Searchlight) have created a “brand” that resembles indie filmmaking but isn’t really??

Cole: ? ?And then Gareth Edwards goes and makes Monsters on his own.?
Landon: ? ?Exactly. And Rahmin Barani continues to make films.?

Cole: ? ?Even some that aren’t about anthropomorphic plastic bags!?

Landon: But I think there is a legitimate conversation surrounding the idea that independent filmmaking has changed.

?Cole: It’s definitely changed. But it’s just as difficult and cranky and hard to achieve as it ever was. For one, the equipment is getting cheaper, but the cost of production is increasing. Still, in a world where it’s still the cheapest to film two people talking in a room, Monsters and Skyline both exist. Two CGI-heavy sci-fi films.

?Landon: ? ?So is the real switch being made far away from Sundance? That this festival, which has been the cultural linchpin for indie filmmaking for so long, is no longer the rite of passage it once was??

Maybe we should stop looking at Utah for all our answers.?

Cole: ? ?It was a rite, but never the only path to the pearly gates.? Let’s not forget that the first truly independent film was Easy Rider. ?It didn’t have to go through Utah at all.? ?

Landon: ? ?I’d say it was earlier, with Cassavetes’s movies?
Cole: Neither did he.?

Landon: ? ?Oh, and those mumblecore films Thomas Edison made??.

Cole: ? ?Bingo. We could go back to the birth of film and those against the Edison Trust to find indie filmmaking.? That’s why a definition is so needed and so elusive. If it’s independent from the big studios, then Twilight: Eclipse is technically an indie film.

If it’s a separation completely from any studio entity at all…

?Landon: ? ?Right. I think what needs to be clarified is that you’re talking about a brand of movie. It’s not just a difference in where the money comes from. It’s a content difference as well. Otherwise, Blue Valentine and Birdemic fall under the same category (again)?.
Cole: ? I thought they were about basically the same thing.?

So when every movie writer ever writes “Indie film is dead,” what the hell do they mean? That people making movies of all sorts outside the studio system have stopped, or that young people remaking French New Wave copies got bored and quit?

?Landon: ? ?I think it’s a nostalgia for late 80s-early 90s Sundance movies that were made at a time when 1) there was enough of a market for these modest movies to be profitable, 2) they were innovative, fresh, and challenging to perceived Hollywood norms, and 3) they could get distribution despite shoe-string budgets and no recognizable names. It’s a time when Hollywood and indie filmmaking seemed more distinguishable than they are now.?

Though this could be, at least in part, a nostalgic illusion.

Cole: ? ?My point is that if indie film is dead, someone better let the Independent Spirit Awards know before they get too deep into planning next year’s show.?

Meanwhile, you have 127 Hours, and Black Swan hitting theaters and making a killing. Those are absolutely indie films that used the power of the director and star to secure their money.

But is the difficulty in getting domestic distribution (and therefore, foreign investors and pre-sale) going to severely hurt filmmakers in the coming years?

?Landon: ? ?I don’t know about that, because there are so many more different ways of distributing movies now than domestic theatrical runs. That’s why I love IFC’s OnDemand model. It removes the inaccessibility to independent films for those of us that want to see such films but don’t live in big cities. It widens the audience more than any limited release would. Not that I can imagine myself watching Enter the Void again on my home television, but I think it’s a necessary move forward for indies.?

?Cole: ? ?I can imagine you watching Enter the Void on your home television.?

And then shooting up to watch Tiny Furniture.

?Landon: ? ?But I think there is something to be said about 127 hours and Black Swan that you pointed out: they’re made by directors who have established careers (as difficult as they may have been), have movie stars, and have budgets over $10 million. I think a Sundance nostalgia crowd might see that as a bigger threat to the definition of what an independent film really is than anything else.?

For example, Little Miss Sunshine was an independent film, Juno wasn’t, yet they’re categorized the same way.

?It’s not a question of whether or not films are being made, but whether or not they have to jump through the same hoops as the ones in Hollywood?.
Cole: ? ?That categorization is exhausting to me.? Why are there people invested in what movies we call indie and which ones we don’t? 127 Hours was made outside the studio system. It’s an indie. Tough break, people who don’t want indies to be expensive and have stars.

I love the idea of capable, vetted directors gaining freedom by getting out of the studio shadow and taking the cavalier indie approach.

?Landon: ? ?So basically indies are now Dylan gone electric. It’s still there, but it’s different.? You’re welcome, 40+ readers of FSR.
Cole: ? ?Haha… In a decade, we’ll look back and realize there was no need to Boo him off stage. By that, I mean yell, not do a ghost impression.
Landon: ? ?Good thing, because indies are easily frightened?.
Cole: ? ?And they keep dying all over the place.? I think you’ve hit on the heart of the problem, though “Indie” isn’t a genre. It’s a business concept.

?Can we just agree that indie filmmaking is not going anywhere? Sundance is going to happen next year. So will the Indie Spirit Awards. Movies of both the 127 Hours and Tiny Furniture ilk will make the rounds.?

Can you agree to that without being bribed?

?Landon: ? ?I think it’d be an incredible feat of cognitive dissonance to look at the Indie Spirit award nominees (especially in the smaller categories) and say independent film is dead.?

Also, I take checks and money orders.
Cole: ? ?Sold?

What’s your take?

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.