Saturday, March 9, 2013

branding: the evolution of independent film.

in my last post about the modern film industry, I discussed the democratization of the tool used to create films. now let's look at the other side of that coin - the monopolization of distribution routes, the "independent" brand in modern cinema, and what it means for the future.

the independent spirit awards were originally founded in 1984 as a way to bring recognition to smaller films, films that couldn't even dream of competing with hollywood in terms of budget, star-power, marketing, and more. these were films that triumphed despite adversity and picked up distribution based solely on merit, and helped to instill hope in every generation of filmmakers since, myself included.

but when one takes a closer look at the nominees and winners for best feature, a question quickly becomes apparent: how independent are most of these films, really? and if they aren't truly independent, why market them as such?

let's look at a prime example, one that forever altered the landscape for independent film: "sex, lies, and videotape." whether or not you like the film, it's important to appreciate what it did to the market. here was a film producer for a relatively paltry sum by relative unknowns, just like countless others. but when it took sundance by storm in 1989 and ended up taking in close to twenty-five times its budget, hollywood saw an opportunity and seized it. "independent" slowly began to transmogrify into a brand, not a reality or even a mentality, but a label used to fool unsuspecting cinephiles into handing over money for something that no one ever struggled for and succeeded by the skin of his or her teeth.

at first, though, times were great. so many important, possibly even revolutionary filmmakers got their start in the independent boom of the late 80's and early 90's.  people like david lynch, jim jarmusch, the coen brothers, and gus van sant all used alternative methods to secure funding for projects hollywood wouldn't think twice about. and thus when these films became critically successful, hollywood would let itself be left out in the cold. thankfully, they owned (or at least had a stake in) every method of distribution - processing facilities, theater chains, home distribution - and saw a chance to make big money.

if there's one enduring hollywood story trope, it's the underdog success story. an overlooked, spat-upon talent struggles against the system, suffers a few setbacks, then finally emerges victorious just before the closing credits roll. but if this was a marketing plan instead of just a story? everyone loves to see an individual triumph over a massive opposing force, so what if the creation of the film itself is the triumph? by branding a film as "independent," studios hope to catch people's attention by leading them to believe that this one small film triumphed over their own machinations and found success on it's own terms. and so studios began offering distribution deals to the producers of these independent films. with distribution already in place, especially large-scale theatrical distribution, money to finance a production is easy to come by. everyone wants to be in the film industry and with a guaranteed return on investment, what savvy, starry-eyed investor could turn that down?

technically, of course, the film is still be independent, but certainly not in the traditional sense. but that technicality is exactly what the studios rely on. that technicality is what allows films like "silver linings playbook" to clean up at small awards ceremonies and glide into the good graces of critics and moviegoers who despise traditional studio fare. this way, the studios can have their cake and eat it too - they can create big blockbusters designed to do nothing more than sell tickets, then hedge their bets by releasing cheap, "independent" films on the off-chance that one will turn into a blockbuster.

and the resulting system is even more convoluted and disaster-ridden than the studio system of yore. in the end, hollywood's co-opting of "independent" cinema ends up drowning out the very films the movement was designed to promote in the first place - films by fringe artists who eat, sleep, and breathe their craft, and want nothing more than to tell a great story that gets seen by as many people as possible. the hope of a brighter future might still be there, but most artists will never find the reward at the end of that maze. or rainbow, or whatever other metaphor you choose to use.

obviously, this does not hold true for every single film out there. last year's "beasts of the southern wild" bucked this trend, but it's exceptions like these that prove the rule. and honestly, the current marketplace is so saturated that it's no wonder the studios have to do all they can to not only turn a profit but remain relevant. but nevertheless, the traditional methods of distribution remain monopolized by the studios and the fact remains that the ability to truly earn a living as a filmmaker almost always means aligning yourself with a studio, even if that alignment is distant - perhaps a subsidiary, or a subsidiary of a subsidiary. money always needs to come from somewhere, and it's unfortunate that hollywood has so much of it. small theaters and distributors try to fight back, but with such limited resources at their disposal, there's only so much they can do - the current model backs them into a corner that few ever emerge from.

the next time you see an independent film, take a look at the company credits. find out who the parent companies might be, or who has distribution deals with whom. trace that lineage back as far as possible - in the end, you might be very surprised by how corporate that supposed "indie" really is.

it's a shame - an almost unavoidable one.

and I don't see it changing any time soon.

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