David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Independent film: How different?

Saturday | October 14, 2006   open printable version open printable version

From DB:

Recently a representative from Fox Searchlight visited my campus. He talked to my colleagues Erik Gunneson and Meg Hamel, as well as to me, asking our ideas on independent film. The scattered remarks I shot from the hip led me to ask: What did I really think about indie moviemaking? Here are some notes, drawing on arguments made at greater length in The Way Hollywood Tells It .

1.) Independent filmmaking goes back to the early years of film history.

A working definition of American “independent film” is film production (also perhaps distribution) that occurs outside the center of control in the industry. In the early 1900s, that center was occupied by the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust run under the auspices of Thomas Edison. Then little companies like Famous Players and IMP were “independents.” The small firms moved west, organized themselves, and defeated the Patents Company. Within a few years they formed several of the studios that we all know today–Paramount, Universal, MGM, Fox–and they were now what economists like Doug Gomery call a mature oligopoly. They were in control.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, independent films were still being made. Some catered to ethnic minorities or particular tastes (especially erotica). Other independent films were prestige productions undertaken by well-placed industry figures like David O. Selznick, Charlie Chaplin, and Walter Wanger and distributed by the studios.

During the 1950s, the studios relied much more on independent producers for their releases. Around 1960, regional independents arose, particularly in New York (John Cassavetes) but also in Los Angeles (Roger Corman). During the 1970s, Billy Jack, black-themed films, and other independent work got access to screens. In the late 1980s what we now consider independent cinema came into being, crystallizing around Stranger than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, and other films aimed at college students and hip baby boomers. (You can find more on these trends in Film History: An Introduction.)

2.) Calling a film independent says nothing about its aesthetic commitments.

The press has exaggerated the distinctiveness of indie films. People are always looking for novelty, but the fact that something is noticeable doesn’t mean that a seismic change has hit.

A low-budget indie can be completely conventional, as The Brothers McMullen and My Big Fat Greek Wedding are. Many of the most celebrated crossover entries are in familiar genres, like mystery and crime, romantic comedy, melodrama (You Can Count on Me, In the Bedroom) and the social problem film (Boys Don’t Cry, Monster). In indie films, even the most purportedly character-driven ones, the plots tend to follow the three-act/ four-part scheme and cohere around consistent point-of-view patterns, appointments, deadlines, motifs, and other traditional narrative devices.

Even the more unconventional indie films aren’t that unconventional. The Usual Suspects and Donnie Darko rely heavily on our knowledge of traditional Hollywood genres. Moreover, the films are often constructed to balance their novel elements with familiar ones, to help us accept and understand the novelty. For example, Memento seems at first blush very daring in telling its main story backward. But I argue in The Way that this strategy has several precedents, the film obeys some long-standing structural formulas, and the narration and structure provide a lot of redundancy to help us follow it.

This isn’t to say that some independent films don’t push the envelope quite far. My favorite example is Primer. It won acclaim at Sundance, got a distributor, played theatres, and went to DVD. But I think most viewers would agree much of it is just mystifying. The conventions of the time-travel movie, which it obliquely relies on, don’t help us all that much. I don’t even know how to pronounce the title. The fact that it played a maximum of 31 screens and grossed less than half a million dollars suggests that the film hit the limits of how incomprehensible an independent film can be.

My friend J. J. Murphy suggests that Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Julian Donkey-boy are also examples of an indie film putting severe demands on the audience. J. J. has studied this problem closely, and his book Me and You and Memento and Fargo (Continuum, due out spring 2007) talks quite a bit about what counts as an independent film.

3.) Indie film develops its own traditions of stories, stars, and genres.

Pulp Fiction is probably the most influential indie film of the 1990s. It made the clever and self-conscious crime film the best candidate for a crossover hit. It revived the sort of time-juggling that had been explored in film noir (1940s and 1950s) and in British and American cinema of the late 1960s-early 1970s. It highlighted the sort of “network narrative” (A’s story brushes against B’s story which intersects with C’s story) that would become a prominent strategy in the indie realm. Pulp Fiction also brought to the forefront the prospect that big-name stars would perform for less than their top salary in a high-profile niche picture.

Interestingly, some of the strategies reinforce one another. It’s easier to get a big star, for example, if you have an ensemble cast, if only because he or she doesn’t have to be on the set that much. Moreover, independent cinema has built a parallel star system own around the likes of Steve Buscemi, Martin Donovan, Lili Taylor. Julianne Moore is virtually the Greta Garbo of Indiewood. Some of these actors, like Moore, become mainstream stars.

The result is that the person who likes indie films develops skills in following their familiar features. Stars generate a following, and help sell new projects, while people come to understand the conventions of unconventional storytelling. Viewers steeped in Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, and Magnolia can quickly come to grips with Crash or Happy Endings or Me and You and Everyone We Know. Once savvy audiences like this exist, a major company like Paramount can see the benefits of distributing Babel.

4.) Indie film is an integral part of the US entertainment economy.

To be strictly accurate, Babel will be distributed by Paramount Vantage, the indie branch of Paramount. This suggests a final point. Now companies believe that every niche is worth mining and that consumer tastes in popular culture follow the long tail.

The studios have set up their own classics and indie subsidiaries, and today they’re zeroing in on ever-narrower demographics. Focus, the indie division of Universal, established its Rogue unit for genre films (Assault on Precinct 13, Unleashed). Fox has Searchlight, Fox Atomic (for ‘tween pictures), and a “faith-based” unit for Christian audiences. At the thinnest part of the tail are the films handled by the hundred or so independent distributors, who still have to negotiate with powerful exhibitors and DVD distributors.

In short, movies can come from a studio’s core unit and aim at the mainstream market. Or they can come from a studio’s boutique division. Or from an independent distributor. All these outlets participate in the same economic system. It’s like buying a pot for a plant. You can get your pot at Target, or Pottery Barn, or at the cart set up in the mall concourse, but you’re still shopping at the mall.

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David Bordwell
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