Contrary to what many people think, independent filmmaking is not associated with how much a film cost, what actors star in it, or what director is at the helm. Indie films are screened at more than just film festivals, art house theatres, indie film channels, or online outlets. These films are actually designed for more than those who watch PBS on a daily basis. They have mass appeal, even if most don’t realize it.
An independent film is any motion picture produced with at least 51% financed from sources (companies and/or individuals) other than the U.S. major studios (20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Disney, Paramount, Columbia/Sony, Universal). An Independent film typically has an independent company attached as a film financier, production company, foreign distribution sales agent, and/or domestic theatrical distributor. Independent films range from small alternative films to big-budget features such as The Hunger Games and 12 Years a Slave. (The Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA)
How big are the independents?
Independent film production each year exceeds that of the major studios and creates considerably more job opportunities worldwide than the majors. Independents produce at least 500 films and countless hours of television programming each year generating more than $4 billion in distribution revenues annually. More than 70% of the films produced in the United States each year are indie films. (The Independent Film & Television Alliance – IFTA)
Do the independents and the studios ever work together?
Yes, they do. Increasingly, the major Hollywood studios are reducing the number of films they actually produce in-house and are relying more on independents to deliver completed pictures to feed their domestic distribution pipelines. The major studios have gradually become more marketing and distribution specialists in the U.S. marketplace than production entities. (The Independent Film & Television Alliance – IFTA)
Major studios have come to understand the importance of indie films over the years, so several have created independent divisions for distribution (and financial support) purposes like Fox Searchlight, Focus Features (Universal), and Sony Pictures Classics. Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent were successful indie arms but were eventually shutdown as parent companies restructured independent filmmaking distribution and financing models.
One of the most successful indie studios today is the Weinstein Company founded by
Harvey and Bob Weinstein in 2005 when they left Miramax films. In recent years, they have produced films like Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook and Gold with Matthew McConaughey.
In the early years of indie filmmakers it was about rebelling against or separating from mainstream production companies. As far back as 1919, indie filmmakers saw a need for independence of control for product, stories and talent. Four of the stars of early silent cinema formed a company to provide opportunities outside of the major studios. Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith formed United Artists studios with that purpose in mind.
Throughout the next 50 years independent cinema continued to be a place to provide a training ground for new talent; exploration of new filmmaking techniques; examination of topics that may be too controversial, experimental, or politically enraging for the majors. Citizen Kane (produced by RKO Pictures) is a prime example of indie cinema pushing the limits in 1939.
In the late 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s three filmmakers challenged the Hollywood norm and created independent low budget films that appealed to a younger generation of filmgoers seeking “different.” Roger Corman, George Romero, and Earl Owensby explored films that offered horror, action, violence, and general mayhem. These films found an audience, and today all three are considered indie film pioneers.
The 1990s saw a rise in successful independent film festivals, which in turn fed products into smaller indie studios like Miramax, Castle Rock Entertainment, Newline Cinemas, and Fine Line Features.
Shakespeare in Love (1998) was a different kind of romantic comedy set in England during the late 1500s. It was a fun and creative story rich with witty dialogue, elaborate costumes, and visually stunning set designs. Produced by Miramax for $25 million, the film earned nearly $300 million worldwide and won the Oscar for best picture beating out Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in the process.
In 1999, indie cinema found a new darling, and she was a witch. The Blair Witch Project had a budget of just $60,000 and eventually grossed $248 million at the box office in 1999. This found footage style film was also one of the first to explore creative viral online marketing efforts. This film pioneered the landscape of Internet marketing for film studios.
The smash indie comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, released in April of 2002, initially had a limited distribution of just 108 theatres. By week five at the box office it cracked the top ten for the week while screening in only 275 theatres. It was soon picked up by a major distributer and added new screens each week. Six months later the film was still on screens and on October 11 the film expanded to 2,016 screens.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding cost $5-million, with an added $20-million for marketing, and by the end of the theatrical run (nearly a year later) it earned nearly $369 million. Most films will only stay in the box office top-ten for eight – ten weeks, My Big Fat Greek Wedding stayed in the top-ten for four months.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, released in 2004 was monumentally successful. Gibson couldn’t get studio support so he found funding and distribution support elsewhere. Churches across the United States promoted the film during worship services, they placed ads in newspapers, TV and radio, and they even rented entire theatres so the church members could experience this story of Jesus.
Paranormal Activity (2009) took about a week to film at a cost of $15,000. DreamWorks/Paramount bought the film and planned to reshoot it with a larger budget and major stars, but someone suggested the creepiness of the found footage style would prove to be as successful as the original Blair Witch Project. Studio executives bought into that idea and also conducted a nation-wide fan-support campaign (borrowing a page from the legendary Alfred Hitchcock). If one million requests were made (through Eventful.com) for the film to be shown and distributed in wide release, then the studio promised they would do it. The campaign worked and the $15,000 film went on to earn nearly $200 million in box office receipts while spawning five sequels.
Major Oscar wins for films like Juno (2007) Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Hurt Locker (2009), The King’s Speech (2010), The Artist (2011), 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Spotlight (2015) have continued to feed the importance of indie cinema.
Distribution Opportunities for Indie Filmmakers
The two most significant opportunities for indie filmmakers to have work noticed and/or purchased for distribution is through film festivals or film markets.
What is the main difference between a market and a festival?
A Market is a forum that attracts industry executives from around the globe for the sole purpose of doing business. These markets are where deals are made, films are financed, packaged, licensed and green-lit. A Festival is an event featuring dozens of film screened over the course of several days. A curator or a festival director manages the festival activities and a screening committee judges films in consideration. These festivals sometimes have a cultural or civic focus as well. Festivals are community cultural events, have a submission and selection process, as well as an emphasis on awards, prizes and talent. The most well-known and established film festivals are: Sundance, Cannes, Venice, and Toronto. Major film festivals like those listed above provide networking opportunities for indies and connects them with distributors, producers, additional talent, and audiences. (The Independent Film & Television Alliance – IFTA)
The American Film Market (AFM) is the largest film market in the world and a pivotal destination for independent filmmakers and industry executives. The annual eight-day market takes place in Santa Monica, California, screens more than 400 films, and is attended by approximately 8,000 international film and television executives from around the globe. Established in 1981, the AFM is the only major film or television market created by film and television entrepreneurs. (The Independent Film & Television Alliance -IFTA)
Independent filmmaking is everywhere and anywhere fans want it to be. Today’s indie films are produced with varied budgets and genres and find homes by screening in theatres, online film channels, dedicated cable networks, festivals, apps for mobile devices, and even in places like Netflix to Amazon. The indie filmmaker is no longer restricted or limited by any studio; they are able to shoot and edit films at lower costs thanks to new and cost effective technologies, and they are able connect directly with any audience, at any time. With a few strokes of the keys, fans are just a few clicks way from thousands of independent options.
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