How Do We Define Indie Cinema

We all know what an indie film is, right?  It’s a movie that is independently made…and that particular tautology sums up the problem.

This use to be a pretty straight forward proposition. If it wasn’t made by a Hollywood studio, it was an indie. Though this was strictly an institutional definition, it was viewed as relatively sufficient. But as Hollywood studios became media companies and the financial conditions of film production became an increasingly complex system of multiple investors, all movies have become largely independent productions in the most basic economic sense.

Sure, these flicks are not indie movies in any way, shape or form. But they are not really studio movies either, since no studios really exist any more. They are more the byproduct of enormous media conglomerates. Though the Media Ownership slide show by “cigdemkalem” is focused on the British film industry, it is quite accurate on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the current laissez faire approach, though I prefer to call it the Libertine Model. Totally open ended and anything goes.

A much more precise definition of indie cinema is any movie made totally outside the confines of mainstream Hollywood dominated media. Movies made in a manner that completely removes them from a financial, technical or distribution system connected to commercial cinema. In other words, extremely low budget movies that will never see the light of day. This is the Puritan Model.

This is not meant as a cheap shot. Some of these movies are actually pretty interesting and fun to watch on the rare occasion when you get see one. And every once in a very rare blue moon, one of them escapes into wide distribution (for example, Paranormal Activity). However, the minute that happens, it becomes a “studio” film and its indie status is open to debate. But this extreme definition of indie is not exactly what most indie filmmakers want. Most people making an indie film have the strong hope that it will somehow, in some way, get made and released by some means that involves maximum exposure with minimum compromises. Their film. Their vision. Their way.

This is not going to happen. Though digital self-distribution may eventually change this situation, the current scene is locked into a mysterious dance between indie filmmakers and large media conglomerates in which the best outcome often resembles either a Faustian pact or a Hobson’s choice.

For now, digital filmmakers are stuck with a financial structure and a distribution system that are totally weighted against them. The hope for most indie filmmakers is that they can go on the festival circuit, get a strong presentation at something like Sundance, be quickly noticed by a major company, and have a distribution deal before they pack to go home. However, the reality for most is that they will not get into a major festival. They will not be noticed by a major company.

Though the digital revolution offers great promise for indie movies, it is also barely in its first phase and is already being stymied in its commercial development. The move toward total digital distribution in theaters (to be completed by the end of this year) presents a new system that will, theoretically, make it possible to widely release a movie at extremely low cost. But that is not how the digital distribution system is being designed.

The commercial application of digital projection has several major strings attached to it. One of these strings, called the Virtual Projection Fee, adds $800 to $1000 per screen to the distribution cost. The VPF is designed to help the theater pay back the enormous cost of converting to digital projection. Since the major studios helped to finance the conversion at most theaters, they also get a cut of this fee. For the big companies, it is a pretty sweet deal. But for indies, it is a Road Closed sign on the digital superhighway.

So the indie filmmaker will need more than ever the support of the major distributors. However, many of the major distributors are mostly looking for movies that have named performers, highly defined genres, and broad audience appeal. In other words, what used to be pretty standard mainstream commercial movies. The low budget, no-name, and very off-beat terrain that is indie at its best (more often than not) is not what these companies are seeking. Which means, many distributors are seeking indie movies that are not exactly indie in any sort of significant artistic sense.

Which bring us back to the question of how do we define indie.

Ideally, it is an alternative to the current state of mainstream cinema. Realistically, it is mostly determined by its budget. Technically, it is constrained by a lack of financial resources. So this leaves only one area wide open for indie that the current major films can’t do: artistically distinctive, highly idiosyncratic presentations of the cinematic craft. By their very nature, big budget movies are constrained to very simplistic structures and predictable repetitive patterns. This is why the tent pole movies appear to be the same movie over and over again. They are the same movie. They have no ability to do otherwise.

Only the indie cinema is capable of creating and exploring new directions. Often they don’t, but at least they can. This difference is not just the key to defining an indie film. It is also the key to the survival of the entire indie cinema.