Friday, May 28, 2010

Indie or Not?

The subject of whether a film is an indie or a studio picture often arises. For example, take the science fiction film District 9, made for $30 million dollars. Some would consider this an "indie"as it was made without a studio or distributor.

In theory, this action-filled movie with CGI-created aliens should be that.

But I go back to the real intent of independent movies and that is certain filmmakers who choose to write something very personal to them, more often something that will rarely make back it's money. Again, Casavettes led the way when he made his initial two films for budgets that were less than what District 9 spend on craft services.

These are the movies that, if you live in a major urban center, would play for two weeks at the local arthouse theater. Movies made from the need of some filmmakers to "tell their story". Some of them are not very good, production values, at least up till digital video, were often terrible. But others manage to surpass their technical flaws by having a good story.

I checked the LA Times this morning as there's always a handful of indies playing at the Laemmle theater chain. This week they have the following movies, Holy Rollers, The Secret In Their Eyes, City Island, Mother and Child and a re-issue of the classic French movie, Breathless. 

Ever hear of these movies? 

Apart from City Island, a labor of love from actor Andy Garcia who struggles to get offbeat movies made while maintaining a career in studio pictures. He's arguably close to Casavette's methods of financing movies. Which is anyway you can.

These kinds of movies are the real indies, people who have a story to tell. They don't care about car chases or CGI monsters or tentpoles or sequels. Many of them make one movie and are never heard of again. 

So what's a typical real indie film? 

I once saw a film called Signal 7, made in San Francisco by Rob Nilsson. It's a movie about two would-be actors who, on the way to Hollywood, ended up as taxi drivers in SF and ended up staying there, working as taxi drivers. It's a study of failure and coping with it as these middle-aged men attempt to make something of their lives.

Signal 7 refers to a code among taxi drivers and warns them there's been a robbery or shooting involving a taxi. Ironically we hear about a "Signal 7", we  never really see it. Rather we become involved in these two sad yet noble men, making sense of their lives.

Technically, it was awful, having been filmed on 3/4 inch video which, when blown up to 35mm for theaters, looked like hell. But the amazing thing was this; after about 15 minutes, you get used to the low quality of the image and you know why?

Because you get involved in the story. It's that good.

But not all indie filmmakers disappear. For some, it's the start of a career. John Sayles began his career with The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Spike Lee hustled money to make She's Gotta Have It and Stephen Soderbergh did Sex, Lies and Videotape. All are still making films, albeit for more money and even for studios.

For awhile and maybe even today, many of these filmmakers used credit cards, people like Robert Townsend who made Hollywood Shuffle allegedly on credit cards.

For many years, the goal of all these filmmakers (and I use that term as most were writer/directors) was Sundance, Robert Redford's mountain hideaway where young independent writers and directors could learn from the masters for a few months each year.

There still is an air of independence at the Sundance Film Festival, but it's changed over the years, more movie stars walk down Main street than before, many of them now taking roles in lower budget "indie" films as their chances of nominations increase. But to his credit, Redford attempts to draw out the real indies and to keep the festival about emerging filmmakers who don't have the advantage of Hollywood agents and contacts.

So what about District 9?

It was done by an emerging Indie director, but the definition blurs.

Because, even though it is considered an indie film with no studio or distributor backing it, it was financed through Peter Jackson who made the Lord of the Rings films and who has more influence and money than all the independent filmmakers who ever came out of Sundance.

It's not hard getting money and distribution when you have the 900 pound gorilla standing behind you. But it's a far cry from maxing your credit cards to finish your little movie.

And even though it can be defined as an indie, it really isn't to me. It's future was decided before it started filming. And opening in hundreds of theaters the same day isn't the norm for the real indie filmmakers who are lucky to get 2 weeks in one theater in hopes of a better DVD deal.

Am I right? To a lot of indie filmmakers I am. To some others I'm not. But that's the great thing about movies, you don't have to like what I like.

Have a great week-end.