There was a time not so long ago when I — and quite a few others — hoped that we could have an art-driven alternative to the Hollywood (or global streaming) system. We yearned for it in beyond just film, in all art forms and cultural industries. It would be a community, a living, breathing organism committed to advancing both the form and the conversation around cinema and all art. Did others succeed where we failed? If so, why? Is there an indie ecosystem for any art form? And why did we not just NOT make progress, but also take several steps backward?
For that late ‘80’s / early 90’s Indie Film Gang, the goal of making movies wasn’t ever to get rich, but to simply do good work on a consistent basis. Good work did not mean good box office (but it wasn’t going to exclude it either). Good work was an exploration of the possible. Good work is an embrace of some form of aesthetic plan. Good work wasn’t just storytelling.
In the dream, it was as important how you made things as it was what you made. Everything would be a collective endeavor. Collaborators would be treated well and no one would be exploitative. The process would inform the outcome, right? People would work within their means, striving to grasp something that even money couldn’t buy, be it art or soul or connection. We would deliver the authentic perspective, a deep consideration, and the magic of beauty, the alchemy of collaboration, the deep pull of obsession and commitment.
This dreamed form of success wasn’t based on stuffing your wallet. It was the sound you found in a guitar cord. You saw it on the stage in that actor’s face. It was on the city street and up in the clouds at the proverbial mountain top. It was real, vital, and present. You could feed on it. And it was a virus, but one oh so sweet.
But why did the Indie Dream die? We never found what we were looking for, at least not consistently. We got something else.
We distributed profits to all the collaborators on four films I produced: The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men, The Wedding Banquet, and She’s The One. None of these films cost more than $3M and Ang Lee’s film was under $1M and Hal Hartley’s Unbelievable first film was under $200K.
Until I left NYC for the West Coast, I would regularly run in to past crew members who told me that those films were the only ones they ever received backend on. They were always appreciative and eager to sign up again.
When I moved to NYC in my early 20’s, I aspired to make films that embraced both the attitude of punk rock and the French New Wave, a willingness to experiment and find who you were and what you loved, and not just attempt to display one’s mastery or expertise. I wanted community. I wanted to learn. I wanted to work consistently. I was willing to help others. I wanted new voices and perspectives behind the camera. I didn’t really care about much else.
If I had to pinpoint the moment things changed, I’d say that it was the week after Pulp Fiction premiered at the NY Film Festival. Everyone knew the film would “work”, but they were looking at the money that would be flowing in. Everyone seemed to forget about everything else. They wanted to get themselves some of that. There was a lot to learn from the film, but the industry chose to look at it primarily for the star casting and box office potential.
It certainly isn’t a bad thing to be audience-focused, but we neglected that the film was primarily director-driven. There is no denying that Pulp Fiction advanced the cinema language, but that conversation was drowning in the dollars it was generating. The momentum that INDIE had been growing until then, drove it right off the cliff.
I want to examine further how we lost hold of the Indie Dream, as there are many factors for sure, but I think the shift of priorities from art and community to box office and wealth was the most decisive factor.
People pursued their own individual well-being instead of working together to build something that might have allowed that indie thing to flourish. We could have built a better mousetrap. We could have built an ecosystem that was sustainable. I want to talk more about this, so maybe next week?
But please share your thoughts as I am sure you have them.
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So beautifully said.
I would venture that this is non-unique to film, as I've heard similar lamentations in the fields of music and other creative / human / innovative arts. It seems to me a symptom of living in a culture and country built on extractive capitalism, more than a failing on behalf of audiences or creatives. Because I do know that we-- i.e. others who don't care about getting rich, and who just want to be able to continue doing good work; and audiences who are hungry for genuine depth and meaning-- are still out there.
First - this Substack is a bright light coming from the rubble pile of the Twitter collapse - and I am grateful. Reminiscent of the Hope for Film blog, but evolved - like a good wine, whiskey, or cheese rich with complexity of experience.