If you ask people to name their favorite independent films, most will probably mention movies by directors like Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums,) Jim Jarmusch (The Limits of Control, Broken Flowers,) Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn,) Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats,) Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Traffic) or Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Death Proof.)
All of these filmmakers have earned their place in the pantheon of cinema, and fans and many filmmakers alike look up to them for good reason. With decades of experience behind them and several hits that have made them household names, they have established themselves as masters of their craft. But while they might make “indie” flicks, they are not independent filmmakers. To understand why, let’s take a look at what the words “indie film” and “independent film” really mean.
In the bad old days before digital when movies where still made using pricy film emulsions, “independent film” referred to any feature film that wasn’t produced by one of Hollywood’s major film studios, such as Warner Bros., Universal or any of the other “Big Six.” Such a film could still have had a budget of several million dollars, an A-list Hollywood cast and be directed or produced by people with a 90210 zip code, but it simply wouldn’t have been bankrolled by a major studio (even if it would eventually be distributed by one). As time went on, the term “indie film” became a way to describe the genre of the witty, risqué and offbeat stories that many of these films told. It is this genre that many people today still refer to when they ask a question like “who is your favorite indie film director?”
However, with the advent of high quality digital video, online distribution and new fundraising sources like Kickstarter, using the term “indie” only to connote a genre ignores the sea change that has occurred in the way films are made. Now “independent” no longer merely refers to films financed independently of the big six studios, but also to films produced independently of the Hollywood establishment itself. That’s not to say today’s definition of “independent” precludes films shot in California or sporting recognized talent, but rather that “independent” has really come to mean that excellent films can be and are made by complete Hollywood outsiders. The Wes Anderson’s and Tarantino’s of the world are great filmmakers, but Hollywood outsiders they aren’t.
At the same time, the traditional clique of well-known “independent” film festivals such as Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, etc. have been captured by the mainstream industry. What they don’t advertise is that only a small percentage of the films they screen are truly independent, while the vast majority of their programming serves as a launch platform for the “indie” projects of established Hollywood directors.
The good news is that these days there are more truly independent festivals than ever, on every continent, including Antarctica, covering virtually every genre imaginable: comedy, drama, horror, animation, documentary, mockumentary, international, shorts, features, etc. Are you a Sicilian living in Miami? There’s a festival for that. If you prefer short films about Zombies, you’re in luck. Or how about a festival that specializes in films about moustaches?
Many towns and small cities have wonderful independent (in the modern sense) festivals that are a gathering place for both local and regional filmmakers as well as a surprising number of people from more traditional centers of film like New York or LA. With well over a thousand festivals held every year in the United States, chances are there is a festival within a short drive of where you live.
I recently attended the first annual Snake Alley Festival of Film in Burlington, Iowa, for the screening of my short film Bus to Somewhere. I had the pleasure of watching a number of other fantastic shorts, including Past Due, a comedy about getting even with a debt collector that had the entire audience in stitches, and Ana’s Playground, a very different film focusing on the effects of war and violence on children. Jesse and I have attended many other excellent independent festivals such as The River’s Edge Film Festival in Paducah, Kentucky, and the Beaufort International Film Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina, where the quality and number of outstanding non-Hollywood films were truly impressive.
When it comes to festivals, bigger isn’t always better. Sure, the bigger ones draw in the crowds with celebrity guests and well-known directors, and you’ll get some great photos of you with your arm over their shoulders to impress your Facebook buddies, but the most rewarding experience you can have at a festival is seeing truly independent films by people you haven’t heard of. Small festivals are a perfect place to do this. With programs packed with films by local, newcomer and experienced filmmakers who aren’t part of the establishment, you are sure to see films that will challenge your preconceptions of what indie film should be. Even if they only draw people by the dozens, not the thousands, I guarantee you will be amazed by the quality, breadth and variety of many of the films, and surprised to know how many talented filmmakers don’t come from Hollywood.