It started in 1992, with a small-time, fundamentally well-told story of a bungled robbery. Disturbingly realistic and told in an engaging, non-linear style, independent films spread like wildfire through word of mouth and positive critical reviews. The film is Reservoir Dogs, and the movement it founded brought on the rise of independent cinema.
Despite its success, questions about independent films linger. What exactly is independent cinema, and can it be defined? Although the nature of its definition is constantly changing, certain criteria can categorize a film as independent. In the first years of the movement, during the early to mid- 1990s, the easiest way to describe an independent film was its scale – small budgets, small production companies such as Lion’s Gate and even smaller stars.
Content also defined these films. Often their plots contained quirky elements, things not usually encountered in mainstream cinema. The main characters’ reactions to the conflicts they encountered seemed truer to life and more realistic than the emotions of the huge stars that appeared in blockbusters. The actors in independent movies often don’t have the movie-star looks. They look and act like real people.
Three men are largely credited with this rise of independent cinema. The first is the creative force behind the film that started the movement, Quentin Tarantino. As the writer and director of Reservoir Dogs, as well as a supporting actor in the film, his debut work brought an incredible breath of fresh air into an industry that was sorely lacking in creativity.
Tarantino must get credit. He brought independent films to the masses. However, prestige and prominence among the motion picture industry was still required. The highest possible award for films, the Oscar, was a long way off for independent films. That changed with the other two men responsible for this trend, Max and Harvey Weinstein, the founders and co-chairmen of Miramax films.
Miramax has had at least one film in contention for Best Picture for the past six years running. No other Hollywood production and distribution company can claim that. Through incredible amounts of campaigning and promotion, the company is responsible for getting these films the credit they deserve. Miramax’s track record is incredible. In the last half-dozen years, they have doled out films such as Shine, Sense and Sensibility, Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction and The Piano.
The nominations of the latter films brought the independent cinema into the forefront of the national conscience of both the critics and the public. Miramax’s campaigning pushed these films toward nominations, and the nominations brought more people to see them, if not in the theaters, on video. The more people who saw the independent films, the more that were made, and soon by companies other than simply Miramax.
The movement forced people to change their perceptions of motion pictures. Recently, movies were made with the pure intention of making a profit, often a substantial one. They contain big stars and big special effects that often led to an inflated budget. In order to make their money back, these blockbusters often rely on proven plot formulas and the elements of familiarity that they think people will want to see again.
Independent films don’t restrict their creativity to fit into the blockbuster formula. These films are not made with the intention of making money. Their small budgets allow the scriptwriters and director to take more risks, which is why you never know what to expect when viewing an independent film.
The competition between independent films and blockbuster movies has been waged during the Academy Awards since 1993. The competition went to new heights in1996, when only one mega-hit, Jerry Maguire, received a Best Picture nomination. Shine, Fargo, Secrets and Lies, and The English Patient, which won the award, were entered in the same category.
The competitions intensified last year when the supposed juggernaut of movies, Saving Private Ryan was supposed to take all the statuettes home for the industry. But in the end, Miramax’s Shakespeare in Love reigned at the Oscars. Even in 1997, when the ultimate industry movie, Titanic, won Best Picture and Best Director, Miramax’s Good Will Hunting earned a Best Picture nomination and won Best Original Screenplay.
However, some may argue that Miramax’s films, with all their success, can no longer be classified as independent films. Films produced by companies other than Miramax have slowly chipped away at Miramax’s dominance. Even if the Weinstein brothers still have the monopoly in the Best Picture category, other categories have not been dominated by the popular blockbusters or by Miramax. In the Best Actor category last year, Miramax did have the winner, Roberto Benigni, from Life is Beautiful. But Edward Norton for American History X, Ian McKellan for Gods and Monsters and Nick Nolte for Affliction all earned nominations from their strong showings in the independent films.
Previous Best Actor nominations indicate another trend in the independent film industry since the mid-1990s. Huge stars are now often crowding into smaller films to rejuvenate their careers and show their true acting prowess. Tarantino’s casting of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction is the best and most cited example. After languishing in the Look Who’s Talking series for most of the 1980s, Travolta became a commanding force in Hollywood again after taking on the role of a verbose lovable hit man. Bruce Willis, who also gave a commanding performance in Pulp Fiction, stayed in alternative films by gaining the role of Paul Newman’s son in Nobody’s Fool.
The growing interest in independent cinema also has forged an interest in foreign films. The Italian film Life is Beautiful, which garnered seven nominations at the Academy Awards, exemplifies the trend. Other foreign films that have drawn large American audiences are the Brazilian Central Station and the German Run Lola Run. The Spanish All About Mother discusses contemporary issues of sexuality and gender in a fearless way that is, to this date, beyond the realm of the American cinema.
This year, a few companies have cranked out quality independent films. Twin Falls Idaho, Being John Malkovich and Better than Chocolate, both recently released on video, make the cut. Two other films released last year have brought the rise of independent cinema to its apex.
The Blair Witch Project, the most successful independent film ever, grossed $140 million domestically and made approximately 50 times what it cost to make the film. Blair Witch‘s total production cost was a mere $3 million. It made multiple critics’ top-10 lists of the best films released this year. Finally, there’s Boys Don’t Cry, which offers up one of the best female acting performances of the decade in Hillary Swank’s Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena. After winning a Golden Globe, Swank should be up for an Academy Award nomination and by all rights should win.
Independent films have surged among the college community and among the masses. They are now receiving Oscar nominations and winning. The industry has grown enormously during the past years and will only continue to grow.