One cool thing about independent film is just how long it’s been around, well before Roger Corman or John Cassavetes in the 1960s and 70s. By the 1920s, African-American independent filmmakers already had an outsider cinema, with Oscar Micheaux and others serving audiences who were excluded from whites-only theaters and wanted to see blackness portrayed more fully and honestly onscreen.
For me, a compelling part of this longevity is the ongoing need to “keep it real” while contending with social and economic challenges. Just to survive, those early African-American filmmakers, for example, struggled with scant resources and endless compromises. With no formal training or industry support, how to finance, staff, write, shoot, edit, market, and distribute a film? How much to compromise, when, and with whom so as to make both a film and enough money to pay it off and keep going? All tough questions for independent filmmakers past and present.
I like how sometimes the socioeconomic forces have supported the outsiders. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Hollywood was struggling economically like never before. The studios had gotten stodgy, TV was ascendant, and baby boomer audiences wanted new alternatives. Forced to innovate, the studios took risks with young filmmakers as well as styles and subjects previously limited to niches, or simply invisible. The marginal became central, and it paid off economically and critically. In crude economic terms, the dynamics of supply and demand made for an exciting moment of creativity and independent-mindedness that broke the mold and still influences movies today, even as Hollywood has long since returned to its comfort zone of blockbusters, star vehicles, and recycled pop culture.
It’s great how films have evolved, as well as their marketing and distribution. When I was young, there simply weren’t any websites, DVDs, or satellite TV. My rural hometown had a few movie theaters; my TV had four channels, including a PBS station with early Siskel & Ebert, before they went commercial. You can guess how times have changed since then in Grants Pass, Oregon. New media galore, and even a local film festival, the Siskiyou Film Festival; and, a few towns away, the Ashland Independent Film Festival has been thriving for years. If I’d had those as a kid, I might have stayed.
But have times changed so much? Are things really better now? For consumers like me, definitely. For independent filmmakers, I think so, but maybe not as much as it may seem. Though there are more and better resources available than ever before, indie filmmakers still grapple with many of the same challenges as their forebears. And, as filmmaking and distribution have gotten more accessible, more people are doing it, which clutters the marketplace. Or does it? What do you think?
This post is part of a series in which I talk about independent film in a more detailed, wide-ranging, and personal way than I usually do here. And it’s a chance to hear from you. Feel free to post a comment anytime or let me know if you’d like to write a post.
By James Latham