After many years of obscurity, indie films have captured the hearts and minds of many discerning viewers. Recognizing the increased popularity of indie film, major studios have been increasingly developing and funding “indie” branches and marketing their films as “indie”. There is no longer the clear separation between indie films and Hollywood that there once was. This fusion has led to a reasonable question: what makes a film truly indie?
There is an easy answer: independent films are produced outside of the major studio conglomerates.
This definition, while once sufficient, is now unacceptably vague. Major studios have “independent” and “arthouse” branches, and many established Hollywood figures start studios that are technically independent. How far removed from major studios–financially and artistically–do you have to be for your film to be indie?
Following the Money:
Due to the notoriously opaque accounting practices of Hollywood, even if one could decide on what level of financial connection an independent studio can have with a major one, unless you are a forensic accountant it may prove difficult to actually discern the level of financial connection between two companies. You could separate indie film from Hollywood by production budgets, but there are major studio productions with budgets comparable to high-budget independent films.
It would seem that there is no clean and reasonable way to separate indie and mainstream film by following the money.
Aesthetic, And Other Fancy Words:
Philosophically, what makes a film have the raw creative energy one might call the “indie spirit”? Can an indie aesthetic be defined?
In the era of film the aesthetic difference between an indie film and one produced by a major studio was abundantly clear. The immense expense of the types of film used in pre-digital Hollywood film production demanded that indie film use different types of film and often much less of it. Independent film has long been associated with short film partially because of this reason.
Traditional aesthetic differences between indie and mainstream film in cinematography and editing have been minimized as technology has progressed. The artistic choices of style in cinematrography and editing are now actual choices instead of functions of budget.
There are more aesthetics in film than simply editing and cinematography, although these two traits are often quite easy to spot. One can look to acting and directing styles, and the people who have these styles, to discern the difference between indie and mainstream film. This definition can sometimes be accurate, but there are occasionally mainstream directors who work on an indie project and there are frequently mainstream actors who do the same.
Genre, And Other Dirty Words:
Genres typically most associated with indie film such as horror, science fiction, and black comedy are now commonly produced by major studios who have now seen that these genres are commercially viable. Conversely, genre films such as film noir and musicals that were once staples of major studios are increasingly the domain of indie film.
Parody films, because of their innate counter-cultural and typically incendiary nature, were once impossible to produce at major studios and only the product of indie film-makers. Even this boundary has become blurred. Major studios are now willing to produce genre parody films of even their own typical genres. Subverting genre norms has become trendy; what was once entirely counter-cultural has become accepted and eve expected.
There is no longer any genre that can be defined as entirely indie. Realities of the indie production process do eliminate some genre options, however. Sub-genres such as effects-driven blockbuster action flicks remain the domain of Hollywood.
So if none of these metrics are fair definitions, what is?
Indie Is Not Mainstream:
A revelation! Not mainstream, you say? Didn’t you just criticize the typical definition of indie film as being too vague, Mr. Blogger?
Yes, I did. Indie film and more precisely the spirit of indie film is something so complex and so variable that defining what it actually “is” is infeasible. To properly define indie film, we must look at what it isn’t.
Indie film isn’t made to appeal to as many people as possible. Indie film is not (usually) about pandering to critics, either. Indie film isn’t made to enrich investors or production companies. Indie film isn’t about trying to be counter-cultural, subversive, or innovative–it’s about actually being those things.