Independent films move into spotlight
But how independent are they?
By Tal Mekel
The distribution rights for "Hustle and Flow," an independent film about a pimp-turned-rapper, sold for $9 million.
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(CNN) -- Penelope Spheeris put herself on the map as an independent filmmaker in 1980 with "The Decline of Western Civilization" about the punk music scene. More than a decade later, she was given an opportunity most of her peers only dream of -- directing Mike Myers in "Wayne's World," her first studio film.
After flirting with Hollywood for a few more years -- including helming "The Little Rascals" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" -- Spheeris realized that the studio's grass wasn't greener after all, and returned to her independent roots.
"There's trade off," Spheeris said of the two worlds. As an independent she doesn't "get as nice a trailer," but working for a studio "you don't usually get final cut (unless you're Steven Spielberg), you have a lot more people breathing down your neck and it's a lot longer process.
"I don't care what trailer I'm in, I was raised in a trailer," she joked from her Los Angeles, California, office.
Spheeris' idea of an independent film is a personal statement, made on a low budget, with innovative financing methods and difficulties in finding distribution.
But as the appeal of independent films has broadened, so has the label's definition. Experts say the meaning of "independent" has changed dramatically, so much that it has become a contested term.
"The 1990s saw a convergence between traditional independent films and Hollywood," said Peter Biskind, author of "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film."
"Now, the most successful ones, or the most well-known independent films exist midway between the traditional independent films and studio films, and they've been called 'Indiewood' films, which suggests the hybrid nature of the films," said Biskind.
The explosion of independent film in the 1990s was set off by Miramax, Biskind said. The company's co-founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, were among the first to realize the box-office potential.
"Miramax applied studio-marketing techniques to independent films," Biskind said. The company put movies in more theaters, did much more television advertising, aggressively promoted Oscar buzz and increased the budgets, especially after it was acquired by the Walt Disney Co.
Mainstream studios took notice after the 1994 success of Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," which cost $8 million and took in more than $100 million at the U.S. box office, Biskind said.
Those studios soon set up "independent" or "specialty" units of their own, simultaneously making money and earning respect. Recent "Indiewood" films include "Sideways" and "Lost in Translation."
The prestige associated with independent films pulled Hollywood stars to the sets, while the financial potential lured executives to the festivals.
The Sundance Film Festival in Utah emerged as an "important place to showcase and sell 'Indiewood' and truly independent films," noted Eugene Hernandez, editor-in-chief of Indiewire.com, an online community of filmmakers and fans.
Hernandez points to "Hustle and Flow" as an example. The independent film about a pimp-turned-rapper showed this year at Sundance. Paramount Pictures and MTV Films bought the distribution rights for a record $9 million.
"A whole industry has grown up around independent films in the last 15 years ... It's a big business now," said Hernandez, whose Web site is among those helping fuel interest in the independent scene.
"There are still truly independent films being made today, but those 'indies' are not being made by studios or in what we call 'Indiewood,'" Hernandez said by e-mail.
Some of the films that don't find a distributor at the festivals have an outlet on cable TV, thanks in part to the Sundance Channel, the Independent Film Channel, and HBO (a unit of Time Warner, as is CNN). Other films might find an audience on DVD or even on the Internet.
Moving closer to mainstream
The audience has grown along with the movement, pushing it closer to the mainstream.
"As more marketing dollars have been put into the mix from the studios, there is more and more awareness available of small movies like 'Napoleon Dynamite,' 'The Blair Witch Project,' 'Super Size Me,' 'Whale Rider,' or 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'" Hernandez said.
"Super Size Me," a documentary that followed its maker as he ate nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days, earned $11 million on a $300,000 investment, according to the online movie database IMDb.com.
"Sideways" is an example of what some term an "Indiewood" movie, an independent and studio hybrid.
"Napoleon Dynamite," a 2004 indie film about a quirky high schooler, became such a hit that a toy manufacturer has announced a planned line of action figures.
Last year also saw the highest-grossing independent film ever, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," which made $370 million in U.S. theaters alone, according to IMDb.com.
While the box office success of "Passion" was extremely rare, filmmaker Spheeris believes moviegoers are hungry for alternative and thought-provoking entertainment.
"Hollywood is just regurgitating material that they've already done, and I think the public is rather fatigued with it so they're looking for other things," Spheeris said. "The studios have taken the safe road for too long, but when you're making a $100 million movie you have to take the safe road because you have so much at risk."
That statement could be supported by recent box office numbers: The action-packed and much-hyped "Stealth" opened in 3,495 theaters and took in just $13.5 million - $3,862 per theater. On the same weekend, the independent film "The Aristocrats" raked in $260,000 in just four theaters -- $65,000 per theater, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
Even if the studios stick to proven formulas and directors and focus on opening weekend returns, Spheeris predicts a great future for independent films.
She says filmmakers who are passionate about sharing their stories have many financing options outside the studios, including wealthy individuals with a newfound interest in films, corporate sponsorship and tax breaks offered in some states and in Canada.
Technology is also revolutionizing the field. Digital video and computers are bringing the cost of production and editing down, while new distribution lines are opening up. Spheeris hopes filmmakers will be able to distribute their films directly to theaters via satellite.
That's a mixed blessing, Spheeris said.
"There's a great phrase. The good news is now everybody can make a movie, and the bad news is now everybody can make a movie.'"
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