Further Note on Independent Films

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Independent' is a term which has often been applied particularly to American films since the 1960s, as in 'US Independents'. But what does 'independent' mean in the cinema? We may recall that the early years of American film-making were dominated by the Motion Picture Patents Company, and it was only when the MPPC's activities were judged illegal in 1915 that other struggling companies became successful. These fledgling companies included Warner Brothers and Paramount, who were at the time the 'independents' of American cinema.

Some 50 years later, as the studio system had to find ways to adapt to the 1948 antitrust legislation, changing lifestyles and television competition, increasing numbers of films were produced by 'independent' companies: companies set up, sometimes by maverick filmmakers, for the production of a single film; such companies hired facilities from the studios but were otherwise financially independent. However, as successful production companies were established, and as the restriction on vertical integration was eroded during the Reagan years, powerful commercial concerns came to dominate all sectors of the industry, most noticeably distribution (see pp. 66-7 above). It is thus very debatable whether the films of Tarantino and Jarmusch, for example, can really be called 'independent'; Pulp Fiction, for all its innovation, was co-financed by Miramax, as was Jarmusch's Dead Man (1995).

Perhaps the only productions which can be considered 'independent' are those dependent neither on Hollywood or multinational conglomerate finance nor on state sponsorship. Truly independent films would thus not be purely commercially driven, and would be produced for aesthetic or political reasons. The style and content of such films would challenge mainstream conventions and ideologies. Truly independent cinema stands apart from popular or commercial mainstream film and is generally considered to be marginalized, alternative, or oppositional.

Though films which refuse the dominant rules of story-telling form a tiny percentage of all films ever made, they have been (and continue to be) an important part of film history and culture. Why is this?

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