New Hope The Birth Of The New American Independent Cinema

With the top-rank independents engulfed in the structures of the major conglomerates and with low-budget exploitation producers out of necessity moving out of the theatrical and to the home video market, independent filmmaking was all but dead in the late 1970s. The repealing of tax credits, and especially the industry's obsession with the production of blockbusters, which made almost all newcomers to independent production ally themselves to a major distributor in order to finance expensive productions with the potential for handsome payoffs, made the practice of independent production (production with no ties to the majors) a virtual impossibility.48

At the same time, American culture and politics had been feeling the impact of a conservative movement that was associated with the rise of the New Right. By 1978, the New Right had become a major force in the country, advocating 'a politics of return' to 'pre-New Deal, pre-social welfare economics, to the traditional male-supremacist family, to fundamentalist religious values and to a time when United States was the most powerful military nation on earth.'49 Reacting especially against the politics of the counterculture, this conservative movement (the outcome of which was the sweeping victory of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election) found expression in a large number of popular films of the period, especially films made by or for the majors, and spearheaded a return to a 'simpler', more affirming Hollywood cinema.

One of the effects of this shift was the majors' gradual closing of doors to creative filmmakers or to filmmakers with dissenting political views, in short the individuals who had started the Hollywood Renaissance. Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Hopper and Friedkin among others gradually became marginal filmmakers in the 1980s. The final straw had come in 1980 when Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, a $44 million (production and marketing costs) epic that is often referred to as the last great auteurist film of the 1970s, sank without a trace at the US box office, recording an unbelievably poor $12,032,61 gross in its first run.50 The unprecedented commercial failure of the film precipitated the end of the most successful major of post-World War II Hollywood cinema, United Artists. In 1982 Transamerica sold United Artists to Kirk Kerkorian, already owner of MGM who retained the rights to the company's library of titles and dismantled its distribution network. UA went out of the film finance and distribution business and re-emerged in the mid-1990s as a small specialty distributor (see Chapter 8).

The above conditions clearly suggest that American cinema was once again under the claws of monopolisation, this time those of a decreasing number of conglomerated majors, while the force of the conservative movement was also threatening to turn the diverse, thought-provoking and stylistically and narratively challenging cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s into harmless entertainment. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the new breed of independent films that appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s were extremely low-budget, made completely away from the majors (or their numerous subsidiaries), were markedly different aesthetically and/or politically from mainstream films and occupied themselves with subjects that the majors' films avoided. In other words, as Peter Biskind put it, 'they were anything Hollywood was not.'51

Although, arguably, the key independent film of that time (Return of the Secaucus Seven [Sayles, 1980]) was financed by the filmmaker's savings and with loans from family members, many of these independents were supported by funding from various non-profit organisations including:

1. federal government grants (allocated primarily through the National Endowment for the Arts) and

2. local government grants (allocated primarily through municipal or state Film Bureaus, most of which were established after 1976);52 but mostly by

3. public television (the Corporation of Public Broadcasting [CPB] and its main programming outlet, Public Broadcasting Service [PBS], which was established in 1969).

The entrance of public television into the financing of independent filmmaking was orchestrated by the US Congress, which in 1978 mandated that 'public television should use substantial amounts of independently produced programming in pursuing its broad programme issues.'53 Established as an alternative to commercial television 'to provide diversity of viewpoint and vision, reflective of the diversity of [the American] nation',54 PBS (through its 'American Playhouse' series) quickly became one of the key financers of this new breed of independent filmmakers who produced films such as: Alambrista! (Young, 1978; financed in part by PBS); Northern Lights (R. Nilson and J. Hanson, 1978; financed in part by PBS); and Heartland (Pearce and A. Smith, 1979; financed in part by the NEA).

What is of particular importance here is that the ethos of public service broadcasting became a defining factor (at least initially) for the articulation of the new independent cinema. At a time when the mainstream film industry was moving towards the era of ancillary profits (video, cable and pay-TV in particular), this brand of independent filmmaking was occupied with voicing alternative views, representing minorities, examining social problems, uncovering 'hidden histories', in short dealing with subject matter that commercial television and (largely) film avoided. This is the point when American independent feature filmmaking became widely perceived as a vehicle for the articulation of alternative voices and political positions and therefore clearly different from other forms or brands, like top-rank and exploitation, of independent filmmaking.

The first new independent films were released theatrically either by existing art-film distributors (such as First Run Features, distributor of Northern Lights), which treated them as 'American art-house' pictures (giving them limited release and booking them to specialty theatres) or by other small distributors in search for any type of product during the cut-throat environment of the late 1970s (such as Levitt-Pickett, distributor of Heartland). Almost immediately, however, a new infrastructure in support of this type of filmmaking started emerging, especially after the commercial success of Return of the Secaucus Seven in 1980 (which grossed $2 million on a $60,000 budget-see the Case Study on p. 216). New distributors such as the Samuel Goldwyn Company (established in 1978 by Samuel Goldwyn Jr, son of the legendary independent producer and once part-owner of United Artists), Island Pictures (established in 1982 and re-labelled Island/Alive in 1983), Castle Hill Productions (established in 1980), and Cinecom (established in 1982), all formed within a few years of each other, were dedicated specifically to releasing this type of film while occasionally also distributing successful non-US films (more on the institutional support for independent films in Chapter 8).

With an institutional apparatus in the making, the new American independent cinema started demonstrating some commercial potential: My Dinner with Andre (Malle, 1981; distributed by New Yorker Films [an art-cinema distributor] - $1.9 million gross); Chan is Missing (Wang, 1982; distributed by New Yorker Films - $1 million); Eating Raoul (Bartel, 1982; co-distributed by Quartet Films and 20th Century-Fox International Classics - $4.7 million); El Norte (Nava, 1984; distributed by Island/Alive - $2.2 million); Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984; distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company - $2.5 million); Blood Simple (Joel Coen, 1984; distributed by Circle Films - $2.1 million); She's Gotta

Have it (Spike Lee, 1986; distributed by Island Pictures - $7.1 million).55 As Biskind put it:

where before there had been a trickle of poorly funded documentaries, supplemented by the occasional underfinanced grainy feature, there was now a comparative flood of slick, reasonably well-produced theatrical pictures . . . suddenly there seemed to be an indie movement. . . the hope was that these home-grown filmmakers would generate the energy, excitement and box office that Ingmar Bergman, the Italians and the French New Wave had enjoyed in the 1960s.56

Despite the fast emergence of an institutional framework dedicated to it, the new independent cinema of the late 1970s/early 1980s was clearly a cinema of filmmakers and especially of directors (often writer-directors). While in the low-budget exploitation sector during the previous decades it was the distributor or the production-distribution company that was primarily defining the film (Republic, Monogram, AIP, New World Pictures -with filmmakers like Edgar G. Ulmer, William Castle and Roger Corman being the exceptions), in the landscape of the new American independent cinema a film like Return of the Secaucus Seven was an 'independent film' and 'a John Sayles' film' but not 'a Libra/Specialty film'. In this respect, this type of cinema was certainly reminiscent of the cinema of John Cassavetes, whose personal approach to filmmaking became one of the key influences on this wave of independents. On the other hand, it was also reminiscent of the Hollywood Renaissance, another brand of independent cinema revolving around the filmmaker and often embracing oppositional values. The main differences between the two were: the Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers were allowed to work within the majors, while the new independents were not; and even though the Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers made relatively low-budget films, their budgets were large compared to the miniscule budgets of the new independents.

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