After decades in the margins of the industry and despite the continuing problems of definition, American independent cinema has finally established itself as a relatively distinct category of filmmaking both in the global entertainment industry and in public discourse. As a matter of fact, it has become such an integral part of the larger Hollywood cinema that in the IFP/West Independent Cinema Awards of 1999, James Schamus suggested the disbandment of the IFP. As the organisation was formed to support 'personal, idiosyncratic, and sometimes controversial voices of filmmakers working outside of the established studio system', by the end of the 1990s, Schamus argued, it certainly had 'won its battles'.72
The institutionalisation of American independent cinema has succeeded in making a particular brand of filmmaking marketable at
Figure 8.2 Hardly 'clerking'. Inexperienced actors Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson, who played the two main leads in Clerks, contributed substantially to the fresh feel of Kevin Smith's film.
a global level and in effect helped a very large number of personal, idiosyncratic and offbeat films receive theatrical distribution and often find an audience. Despite arguments that see the terms independent and institution as mutually exclusive, the emergence of an institutional framework laid the foundations for a staggering increase in the number of new filmmakers from all kinds of backgrounds in the United States. As a result commercial cinema went often to areas that had been previously uncharted and American film has come closer and closer to being 'a democratic art.'
Case Study: The definitive independent film sex, lies, and videotape and the New American Independent Cinema (Steven Soderbergh, 1989, 100 min.), produced by Outlaw Productions, distributed by Miramax Films.
'No movie in the sound era has had a greater importance on indie cinema . . . than sex, Lies, and Videotape' (Merritt, 2000, p. 312); 'It's hard to think of a more influential indie than Soderbergh's first feature, sex, lies, and videotape . . . The film forever changed the public perception of independent movies' (Levy, 1999, p. 94); it [sex, lies, and videotape] 'was the paradigmatic independent film' (Biskind, 2005, p. 40); 'sex, lies, and videotape . . . remains a milestone in development of the indie sector as we know it today' (King, 2005, p. 261).
Although American independent cinema has had a number of landmark films since the breakthrough success of sex, lies, and videotape (slav) in 1989 (The Blair Witch Project  and My Big Fat Greek Wedding  which scored $140.5 million and $241.4 million at the US box office alone, represent unequivocal commercial triumphs for independent cinema), Soderbergh's film is still casting its shadow on the independent sector, despite changes in the industry, the majors' entry and the overwhelming institutionalisation of this type of cinema. This is, arguably, because the film's production background, its rise to the public eye, its marketing and distribution history, its subject matter, several of its narrative and formal dimensions and its wide critical and financial success created an ideal for American independent film, against which future individual films would be judged for most of the 1990s. As slav hit all the right notes and was seen by audiences as large as those associated with major films, it succeeded in opening up the gates for the emergence of more low-budget films with similar production/distribution histories, offbeat subject matter, challenging narrative and visual style, and so on.
Prior to sex, lies, and videotape, Steven Soderbergh had little filmmaking experience. After taking filmmaking classes as a teenager and making a small number of short films between 1977 and 1979, Soderbergh moved from Louisiana to California to break into the industry. For the following eight years he wrote a number of scripts, none of which attracted any interest from a production company, while also making a few more short films and working in a number of film-related jobs. He eventually made a documentary for the rock band Yes, Yes 9012 (1986), which was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Video (Long Form) category. In 1988 Outlaw Productions, a recently established independent production company, optioned one of Soderbergh's screenplays, Dead from the Neck Up. Soderbergh who, by that time had returned to Louisiana, decided to drive back to California to develop the script and write the screenplay for another film Outlaw was developing, Revolver. On the way to Los Angeles, he drafted a third script which became the basis for sex, lies, and videotape.
On the basis of the script's strength, Outlaw arranged financing from RCA/Columbia Home Video, which put up $600,000 in exchange for US home video rights, and Virgin, which put up the rest of the $1.2 million dollars in exchange for all rights outside the United States and Canada (Wiese, 1992, p. 143). With the budget secure, Soderbergh shot the film with a group of relatively well known actors (James Spader, Andy McDowell, Peter Gallagher), newcomer Laura San Giacomo and a small production team at his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The film, which largely revolves around a series of verbal exchanges between four main characters in interior locations, was shot in five weeks within the allocated budget. Soderbergh also assumed editing duties and had the final cut of the film ready for its premiere at the US Film Festival.
Although the film lost the Grand Jury Prize award to True Love (Savoca), it won the Audience Award for Best Feature. It attracted the interest of a number of distributors, including some of the majors, which nevertheless balked at the news that home video rights had been pre-sold (Wiese, 1992, p. 144). At that point US theatrical, pay-TV and syndication rights where the only ones left, which made the possibility of a theatrical distribution deal very difficult. However, Miramax agreed to purchase all remaining rights for $1 million, while also investing an extra $1 million in print and advertising costs.
To start the film's marketing campaign Miramax took sex, lies, and videotape to the Cannes Film Festival of 1989. Although there had been one precedent when an independent filmmaker had won one of the festival's awards in the past (Jim Jarmusch had won the Golden Camera for Stranger than Paradise in 1984), it was extremely rare for an independent film to be accepted in the competition programme.
Surprisingly, sex, lies, and videotape won the Palme d'or and started a trend whereby three more American independent films won it in the following five years, Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990), Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1991) and Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994). The film became one of the most anticipated films of the year and Miramax carefully designed a marketing strategy before the film's official release in New York and Los Angeles in August 1989.
Miramax's strategy focused primarily on the 'sex' element of the title, pitching the film as an adult comedy about sex. With the poster featuring two couples (one hugging and one about to kiss), Miramax also exploited the (small) star power of the film, especially James Spader who was relatively well known through a series of roles in teenage comedies and dramas in the mid-1980s. The poster also highlighted the film's victory at Cannes, while also featuring recommendations from arguably the three most well known reviewers in the United States, Vincent Canby (New York Times), Roger Ebert (Chicago-Sun Times) and Richard Corliss (Time Magazine). The distributor opened the film at the end of the summer period in only four theatres (in New York and Los Angeles) to build word-of-mouth further. The results justified Miramax's decision. The film scored $46,220 per theatre and eventually reached a record (for an art-film) of 536 screens and took approximately $25 million at the US box office (the figures are taken from http:// www.boxofficeguru.com/s.htm).
If the majority of the audience went to the cinema expecting a provocative film about sex or, more precisely, about scopophilia, the film offered just that but on a different level. Without a single shot of nudity, the film explores four people's attitudes to sex (and love) as they elaborate these in a series of encounters among them. Graham's arrival to Baton Rouge to spend a weekend with his old college friend, John, and his frigid wife, Ann, becomes a catalyst for all parties involved (the above three and Ann's sister, Cynthia, who's been having an affair with John) to reconsider their views on sex and their relationships to each other, and embrace the possibility of a happier future.
Although both the film's style and narrative structure are relatively conservative (the insertion of video images as flashbacks does not distract from a story the narration of which follows the rules of continuity editing) and therefore locate the film much closer to mainstream Hollywood than to the other alternatives open to independent film making, the picture stands out in terms of offering a mature and intelligent treatment of sex in contemporary society. Its emphasis on the discourse of sex rather than on the depiction of the act allows the film to place important questions about sex and love under the microscope. As a dialogue-driven film in which not a lot happens, sex, lies, and videotape would never have been made as a large-budget, studio-produced film, especially as the 1980s saw mainstream American cinema shifting towards high-concept films and politically charged action adventure pictures.
The film's spectacular financial success signalled the existence of a sizable market for films that differed from the Hollywood standard fare. In this respect, it did change the landscape of commercial independent cinema, especially as in the following years such films started coming from Hollywood as well as from outside it.
Case Study: 'I wanted to be an independent filmmaker. I wanted to work at Miramax.'
Kevin Smith's Clerks (Smith, 1994, 92 min.), produced by View Askew Productions, distributed by Miramax Films.
When Miramax was bought out by Disney in May 1993, industry observers and film critics did not know whether the company would be allowed to continue the distribution policies that had made it so successful in the independent market (become Disney's 'classics division') or whether the conservative major would impose on it its own business practices. The release of films like Pulp Fiction (Tarantino) and Clerks reassured fans of independent cinema that Miramax would continue to operate with the necessary autonomy and release films that its parent company would never be associated with. Although Pulp Fiction became the most successful film in Miramax's history till that time, 1994 was also the year of Clerks, a $27,000 production, financed by the filmmakers themselves (director Kevin Smith and producer Scott Mosier) and made into a success by Miramax's distribution machine. If Pulp Fiction represented glossy independent cinema backed by a large (for low-budget standards) negative costs (approximately $8 million), Clerks stood at the exact opposite end of the independent spectrum. It was made for next to nothing, featured no stars and looked like an amateur production.
The film was financed from a number of sources outside the industry. Having read that Robert Townsend financed Hollywood Shuffle (another key independent film of the early 1990s) through credit cards, Smith applied for a number of credit cards, the total limit of which provided him with half the budget. He raised the rest of the necessary funds by selling his comic-book collection, by using part of his college tuition fees (returned to him after dropping out of film school), from his wages from working at a convenience store (the Quick Stop cafe where the film was shot) and by deferring salaries and fees for every participant in the film.
After succeeding in raising approximately $25,000, Smith made a number of budget-specific decisions that determined the film's amateur aesthetic: he photographed the film in black and white stock (as lighting when filming in colour is more expensive); he used one 16mm camera for all the shots in the film; he used a number of long takes and master shots with very little camera movement (as this was the cheapest type of shot he could use); he hired inexperienced actors who contributed to the fresh feel of the film; he used the shop he was working at as the film's location, filming through the night; and he edited the film himself (with the help of Scott Mosier). The result was a personal film that, despite lacking fluidity of style, was characterised by the energy and freshness of its young makers.
Smith submitted the film to the Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM), one of the major showcases for work by independent filmmakers. Although the film's screening did not attract the interest of any distributor, it nevertheless attracted the attention of a member of the Sundance Advisory Committee, who invited Smith to compete at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994. The film won one of the main awards, the Filmmaker's Trophy, and was bought by Miramax during the run of the festival for $227,000. Almost half of this money went to blow up the film to 35mm so that it was suitable for commercial exhibition, while $40,000 went to repay the balance of the credit cards and the interest. The rest (approximately $80,000) went to the production team. By that time Miramax's reputation as the patron saint of independent filmmakers had been thoroughly established, to the extent that for Smith there was no other distributor (as the heading of this Case Study indicates [quoted in Biskind, 2005, p. 164]). Buying Clerks, however, was important for Miramax too as it sent a clear message to other independent distributors that, despite its new corporate parent, it would continue to select risqué or controversial films (Biskind, 2005, p. 164). Clerks was characterised by extremely strong language with constant references to sexual practice. The film received an NC-17 certificate, which is considered poison for the box office career of any film in the US market. Miramax responded by hiring the famous (for his participation in the OJ Simpson case) attorney Alan Dershowitz who managed to convince MPAA to change the rating to an R.
The film's ultra-low budget was exploited in the distribution and marketing of the film, in which Miramax invested substantial funds. As the film passed the $1 million mark in terms of gross, it was advertised as one of the most successful films in the history of cinema (in terms of budget-gross ratio). Its success was also assisted by Miramax's decision to place a trailer for the film in 800 prints of Pulp Fiction, targeting a particular youth demographic that was not expected to respond negatively to Smith's use of strong language or the quirky humour of the film's universe. Clerks grossed approximately $3 million and established Smith as one of the strongest voices in the independent sector. In the following years the film achieved cult status and has made handsome profits in the ancillary markets. Besides making the film available in various formats and versions, Smith and his collaborators have created numerous Clerks-related tie ins, which by 2003 included: autographed theatrical posters, a Clerks cartoon (shown originally on television and then made available on VHS and DVD), Clerks comic books, Clerks T-shirts, Clerks 16mm celluloid frames, Clerks bumper stickers, and Clerks soundtrack, autographed by Smith. In 2004, View Askew, Smith and Mosier's production company, and Miramax distributed the Tenth Anniversary DVD, while in 2006 the film's sequel, The Passion of the Clerks, will be distributed theatrically.
Since 1994, Smith has made all his other films (with the exception of Mallrats [1996, Universal]) at Miramax and, along with Quentin Tarantino, he has been associated heavily with the company. A large section of the plot from his 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back takes place at Miramax's studios, while the film's dialogue contains numerous references to the company and inside jokes. He has also spoken publicly about his relationship with the company to the extent that Peter Biskind has called him a 'Miramaxologist' (2005, p. 431).
1. According to Hillier, a 'neo-indie' is different to a mini-major in that the former establishes close ties with the majors, while the latter - as seen in the previous chapter - 'operates outside the orbit of the majors' (1994, p. 21).
2. DiOrio, Carl, 'Indies Form Powerhouse' in Variety, 3 November 2003, p. 16.
6. The figures are taken from Biskind, 2005, p. 82.
7. By 1998 the average negative cost for a film had reached $58 million with blockbuster films costing two or three times that figure. See http:// www. filmsite.org/90sintro.html.
8. Gooridge, Mike, 'The New Hollywood Way: A Business of Co-dependents', in Screen International, no 1330, 26 October 2001, p. 1.
9. The data is taken from 'Fact on Pacts', in Variety, 15 November 2004, p. 71.
10. Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.
13. Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.
14. Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.
16. Harris, Dana, 'Studio Dealmakers Still Stingy: Production Pacts Scarce but Warners, Columbia Revving up', in Variety, 11 November 2002, pp. 8-9.
17. Kay, Jeremy, 'Revolution: Master of Independents', in Screen International, no 1367, 9 August 2002.
18. Screen International, 26 October 2001, pp. 1 and 4.
19. Holmlund, 2005, p. 6; Levy, 1999, p. 94; Biskind, 2005, p. 40; Pierson, 1995, p. 2; King, 2005, p. 261; Merritt, 2000, p. 312.
21. The figures are taken from Goodridge, Mike, 'Developing World', in Screen International, no 1318, 27 July 2001, pp. 17-18.
22. Merritt, 2000, p. 354; Brown, Colin, 'Shoestring Films Get Knotted', in Screen International, no 1384, 6 December 2002, p. 10.
25. Screen International, no 1318, 27 July 2001, pp. 17-18.
27. See http://www.ifp.org/nav/about.php.
28. The number of members cited is as of 21 November 2005. See http://www. ifp.org/nav/about.php.
29. For a complete list of IFP's associates internationally see http: / /www. ifp.org/nav/about.php.
30. For details about how FIND shortlists and selects nominees for an Independent Spirit Award, see http://www.filmindependent.org/pdf/ Spirit_Awards_Rules.pdf.
31. For more information about the history of the organisation see http:// www.aivf.org/about/history.html.
33. The figures for Swingers were taken from Levy, 1999, p. 279; the figure for Spitfire Grill was taken from Biskind, 2005, p. 228.
34. Dawes, Amy, 'DVDs Lead the Way to Recovery for Indie Film', in Variety Supplement AFM 2003, 17 February 2003, pp. 13 and 32.
35. The figures are taken from Klain, Stephen, 'Prods Over-Value US Art Mart: Classics Eye Upfront Stakes as Terms Stiffen', in Variety, 4 May 1983, p. 532.
36. There was also a fourth early classics division, established by Universal (Universal Classics), but it only distributed four films between 1982 and 1983, none of which was an American production.
38. Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.
39. 'Klain, Steven, 'Orion Adds a "Classic" Accent; Bernard, Gigliotti Set New Unit', in Variety, 8 April 1983, pp. 3 and 31.
40. Harris, Dana, 'Mickey Seems M'maxed Out: Weinsteins Prep for the Long Goodbye', in Variety, 11 October 2004, pp. 1 and 15.
42. McNary, Dave, 'Par Reinventing Classics', in Variety, 4 October 2004, p. 5.
43. See http://wip.warnerbros.com/.
45. See http://www.unitedartists.com and Carver, Benedict, 'UA Films to Make 'Things:' Garcia Helming Ensemble Cast', in Variety-online, posted on 10 August 1999 at http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117750215? categoryid=13&cs=1.
46. Goldsmith, Jill, 'How Did Sony Do it? Smart Moves Extend Its Global Reach', in Variety, 4 October 2004, p. 1 and 132.
47. Although Orion went bankrupt in 1992, its classics division under a different management released a few more films in the next five years (including Trees Lounge (Buscemi, 1996) until the company was sold to MGM.
49. For a discussion of the debate over whether contemporary American independent cinema is a training ground for talent, see Levy, 1999, p. 506; Biskind, 2005, p. 470.
50. Bernard was quoted in Harris, Dana, 'H'wood Renews Niche Pitch: Studios Add Fresh Spin as They Rev Up 'Art' Divisions', in Variety, 7 April 2003, pp. 1 and 54.
51. Brodesser, Claude, 'Fox: A Brighter Searchlight', in Variety, 7 April 2003, p. 55.
52. Rooney, David, 'Niche Biz Comes into Focus: U Specialty Label Marries Taste with Overseas Savvy', in Variety, 2 August 2004, pp. 8 and 15.
56. Mohr, Ian, 'Too Big for Their Niche: Specialty Arms Are Angst-ridden as Studios Shake Up Biz Plans', in Variety, 21 March 2005, pp. 1 and 41.
57. 2002 was a particularly good year for Fox Searchlight and Focus Features in particular, whose films grossed $127 and $70 million respectively. DiOrio, Carl 'Bowling for Breakout Niche Pix: Year-end Platform Releases Could Hit Boffo B.O', in Variety, 18 November 2002, p. 9.
59. Arnold Messer, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA; Medavoy, interview with the author, 15 June 2004, Los Angeles, CA.
63. Rich's article 'New Queer Cinema' originally appeared in The Village Voice and was reprinted in Sight and Sound, September 1992, pp. 30-4.
68. The term homo pomo was coined by B. Ruby Rich in her 1992 article.
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