From Independent To Specialty Cinema

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Throughout the decades of the twentieth century the discourse of American independent cinema has expanded and contracted to include a wide variety of production and distribution practices, a diverse array of aesthetic strategies and an immense range of films: from the top-rank films distributed mainly by United Artists in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s to the Poverty Row quickies; from the high-budget independent films of the hyphenate filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to the cheaply produced youth-oriented genre films of the same period; from the New Hollywood films of the 1970s to the exploitation fare of companies like AIP and Crown; from the new political filmmaking of the late 1970s to the minimajors and major independents of the 1980s to the outburst of low-budget filmmaking in the 1990s and 2000s, which arguably reached its peak with the release of Tarnation (Caouette, 2004), the Sundance sensation of 2004, which allegedly cost just $218 to produce.

Despite the existence of commercial independent filmmaking throughout the history of American cinema, it was only in recent years (the post-1980 period) when this type of cinema was widely perceived as an alternative proposal. This was mainly because from the late 1970s onwards mainstream American cinema started placing particular emphasis on the production and distribution of franchise films with great potential for further reiteration in the ancillary markets and on star-driven genre films that were guaranteed to deliver particular audience demographics. Hollywood's shift towards these types of films gradually became so noticeable that the low-budget films of John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch and Spike Lee in the 1980s were perceived by audiences as real alternatives to the commercial Hollywood fare, while the origins of most of the films outside the majors led film critics and industry practitioners alike to employ the term independent to describe them. Unlike the mindless, crass commercialism and harmless entertainment of the majors' blockbusters, independent films were seen as examples of cinematic art that dealt with real issues and refused to compromise aesthetically, thematically and ideologically in exchange for a higher box office take.

As the majors' emphasis on blockbuster films accelerated in the 1990s, so did the emergence and establishment of this distinct, (relatively) low-budget form of filmmaking. Supported by an increasingly expansive institutional apparatus, audiences became progressively more aware of independent films to the extent that some of these films became great commercial successes and demonstrated that low-budget, edgier, offbeat and quirky pictures were also in a position to find a large enough audience to return substantial profits to the producers and distributors involved. Even though from the mid-1990s onwards an increasing number of these films originated in the majors' classics divisions, the momentum independent cinema had built up since the late-1980s did not cease to exist. For certain audiences, American independent cinema was a distinct-from-Hollywood category of filmmaking and was perceived as an attraction in itself. The label independent became a signifier of prestige and status for a large number of films that lacked any traditional commercial elements. In this respect, 'independent cinema' became an extremely important industrial category, often the only way of marketing esoteric or idiosyncratic films to an increasingly large audience.

In the 2000s, however, this situation has changed dramatically. The sheer volume of films that might fall under the rubric of independent filmmaking has reached such high levels that the label has lost its marketing power (not to mention its meaning). According to Variety, advertising a film as an indie production in today's marketplace is as 'current as Tarantinoesque'. 'After a decade of inflated expectations met with erratic B.O. returns,' the trade publication continues, '"indie" has lost much of its rugged appeal. It's become shorthand for movies that are small in concept, weren't produced with the bottom line in mind and were released by companies that are going out of business.'1 In other words, the prestige and status associated with the label in the previous decade has suddenly disappeared.

At the same time, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of non-American films breaking box office records in the United States: Life is

Beautiful (Benigni, 1999; $57.5 million), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000; $128 million), Amélie (Jeunet, 2001; $33 million), Hero (Yimou Zhang, 2004; $53.6 million), Kung Fu Hustle (Chow, 2004; $18 million) and The Motorcycle Diaries (Salles, 2004; $18 million). The success of the above films and of hundreds of others that have grossed less than $10 million has made European and Asian cinema in particular another significant commercial alternative to mainstream Hollywood, in a way that the art-house cinema of the 1960s and 1970s never was. This is particularly evident in the fact that all the above titles were distributed theatrically by major independents like Miramax (Life is Beautiful, Amélie and Hero) and classics divisions of the majors like Sony Pictures Classics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle) and Focus Features (The Motorcycle Diaries), while independent distributors released less successful titles such as Y Tu mamá También (Cuarón, 2001; $13.6 million; IFC Films).2

Although the release of non-American films by classics divisions and independent distribution companies is certainly no surprise as both types of distributors have been releasing art-films from inception, the staggering commercial success of these films in recent years has forced these companies to develop a similar institutional framework for their support as the one developed for the American films. Given the small size of the majority of these companies and the instability of the market, expansion was not an option. As a result, a large part of the industrial infrastructure and the resources used to support almost exclusively American low-budget filmmaking in the 1990s has now shifted to support European and Asian cinema in order to ensure the full exploitation of such imported films in the United States.

With non-American films demanding equal attention alongside the American ones from major independents, classics divisions and independent distributors, the discourse of American independent cinema has once again expanded to accommodate recent developments. As a result, industry analysts and practitioners have started dropping the term independent, opting instead for the more inclusive 'niche' or 'specialty' labels. As Variety put it pragmatically, 'in a product-saturated marketplace, you don't sell tickets on a director's oeuvre or a stellar review in the New York Times. These days, ya gotta have a niche . . . 'niche' is a nice way of saying 'anything we can sell.'3 And as it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the use of the term independent, the term 'specialty' has also been utilised increasingly. Another Variety editorial explains the reason: 'while studios often label their specialty division as "indies," they are exerting more control over them . . . And history has shown that the niches that flourish best, like Sony Classics and Focus, are the ones with the least meddling from the parent.'4

Although this shift in the discourse of American independent cinema seems to suggest that independent filmmaking does not exist anymore, this is far removed from the truth. The label might have changed (or be in the process of changing), but the type of film it signifies continues to thrive and represent the most likely source of original and challenging material in American cinema. The difference is that this type of film is now accompanied by, and competes against, other such films originating outside the United States.


1. Harris, Dana (2003), 'H'wood renews niche pitch: Studios add fresh spin as they rev up 'art' divisions', in Variety, 7 April 2003, pp. 1 and 54.

2. The figures are taken from the Internet Movie Database (http: / /www.

4. Mohr, Ian (2005), 'Too Big for their Niches: Specialty Arms Are Angst-Ridden as Studios Shake Up Biz Plans', in Variety, 21 March 2005, pp. 1 and 41.

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