Orion's fall and eventual bankruptcy demonstrated to the other independents that economic survival depended heavily on 'cooperation' and 'symbiosis' with the conglomerated majors, the only companies with the power to release a product in every possible exhibition outlet and therefore maximise its profitability. Furthermore, the conglomerates also had the financial muscle to absorb any losses at a time of box office dry spells like the one Orion experienced in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The symbiosis between majors and independents has primarily taken two forms. First, it has taken the form of corporate takeovers, whereby independent companies were bought out by the majors but were left to operate as semi-autonomous units (Miramax, New Line and a number of the so-called 'neo-indies' such as Morgan Creek, Castle Rock, and so on).1 Second, it has taken the form of distribution contracts, whereby independent production companies became satellite companies for major distributors (much like Orion with Warner [1978-82]). Whatever the form, commercial independent film production and distribution have become increasingly 'dependent' on the entertainment conglomerates, to the extent that the label 'independent' has become even more contentious than it was in the previous decades while the discourse on independent cinema has expanded to such an extent that the vast majority of films produced in the US can be considered independent.
The majors, moreover, have not controlled the independent sector only through their close ties with independent producers and distributors. They have also utilised their 'classics' divisions, subsidiaries that were originally established to distribute non-American films in the United States. Starting with United Artists Classics, which, among the films of Truffaut, Fassbinder and Schlondorff, also distributed a few low-budget American-based productions such as Lianna (Sayles, 1983) and Streamers (Altman, 1984), other classics divisions (Orion Classics, 20th Century-Fox International Classics) gradually shifted their interest from acquisitions of non-US films to distribution of independently produced and financed American films. This shift became particularly evident in the 1990s when a new breed of classics divisions such as Sony Pictures Classics, Fine Line Features (a classics division of the major independent New Line Cinema), Paramount Classics and Fox Searchlight entered the market followed by Warner Independent and Picturehouse Entertainment (a classics division set up by New Line Cinema and HBO) in the 2000s. As a result, an increasingly large number of low-budget independently produced and financed films found their way to theatrical exhibition while more and more of the profits from the commercial exploitation of these films were ending up in the majors' pockets (via their classics subsidiaries).
With the conglomerates controlling and defining the rules of the game in the independent sector, companies with no ties with their (the conglomerates') film distribution divisions (the majors, the major independents and the classics) have been pushed to the periphery of the industry, destined for a life of financial struggle that more often than not has led to bankruptcy (see Table 8.2). Only a handful of companies, led by 'indie powerhouse' Lions Gate, 2 have survived without the support of a corporate parent in the 2000s. This demonstrates clearly that American independent cinema has become a category of filmmaking practised mainly by the majors, a view that has forced critics and filmmakers to suggest that nowadays an independent film is 'a euphemism for a small-studio pro-duction'.3 In other words, independent film has become an 'industrial category', much like genre and auteurism, which the controllers of the industry have been utilising increasingly to market low-budget films that do not contain any conventional commercial elements (stars, a name-director, special effects, clear genre frameworks, and so on). As a result, the use of the label 'independent' has become increasingly difficult to sustain, and new, more ambiguous labels such as 'indie' (short for independent but also signifying a film that could have been produced and/or distributed by any major independent or classics division) and 'indiewood' ('a grey area' between Hollywood and the independent sector)4 have become staples of the vocabulary used by filmmakers, film critics and industry analysts alike.
The majors' entry to the independent sector, especially after 1989 when the financial success of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape demonstrated that - given the right marketing and exploitation - low-budget independently produced film had the potential for extraordinary box office grosses, precipitated the establishment of a powerful institutional apparatus that supported a particular brand of independent filmmaking. This brand has been characterised by a number of elements associated with mainstream Hollywood cinema, especially its firm grounding in narrative, and a number of alternatives, which, according to Geoff King, include 'the experimental "avant-garde", the more accessible "art" or "quality" cinema, the politically engaged, the low-budget exploitation film and the more generally offbeat or eccentric.'5
The eclectic mixture of conventions from all these modes of filmmaking has created a distinct type of (generally low-budget) film that has been labelled independent primarily because of its difference from mainstream American cinema (special effects-driven blockbusters and expensive genre/star vehicles) and very often regardless of whether the film has been financed, produced and/or distributed by an independent company, a classics division, a major independent or even a major company. A particularly good example here is Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Anderson, 2004), a film that borrows from most of the alternative modes of filmmaking but was financed and released by Buena Vista, Disney's distribution arm.
Although the foundations of the institutional apparatus of American independent cinema were put into place in the late 1970s/early 1980s with the establishment of such non-commercial organisations dedicated to supporting independent filmmaking as the Independent Feature Project (1979) and the Sundance Institute (1981), the majors' entry ensured that an increasingly large number of films, often supported by the above organisations, would find their way to commercial exhibition. On the other hand, the success of some of these films (like sex, lies, and videotape, which grossed $24.7 million in the United States and approximately $30 million in the rest of the world),6 enhanced the status and prestige of the organisations that nurtured or supported them and increased their visibility both with the public and with the film/entertainment community. Furthermore, the institutional apparatus of American independent cinema benefited from the existence of a small number of independent distributors, which, despite their generally short lifespan and their eventual marginalisation in recent years, contributed substantially to the success of the above type of filmmaking in the late 1980s and 1990s (Cinecom [1980-90], Skouras Pictures [1985-94], October Films [1990-7] among others.)
With this level of support behind it, this brand of independent filmmaking began to blossom in the late 1980s to the extent that critics and filmmakers alike started talking about 'an independent movement', albeit one that has existed in almost perfect harmony with the majors and their overwhelming control of the entertainment industry. The chapter will discuss the emergence of this 'movement' and its contentious relationship to the conglomerated majors. First, however, a brief examination of the phenomenon of the satellite production company in the post-Orion era through a discussion of two 'rich' independent companies, Phoenix Pictures and Revolution Studios.
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