Indie Inc & Hollywood’s Indies: book reviews

A major boost to research on the indie-oriented Hollywood speciality divisions comes in the shape of two new books on the subject that I’ve now had the chance to read: Indie Inc: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s by Alisa Perren (University of Texas Press) and Hollywood’s Indies: Classics Divisions, Speciality Labels and the American Film Market by Yannis Tzioumakis (Edinburgh University Press). I’ve got a few  quibbles with the arguments of both of these, but there’s no doubt that they are a useful addition to scholarship on this subject, a crucial part of the broader indie sector, especially from the 1990s. This is a rather brief, outline sketch review of the two which doesn’t claim to be a definitive or anything like exhaustive account.

The appearance of these books at much the same time is rather fortuitous as they complement each other nicely. Tzioumakis offers a survey of all of the speciality divisions except Miramax, including earlier studio dabblings in this territory during the 1980s, while Perren focus on the most influential, Miramax. There are swings and roundabouts for each in the choice of focus. The choice of Tzioumakis not to include Miramax can’t help seeming a slightly perverse one. His rationalisation is partly that Miramax should be seen more as a ‘mini-major’ than as a speciality division, which I don’t find convincing: it was a speciality division and crucial to the broader development of these, even if one that eventually got to grandiose in some of its ambitions than was acceptable to its parent, Disney. Tzioumakis does not entirely ignore Miramax, as that would be pretty much impossible in writing about the others, the strategies of which at some moments were partly responses to the dominating role played by the Disney division, but it does seem odd for it not to have its own chapter. The other argument is the very fact that Perren’s book was in the pipeline, so there’s an extent to which the relative coverage of each wasn’t just happenstance. Focusing on just one example gives Perren more space to consider the broader media-industry context than is the case in the Tzioumakis, which adds to the extent to which they work together as a pairing.

What these books most usefully offer is plenty of good, close detail about the operations of these entities. Tzioumakis offers a detailed account of the various differences of strategy that can be identified from one to another. Perren stresses the variety of material embraced by Miramax, including the importance of its genre division, Dimension, and the role of overseas imports of various kinds as well as ‘quality’-type American indies. Developments that come through from each include a gradual shift in this territory from a primary focus on overseas imports to US indies and English-language imports, accompanied by an increased emphasis on production as well as the acquisition of completed titles that was the initial basis of such operations. The broad lines of this are quite familiar from previous accounts, but there is a wealth of closer detail here.  In some of these areas, what these books offer is perhaps more a filling in of such detail than the provision of substantial new insights. At times, in my view, both books claim to be doing something new, or offering new perspectives, a bit more than is really the case, but I’m perhaps not a very neutral judge of this having written on such subjects myself. Perren also, for me, somewhat overstates quite how much effect the strategies of Miramax had elsewhere. They certainly were very influential in various ways, but I’m not sure they ‘revolutionised’ the whole of cinema in the manner that she suggests rather sweepingly in places.

The focus of both is primarily on the industrial dimension, so there’s not much in either about any of the films themselves other than in very brief and passing characterisation. That, again, is a matter of what can be achieved in any one text and isn’t really a ground on which to criticise either author. Perren does on occasion claim to be going to look at the films themselves rather more than she does in any great detail. Tzioumakis ends up producing lists of titles some of the time, rather than giving us much sense of what sorts of films are entailed. This can come over as a bit dull-but-dutiful in places, but that again is really just the inevitable outcome of what can be fitted into one volume that seeks to cover so many divisions and to give a sense of the shifts of strategy, and reasons for this, in each case. A more detailed case study is offered for each chapter on a single division but that just left me wanting a bit more about more of the films themselves – more of a flavour of what kinds of films were encompassed by these entities. I offer much more detailed and sustained close textual analysis of case-study examples in my Indiewood, USA – but doing that, of course, limits the space for exploration of other dimensions. So you do get what you pay for in all of these cases.

I disagree with some of the arguments of each of these two about the nature of status of ‘indie’ as a category. Perren insists on using that term only for the domain of the studio divisions, which seems unhelpfully restrictive to me, missing much of the broader cultural resonance of the term (for more on that, see Michael Z. Newman’s Indie: An American Film Culture). She also separates out ‘independent’ as referring to the 1980s and ‘indie’ as referring to the 1990s, which also seems unduly reductive and an oversimplification of that is more generally suggested by such terms (Tzioumakis offers a similar although somewhat different periodization in his chapter in our forthcoming collection American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, in which he separates out separate ‘independent’, ‘indie’ and ‘indiewood’ periods). This isn’t to argue that there were not significant shifts from one decade to another, but to suggest that they were not quite so clear cut and aren’t best characterised by such a usage of those terms in this manner. I could go on about this at great length, but won’t here! I also fail quite to understand Perren’s suggestion that ‘indie’ came to an end, which doesn’t seem right to me in either her definition or the wider usage I’d give to the term (there’s certainly no suggestion that the closure of some speciality divisions from 2008 led to the complete end of that part of the sector).

I’m similarly unconvinced by the suggestion by Tzioumakis that the term ‘independent’ has lost it’s meaning as a result of over-use, including the appropriation of the term for marketing purposes. Yes, these might have made the term contentious and embattled; but to suggest that it as a result became meaningless seems to me to miss to the point about the nature of such terms, which is that they are precisely always likely to be fought over and subject to appropriation, attempts to re-define, rescue, etc. I’ve got this far without yet plugging my forthcoming book, Indie 2.0, but this is a dimension of the discursive notions of indie/independent I explore there. Such terms are messy and subject to various forms of contest, but isn’t that one of the things that make them so rich a subject of study, rather than seeking to put them into narrow boxes or dismiss their continued relevance? We’ll continue to argue about this, I’m sure!

Overall, though, these remain essential additions to any library of studies of recent/contemporary indie film. They are both clear, well-argued accounts of considerable substance, whatever disagreements I might have on some specific points. Might only be for libraries at present, given their hardback only availability, but hopefully they’ll be out in paperback before too long.

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