What do we mean by American indie or independent cinema? Ask any two commentators and you’re likely to get several different answers. My aim here is to set out some of the usual usages of these terms, including my own take, along with consideration of some other associated concepts.
At its most general, independent is usually taken to mean any kind of film-making or cinema distinct in some way from that of the Hollywood studios – although what that amounts to is far from always that clear-cut.
But in that general usage, it can embrace a very wide range, including types of non-Hollywood filmmaking that don’t necessarily have anything else in common with each other. In this sense, it’s defined negatively more than positively; by what it isn’t rather than what it is. That is not the main focus of this site, which is on a more specific version of American independent cinema, often distinguished by the use of the term indie instead of independent. More on that below.
The inclusive notion of independence, defined in that negative manner, would embrace many different kinds of examples. Here are a few (a list to which many more could be added):
- Films made outside the control exerted by the Patents company in the early years of American cinema in the 1890s and early 1900s, before the formulation of the studio system that consolidated from the 1920s
- The low-budget ‘B’ movies produced by outfits such as Republic, Monogram and many others during the 1930s
- Expensive ‘A’ pictures made by figures such as David Selznick and Sam Goldwyn in the 1930s and 1940s (films that would seem entirely ‘Hollywood’ in form and content)
- Racially or ethnically defined low-budget filmmaking that often existed in parallel with the Hollywood mainstream in the ‘classical’ era, examples of which include the independent black-oriented (but white-financed) films of Oscar Micheaux.
- Low budget ‘exploitation’ pictures produced at various times in the history of American film, notable examples including the work of Roger Corman at American International Pictures in the 1950s and 1960s and various examples of low-budget horror
- Politically-defined independent filmmaking in various instances, including some historical examples funded by trade unions
- Pornography of various kinds and degrees
- Avant-garde or experimental filmmaking, including the works of filmmakers such as Maya Deren and Stan Brakehage
- ‘Underground’ filmmaking such as the work of Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol and the Kuchar brothers
- Many post-war films generally within the Hollywood orbit but which were produced independently as part of the general move towards a contracted-out system of production (in most cases, though, this is more usefully seen as still firmly a part of the Hollywood system; by some definitions, many expensive blockbusters are independent in this sense, a use of the term that does not seem very helpful in distinguishing different types of cinema).
- Some of the films associated with the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ from the mid-to-late 1960s to the mid-to-late 1970s, a period in which Hollywood briefly and partially embraced some alternative voices from outside
- In some cases overseas films distributed in the United States are also included as part of the repertoire of what circulates in independent territory, even if obviously not American themselves
- The ‘indie’ version of independent cinema that came to prominence from the mid-to-late 1980s and especially from the early 1990s, associated with the work of filmmakers such as Jim Jarmusch, the Coen brothers, Todd Haynes and Quentin Tarantino.
The latter is the strand of American independent cinema around which this site and my published work on the subject is focused.
The best way to avoid confusion, I suggest, is always to be clear in what sense terms such as indie or independent are used in any particular instance or context.
What about the grounds on which indie or independence are defined? You’ll find more on this in the introduction to my book American Independent Cinema, but it’s worth summarizing one key point here.
The versions of independence listed above all implicitly share one basis of definition: an industrial definition, based on their separation from the dominant, mainstream Hollywood industry. Some argue that that’s the only real basis on which independent can be defined.
But an industry-based definition is not sufficient to encompass every way in which individual films or versions of independence/indie might be marked as more or less different from the commercial mainstream.
We can also define independence on grounds relating to form and content; that’s to say, aspects of the films themselves, not just the industrial location from which they come (although these different dimensions are, of course, closely interlinked).
Formally: Some indie/independent films use the language of film in ways that depart from mainstream convention and that can become a key part of their grounds of definition as independent. This is not the case with all forms of independence, broadly defined, or of all indie films as more narrowly defined; but it is an important dimension in some cases.
Content: The same goes for content, the subject matter of independent films, the way particular issues are treated, more or less overtly, and the socio-political implications of this. Some independent films offer an alternative, sometimes more radical, picture of the world that can be an important part of what makes them independent. Again, this is not the case in anything like all instances.
A key part of my argument in American Independent Cinema is that degrees of difference from the more commercial mainstream can vary in different examples – across all three of these levels: the industrial, the formal, and at the socio-cultural-political-ideological level of the vision of the world that is implied.
Indie film, in that specific form identified above, tends to occupy a middle space, a territory that lies in between the most commercial/mainstream and the more radical end of the film spectrum. It’s not usually very radical in its difference; in most cases, more nuanced. It can usually quite clearly be distinguished from avant-garde or experimental work that leans more towards the abstract exploration of form; and from the more transgressive world of underground film (although this in itself is a sometimes contested category). It is also only rarely overtly radical at a political level, other than in some examples of politically-oriented documentary.
The distinction between indie and Hollywood is sometimes quite clear-cut, but not always. One of the features of the development of the indie movement during the latter part of the 1990s was an increased involvement by Hollywood, particularly through the creation by the studios of their own ‘speciality’ divisions, usually semi-autonomous from the parent studio and designed to handle indie-type films. The result is what is often known as Indiewood, a territory in which the indie/Hollywood distinction is blurred (for more on this see my book, Indiewood, USA: Where Hollywood Meets Independent Cinema).
Some have argued that indie, as a distinct category or phase within the broader notion of independence has now come to an end, primarily as a result of the dominance gain by Indiewood. See, for example, the claims of Ted Hope, a long-time prominent figure in the indie landscape, available here. I argue against this, suggesting that more continuity can be found across the years from the 1980s to the early years of the second decade of the twenty-first century that is sometimes allow. This is an argument I develop in a new book, Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary Indie Film, published in December 2013.