Indie 2.0 cover design

Now got a cover design for my new book, Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity in Contemporary American Indie Film, due out early next year:

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‘How to fake being an indie auteur’: indie and the notion of the contrived

I like this tongue-in cheek article from Suzanne Ballantyne, head of programming of the Raindance Film Festival: How to Fake Being An Indie Auteur part one and part two. It’s a witty satire of a number of indie cliches, but painfully close enough to the reality also to provide quite a useful portrait of a number of established indie qualities.

As Ballantyne suggests: ‘This is not about how to make Hollywood films, made-for-tv films or even low budget films. This is not about making films whose purpose is to entertain. This is about a different species altogether – the indie auteur film, short or long – the darling of the latest “it” festival – with city names likes Gotenburg, Hamburg, Kerala and Rotterdam in their title. The kind of film that press people, pretentious programmers, art house proprietors and film academians piss themselves for. The kind of film that might just launch your career.’

How could anyone resist (even an ‘academian’, if that’s what I am; not a term I’ve come across before)? Advice ranges from the style and content of the film (e.g. minimal dialogue, ‘wafer-thin’ plot but retold from several perspectives to add an impression of weight) to PR strategies including advice to flirt with junior festival programmers, journalists and bouncers at parties – but at all costs to avoid business cards because: ‘There’s no way any self-respecting indie auteur should appear to have put such forethought into his career).’

This is more evidence, some might argue, to support the suggestion that ‘indie’ has become little more than a cliche by now, something that’s become contrived or deliberately manufactured, rather than just an umbrella term for a variety of non-mainstream feature production. I’d still argue against that view in general, as I do in my forthcoming book (yes, another plug!), Indie 2.0.

Indie can become a contrivance in some cases, for sure. But I think it would be wrong ever to reduce it only to that, as there’s still plenty of striking work being produced – and even, sometimes, making it to audiences – that’s much more than the sum of some of the more consistently identifiable traits. I finally got around to seeing Todd Solondz’s Dark Horse a couple of nights ago, for instance, an example that demonstrates that he’s still got interesting new places to go, even while still dealing with characters that seem familiar inhabitants of his fictional universe. I haven’t unpacked all my thoughts on that one yet, but the way the film embraces aspects of dream and fantasy – alongside the predictably uncomfortable nature of his protagonists – seems very fresh.

The act of identifying elements of contrivance – generally or in particular cases – often occurs within a discursive context that’s really about the implicit articulation of some more ‘pure’ realm of indie (or ‘independence’, often the preferred term here) that’s untainted by such fabrications. This division might stand up to some extent and in some cases. But the reality tends to be a good deal more complex and multi-faceted than such oppositions suggest.

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Indie strategies: Cheesecake Casserole

Always interesting to read accounts of particular strategies that have enabled indie films to get made and out into distribution, particularly in these difficult times. See for example co-writer and producer Jamie Stein’s account of the production and distribution of the coming-of-age comedy Cheesecake Casserole on Cultural Weekly.

Examples such as this show how much remains unchanged in recent decades as far as some of the best ways to get a low-budget indie film together are concerned, particularly the basic strategy of designing the work around sources of budgetary limitation. In this case, a source story that spanned a whole college year was squeezed into a single weekend, which made a virtue out of the fact that only a single main location was available. A less familiar element of this production story, though, is the importance Stein attributes to the fact that it was decided to hire a proper casting director for the production – not something always very high on the spending list of indies. The benefit was that the filmmakers gained access to ‘a wide middle-ground of professional, working actors who have name recognition and also a willingness to build their body of work by taking a chance on independent features.’ This rather than relying on unknowns or reaching for big names who are unlikely to be interested. A deal was done according to which the size of payment to the casting director was contingent on the scale of those cast, which reduced initial costs and made them proportionate to the real value brought to the production.

Other dimensions of the strategy further confirm some of the basics, such as the fact that actors (here, in Los Angeles) really are hungry for decent roles – thus the benefit of writing parts that will appeal to actors and making this a priority in scripting rather than aiming for eye-catching gimmicks. There’s also some useful material about sales online and by DVD. Details of how to access the film are available here.

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New move towards equity in crowdfunding

Attempts by the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to enable funders to gain an equity stake in projects to which they contribute have taken a step forward in an announcement by its co-found Danae Ringelmann that it might introduce such a possibility for projects located overseas if they continue to remain illegal in the US, as reported here by the business/tech focused blog GigaOm.

A key feature of crowdfunding ventures at present, on Indiegogo or other major platforms such as Kickstarter, is that donor payments don’t have the status of investments in projects. That is, the donors don’t own any part of the project. This makes the whole process much simpler and more informal in many respects, which is part of the appeal of crowdfunding for many in the indie community, without the legal ramifications that might otherwise result – but it also limits the potential of this means of fund-raising, which has gained increased traction in low-budget indie film in recent years.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has this week delayed its consideration of new rules that would change the law, as part of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (or JOBS) Act – see here for a report on this by Reuters. The law passed Congress but concerns have apparently been voiced by regulators, including senior figures at the SEC.

Ringelmann is reported by GigaOm as saying Indiegogo ‘may use its global footprint to sidestep the issue in some cases’, already having a more international focus than Kickstarter. But she suggests that the practice will remain a ‘fundamentally social’ rather than a transactional experience.

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LES festival guide to filmmaking on the cheap

Nothing wildly original, but a brief guide to low-budget production is provided by the LES Film Festival, a new showcase on New York’s Lower East Side for films costing $200,000 or less. Unsurprisingly, good writing and actors are seen as key priorities. Also includes a comic ‘map’ of factors that might determine whether or not applicants are likely to be accepted for the event.

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Digital knocked by Nolan, but not by those who can’t afford anything else

Christopher Nolan has been bashing digital filmmaking, as he’s rather accustomed to do. There’s an interesting response to this from some indie filmmakers canvassed by the Latin Heat Entertainment website, here. The gist is that they put Nolan’s comment – that digital is ‘devaluing what we do as filmmakers’ – to several Latino indie writers/directors. The response wasn’t very much in his favour overall, particularly in the dismissive tone he seems sometimes to adopt. And for most the bottom line seems to be a simple one: that they don’t always have the luxury to be able to afford celluloid and would rather work on digital than not at all. Some unfavourable comparisons might also be made between some of Nolan’s most mainstream studio work and what some filmmakers – Latino or otherwise – have achieved digitally on minuscule budgets.

Hmm. How big exactly is my budget this time?


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Your Sister’s Sister, post-mumblecore and Joe Swanberg’s persistence

Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister seems to have cemented her reputation as a significant presence in what might be termed a post-mumblecore tendency in some indie film, following her earlier titles such as My Effortless Brilliance (2008) and Humpday (2009). What characterises such films is a sharing in some of the relatively rough-and-ready, very low budget style of mumblecore with a degree of more conventional plotting and dramatic scenario.

Humpday is a good example of this, very mumblecore in its general texture but with a stronger ‘hook’ than is normally associated with the form and in this case one that leans more towards the material of exploitation cinema – in promise at least – in the shape of the drunken agreement of its two male protagonists to make their own DIY porn movie.  This creates a greater sense of dramatic tension and movement towards a ‘big’ plot point than is the norm for mumblecore or some other forms of low-key indie film – but it doesn’t really ‘deliver’ in that sense, the discomfort of the two protagonists around the enterprise, from which neither feels able to back down, being likely to be shared by the viewer and not leading to any consummation.

Your Sister’s Sister also has a narrative shape and plotting that is more conventional than most of the films associated with the drifting narrative tendency of mumblecore, in the various dramatic tensions created through its central relationships triangle. This is accompanied by a more mumblecore style at the level of dialogue and general low-budget resonances (the latter including a harsh sound quality that is often as clear a marker of low budget as anything in the visuals). The result is an effective mix. I particularly like the way the film blends elements of comedy – occasionally laugh-out-loud – with a more serious modality. It manages the tricky balance of including some of the former without at any time undermining the impact of the latter, in a piece in which we’re meant to feel a real emotional pain on the part of the progatonists, an ingredient that’s also found in much of mumblecore.

The three principals in Shelton’s latest

Whether or not mumblecore itself has now had its day remains open to debate. I’ve written more about this in Indie 2.0 and it is certainly the case that a number of filmmakers associated with the label have move some degree more towards the mainstream or towards more conventional indie filmmaking. But not always very far and not at all in at least one prominent case, Joe Swanberg, who continues to produce an extraordinary number of films very much in line with his earlier micro-budget mumblecore features such as LOL (2006) or Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). Swanberg had at least six films on release last year (Uncle Kent, Silver Bullets, Art History, The Zone, Caitlin Plays Herself and Autoerotic, the latter co-directed by Adam Wingard). Is this a record? Some would argue this is because his work is so rough-and-ready and almost thrown together rather than anything of which to be proud (and his films are far from to everyone’s taste) but it is notable that at least one of the key figures associated with mumblecore from the start (in 2005) has resisted any urge to conform to more established indie or crossover dynamics and continues entirely to do his own thing. Filmmaking of this kind also raises interesting questions about the boundaries between that which is accorded ‘legitimate’ indie status or is declared to remain in a less valued ‘amateur’ realm – but it also suggests some ways in which these boundaries have been blurred in recent years, as a result of factors including the availability of incredibly cheap filmmaking apparatus. That again is something I explore further in Indie 2.0. Not that I’d want to keep plugging that, or anything!

One of the numerous Swanberg films released in 2011

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Tarnation sequel – not quite available to all

Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation is right up among my personal favourite indie films, so it’s exciting to hear news of his sequel, Walk Away Renee, in a review by Jana J. Monji on the Chicago Sun-Times website. For anyone who doesn’t know it, Tarnation is an extraordinary expressive first-person autobiographical documentary, shot at virtually no initial cost and involving various kaleidoscopic displays of home-movie and reconstructed footage relating to his troubled life and that of his family, particularly his mother Renee. It reaches quite ecstatic heights at times, in the orchestration of images to a selection of the filmmaker’s favourite music. And you have to love a film that includes footage of his precocious high-school production of a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet! I’ve written about Tarnation at some length in my forthcoming book Indie 2.0: Change and Continuity on Contemporary American Indie Film, as an example of what’s become known as the ‘digital desktop’ aesthetic resulting from certain, mostly low-budget uses of DV, particularly at the level of expressive post-production effects. Be interesting to see how the sequel works – structured around a trip across the US taken by Caouette and Renee as he moves her from her home in Houston to join him in New York – as Tarnation certainly set the bar high for this kind of production and will be a tough act to follow. A brief clip is available below.

The film itself is currently available by video-on-demand from the SundanceNOW platform. Which brings me on to an issue that came up during the Q&A at the London Film and Media conference panel I was a part of at the weekend, particularly in relation to a paper by Yannis Tzioumakis about history of overseas distribution of indie films. This kind of source (not specifically discussed in this paper, which traced some broader patterns over recent decades) has become a key contemporary outlet for some lower-budget indies, but it’s notable how lacking this is at the moment in fully international dimension, despite the increased overseas presence of indies as charted by Tzioumakis. Looking at the SundanceNOW site, it claims that ‘Independent film knows no borders, and SundanceNOW is proud to offer films from countries all over the world, from Korea to Romania and nearly everywhere in between.’ Hmm. From here in the UK what I get in relation to Walk Away Renee and every other title I’ve just tried is a notice saying: ‘This movie is not available in your geographic location.’ OK, the UK isn’t actually in between Korea and Romania I suppose, but I don’t think they were being that literal.

Clearly there are lots of rights issues still involved in all this and a coherent strategy is still missing, unless there’s a deliberate policy to hold back some overseas rights in the hope that they can be sold theatrically. But that undermines any hope of getting a bigger return from initial sources of publicity that can often have international reach, particularly in this era of social media, such as this case of a prominent review for the Caouette film. The same issue applies to one of the other high profile sources of regular use of VOD, the IFC. The IFC has a strategy with lower budget films of giving them a splashy showcase in New York’s IFC Center, simultaneously with VOD release, an approach that’s been used recently with a number of new films by the unbelievably prolific Joe Swanberg. These, too, are unavailable to me in the UK. Which is rather frustrating, given that they’re very unlikely to be released theatrically over here either. Presumably this will change. And maybe the same will happen in the realm of the indie TV channels run by Sundance and the IFC, which also seem to be unavailable outside the US.

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African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement

Interesting piece on FilmSlate about a new initiative for the release of African-American indie films, which fits in with some broader recent trends relating to the building of links between festival screenings and (at least relatively) wider theatrical openings. I Will Follow to become first title released by The African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), described here as ‘a grass roots organization looking to increase exposure and get theatrical distribution for African-American independent movies.’ Planning two such releases a year, so quite a modest initiative so far. Full article here. Also see AFFRM website and trailer for the film below.

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Indie panel tomorrow

I’m giving a paper and chairing a panel on American indie film tomorrow at the Film and Media 2012 conference in London. For anyone who might be interested, the panel is titled ‘Contemporary American Independent Cinema: Change or Continuity’. I’ll be arguing for a strong vein of continuity in contemporary indie film, using Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff as an illustrative case study.

Other panelists/papers are as follows:

Yannis Tzioumakis, ‘An Increasingly Global Presence: Contemporary American Independent cinema outside the US’

Claire Molloy, ‘Independent Film and Social Entrepreneurship: The Rise of Social Impact Capital’

Should be a good panel and will hopefully provoke some interesting discussion relating to broader issues of change vs. continuity in the contemporary indie landscape. We’ll also be taking the opportunity to plug the collection we’re jointly editing, American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and Beyond, due out from Routledge in the Autumn.  More details on the conference, at the Institute of Education, are available here.

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