From Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Being John Malkovich (1999), and Withnail & I (1987), to The Usual Suspects (1995), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Donnie Darko (2001); definitive indie film lists comprise some of the most iconic and memorable films ever created.
But what criteria qualifies, or indeed, quantifies a film as an ‘indie’ one?
As a genre, what are the qualities which define it as such?
Here, we discover what underlying factors afford an indie film it’s pigeonholing, and subsequently reveal why, as an art form, they’re often so revered amongst both seasoned critics and dedicated movie buffs alike.
When identifying what exactly makes an indie film what it is, firstly, we address the genre title.
Indie is a commonly used abbreviation of the word ‘independent’, and is frequented because of its altogether snappier title and phonetic appeal – it’s as simple as that. Moving on to what marks an indie film out as such and that’s got an awful lot to do with how the movie came to fruition from the outset.
The defining quality of indie media per se (also see music, publishing, etc.) is any piece which is produced outside of the traditional and long-established systems of production. Ergo in a cinematic context, we mean films created without the support (and financial backing for the most part) of the major Hollywood studios such as:
While the likes of Lionsgate and MGM are considered more independent film-friendly.
How Does an Indie Film Receive its Moniker?
There’s no hard and fast rule governing this area of movie-making, as in more recent years the term ‘indie’ has been increasingly applied when discussing either a specific style or genre, seeing a shift in both foci and perceived aesthetic patterns more closely associated with the colloquialism.
To lend clarity to this explanation, emerging trends in what’s considered ‘indie films’ include:
- Anything low-budget
- Featuring non-A-list actors in the lead roles
- Set in everyday reality (in other words scenarios a world away from the distant future or past)
- Artistic (or personal) in tone, which reflects society’s outcasts and/or ordinary
- Unassuming people
- Celluloid works accompanied by soundtracks sourced from bands, rather than orchestras
To give an example: a story about a sardonic journeyman who has fallen upon hard times and routinely turns to drink to ease their woes, set to the music of Bob Dylan, would most likely be identified as falling within the ‘indie’ bracket, irrespective of whether a major Hollywood studio makes it.
As a footnote, indie films aren’t always compliant with these abovementioned features.
Another core difference between an indie film and a big-budget, potentially sci-fi-based feature film is just that; budget.
Ostensibly, indie flicks are controlled by significantly greater budget constraints than the Hollywood blockbusters-in-the-making, yet conversely benefit from far fewer constraints when it comes to the tone and diction of the piece; essentially, what the film can say and how it goes about conveying its message(s).
Understandably, massively-funded movies must go all out to appeal to a far broader demographic of cinema-goer to provide adequate box office returns on the initial investment, whereas indies remain free from the shackles of financial expectations and studio pressures in contrast.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that the marketing of independent films is typically characterized by limited release, which again can add credence to a more personable, less mass-produced appeal in a day and age where every consumable appears to be stacked high and wide.
How and When Did Indie Films Come into Existence?
The answer to this question lies at the turn of the 20th Century when, in 1908, The Motion Picture Patents Company forms the Edison Trust; thus, systematically creating a stronghold of film production and distribution for the major film companies at the time.
Those who declined entry became known henceforth as ‘independents’. Fast-forward to 1919 and, unimpressed with the monopolising restrictions and hold the major studios had over the genre, a quartet of the biggest stars of silent movies of their day – namely Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D W Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin – decide to form the very first independent studio in America: United Artists.
Cut to 1935 and MGM’s David O Selznick resigns from the Hollywood behemoth and establishes his own independent company, Selznick International Pictures.
A leap in the indie film timeline then takes us to 1953, when ‘Little Fugitive’ receives the first independent film genres nomination for an Academy Award in the Best Original Screenplay category.
And then, in 1968, the indie film fan’s Book of Genesis so to speak, George Romero’s zombie benchmark flick, Night of the Living Dead, grosses a staggering $12 million during its run; on the back of a meagre $114,000 budget. The rest, as they say, is (indie film) history.
Why Do Indie Films Hold Such Mass Appeal, and is it True That They’re Experiencing Something of an Explosion of Interest Right Now?
As to why this is happening, fans and experts alike will argue that the last few generations have grown up on a steady diet of gritty, kitchen sink-like storytelling means and methods. Subsequently, they have become suckers for real-life drama, bittersweet tales, and overtly quirky films which resonate with the viewer on a more fundamental level, perhaps, and one we can all relate to.
The tangibility factor is a powerful one, and any picture which succeeds in striking an emotive chord with the viewer will always be destined for greatness. While Hollywood blockbusters offer escape routes from the everyday, it’s often a novel re-telling or reimagining of the more mundane we unknowingly crave.
The craft of movie-making should never be compromised by something as trivial as money, at least from an indie filmmaker’s perspective. Minus the weight of expectation from a giant studio on their shoulders, indie film producers are in the habit of telling authentic stories; with a long list of films standing the test of time to in some way validate the approach taken from the get-go.
Of course, this mantra and ethos fail to impress Hollywood’s movers and shakers. It’s fair to say that its established order is not entirely happy with the way indie films are going from strength to strength of late; especially as successive award seasons are reflecting the public’s insatiable appetite for such movies at the expense of the blockbusters.
Even more tellingly, the seemingly unstoppable rise of indie films has resulted in some of Tinseltown’s biggest studios being largely shut out at industry red carpet events, including the race for Best Picture at the daddy of them all, the Oscars. Globally-respected film festivals have also played their parts in jettisoning the more contemporary indie flicks – such as Boyhood (2014), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Birdman (2014) – into the public’s psyche.
Which Indie Films Are Influenced by Popular Culture?
As many leading academics will concur, cinema is considered the most popular of cultural practices, reflecting a plethora of social, economic, and cultural phenomena in modern society. It’s no great leap of faith to learn that indie films and popular culture go together like Lennon and McCartney, salt and vinegar, and Sonny and Cher – with both historically inspiring the other and continuing to push the boundaries of public perception and artistic license.
And there’s no greater example of just how the two factors met and impacted to such sensational effect than Tarantino’s 1994 epic, Pulp Fiction. While Slacker (1991) and Clerks (1994) could be held up there in similar triumphant values, there’s no denying that Pulp Fiction re-wrote the indie rulebook on its release, almost spawning a sub-genre.
Tarantino’s game-changing ode to cinema, violence and pop culture cost him $8 million to make, yet his unique endeavors returned some $100 million at the box office as it became a critically-acclaimed smash hit which, ultimately, realigned the direction of mainstream cinema at the time.
Best described as a cultural phenomenon, Tarantino was referred to as the poster boy of society’s pre-millennial demise immediately after its cinematic release.
Naturally, the eclectic casting also had a significant amount to do with the indie film’s cumulative successes. Who else but Tarantino would have put the likes of Bruce Willis, Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson and, most importantly, John Travolta into the same mixing pot two decades ago?
And almost by accident rather than design, paved the way for bankable A-listers to clamor for accepted indie cool in the years which followed. Together with redefined independent filmmaking, Tarantino also single-handedly made indie films a viable business proposition and strategy for the big studios – both indie and Hollywood now works hand-in-hand.