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The Independent Filmmaker

Independent filmmakers have been around almost as long as filmmaking has existed. The role of the independent filmmaker has not changed much over the years although what constitutes an indie filmmaker is always up for discussion.

By definition, an independent filmmaker is a person or persons who make a film with no connection to the Hollywood scene ("The Complete Film Dictionary", Ira Konigsberg) or the established studio system.

Historically, these people have raised funding for their movies in a variety of ways including personal loans (Edward Burns, The Brothers McMullen), credit cards (Robert Townsend, The Hollywood Shuffle), money raised through requests by the filmmaker via personal letters (Darren Aronofsky, Pi), money earned by being a medical research subject (Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi), second mortgages, and investments by individuals not so much interested in making a financial killing but more in the support of this modern art form.

Independent films are often films that cannot be made in the current studio system. The reasons for this are varied and numerous. A big time studio project (MGM, Columbia, Paramount, Universal, Disney) is most often a large money-consuming endeavor. Actor's salaries have risen through the roof. For example, a relatively moderate budget movie, say $20 million, might be elevated to a $40 million film with the addition of a name star who can command up to $20 million for their presence in a film.

With a budget of $40 million, a studio must make at least twice that amount back to be considered a successful release. That is one reason why we see many movies that are either retreads of similar material or almost blatant rip-offs of other studio projects, sequels, or remakes. These films are shooting for that familiar ground which has been shown to be a winner in the past. Even armed with this information, studios still often miss their marks and these films do not perform as well as hoped.

The other criterion studios often use to determine which projects to "greenlight" is the 15-24 age group. Films aimed at this market segment are typically films filled with bodily function and gross out humor, teenage angst, scantily clad bikini models, and a simple and easy to understand story line. The truth is these films cost relatively little to produce and register huge box office returns. When a film costs $25 million to produce and posts box office returns of $200 million and up, it is considered a wise film investment. Unfortunately, these movies often have little redeeming social value nor do they typically appeal to audience members over the age of 25 or 30. Historically, the adult audience, 35 and up, is not the largest theater-going audience and so the studios tend to make fewer films that appeal to this demographic. And let's be honest, the studios are in the movie business to make money, not art.

This adult audience, should they go out to the theater, is typically interested in more mature film fare, often character driven, or with a deeper message than a primer on how to have sex with a warm apple pie (American Pie).

This is the niche that falls to the independent filmmaker. Often but not always, indie producers make movies that study a particular social issue (Spike Lee, She's Gotta Have It; John Sayles, Matewan; John Singleton, Boyz in the Hood). These movies have a smaller general audience but their stories resonate with a larger percentage of their intended audience.

Without the independent film investor, many of these films would not see the light of day.

Why is this important?

Very simply, some of our best directors and producers cut their creative teeth in the indie film world. Witness Joel and Ethan Coen, two of our greatest current filmmakers. They started out with the cult slasher film, Blood Simple and went on to produce and direct such modern classics as Raising Arizona; Barton Fink; Brother, Where Art Thou; and  Academy Award nominee Fargo.

Other filmmakers who got their start in the independent film market include Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), Robert Townsend (The Hollywood Shuffle), and even such heavyweights as Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg.

Early in his career, John Sayles, a prolific writer/director, decided to make an independent feature to showcase his directorial talent. He wrote and directed Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film shot in 25 days for a budget of $60,000. This film was released in four theaters to great critical acclaim. After sixteen weeks, Sayles' film took in close to $500,000. The total worldwide gross for Return of the Secaucus Seven is now well in excess of $2.5 million and today, John Sayles is a successful writer director with several Hollywood studio deals.

John Carpenter, a horror film auteur, directed and co-produced Halloween for a $320,000 budget. The finished film, turned down by major studios for distribution, eventually was distributed by Compass International Pictures. Halloween grossed $1.27 million in its first week of release. Halloween, with a worldwide gross of over $75 million is one of the largest grossing independent films in history.

But without financial backing, unlike Quentin Tarantino, director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, many potential filmmakers may never leave their job working at the local video store.

A successfully produced independent film may not result in a theatrical release, sale to cable TV, or even a direct-to-video distribution deal. It could, of course, and this is when a backer's financial investment could pay back in large numbers. In addition, a successfully produced film may pave the way for a producer or director with a vision or a voice to make his way into this highly competitive world and hopefully continue to pick material that will have an impact on the serious theater-going public -- people looking to be entertained and enlightened for two hours in a darkened room.