Movies and Film: Independent Films Today

Independent Films Today

In the United States, films made outside the studio system (or the looser confederation that constitutes mainstream Hollywood today) have always had a harder time getting off the ground. In part this is because the industry has been so healthy that the government has not felt a need to step in to help out filmmakers in any significant fashion.

The downside of this absence of funding has been twofold: Independent production companies—indies—must spend a significant part of their time fundraising rather than making films. Also, their films tend to be much lower-budgeted than the Hollywood product because they do not have access to the same large funding sources.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Indie: Short for independent production company, it refers to artists and their companies making films outside the Hollywood production industry.

Still, independent filmmakers get some funding from federal agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. (You know the NEA; it's that arts funding agency that Congress tries to shut down every year.) Private organizations like The MacArthur Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie-Mellon, and the like, also finance projects they believe to be worthwhile.

Indies often have to finance and create very cannily and creatively. In making his debut film El Mariachi (1992), Robert Rodriguez spent only $7,000 for the entire project, which was shot in 14 days. Contrast that with Kevin Costner's Waterworld (1995), a big flop at $150 million. In making his most famous semiunderground film, Putney Swope (1969), Robert Downey Sr. got partial financing from a fertilizer company. Perhaps the most famous independent filmmaker, Ed Wood, got financing for the worst film of all time—Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958)—from an ex-Baptist minister who thought he would be producing biblical epics.

Some independents simply max out their credit cards (and those of their parents) to get a film into production. Sometimes a filmmaker will make a five-minute trailer to send to funding sources to "push" his product. Young indie directors beg, borrow, and steal equipment, sometimes working on a feature film crew or university film-department project during the day, and then just "borrowing" equipment to shoot after hours or weekends.

Finally, because the Hollywood system has recognized that much talent comes from the indie pool, Hollywood scouts are now a major presence at independent film festivals—like Sundance—where indies strut their stuff.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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