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Arts And Culture

Is An Independent Hollywood Possible?

Writers on strike march with signs on the picket line on day four of the strike by the Writers Guild of America in front of Netflix in Hollywood, California on May 5, 2023. - More than 11,000 Hollywood television and movie writers are on their first strike since 2007 after talks with studios and streamers over pay and working conditions failed to clinch a deal.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

When Mark Ruffalo suggested everyone “jump into indies now,” following SAG-AFTRA’s announcement they would be approving certain independent productions outside the studio system to start up again mid-strike, it made sense. He is known for making millions playing the Hulk, but that’s not where he came from. Ruffalo took off after appearing 23 years ago in first-time filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s sibling drama You Can Count on Me. It was reportedly made for a mere $1.2 million but earned nine times that amount at the box office, thanks to a boost from Sundance where it tied for the Grand Jury Prize and won a screenwriting award. You Can Count on Me ended up being nominated for two Oscars.

But that was a very different time. First, let’s make something clear: an independent film is produced outside the studio (or streaming) system—though it can be distributed by major companies—and it often has a limited marketing campaign and release. One recent example is Nicole Holofcener’s couple dramedy You Hurt My Feelings. That was made by the indie production company Likely Story, reportedly for around $25 million (co-produced by the bigger FilmNation), and distributed by an indie outfit we all know very well by now, A24. The film had its world premiere at Sundance before being released (in theaters) in May. It also has a veteran director (Holofcener had directed six features) and a big star (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Yet You Hurt My Feelings only made $5.6 million, about a fourth of its budget, at the box office. That’s half as much as Lonergan’s film two decades ago, on a small fraction of the budget with no stars and an unknown filmmaker.

What the fuck, right? This is why it’s incredibly frustrating when you get famous filmmakers like Béla Tarr saying: “The thing is, you don’t need money. Just go and work. When I was 22 and making my first movie, we didn’t have anything.” OK, man, but it’s not 1979. Who the hell is going to see it? Like, what’s the point if it amounts to a home movie? On Conan O’Brien’s podcast earlier this year, Jason Segel described how after Freaks and Geeks was canceled, executive producer Judd Apatow seemed to channel his anger by making everyone on that show famous. And he did that by using his ample producing powers to push their projects through the system. Then this large group of filmmakers and actors created a kind of commune in which they bolstered each other—when one was doing well, they put the others in their film and vice versa. Unofficial or not, it was a collective.

And it seems increasingly that a collective is what is needed these days, in which everyone owns a chunk, and all successes and failures are shared. Safety in numbers. But is that even possible on a wider scale? Historically, independent filmmaking has served as a path back to the studio system, bolstering the very exclusion that produced it. How do you break out of a cycle in which the way out is also the way back?

Basically, the studio system started out around 1908 as a New Jersey cartel hoarding literal film, out of which the independents—who for various reasons weren’t admitted into the family—were born and forced to move to Hollywood, which wasn’t really Hollywood yet. Over time, the monopoly from Jersey was simply replaced by an oligopoly in California, out of which Classical Hollywood emerged. This studio system also became too powerful, controlling all the cash but also the creativity, so a bunch of filmmakers struck out on their own again. In 1919, silent film stars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith formed one of the first independent production and distribution companies, United Artists, in which they each owned 20 percent of the company (the remaining 20 percent went to a lawyer). The head of Metro Pictures at the time (which would become MGM, which, fittingly, would later acquire UA) responded: “The inmates are taking over the asylum.” This is reminiscent of Bob Iger lamenting the “unrealistic” demands of the SAG-AFTRA union (historically, the easiest way to avoid your comeuppance is to accuse everyone of being crazy—it works!). With no studio space, UA saved money by shooting on location and proceeds went directly to the creators. But making five pictures a year, as the terms stated, became impossible due to expenses related to production and distribution (not to mention the bloating of motion pictures’ lengths and audiences getting into a new thing called television). So, in 1941, members of the UA formed The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers to instead wrestle back some power from the majors. And they did. They won an antitrust suit against the reigning studios, who had to sell their theater chains, which had allowed them to control all levels of film production and distribution. 

The ‘60s are when everything starts to look a lot more familiar. Portable cameras meant anyone could make a film for no money, and the incoming experimental filmmakers thought cinema was dead anyway, so they made the art they wanted rather than worrying about being entertaining. Andy Warhol’s films came out of a non-profit cooperative formed by avant-garde film PhD favorites Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, with distribution through a central archive, but that was real artsy stuff. The more mainstream youth audience was going for the genre stuff by exploitation filmmakers like Roger Corman, who realized they could be as gross and sexy and weird and horrific as they wanted with no ratings board yet to stop them. Studios wanted what they had (the kids’ money) and this is when you start to see them hiring indie filmmakers kind of like they do now—see Chloé Zhao for Eternals, Greta Gerwig for Barbie, David Lowery for Pete’s Dragon, Barry Jenkins for Mufasa: The Lion King—to give the studio some cachet. This made the indie scene later play as a kind of inferior conduit to a superior system. But back then, New Hollywood—from Martin Scorsese to Elaine May—was born out of the execs relinquishing control. Imagine a studio now having anything to do with Taxi Driver? The closest you get to Travis Bickle is J. Robert Oppenheimer. 

In 1969, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola created American Zoetrope as an alternative to the studio system. And it proved for many to be a big supporter of creativity. But the problem with these two filmmakers is that their genuinely independent operation was eventually folded back into the studio system. From where we sit now, reading Lucas say “I’ve always been an outsider to the Hollywood types,” is very funny. Lucas parlayed his indie-produced (I know) Star Wars film into an empire which, rather than opening up the industry, calcified into an individualist enterprise for his own projects. That’s the reason David Lynch, coming off the success of the super indie Eraserhead, which got him the studio feature Elephant Man, turned down Return of the Jedi. “I realized that his projects are entirely his projects, and I prefer to do my own,” he said of Lucas at the time. Out of Lucas’s desire to make his films in a universe he controlled outside of the older studio system, he ushered in an even more divisive era of high-concept blockbuster IP, merchandise, and spin-offs, ensuring that indie filmmakers of the future would eventually have no chance.

There was, however, a brief save from the Sundance Film Festival in the ‘90s. Launching the careers of now-familiar names like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, indies at the time became so popular that, of course, studios wanted a piece of them. So studios started “indies” of their own—art house branches like Miramax, Focus Features and, um, Marvel Studios—to compete with true indies of $5-10 million.

But the last huge success out of Sundance was CODA, two years ago. With a budget of $10 million, it sold to Apple TV+ for a record $25 million (before going on to win the Oscar for best picture). This kind of “golden elevator,” as indie filmmakers Naomi McDougall Jones and Liz Manashil wrote in Filmmaker Magazine in March, is near impossible to get into now. “Critically, in almost every case we’ve witnessed, a project gets their ticket onto the elevator before—often well before—the film is actually even made,” they wrote, adding that it is a pernicious but persistent myth “that if you can just scrape it together and make a truly brilliant film you can get into that festival or sell to a streamer for serious money later. In our experience, this is simply not true today.” CODA had many advantages: it was a feel-good remake of a successful French film, director Sian Heder was known to Sundance (Netflix bought her 2016 festival film Tallulah), star Marlee Matlin is an Oscar winner and, perhaps most importantly, Apple’s streaming service was still fairly new and needed to build a name as a place for quality.

Festival indies no longer have this trajectory due to cost cutting, focus on IP, and streamers being good for archives. Not only that, the kind of older, wealthier audiences those movies appeal to are less willing to go to the theater in a pandemic world. Even if they were, there aren’t many theaters left for them (not to mention a ratings system unwilling to support them—see the recent NC-17 rating given to Ira Sachs’s threesome romance Passages, all but condemning its release). It’s all megaplexes now, which killed off the small theaters that couldn’t compete, and themselves now are saddled with massive overheads requiring blockbuster after blockbuster to afford. Though indie distributors like A24 are getting their films into these theaters, it amounts to a smaller studio branding what would have just been standard mid-budget films of the past as indies. 

The most cooperation we have seen in this film industry lately was last month. Universal’s $100 million biopic about the man responsible or the atomic bomb, helmed by a name director with indie cred and sold as an action adventure when it’s really kind of a courtroom drama, was bolstered by an even more expensive Warner Bros. doll “biopic,” helmed by a name director with indie cred whose kids-film-masquerading-as-adult-fare has basically cut out the middleman and been itself sold as merchandise. Together, Oppenheimer and Barbie made more than $200 million in their opening weekend. This is the kind of corporate synergy studios would no doubt be proud to brand as collective action.

Weirdly, this is the perfect climate for a collective. According to Jones and Manashil, the best way to break even now, if you are not Oppenheimer or Barbie, is to make a film for less than $50,000. They have observed that it’s ideal to either have extremely famous actors or unknowns; anything in between doesn’t do it in terms of revenue. They also champion self-distribution, which they guess works because of a focused release package built into the production, rather than outsourcing to under-resourced distributors too harried by the crazy market to give anything much attention. “Know your film’s audience, figure out on which platforms those viewers are watching films and get your films up there,” Jones and Manashil wrote, adding, “it is far, far riskier monetarily to allow your film to drift blindly into the current model—bloating your budget with sort-of-famous actors, taking a deal with a distribution company because that feels shinier than going at it alone.”

But it doesn’t have to be done alone. Imagine a collective model which is owned by everyone equally, which keeps its costs low. When there is success, everyone benefits, but so do their projects. When there is failure, it’s never so bad that the whole thing folds, because of the insulation from the larger group. Higher budgets, of course, could be possible if famous members were willing to support those below them (like Apatow did). Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, for instance, started Artists Equity, a studio in which members share in the profits of the films. It is unclear, however, whether, like Lucas, this is primarily a place for them to make their own films. Blumhouse has also enabled union scale up front for more creativity and profit sharing, but, again, without co-ownership.

Then there’s Steven Soderbergh, the indie king of the ‘90s, who has seamlessly slipped back and forth between studios and indies and seems, more than any of his contemporaries, always looking for a new way to move the industry forward (he founded Fingerprint Releasing to distribute films like Logan Lucky outside the studio system). Though it’s not a movie but a series, his new project Command Z—a fleet, (eight episodes at 90 minutes total) fun low-stakes little web series about the climate change apocalypse—was entirely self-funded, can be purchased on his site for $7.99, and is sending its proceeds to Children’s Aid and Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. “How to stay engaged?” Soderbergh asked in his director’s statement. “Well, I could have started canvassing for various candidates—or running for office!—or otherwise taking DIRECT ACTION, but instead I decided a story was in order. Long story long, you now have before you that story. It’s a simple story with a simple message, in support of two amazing organizations that DO take DIRECT ACTION. We hope you enjoy it.” It was kind of hard not to.

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