Independent Film Basics
Independent Film Basics
Ben Lyons (Producer) gives expert video advice on: Which independent filmmakers have changed the genre?; Where are most independent films made?; What are some different techniques in making an independent film? and more...
What is an 'independent film'?
An independent film is a movie that is made without the help of a major Hollywood studio to distribute it. It's a film made without distribution that is just being made, and then they'll try to sell it so it can get seen. It's independent of a studio which would distribute the movie. It's different than 'Spiderman III', which is coming out in theaters. When you make an independent film, you don't know where it's going to be seen or sold. You're really taking a chance. That's a basic understanding of an independent film.
When did independent film begin?
Independent films are not something new; they've been around for a long time. Some of the old shorts that you would see back in the day are independent films, just people making little movies is an independent film. If you and I get a camera and shoot something, that's an independent film; we're doing something away from the studio system in Hollywood. Most recently, in recent years, films like 'Reservoir Dogs' and 'Pulp Fiction' really opened up Hollywood's eyes to the world of independent film. It caused legit actors, big stars, to want to be in independent films because they could do more daring material. Those two films in particular - and Quentin Tarantino, of course - really made independent films profitable and newsworthy in the early 90s and have carried on through today.
Which independent filmmakers have changed the genre?
One of the most successful independent film-makers is Harvey Weinstein, of course, the executive and founder of Miramax, with his brother Bob. They're the ones who went after and sought the Steven Soderberghs and the Quentin Tarentinos and the real visionary filmmakers, who wanted to go out and push their vision away from Hollywood and not involve with Disney and Sony and Paramount and all these big companies who are now part of media conglomerates around the world. Harvey and his brother Bob went out there and facilitated the vision of independent film-makers and got their films seen, got their films nominated at the Academy Awards, and really legitimized the entire genre of independent films.
What are some examples of successful independent films?
In recent years, a film like 'Half Nelson' has to be looked at as a very successful independent film. It cost about half a million bucks as a short film. It was a short film first, and then it was developed at the Sundance Institute and fleshed out into a feature film. That film, of course, sold at Sundance to Think Film and went on to get Ryan Gosling an Academy Award nomination. Now everyone knows who Ryan Gosling is because of 'Half Nelson'. Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' was an independent film that he shot and put together, and he sold it at Sundance to Paramount-Vantage and it went on to become the third highest grossing documentary of all time, behind 'March of the Penguins' and 'Fahrenheit 911', which is another independent film. A great, talented film-maker, Michael Moore, went out and made the movie and, with the help of Harvey Weinstein, was able to get it seen by the world. It is the highest grossing documentary of all time, and a very successful independent film.
Where are most independent films made?
Independent films are made all over the world. Wherever you can get your cast and crew cheaply, whether it's shooting in rural New Jersey or Antarctica. Who knows? You can really shoot anywhere with an independent film. A lot of movies are shot out here in Hollywood because they're funded by the studios and the studios have massive lots and that's how they work. They shoot them in here in L.A. or even on movie sets in Canada, because of tax breaks and stuff. A great independent filmmaker is Robert Rodriguez, who of course has his shop set up in Austin, Texas, and he shoots all his movies down there and he edits them down there. It's really isolated from the craziness of Hollywood and that's why he's able to create movies like 'Desperado', 'Sin City' and 'Grindhouse' - these crazy, crazy movies - partly because he's away from the Hollywood craziness.
What is the difference between a studio film and an independent film?
A studio film has to play to the agendas of those who are funding it, and traditionally the ones funding studio films are huge media companies and overseas film financing companies, who have their own agenda and want to make their money. They are not just making money from movies, but making money from everything that comes with that, whether it's product placement, video games and theme park rides, clothing and accessories and food and toys, or God knows what else they can sell off the strength of a movie. When an independent film is financed, it's usually with the idea of wanting to give the film-makers the space they need to go out and make the movie that wants to be told, the one that's on the page, the one that the actor wants to just lose themselves in, beyond money. Charlize Theron in 'Monster' is just unrecognizable, and that's the role that got her an Oscar, and that's a film that didn't have to deal with the influence of a major media company telling the film-makers how it is to be made.
How has technology changed the independent film world?
For independent film, there's technology that's great. Especially with camera technology. You can shoot stuff on digital video, on high definition, that is much cheaper than shooting on film and it looks amazing. And it can also fit the medium of the independent film and really fit the technology that an independent film has to sometimes compromise, like shooting on DV or shooting on high-def. It can actually help play to the story a little bit. The Blair Witch Project, one of the most successful independent films of all times, shot on little DV home cameras was completely groundbreaking. It was right when reality television was starting and it really added to the feel of the movie. If that independent film had been shot on traditional film, it wouldn't have been the same movie-going experience. And so for a independent film like that, to use the sort of new advances in technology to its advantage, made it what it became.
What are some different techniques in making an independent film?
There's a different approach to every film, big or small. And for independent filmmakers, every day counts, every dollar counts. You cannot waste anything whether it's time, or money, or resources. You have to really squeeze everything out of it in order to get the independent film made. Making a independent film, whether its a good movie or a bad movie, is one of the most difficult things to do in the world. People don't really appreciate it, they kind of take it for granted. They assume, "Oh yeah, they're famous people, they can just jump in front of the camera and make a movie". It doesn't work like that, so for independent filmmakers who don't have the huge studio size budgets, they have to try and do different things. They have to shoot in their own neighbourhood because they know they won't get harassed for location. They have to get extras from the neighbourhood to play certain parts who aren't trained actors. You have to sort of pull resources and ask for favours and max out credit cards. The directors of Hoop Dreams maxed out every one of their credit cards and didn't see a profit on their independent film for ten years or thirteen years after it was made. They didn't make one dollar on the independent film for thirteen years. They just poured their heart into it. It was nominated for an Academy Award, and there you go, that's the tradeoffs. So independent filmmakers have lots of different approaches with all being the end goal of getting the independent film made and trying to use every resource they have that's at their disposal.