We’ve been on a long journey to have the diversity of content available to us today. In 2004 I started to notice the trend. This is a previously unpublished essay from November 2004. Feel free to comment below.
Independent films have been something of a sideshow for years. But now, recent trend seems to show that the sideshow is on the path to taking center stage. Broadway’s market was attacked by vaudeville, and now the Golden State’s cinema industry is being attacked by another version of vaudeville. This research will show four reasons why independent films will continue to be a part of our future. Today independent films are marketable, they are more appropriate to reach specific audiences, they can coexist with the current movie market, and finally newer technology helps to level the playing field between the machine of Hollywood and the aspiring dreams of small filmmakers. In this essay all of these areas will be explored using specific examples of films in each category, first hand communication with directors of two independent films, and recorded testimony of others.
The science of Hollywood is a formula for proper film product, coupled with the right amount of advertising, released at the proper moment, resulting in a large profit. The bottom line is money, and it’s an equation that saved the industry in its infancy (Columbia Pictures Corporation, Frank Capra, 1999), and runs the business today. The trade has practiced and honed this model so well that it appears as though the only time they care about what an audience sees is when they look at ticket results or the marketing research. Regardless of how developed their science is the equation is not perfect. These imperfections are precisely the niches that independent filmmakers fill so well. It would be neglect to talk about why independent films will continue without pointing out that their existence is due to flaws with the Hollywood model. The largest mistake has been believing that the consumer is nothing more than a vehicle to make money.
Until 2002 no independent film had made its way to becoming a box office hit from coast to coast, even when released internationally. But one woman in her thirties had a dream, and in fulfilling her dream changed America’s perception of the independent film. Nia Vardalos wrote and directed a movie based upon a subject she knew about better than anyone else, herself (Gold Circle Films, Home Box Office, MPH Entertainment, Nia Vardalos, 2002)! Her movie broke many of the typical screen stereotypes. Nia in real life, or on screen, does not fit the skinny blond actress category, normally filled with names like Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, and Christina Applegate. Her previous acting experience didn’t make her worthy of the national attention needed to allow her movie to reach fruition and she has never appeared on the credits of any film or television show as director or writer, though she wrote and directed her most successful project. Although her movie had the production help of Tom Hanks because of lucky circumstance, she mentions in commenting on the film that their budget at the time of the movie’s release was so small that paying for advertising was difficult and the movie’s initial popularity was due mostly to word of mouth (Gold Circle Films, Home Box Office, MPH Entertainment, Nia Vardalos, 2002).
The film ran in theaters for a whole year, where many movies measure their theater lifespan in months or weeks. Since its initial release the film has achieved an academy award nomination, transitioned into a TV series, made over $240 million in the US alone, and another $232 million with its release on DVD (Nash, n.d.). This obscure production has turned the heads of many aspiring filmmakers. It is the best example that a small film, with a small budget, can compete with the blockbuster movies of Hollywood. After all it was competing in theaters with the some of the biggest hits of 2002 including, Spirit ($73M), The Scorpion King ($90M), the Sum of All Fears ($118M), Star Wars Attack of the Clones ($302M), and Spider Man ($403M) managing to hold it’s own against them by running the entire year (Nash, 2004).
Nia hit the nail of romance comedy and equally poignant is Michael Moore’s release of a political movie during an election year. Rolling Stone advertised that his movie Fahrenheit 9/11 turned him into a nightmare for the White House (Binelli, 2004). Both movies fall into a class of “indie” films that are written about a specific topic but released for a general audience. The lasting impressions of that film are in the same category in both because both show people what they’re not used to seeing. Independent filmmakers seem to have a gift to do this better than mainstream Hollywood. The “heavy” looking girl in high school can develop herself in her thirties and get the handsome guy. An overweight activist with a nothing more than a high school diploma can become a threat to an entire political party by showing the things that didn’t air on September 11th, and having his story gross $119million (Nash, 2004) and surprise AAFES retailers in Europe (Dougherty, 2004).
Searching for the right story is something that Hollywood has done to fill their equation but the right story for Hollywood is determined by the demographics of America at the time. Instead with independent films the filmmaker can reserve the control over his product from start to finish, keeping the purity of the story as the focal point of the work. Such has been the case with Dallas Jenkins the director of Hometown Legend, a small independent film. Though financially unsuccessful it retained much of its original intended story because it was an independent production. The movie combines football and a heavy spiritual theme giving equal attention to both during the movie. Typically Hollywood will dial down the spiritual theme in and increase the more appealing part of the film.
The importance of story in movies brings us to our second point, and an amazing phenomenon. Dallas Jenkins attempted to reach out to Christians in telling a story designed for Christians (Jenkins & Roecker, 2004), but another group of filmmakers has been focusing on reaching a specific Christian Faith, the Mormons. The Mormon film going community was either an overlooked demographic, or an unreachable one. That changed when a small company, Zion Films, produced a movie about Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles and called it “God’s Army.” Advertising was not possible nationwide but it was feasible over the internet and in local areas where the movie was released predominantly in the Rocky Mountain region of the United States and Southern Canada. There was enough interest in theaters to have it released elsewhere but this was the key region of revenue for the film.
Ironically the role of Mormon missionaries is to go and talk about the doctrine of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, yet in this film the intent wasn’t to make this a teaching tool for non Mormon audiences but rather to tell a story designed to be appreciated by members of the Church. The film was considered a novelty and appreciated by its target audience. Mr. Dutchner, the director commented that he did not want to see Hollywood trying to reach this market (Zion, Films, & Dutchner, 2000). His concern was that Hollywood would have little appreciation for the subtle things that make the film an authentic Mormon piece.
Dallas Jenkins once commented that Christians like to see things that most movie goers like to see (Jenkins & Roecker, 2004). The same is true about the Mormon niche and comedies tend to do well throughout the movie going audience and so Halestorm Entertainment began producing comedies in Mormon settings. Now they have at least four comedies, all financially successful released, as well as 3 more on the way (“Halestorm Entertainment”, 2004). Other Mormon filmmakers have created dramas that have also done well. Jack Weyland, a famous Mormon author had his book Charlie recently turned into a movie, and it became a successful transition of that Mormon drama to the screen. One company has even adapted Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice to fit a modern Utah based audience (“Pride & Prejudice”, 2004). All of these movies have been made without the typical big name actors and actresses, without being marketed for a nationwide audience, and without any significant help from the Hollywood machine. Ldsfilm.com has a more comprehensive listing of films designed for this niche audience and the list currently numbers over 175 films (“Index to FIlm”, 2004).
In contrast to the success of Mormon pictures designed by independent filmmakers for Mormon audiences, Hollywood has had its own version of faith promoting films. Disney put a Mormon missionary as the protagonist of one of its feature films in the 2001 release of “The Other Side of Heaven.” The movie’s script carefully avoided the use of the word Mormon, showing references to the Book of Mormon, and mentioning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It’s protagonist is real life is a man by the name of John Groeberg, who has been an active member of the Mormon church and is now a full time Church employee. The 2004 release of a film called Saints and Soldiers had a similar fate when adapted to a mainstream audience (email@example.com, 2004). Though adapting the scripts allows the faith promoting stories to be made available to broader audience, the ones that need no script adaptation have still been successful.
If there’s money to be made, Hollywood will adapt. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg broke away from the typical movie making equation in the 1980’s each forming their own company allowing them to control their film product. Since that time a great deal of other filmmakers have followed suit developing their own production companies to retain control over their films. Troublemaker Studios is a Robert Rodriquez company, responsible for producing the Spy Kids trilogy, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Centropolis Entertainment is a related to Roland Emmerich, responsible for producing Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Jersey Films is Danny DeVito’s Company, and responsible for films such as Matilda (1996) and Duplex (2003).
The trend is transitioning to allow the person with the idea to retain control of his product until it reaches completion. It does not seem too illogical for independent filmmakers to pick up what Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas began years ago. If Hollywood’s concern is the movie’s ability to make money then why should it matter if the movie is created using the studio’s financial assets or the independent producers? The end result is a market that currently exists as a two fold mutual exchange. At the moment, large production companies, or certainly those with a good deal of capital, are able to produce their films with the intent to sell their finished product to a studio. As the picture nears completion studios are given opportunity to evaluate the nearly finished project. In the case of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004) many studios after seeing the script and what was completed with the film, passed up the opportunity to have it released under their umbrella. Eventually his film became a financial success grossing $370 million and released under Newmarket Films (Nash, 2004).
In another venue the year 2004 has shown us that it doesn’t take a great deal of capital to get the attention and financial backing of Hollywood’s movie machine. The film Open Water, made by the husband and wife team of Chris Kentis, and Laura Lau produced the movie with a $130,000 budget (Edwards, 2004). Their film got attention when it was entered in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. After several movie companies got to see it a bidding war broke out with Lion’s Gate purchasing the movie for $2.5 million. What had seemed a small back woods, or back water, project quickly turned into a career changing event for one family and set precedence for future hopeful filmmakers (Rolling Stone). To date the estimated gross of the film is very near $29million resulting in a profitable exchange for both the Kentis family and Lions Gate (Nash, 2004). Laura Lau also commented via email that “a number of Sundance movies: garden state, napoleon dynamite, and open water all made a lot of money relative to their budgets, and as such, studios will continue to pay attention to independent films” (Lau, 2004, p. 1 edited).
Robert Rodriquez, most famous for his production of the SPY Kids trilogy has certain affection towards back yard movies. He takes careful time to encourage others to make films. On the latter two SPY Kids movies DVD release Mr. Rodriquez gives a ten minute film school designed for anyone with a home camera and some editing equipment (Dimension, Films, Troublemaker, Studios, & Rodriguez, 2002). In each of the film schools and his director’s commentary on the film, he describes the direction he believes films are going—cheaper! He points out that recent advances in technology allow film to be produced faster, less expensive, and coupled with the right skill, better than ever before. His argument for faster is because he advocates the use of digital high definition cameras created at the request of George Lucas (Lucasfilm Ltd, 2000). The money saving factor arrives because the newer cameras don’t require developing. Not only does this translate into savings but it also translates into quality. Each take of each scene can be scrutinized as soon as it is played back at a quality better than the 35mm film the theater displays for the audience. A director can now see how lighting, color, and scene continuity are occurring and make more precise corrections while still in principal photography. Now even editing the project can be done on a nightly basis with the day’s film.
Among Mr. Rodriquez’s most notable contribution to the aspiring independent filmmaker is his encouragement to make back yard movies. He points out during SPY Kids 2 a shot where the microphone cables were lying on the ground. The shot takes place on a remote island supposedly void of technology. A great deal of the film was done in post production but he purposefully left the cables in to remind him of the movies he made when he was younger (Dimension, et al., 2002) and also to encourage the next generation. As that generation steps out to find out how to make their home movies they have the ultimate guide on their home computer—the internet. In cyberspace they have the ability to acquire software to produce completely computer based movies such as the author of the Strong Bad series has done (“main3”, 2004) or to get software to edit, enhance, and publish their own film. Years ago film editing equipment would have to be ordered at great cost. Now it’s available for free 30 days at a time from software companies like Sony and Ulead.
Going back to the days of backyard movies means leaving the door open for independent films in today’s theaters. Current technology means that this generation of independent films won’t end up with the poor quality of the “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” (1978) era. Theaters will have the ability to run films for more localized audiences like the Mormon niche and still make ends meet financially. Filmmakers will be able to retain greater control over their product keeping the message of their story more pure. Regardless as to who makes the movie Hollywood can still distribute the product using its resources of delivery in an exchange beneficial for the author and the machine. The end result is going to be more of what the consumer wants to see. Americans are going to be filing more theaters and watching not only the products of the Hollywood corporations but also their neighbors.
- Columbia Pictures Corporation (Producers), & Frank Capra (Directors). (1999). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Motion Picture. USA: Columbia Tristar.
- Gold Circle Films, Home Box Office, MPH Entertainment (Producers), & Nia Vardalos (Directors). (2002). My Big Fat Greek Wedding Motion Picture. USA: HBO Video.
- Nash, Bruce. (n.d.). My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In . Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2002/MBFGW.html
- Nash, Bruce. (2004, 11 11). Thursday, November 11, 2004. Retrieved 11 2004, 13, from http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/index2002.html
- Binelli, Mark. (2004, September 16). Michael Moore’s Patriot Act. Rolling Stone
- Nash, Bruce. (2004, November 13). Fahrenheit 9/11. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2004/FH911.php
- Dougherty, Kevin. (2004, October 11). Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ sells well at AAFES. Stars and Stripes, 63(177), 3.
- Jenkins, Dallas., & Roecker, Jacob. (2004, November 13). dallasjenkinsemail1. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.roeckerfam.com/dallasjenkinsemail1.txt
- Zion Films., Dutchner, Richard. (Producers). (2000). God’s Army Motion Picture. USA: Excel Distribution.
- Halestorm Entertainment. (2004). Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.halestormentertainment.com
- Pride & Prejudice. (2004). Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.prideprejudice.com
- Index to FIlm Pages on this Website. (2004, November 8). Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.ldsfilm.com/films.html
- firstname.lastname@example.org. (2004, August 6). Class Act, Not a Mormon preaching movie. Msg. . Message posted to http://movies.yahoo.com/mvc/dfrv?mid=1808576318&rvid=255-275686&i=0&spl=0&nn=1&ys=IiM1odHyUS8iZgjuSVGuqw–
- Nash, Bruce. (2004, November 13). Passion of the Christ. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2004/PASON.php
- Edwards, Gavin. (2004, September 16). Swimming With Sharks. Rolling Stone
- Nash, Bruce. (2004, September 15). De-List Estimate Calculation for Open Water. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.the-numbers.com/hsx/calc/OPENW.html
- Lau, Laura. (2004, November 13). openwatermail.txt. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.roeckerfam.com/openwatermail.com
- Lucasfilm Ltd. (2000, April 9). Digital Camera Use Finalized. Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.starwars.com/episode-ii/news/2000/04/news20000409.html
- Dimension Films., Troublemaker Studios., Rodriguez, Robert. (Producers), & Rodriguez, Robert (Director). (2002). Spy Kids 2 Motion Picture. USA: Dimension Home Video.
- main3. (2004, November 8). Retrieved November 13, 2004, from http://www.homestarrunner.com/main3.html