The ‘Indie’ Equation and Self-Reflexive Cinema

Breathless - GodardIn her book Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s, Alisa Perren examines the rise and fall of the independent film giant, Miramax, and the role the company played in the reframing of the economic and cultural landscape in Hollywood during the 1990s. As an exemplar of Miramax’s revolutionary marketing and distributing techniques, Perren considers Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989). The film’s economic success and critical acclaim, along with countless other Miramax productions, promptly raised issues regarding its status as an “indie” film, and furthermore, Miramax’s status as an independent film studio. Citing one reporter, Perren remarks that, “…the company was functioning at the independent level in a manner mirroring the majors” (48). In other words, the Weinstein’s seemingly mastered the art of niche marketing and distributing while not limiting their productions to a “festival” or “art” crowd. From a marketing standpoint, this is somewhat paradoxical; an “independent” studio functioning like a major studio. As Skouras president Jeff Lipsky said:

If you’re spending seven figures, you’re competing with the majors (50).

In order to uncover Miramax’s success, it is vital to be able to recognize or at least define both an independent film and an indie blockbuster. Perren bluntly states the constituting factors of an independent film: the film’s source of financing, the distributor’s relationship with other industrial powers, the film’s exhibition locations, the actors’ status in Hollywood, and the overall “spirit” of the film (8). Based on her definition of what compromises an indie film, the existence of indie blockbusters seems contradictory in nature. She writes:

By ‘indie blockbuster,’ I mean a film that, on a smaller scale, replicates the marketing and box office performance of the major studio event pictures (16).

The economic success found by sex, lies, and videotape, which surely falls under the category of indie blockbuster, was facilitated by the Weinstein’s strategic and tailored method of marketing. In a time when the major studios favored large productions (accompanied by potentially colossal losses), companies like Miramax found the “independent” label beneficial in numerous ways. By avoiding the cinematic framework of the “art house” film or “festival” film, Miramax productions emerged as uniquely intriguing simply due to the fact that they were advertised as ‘sophisticated’ and ‘quality’. As Perren puts it, this style of marketing utilizes the Weinstein “rhetoric” (39). Miramax presented itself as antithetical to Hollywood when in reality they were, as stated before, operating like a major. Harvey Weinstein framed Miramax’s efforts appropriately when he told the Los Angeles Times in May 1989:

It’s the distributor’s responsibility to find the audience (33).

Up to this point, there seems to be one critical element missing from this equation; the “‘indie auteur'” (52). I’m not good at math, but if I had to guess, the equation would look something like:

Independent studio + Independent auteur = Independent film

It seems fitting that the American indie auteur emerges in the 1990s; the major studios found themselves at an impasse in so far as what direction to take the industry, as a result of which companies like Miramax found their way into the market, and the “‘movie brat'” generation (Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, etc.) was thriving (10). This concept of the indie auteur, in my opinion, inherently challenges the previously existing perceptions of the auteur throughout history. When I think “auteur”, I think Jean-Luc Godard, and more specifically, his 1960 film Breathless. I imagine he was the French equivalent to an indie auteur at the time.

Godard managed to rewrite the dogma of film editing that existed at the time via his constant use of the jump cuts and through his character’s direct interaction with the camera. If you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m referring to. If not, please watch the brief introduction to the movie and you will understand.

It was the influence of auteur’s like Godard, and the resultant age of New Hollywood or “Hollywood Renaissance” in the 1960s, that would shape the careers of the so-called ‘movie brats’ and trigger the emergence of the indie auteur in the 1990s  (10). Steven Soderbergh is a fine example; his emphasis on the videotape, both in the title of the film and within the narrative itself, immediately attracts “video-educated” audiences and filmmakers alike (31). It appears that cinematic self-reflexivity is a favorite practice of auteurs, dating all the way back to the Marx Brothers’ 1930 comedy Animal Crackers. Through this strategy and others, Soderbergh fills the role of the indie auteur.

Featured image can be found here.

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Comments

  1. It might be worth unpacking some of the observations you make about auteurs here, Gabe. Doing so might also help us to see more clearly where, how and why Perren includes (or excludes) the auteur in her discussion, especially since she sees the “independent” and “indie” appellations — at least during the period covered in her book — as being arguably more influenced by distribution than by production.

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