Rise of Independent Film, Fall of Independent Filmmakers, and Slamdance to the Rescue

Alisa Perren, in her book, Indie, Inc., discusses the transformation of Hollywood and global movie marketing and distribution during the rise and eventual decline of Miramax, the film distribution company created by the brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein. During this time period of the 1980s and 90s, the “independent” film began to make its place on the film festival circuits, and eventually into the libraries of major movie studios, starting most notably with sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Miramax picked up sex, lies, and videotape and successfully marketed the film in ways that were more tailored and innovative in reaching particular niche audiences. This form of marketing that Miramax used successfully over and over again began to change the format for which other small and major movie studios began to campaign their movies during exhibition and distribution. With major studios keeping an eye on the rise of independent film, they began sweeping up small niche-focused independent film companies in order to place their foot in the market of independent film. This is where Disney came in and swooped on Miramax. Miramax was thus able to keep their image as the distributor of foreign or edgy, low-budget independent films, while getting top financing from Disney.

One of the most popular ways for major studio distributors to find independent films to add to their repertoire is by keeping an eye on the film festival circuits – the very same way that Miramax came onto sex, lies, and videotape. With more of the Hollywood industry swooping in on film festivals, which were meant to be a place for exhibition by non-studio filmmakers with lower budgets and more artistic drive, film festivals began to change. And change in ways that began to leave non-studio, low-budget, filmmakers out of the festival circuits. Perren discusses this phenomenon as follows:

“Sundance films with budgets far exceeding $100,000 were quickly becoming the norm. Of course, films at these budget levels were usually not self-financed by the filmmakers, their friends, and their family. Rather, money came from a diverse array of sources. These included private investors attracted by the well-publicized tales of “little films” that hit the box office jackpot, along with regional television stations (particularly those affiliated with PBS), emerging cable services such as the Sundance Channel and IFC, and the old standby, videocassette distributors” (Perren 148).

With film festival films, especially in the Sundance circuit, beginning to be preyed and marketed on for monetary investment by varying companies, rather than used for creative license by filmmakers during the 90s, independent filmmakers were feeling left out. Thus began the creation of Slamdance Film Festival in 1995. Perren writes that the creators of Slamdance “claimed they were dissatisfied with Sundance’s move away from its roots… Significantly, these individuals launched Slamdance not because they wanted a venue for more experimental works, but simply because Sundance rejected their own films” (Perren 152). The creators,  Dan Mirvish, Jon Fitzgerald, Shane Kuhn, Peter Baxter, and Paul Rachman, started their guerilla campaigning for Slamdance on the same weekend as Sundance, trying to get the attendees of Sundance to come by and see films outside of the Sundance market. With Sundance receiving more film submissions than ever and these films having investors clamoring all over them from the get go, it only seems to make sense that the original market for artistic independent filmmakers should be created again.

Sundance was not too happy to see this “brash, punky, snot-nosed little brother” of a film festival come into Park City, Utah during the same time as its own festival. Michael Dunaway writes about how Robert Redford, founder of Sundance, has been quoted numerous times calling Slamdance a “parasite” in the past. As time passed though, the edgier festival, totting the motto “By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers” has grown some favor in the eyes of Sundance, for they cater to a different variety of artists. Slamdance draws in first-time, new, and emerging filmmakers and screenwriters. They attempt to give a leg-up to newcomers into the film world, exhibiting and helping make distribution deals for filmmakers who might not otherwise get the chance on another film festival circuit. They have featured no-names, turned all-star directors and writers such as Christopher Nolan, Marc Forster, and Lena Dunham. Slamdance has even attracted the likes of Steven Soderbergh, the very same director that paved the way for independent films with sex, lies and videotape. Although Slamdance has drawn on some of the prestige that comes from being a neighbor to Sundance, it still tries to call forth newcomers to the market, allowing for the independent filmmaker to still exist.

Perren ends her book stating that the direction of independent films has declined of recent, especially with the fall of Miramax being sold by Disney in 2010 (the Weinstein brothers having left in 2005), but who knows how the Hollywood market will continue to cater and tailor independent films. With film festivals, such as Slamdance, calling out only newcomers, mostly clean of investors, hopefully the Hollywood market will still be able to pick up artistically driven films that have the edge and spunk of the low-income films of the 80s and 90s. Otherwise, if the Hollywood market continues to invest and consume too much in what they believe is the true independent market, wider audiences will miss out on discovering films with the passion and effort of the true filmmaking auteur.

Featured image via FilmIndependent.

Sources:

Dunaway, Michael. “Seven Slamdance Films We’re Looking Forward To.” Paste Magazine. 19 Jan 2012. Web. 14 Feb 2015. <http://www.pastemagazine.com/blogs/lists/2012/01/six-slamdance-films-were-looking-forward-to.html&gt;

Perren, Alisa. Indie, Inc.: Miramax and the Transformation of Hollywood in the 1990s.: University of Texas Press, 2013. Print. Texas Film and Media Studies Series.

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Comments

  1. Very nice article! Puts Slamdance in the perfect context of the changes in indie film in the mid90s. Thanks!

    • Aw wow – thank you so much! I actually interned for Slamdance in the summer of 2012, so I remain a huge advocate for it, especially to new filmmakers. So thank you!!

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