“No stars, just talent:” or, how the Indie Film was won by Hollywood and changed its identity

There’s a scene about halfway through Robert Altman’s The Player in which studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is listening to the pitch of two idealist screenwriters. The story is compelling, but the screenwriters are adamant that the film not contain any stars, and that it not resolve itself. In a comment that’s a little on the nose, Andy Sivella (Richard E. Grant) says that “if I’m perfectly honest, this isn’t even an American film.”

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Habeas Corpus!”

The Player was released in 1992, straddling the two era of 1990s conglomerate Hollywood and the indie film movement that Tom Schatz discusses in his “The Studio System and Conglomerate Hollywood.” I believe this is a uniquely American experience. As he mentions in the chapter, “the domestic US market since the early 1990s has become increasingly split between these major studio releases on the one hand and low-budget ‘indie’ films on the other.” (29) Altman is highly aware of this. He as well as Robbins were considered to be seminal established workers benefiting from the independent film world rising in the early 1990s. Altman’s making of a film about this very topic (I believe) shows his happiness with the art form’s greater exposure but also frustration with the practice of selling out.

First off, in an interesting aside that the reading discusses at length: The Player was distributed by Fine Line Features (1990-5), which was the specialty films 72fab83a7de3dbd8549d3c97c73f2ef9division of New Line Cinema, which was an independent studio founded in 1967 that was bought by TBS in 1994 (which merged with Time Warner in 1996), which then merged completely with Warner Bros. in 2008. That’s certainly a mouthful, but it just shows all the hoops major studios went through to capitalize on the aesthetic and success of indie film houses.

For me, I assume that Altman is being tongue-in-cheek toward the end of the film — he was a considered a maverick filmmaker, yet through his relatively prolific career he made a good deal of money. He thought of The Player as a light satire, and even though it illustrates the world of the reconciliation of these two film universes, it places Altman outside of this reality. The two screenwriters who wrote Habeas Corpus alter their idea to have big stars (Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis) and a happy ending. They effectively sell out and become part of Big Film with the rest of the executives in order to “end with a kiss and black ink on the books.” (callback!) I think Altman prides himself on being a holdout, of keeping separate from the big conglomerates (keep in mind this is 1992, and Fine Line/New Line weren’t bought until 1994).

I imagine Altman’s films and perspective would be different now. The two Hollywoods that Schatz speaks of have merged further now. For example: Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) arguably has the aesthetic of an “indie film” to the greater public. But it grossed $47 million worldwide, was distributed by Warner Bros., and starts Scarlett Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix. 10, 20 years ago it would have possibly been distributed by a more “arty” studio, and would have been cast at an open call. But now, like Schatz says, “Conglomerate Hollywood, whatever its overriding commitment to high-yield blockbusters, is also heavily invested in the indie movement itself and also, crucially, in the active cross-fertilization of the two Hollywoods.”

There are certainly truly “independent” films. Art house cinemas still show features from up-and-coming and/or unknown directors. Consider this year’s Tangerine, directed by Sean S. Baker. He has only released independent features, and the two actresses in this film had no major experience. The film was entirely shot on iPhones, and was released by small distributor Magnolia Pictures (best known for Jesus Camp and Jiro Dreams of Sushi). Critical acclaim was heaped onto the picture — showing that’s it’s still possible now to make a film separate of the conglomerates.

from Tangerine (2015)

from Tangerine (2015)

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  1. […] few of my peers have written some great posts on the question, “What does independent mean?” I honestly don’t have an answer for that question. It sure seems to me that the term […]

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