What’s Indie Anymore?

Independent cinema emerged in 1989-90 outside of the studio system. As indie films gained success, the studio system attempted to capitalize on this by launching indie division with “‘indie-style,’ target marketed films.” (Schatz 29) This raises important questions– what is ‘indie style?’ Can a film really be ‘indie’ with the backing of a major studio?

Studios are obviously interested in their bottom line, and producing films that will appeal to a wide market audience. By nature, these films are generally not politically radical, and tend to appeal to the “demographic most prized by advertisers and targeted for films: 18-34-year-old white males in upscale households subscribing to cable.” (Meehan 112)

Are stories outside of that demographic destined to be indies? This sets up a problematic divide in which its assumed that everyone will watch what’s interested to a 30 year-old-white dude, but that 30-year-old white dude won’t watch anything that isn’t explicitly about him, or pandered to his interests.

As debates about what is or isn’t indie continue, I was interested in exploring the production process of films that do not necessarily appeal to a wide audience, and the ways in which they came to be.

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour is a powerful portrait of Edward Snowden’s decision to leak government information about the NSA spying on citizens. It tapped into a larger conversation about privacy, surveillance, and how much power our government should have over the details of our lives. Snowden, of course, is a highly controversial figure, and the documentary takes on the United States government head-on.

One of the film posters for Citizenfour.

One of the film posters for Citizenfour.

Citizenfour went on to enjoy some mainstream success. It was shown in theaters and won an Oscar for Best Documentary. It was produced by Praxis Films, which is Poitras’s own film company. It was produced in association with HBO Documentary Films and Participant Media. Participant Media is a company dedicated to producing entertainment that inspires social change, and also produced An Inconvenient Truth.

Accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary.

Accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary.

The documentary was fiscally sponsored by Women Make Movies, a non-profit dedicated to supporting women in the film industry. The non-profit specializes in production assistance and distribution, deliberately opening up space outside the studio system for women to succeed. Women Make Movies also produces many films that are explicitly political in their nature, such as After Tiller, a documentary about the only late-term abortion providers in America,  so their creators and their stories are not typical of the studio system.


I personally believe that the mission of Women Make Movies captures the true indie spirit, creating a pathway for stories outside the mainstream to exist. In addition to distributing and sponsoring films, Women Make Movies also offers a network for aspiring creative workers, and technical support to their projects.

At the same time, we must consider why some topics and some creators are deemed inappropriate for the mainstream, and what the implications of this are. Especially for films that are political in nature.


  1. […] few of my peers have written some great posts on the question, “What does independent mean?” I honestly […]

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