NEW YORK — 'Independent films," or just "indies," have become a major talking point for reviewers and a powerful selling point for moviegoers - as the Sundance Film Festival, unfurling this week, reminds us each January with its focus on pictures made outside the Hollywood studios.
But what does "indie" really mean - assuming it means anything at all in this age of globalized mass media? Opinions are varied, as are the movies grouped in its ever larger tent.
"It certainly doesn't have much to do with budget any longer," says Peter Brunette, the Reynolds professor of film studies at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. "Personal, idiosyncratic films can cost more than $50 million these days," he continues, "and a company like Miramax has been so successful in mainstream America that you can no longer [automatically] say what they put out is an 'independent' film. Independent of what?"
None of which means there's no such thing as indie cinema, Dr. Brunette adds. "You know it when you see it. Look at 'Garden State' and 'Tarnation' and 'You Can Count on Me,' to name a few. Independent cinema is alive and well. It only appears [otherwise] when an excellent but modest film gets overhyped at Sundance and has trouble competing financially with mall movies!"
Ray Carney, a Boston University professor who manages the Independent Film Pages at www.Cassavetes.com, has another take. "Like an Academy Award nomination," he says, "being called 'independent' has become a way to sell your movie - to make it seem more exciting, more out there, more original. It's been co-opted by the culture of salesmanship," he says.
Dr. Carney still sees the independent spirit at work, though, naming Su Friedrich, Mark Rappaport, Charles Burnett, and Todd Haynes among today's best exemplars. "Never heard of them?" he asks. "That's because part of working outside the system means being cut loose from the advertising and promotion that make other, unimportant filmmakers household names."
Independent filmmakers have their own views of what indie means.
"Cinema of Outsiders," a book by Emmanuel Levy, collects an assortment of opinions. "Independent film contains a populist rhetoric, against the system, against the grain," says James Mangold, who directed the offbeat "Heavy."
"I used to think it [meant] where the money comes from," says Nancy Savoca, director of "Household Saints," "but now it's about having a vision and a point of view."
Adds director Kevin Smith, of "Clerks" and "Dogma" fame, "What defines independent film is the question: Could this movie ever be made in a studio? If you say no, then that's an independent film."
Blurring this scenario is the fact that Hollywood studios now have "specialty" branches designed to find and distribute independently made features - which arrive in theaters decked with logos from studios that didn't actually produce them.
Then there are indies that become so popular it's hard to remember they're not Hollywood products. Take two of last year's most talked-about releases. "Fahrenheit 9/11" is the highest-grossing documentary ever. In terms of visibility, marketing, and box office, it's just what Hollywood tries to achieve. Yet its United States distributor is the small IFC Films, while its funding came largely from Miramax, an indie pioneer - now owned by Walt Disney Pictures - and Michael Moore's company, Dog Eat Dog Films.
There's also "The Passion of the Christ," last year's No. 4 moneymaker. Brought to American screens by Newmarket Films, an adventurous but minor company, it was financed by Mel Gibson's own Icon Productions after studio moguls questioned its ability to make a profit, much less a humongous one.
It's hard to pin down when the indie scene first started. Some historians point to "race movies" of the 1920s and '30s, created by African-American filmmakers for specialized audiences. Others cite John Cassavetes's film "Shadows," made outside the studio system in the late '50s and a major influence on everyone from Martin Scorsese to Steven Soderbergh in later years. Still others find its origins spread out over the '50s and '60s, when economic shifts in Hollywood led to more outside filmmaking.
Carney's view takes account of both economics and aesthetics. "Back in the 1960s and 1970s, there were independent films," he says, "but they weren't called that. They were called things like crazy, sloppy, messy. The term seems to have come into vogue sometime after Miramax was founded and after 'Sex, Lies, and Videotape' became a surprise smash hit. From then on, 'indie' was everywhere. To call your movie 'independent' meant it was different, edgy, unconventional. Everyone wanted to make one. Everyone wanted to see one. All the distributors wanted to show one. All the studios wanted to release one. In short, it became like any other American buzzword."
To Brunette, the only real meaning left in the term is "to mark an aesthetic contrast with Hollywood production. It's nearly useless in any practical sense."
Like Brunette, Carney retains affection for the indie impulse, if not for the term. "Truly independent filmmakers dare to explore things that really matter," he says. "They aren't worried about what worked last year, or trying to cash in on a successful formula, or thinking about what will play in Peoria, or what will make a lot of money. They do what artists in any other medium do - pose real questions about who we are, what matters in life, where are we headed, what our culture is doing to us.
"In short," he concludes, "they ask the same questions we ask ourselves. And then, amazingly, they do something we don't always do: try to answer them.
"Crazy? Narcissistic? Pigheaded? Wildly ambitious? Flawed? Foolish? Indie films can be all those things," he says. "But they're attempting to give us the news that really matters. The emotional news. News about what it is to be alive today. To quote Ezra Pound, the news that stays news."