Then Thomas Ethan Harris saw filmmaker Joseph Lovett's first feature-length film, he gave it a ringing endorsement. The programming director of the recent Los Angeles Independent Film Festival called "The Accident," which explores Mr. Lovett's role in his mother's death, "an utterly original vision."
The problem is it's not representative of what Mr. Harris usually sees, films that appear to be made more to please distributors and start down the road to big bucks than to make a creative statement.
"We're at the darkest point in American independent filmmaking history," says Harris, who has run the Los Angeles festival during its five-year history. Lovett's documentary, and a few others like it, represent what he hopes will be the beginning of an end to today's creative slump in the world of independent filmmaking.
When the L.A. festival began in 1995, Harris received some 600 entries.
Submissions rose to 1,400 this year, of which over 33 features played in the festival. But he says the trend he has noted during that time is discouraging.
Independent filmmakers "have compromised their vision, and they're letting us all down," Harris says. He believes the majority of independent filmmakers, aiming for that upwardly mobile film career, "aren't making the films of which they - or we - are worthy."
His assessment mirrors the conclusions from larger, more well-known film showcases such as January's Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and the international festival in Cannes, France.
Emmanuel Levy, a film critic for Daily Variety, says the Sundance films reflected the "trend that marks general 'indie' [independent film] production of the late 1990s ... the mainstreaming of indies." Jean Roy, programmer for the International Critics Week Selection at Cannes, says that American directors seemed to be "turning out pale copies of earlier American films or deriving their style from watching hours of television." But the International contenders didn't fare much better, he added.
What that means for the average moviegoer is "an overall decline in general entertainment value," argues longtime industry analyst Chris Lanier of Motion Picture Intelligencer. After an extended flirtation with blockbuster films that have bombed at increasing rates (remember "Speed 2," "The Postman"), big studios are cutting back and looking for cheaper ways to go.
Quentin Tarantino helped start the industry's love affair with the cheap indies with his $8 million "Pulp Fiction," which made more than $100 million. Unfortunately for the overall quality of independent filmmaking, "Everyone and their brother began to make independent films."
"We used to have garage bands," says Liz Manne, senior vice president of programming for the Sundance Channel, a cable outlet for independent films, with a laugh. "Now," she says, "you bring your friends and shoot a movie for a couple hundred thousand dollars you borrow from grandma or family friends." A glut of films, "mostly bad" she says ruefully, has been the inevitable result. "We have more films out there than could reasonably find theatrical release."
"Ultimately, genre has nothing to do with whether or not a movie succeeds with an audience," points out industry analyst Lanier. "People don't go to another 'Pulp Fiction,' "they go to movies that deliver all the old-fashioned qualities that have made good films since the beginning of storytelling. Laughter, tears, drama, these are the values people look for."
This rush to the marketplace also has blurred the definition of an "indie" these days. Lars Bjorck of the independent film company Tradewinds Entertainment, argues the definition is simple: " 'Independent' means any film created outside the major studios in Hollywood." His company, he says, is "completely independent. We finance and create all our own films," unlike the now-numerous "so-called art house divisions within the major studios."
Many of the films that the public may think are "independent" actually have a big-studio parent lurking above them. Miramax ("Life Is Beautiful" and "Shakespeare in Love") is owned by Disney. October Films is owned by media mogul Barry Diller's USA Networks, Fine Line by Time Warner, Fox Searchlight by 20th Century Fox, Sony Pictures Classics by Sony, and so on. "These studios like to say they have 'independent spirit,' " Bjorck says, but really all they are is just studio films in indie clothing.
SUNDANCE'S Manne suggests that the notion of "indie" is actually broader. "It really has to do with sensibility as much as money," she says. What's the difference between Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" and the quirky "Rushmore," also a product of a big studio's art division? The first "is commercial in sensibility, the other is not," she says.
Manne, who co-founded Fine Line Features in 1990, says studio-sponsored art-film divisions provide an invaluable service. "They have the cash to sustain filmmakers, to market the films, and the contacts with ... cable and video to make it all work financially," he says.
Harris disagrees, arguing big-studio indies are a net loss to the viewing public. "There is less money available to help finance the truly independent filmmakers," he says, and hence fewer breakout filmmakers of the quality that the industry needs to stay creative.
He does allow that his dark cloud has one silver lining. "I see the whole industry turning a corner out of sheer desperation." During the 1950s and '60s, Hollywood passed through a "biblical cycle," producing religious extravaganzas ("The Ten Commandments," "Ben Hur"). In the '70s, it was disaster flicks such as "The Poseidon Adventure." "Star Wars" kicked off the current blockbuster era which, says Harris, is finally running out of steam.
"I'm telling all my young filmmakers now," he says ruefully, "better you should make the film you really want to, because the odds are as bad as they've ever been" that anyone will buy their film.
Meanwhile, filmmaker Lovett says he's hoping that his movie will find a distributor.
"I'd like my movie to be seen," he says quietly, watching the crowds stream into a film showing at the festival.
Lovett worked as a producer at ABC's "20/20" news magazine before starting his production company. He paid the $250,000 cost of his L.A. festival entry out of his own pocket. Making money is not his bottom line. "I left a good, high-paying career to find my own voice," he says. "I couldn't live with myself if I changed that now."