From Major to Minor

Why the best films of 2004 look like indies but aren't.

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To understand this most tumultuous year in film, over which loomed the ghost of a blessed messiah and the shadow of an accursed pariah, turn your eyes from the movie screen and look to the bookshelf. There you will find a copy of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, which became available just 12 days into 2004 -- long before Jesus Christ was resurrected by Mel Gibson, George W. Bush was crucified by Michael Moore, and a roiling private battle between Mickey Mouse and Harvey Weinstein went public. In it, Biskind said aloud what cinephiles had been whispering for years: Miramax Films -- the first distributor to prove you could make millions on films made for pennies -- had corrupted the "independent" film, holding the gun while its accomplices at the Sundance Film Festival pulled the trigger.

Biskind tried to grab hold of the wisp of smoke that is, and was, independent film -- those things that "existed in the space between the shots of Hollywood movies," works that "concerned themselves with what Hollywood left out." He opened his book in the 1970s, just as the major studios were ditching bold works for blockbusters, and he ended it in 2003, with the co-opting of acclaimed auteurs by major studios. Steven Soderbergh had gone from Sex, Lies and Videotape to making Ocean's Eleven; Bryan Singer, from The Usual Suspects to the X-Men franchise; Christopher Nolan, from Memento to the new Batman; Doug Lyman, from Swingers to The Bourne Identity. "The independent film movement, as we knew it, just doesn't exist anymore, and maybe it can't exist anymore," Soderbergh told Biskind. "It's over." To which Biskind added: And Miramax killed it.

Of course, no single man -- Miramax's heavy, Harvey Weinstein -- or a single company can kill a business. But the influence of Miramax, which long ago bought in and sold out to the system Weinstein claimed to loathe, permeates the googolplex. Miramax, which now exists to win Oscars and give boss Michael Eisner of Disney an ulcer by trying to sneak Fahrenheit 9/11 into the Magic Kingdom, once ruled Indieland with an iron fist -- which has begun to rust. Now there are many bosses gathered around the table, and they take orders from no one.

When Disney purchased Miramax for some $100 million in 1993, the other majors were as skeptical as they were envious. Disney had in its possession a machine that could crank out movies guaranteed to win award nominations and critical approbation. But now, nearly every major studio has its own artsy-fartsy specialty division that cranks out highbrow fare for the art-house crowd: Warner Bros. has Warner Independent; 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight; Universal, Focus Features; Sony, Sony Pictures Classics; and Paramount, Paramount Classics.

"Hollywood, as you know, is nothing if not imitative, and it's the same on the business side as it is when it comes to particular kinds of films," Biskind says. "If a film is a blockbuster, you tend to see five or six of the same kind of films in a row. The same is true of the Miramax business plan."

The Miramax influence is evident in the highbrow biopics parading into theaters this year, including Bill Condon's Kinsey from Fox Searchlight, Alejandro Amenábar's The Sea Inside from Fine Line, and Kevin Spacey's one-man show Beyond the Sea, distributed by Lions Gate but financed with European money. It's evident in the (relatively) star-studded, (relatively) low-budget auteur projects topping critics' year-end lists, among them Alexander Payne's Sideways (Searchlight), Richard Linklater's Before Sunset (Warner Independent), David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees (Searchlight again), Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Focus), Mike Nichols' Closer (Sony), and even István Szabó's Being Julia (ThinkFilm). It's evident in Newmarket's decision to distribute Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ when no one else would touch it.

And it's evident in the small fortunes paid small films at the Sundance Film Festival in January, when Fox Searchlight handed over $3 million for director-co-writer Jared Hess' revenge-of-the-nerd comedy Napoleon Dynamite (which has made more than $40 million) and $5 million for the rights to distribute Zach Braff's debut as writer-director, Garden State, which raked in $25 million. Miramax joined in the bidding for the latter, acquiring distribution rights outside the United States.

"There has been a vacuum left by Miramax," Biskind says. "I always like to think of it as the big tree whose canopy throws everything under it into shadow, and that tree has been cut down and has allowed everything else to bloom and grow. As long as Miramax was buying up everything in sight, and as long as people had to compete with them and spend the money to compete with them, it meant opening a film was frighteningly expensive. It's still expensive, but you don't have to go up against Miramax anymore."

Fifteen years ago, Miramax birthed the indie industry by paying the then-unheard-of amount of $2 million ($1 mil for the movie, another mil guaranteed for advertising) for Steven Soderbergh's debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape, which was made for half that. In the blink of a projector, small films were big business, and there were no bigger businessmen than Harvey and Bob Weinstein, the vulgarians who would spend the 1990s reinventing the art house in their slovenly images by spending small fortunes to make larger ones -- first for themselves, then for Disney, which is now at war with Miramax over, among other things, Michael Moore's Bush-bashing doc, which Disney refused to release and which ultimately fell into Lions Gate's lap.

Over the years, Miramax accrued an enviable reputation as a maker and breaker of directors, an awards machine and generic art-house-movie assembly line, a setter of standards and a lowerer of them, too. But Miramax now is essentially out of the indie biz: At year's end, it released two lavish biopics in which famous living people (Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio) portrayed famous dead people (Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie and Howard Hughes, respectively) in expensive movies aimed as much toward garnering awards as audiences. The combined budgets for Marc Forster's Finding Neverland and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator would have paid for 200 Sex, Lies and Videotapes; their casts, including Depp and Kate Winslet in Neverland and Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law, and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator, would fill a year's worth of Entertainment Weekly.

Where once "independent film" meant a movie made outside the clutches of Hollywood, now it means simply a movie that resembles something done on the fringes. It's no longer a question of ownership, but of aesthetics: Is it quirky? Dark? Inscrutable? Full of famous people taking off their clothes? Made with shaky cameras and set to a minimalist score? Is it funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny? Do people talk and talk, but never really do anything? Yeah? Then it's indie.

"Who could say anything bad about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and who is more quirky and individual a creative voice than [its writer] Charlie Kaufman?" asks Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, which is not affiliated with a major studio. "But there is nothing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that was ever at risk. It's a film that, once somebody green-lit it, said, 'What do you need? You need Kate Winslet? Let's get Kirsten Dunst. A walk-on. Let's get Elijah Wood. A walk-on. It's barely a role. I've had bigger parts in movies. Let's cast it up. If it's gonna be quirky, we better protect it with as much production value, as much music, as much light, as much beauty, as much location, as much snow in the summer, as much sunshine in the winter [as we can]. What can we do for this movie to guarantee that this quirky movie might reach an audience?' That's not independent. That's just the opposite of independent, where you walk that tightrope and there is no safety net in sight."

And there's the rub.

What irks Urman is the fact that, among the nominees for the respected Independent Film Project's Gotham Awards (handed out December 1), only one of the five features was truly independent -- Primer, the dazzling if occasionally head-scratching debut by Shane Carruth, a Dallas software engineer who wrote, directed, starred in, edited, and scored his quasi-sci-fi movie for $7,000. The rest of the nominees -- Sideways (which won), Huckabees, Eternal Sunshine, and Before Sunset -- were all financed by the specialty divisions of major studios. What chance does a tiny movie like Primer stand when faced against the likes of Payne, Linklater, Gondry, and Russell? No chance at all. Urman was understandably ticked: ThinkFilm distributed Primer.

But this year has completely blurred the line between "indie" and "studio," so that not even the Independent Film Project seems aware of the irony at work in its own awards proceedings.

"Well, the line is moving, let's say that," insists Mark Gill, head of newcomer Warner Independent, which this year also released the acclaimed marital drama We Don't Live Here Anymore. Gill and ThinkFilm's Urman, as well as Fox Searchlight's David Linde and Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles (which released the remarkable Ramones documentary End of the Century), are Miramax vets -- and they are all, says Biskind, "people who learned the Miramax tricks without becoming colonized by Harvey and Bob's personalities, meaning they're actually decent people and treat filmmakers well." Gill began there in 1994 and for five years was president of its Los Angeles operations, acquiring, developing, and marketing its movies. He was there when, in 1996, The English Patient won nine Oscars, and he recalls thinking then how 20 years earlier, a major studio would have released Anthony Minghella's film.

"But what's happened is the studios' major divisions are under pressure to do $200-, $300-million movies that can be a worldwide success, because when they hit, boy, does that pay dividends," he says. "The emphasis is on very, very broad stories and themes. But what I find appealing is the opposite: smaller stories with a human dimension to them, which will work around the world, but on a smaller basis. All the so-called 'indie movies' have one thing in common, which is a singularity of voice. The biggest change is an independent film can be made for as little as $10,000 and for as much as $30 million. The ceiling has been raised. 'Independent' is not an economic proposition. It's not about who owns it. It's an aesthetic, which is how people pick movies. They look for a transformational experience, something that enlightens and informs their experience. It's OK that it's just a state of mind." He laughs.

The irony is that the year's best "indie" movie, writer-director Paul Weitz's In Good Company, is being distributed by a major (Universal), even though it looks and sounds and feels like something that should be sold in the art house. In the movie, Dennis Quaid loses his magazine ad-selling job to Topher Grace, who, at half Quaid's age, becomes the old man's boss. Weitz's movie is full of everyday stuff -- second mortgages, fear of losing medical benefits, petulant bosses -- and feels as honest as any fiction released this year.

If In Good Company (which opens December 29 in New York and Los Angeles) were a Focus movie, there wouldn't be much pressure to succeed; the studio would roll it out slowly, letting it garner acclaim and awards and momentum, rather than springing it on thousands of screens in January. But this is a Universal movie, which means that it needs to make a lot of money in a hurry, lest the studio bury it in the boneyard with other well-intentioned studio movies that were never given the care and consideration bestowed upon their most respected indie brethren.

Which brings us back to Primer, the very definition of a transformational experience and a movie that's very much a state of mind.

In January, not two weeks after Biskind's book had been published, Carruth's movie did a most unexpected thing: It won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance -- beating out, among others, Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State. For weeks afterward, Carruth could not believe his good fortune and convinced himself that the only reason he won was because the jurors had read Biskind's book and were determined to award a truly independent film.

"The only reason I even have this question is because of this book and because of what's happening in independent film," Carruth said, when we spoke in February. "I am sure a lot of people look at this and go, 'Sundance is worried about their image, because they're starting to look like a showcase and not so much a festival for independents, so, hey, they just happened to pick the cheapest film in competition and say that's their winner.' . . . I didn't set out to be the poster boy for independent film."

Alas, Primer hasn't made a fortune, despite being touted by Esquire as the best sci-fi movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey. A major would have buried it long ago: Primer has pocketed a meager $414,000 since its limited release in October. Yet ThinkFilm is still opening it in theaters, and Carruth agreed to share the expense of promoting and distributing his movie. And it doesn't need to make a fortune. After all, it was made for a pittance -- you could make 2,857 Primers for what it costs to make a Warner Independent "independent" -- and, more important, Carruth made the movie he wanted to make, for himself if for no one else. That, and nothing else, is the definition of an independent film.

"A preponderance of the best films released this year were independents, and that's not speaking for anything I did," Gill says. "It's a panoply of material, as it should be, and the range of diversity is stunning, and it shows no signs of slowing down, because the audience wants it and because there are enough companies out there with some economic wherewithal to distribute these movies. It feels to me like it's the beginning of a new golden age of independent film."

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