'Independent' loses its meaning

Here’s a challenge. Let’s lose the label “independent” film, throw it out like we’ve tossed other dusty anachronisms like “mutually assured destruction,” “information superhighway” and “dot-com fever.”

Why? First, “independent” film lacks a cogent definition. Ask someone to describe what independent film is and they’ll usually tell you, “Oh, ya mean those movies you see on Bravo, or at arthouses, or at film festivals.” We seem to know where to find them but actually describing what they are — their virtues (or drawbacks) — is tough. Crowing that your film is independent begs the question — independent of what?

Technically, independent of studio control and meddling. But this demarcation is outdated, too. The once formidable ideological wall between big mainstream industry movies and small, risky, innovative films is crumbling.

On the one hand you have mainstream studios almost unwittingly churning out provocative multimillion-dollar arthouse fare like “Magnolia” and “The Thin Red Line”; on the other, you have self-described indie producers, directors and distributors who eagerly copycat the market-driven techniques of their studio counterparts instead of striving for vision or originality.

They fraudulently wear the “independent” label because they know that for many audiences, gullible critics, the studio guy holding out their three-picture deal — it gives them valuable respect and street cred, a rep they can appeal to later when they’ve sold out.

So this is the second problem with the label “independent”: It’s often worn as a fashion statement and serves as an expedient calling card to the studios.

So, the first step toward creating a more innovative, more responsible movie culture is to shuck the labels; they inevitably get co-opted. The real problem with the “independent film” brand is it has been saddled with built-in diminished expectations, which audiences, critics and the industry buy into and reinforce.

These films are expected to have quality, passion and integrity … but also to be small in scale and have niche appeal. Distributors reinforce these expectations by booking them in arthouse theaters exclusively and then not allowing them time to build an audience.

Most critics and media folk reinforce indie cliches by offering positive but patronizing reviews or by ignoring the films altogether because they lack celebrity punch. This leaves the audience unable to expect much because either they don’t know about the films or can’t find theaters screening them.

What happens if we peel away the label? Maybe we’ll begin to see that independent films are really films, any films, that regardless of whether they’re made for 50 grand or $50 million, whether they are playing on two screens or 2,000, star unknowns or page-sixers … regardless of all these things, they are simply films that defy our expectations, surprise us, transport us. They will be seen as the alternative to the flood of commercial kitsch that is swamping this culture and not part of it. And then audiences might reward them for their merits, not their hipster cachet.

So let’s peel off the label, defy expectations and work with an independent spirit to simply make “good” films.

(Brad Anderson is a bona fide indie helmer, whose credits include “The Darien Gap,” and “Next Stop, Wonderland.” His films “Session 9″ (USA Films) and “Happy Accidents” (IFC Films) will be released in August.)

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