It’s been 20 years since Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” thrilled Sundance audiences and helped pave the way for a flood of low-budget genre films. In its wake, the indie marketplace thrummed with lean, punchy crime stories — films about heists and hitmen, drug deals and dirty cops. Today, there are few such films to be found on the festival circuit.
“The whole landscape’s changed, both in terms of the audience and distribution,” says Rob Williams, VP of acquisitions for Indomina, a distribution and production company that focuses on the fanboy market. “Twenty years ago, there wasn’t so much competition for an audience’s attention. You went to the theater or saw it on video. Now the pie’s split up so much more, with the Internet and all the smart devices out there. If ‘Reservoir Dogs’ was released today, great as it is, I think it would attract a far smaller audience.”
Still, genre films are hotter than ever — it’s just that the genre in question has changed. Stylish indie riffs on noir and ’70s crime stories (like those that launched the careers of Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson and Guy Ritchie) have been supplanted by horror films, many of them inspired by the found-footage aesthetic — and bargain basement budget — of another major Sundance hit, 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project.”
Low-budget horror films have always had a big support base, Williams points out. “But now it’s even bigger with the Internet and all the fan sites and publications,” he says, “so from a marketing and distribution standpoint it’s far easier if you can just plug into that pre-existing audience. If you make a ‘Blair Witch’-type movie, you have that defined genre to fall back on and distributors know how to sell it.”
According to John Flock, CEO of W2 Media, the genre market has always been cyclical. “Everyone copied ‘Reservoir Dogs’ for a while, until (that genre) just didn’t perform so well anymore. Then ‘Blair Witch’ brought back the horror genre with a new twist, and inspired ‘Paranormal Activity’ and all those knock-offs. Right now, ‘The Devil Inside’ looks like a big horror hit, and exorcism movies will be hot again, until that trend burns out.”
Flock notes that when indie genre producers are selling their business plans and raising financing, “It’s easy for them to point to a past hit and model their project along the same lines. The problem comes when everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon, there’s a glut of the same genre, and audiences want something different.”
For the filmmakers themselves, there are other practical and aesthetic considerations. “It’s just smart to start off in a genre like horror because it already has so many fans,” says Adam Wingard, who directed the wraparound for the horror anthology “V/H/S,” which he describes as “the next generation” of found-footage projects. “It’s much faster-paced than the usual found-footage films, which usually start off slow. With a lot of ingenuity and very little money you can give a horror film a lot of production value.”
He notes that the genre offers other advantages as well: “You don’t need big stars, which help thrillers and other genres far more. Just the film’s style and atmosphere can be the draw in the indie world.”
First-time feature director Richard Bates Jr. made “Excision” as the type of film he wishes had existed when he was 18. Though most of the film is pitched in the John Hughes vein, he expects the darker aspects to help establish his reputation after the film premieres at Sundance. “By keeping the cost low and working with friends, I got to make exactly the film that I wanted to make,” he says.
Don Coscarelli, well-known in the indie horror world for films such as “Phantasm” and “Bubba Ho-Tep,” will unveil “John Dies at the End” in Sundance’s Midnight lineup. The genre mash-up — “It’s a strange horror/sci-fi/comedy meld,” he says — represents Coscarelli’s view that “the horror label is able to embrace so many elements, and while (the genre) ebbs and flows, it always endures.” Since “Phantasm” became a hit 20 years ago, “I’ve always had funding to do horror films,” he adds. “But it’s a blessing and a curse. If I suddenly wanted to do a musical, getting financing would probably be very hard.”
“You need money to shoot a good thriller, but horror is still very effective even with a low budget,” says director Joe Swanberg, a central figure in the DIY indie scene who tried his hand at horror with “V/H/S.” “We shot it all on laptops, so it’s a camera-free film. That’s the future.”
But not all young filmmakers are abandoning the “Reservoir Dogs” template. “It does feel like the two prototypical Sundance genre films are now either horror or coming-of-age dramas,” says director Craig Zobel. “There aren’t many thrillers anymore, and I love thrillers.”
Zobel describes his film, “Compliance,” (which debuts in the Next category) as “my reaction against all those indie twentysomething relationship dramas and Sundance posters of couples hugging.”
Distributors agree that while cheaper cameras and technological advances have made it far easier for new young filmmakers to make movies, “That doesn’t mean they’ll get distribution,” Williams says. “Tarantino had a unique voice and style, and he’s been able to move across different genres.”
That versatility, more than the genres they choose to practice, could be the key to identifying the next wave of directorial talent.
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