What Independent Film?

Film Stills from Funny Ha Ha
Andrew Bujalski, Film Stills from Funny Ha Ha, 2003. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m still holding out hope for George Lucas. A number of recent profiles have dubbed him “the most successful independent filmmaker of all time,” and the moniker does seem technically accurate—studio bean counters don’t own his brain. Furthermore, recent statements from the man have firmly announced a desire to go more indie still, to return to his student roots in experimental film, à la his marvelous 1971 dystopia THX-1138. Of course, he’s been saying this stuff since about 1980—but then even Darth Vader could come back from decades of doing the Emperor’s dirty work and throw his oppressor down a well.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder: What’s Lucas waiting for? Presumably he can afford to rent his own billboards and guerrilla marketers if Taco Bell balks at providing his avant-garde film with the sort of tie-ins it did for Star Wars; presumably he can self-distribute if he fears his new work would be too strange for anyone to take on; and if the exhibitors still can’t handle its nonconformity, he can build his own theaters, can’t he? Is it just that he might offend his Star Wars collaborators if he turned his back on blockbusters? Would it be irresponsible of him to go experimental—like the CEO of Ford saying he didn’t feel like making cars anymore and that everyone ought to ride a bike?

Maybe Mel Gibson is our greatest independent filmmaker. He certainly didn’t bother submitting his vision to industry simps, and though his pockets were not so deep as Lucas’s when he set out to make The Passion of the Christ, nor his infrastructure so entrenched, he made exactly the film he wanted. The simps may be kicking themselves now, but they can’t be blamed for thinking that The Passion’s commercial potential was, at least, uncertain, especially when Gibson was proclaiming his intent not to subtitle the Aramaic in the film.

Drawing lines in the sand to determine what makes an “indie” filmmaker is, in other words, pretty futile. The nominating committee for the Independent Spirit Awards, rather than attempt the formidable task of measuring the independence of individual nominees’ spirits, imposes a monetary limit. You’re indie until you hit somewhere between $15 million and $20 million; after that, you’re dependent. Presumably these figures will continue to be adjusted for inflation.

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