The formation of most major studios before and during Hollywood's Golden Era made it hard for independent filmmakers to thrive. As with most big business conglomerates, the studio monopoly had control of everything from ticket prices to film stock to censorship. These constraints spawned a new breed of creative individuals who were determined to make their own films their own way, without the support of what were previously independent studios.
Nanook and Nosferatu
Filmmaker Robert Flaherty spent time living in the area around Canada's Hudson Bay. By 1913, he began ignoring his day job, instead filming the sights, sounds, and daily life of the Inuit Eskimo tribe. In 1922, Nanook of the North was released and quickly became the first commercially successful documentary/feature. That same year marked the arrival of F. W. Murnau's classic silent film Nosferatu. Undaunted by threats of legal action, Murnau sidestepped an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula and created not only one of the most compelling indie films, but one of the most haunting films in history.
During the 1940s and '50s many low-budget and B movies were made. It wasn't until the monopoly of the major studios was broken up in 1948 that independent productions truly began to see the light of day. One of the indie genre's greatest assets is Roger Corman, who during his long career has directed more than fifty films and produced several hundred. Along the way, he also mentored budding directors including Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. Known for his seriously low budgets and notoriously quick shooting schedules, Corman has become a hero to many budding filmmakers. One of the more famous legends associated with Corman is that his 1960 low-budget production of Little Shop of Horrors was filmed in three days.
Miners striking at a zinc mine in New Mexico were the subject of indie pioneer Herbert Biberman's 1954 classic Salt of the Earth. Biberman was renowned for being one of the infamous Hollywood Ten. In 1947, when he refused to respond to questions regarding the Communist Party, he was cited for contempt of Congress.
Actor, writer, and director John Cassavetes is often considered a pioneer of independent filmmaking. Those unfamiliar with Cassavetes often remember him as Mia Farrow's husband in Rosemary's Baby, but to filmmakers his devotion to indies is legendary. In 1959, with money raised through his family and friends, among others, Cassavetes filmed the controversial film Shadows, which focused on a black woman who begins dating white men. His more notable works include A Woman under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Gloria (1980).
Mad Cops and Pink Flamingos
In 1968, moviegoers were utterly terrified by George Romero's indie flick Night of the Living Dead. Starkly filmed in black and white, the movie set the stage for dozens of future zombie movies while at the same time giving independent filmmaking a boost. In the 1970s, several soon-to-be-famous filmmakers made their mark on the indie scene. In 1971, George Lucas showed audiences a bleak look at the future in THX-1138, starring Robert Duvall. The following year, John Waters humorously broke what some consider to be the taste barrier with his $12,000 divine classic Pink Flamingos. Mentored by John Cassavetes as well as Corman was filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who in 1973 brought us to the Mean Streets of New York's Italian neighborhoods.
All manner of freak and fright was featured in indie films of the day. Newcomer David Lynch spent five years filming his practically no-budget film Eraserhead, which was released in 1977. Two years later, George Miller made amazing use of his estimated $400,000 budget, showcasing his post-apocalyptic cop Mad Max, which grossed almost $9 million domestically. Also on the indie scene was director John Carpenter, whose mindless Halloween killing machine Michael Myers branched out into a permanent horror franchise.
Sex, Lies, and Success
After decades of fighting for independence, the indie genre finally started to hit the mainstream during the 1980s. Films like Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It, Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, James Cameron's The Terminator, and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise let audiences know that indies were here to stay. Also entering the independent scene were brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose homage to film noir, Blood Simple, set the benchmark for their future endeavors, including Miller's Crossing, Raising Arizona, and the Oscar-nominated Fargo.
Indie filmmaker Tobe Hooper got creative in 1974 with his Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which featured a family of cannibals. Considered to be one of the scariest movies ever made, the film was allegedly financed from the profits the production company had made as a result of its 1972 porn film Deep Throat. To date, Hooper's film has grossed over $30 million.
By 1989, two indie films tipped the scales in regard to high-end exposure. Filmmaker Michael Moore showed his mettle in the documentary Roger and Me, which focused on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, and the economic crash that followed the closing of an automobile plant. Moore's bold style caught critics' attention, just as it would with his later films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11.
That same year, newcomer Steven Soderbergh hit the ground running with the hauntingly brilliant and voyeuristic sex, lies and videotape. With its seductive shots showing characters filming other characters, the movie proved to be mesmerizing enough to generate over $24 million in domestic sales. With a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination to round out his success, Soderbergh helped breathe life into the indie world by forcing the major studios to sit up and take notice.
The past two decades have seen indie films gaining serious momentum. In 1992, a newcomer named Quentin Tarantino catapulted the status of independent films when he made Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino had originally estimated spending about $30,000 for the production, until the screenplay came to the attention of Harvey Keitel. With Keitel's influence, the budget shot up to $1.2 million, and a shooting script was written in two weeks. With a stellar cast including Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, and Steve Buscemi, the film finally proved to audiences that outsiders could play the Hollywood game. Reservoir Dogs only grossed $2.8 million domestically, but it brought Tarantino to the forefront as a director, and he continued with the huge hit Pulp Fiction, along with Jackie Brown, Hostel, and the Kill Bill volumes.
As the years passed, indies continued to grow in popularity, many receiving critical acclaim and award nominations. Four out of the five Best Picture nominees at the 1996 Academy Awards were independent films not funded by major studios. The English Patient, Fargo, Secrets and Lies, and Shine received multiple nominations, with Anthony Minghella's English Patient ultimately winning Best Picture.
The Coen Brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen created a wave of audience appreciation and critical acclaim with their first film production, Blood Simple. The film was an indie masterpiece, an edgy, black-and-white thriller packed with dark humor, creepy camera angles and lighting, and clever dialogue. The Coens' filmmaking techniques are a resurrection of the film noir genre at its finest, with characterizations of relatively average people becoming entangled in schemes that grow increasingly complicated and out of control. Most of the Coens' films strongly emphasize local cultural idiosyncrasies and dialects, as showcased in the Minnesota and South Dakota locations featured in the 1996 film Fargo, and the pronounced Southern influence of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
As quirky and violent as the Coen brothers' productions are, they nevertheless gather broad audience appeal with characters whose motives are often portrayed as sympathetic and naive, such as William H. Macy's character Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. Even after setting in motion an unbelievably self-serving and ultimately deadly scheme, somehow you just can't help but feel sorry for the guy.
The Coens aren't lacking in the humor department. Their quirky film Raising Arizona is often listed as one of the top comedies ever produced, and in 1996, Fargo won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Joel Coen's wife, Frances McDormand, also earned a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Marge Gunderson.
The Coen brothers have produced a steady stream of commercially successful films that include The Ladykillers (2004), Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), The Big Lebowski (1998), Fargo (1996), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), Barton Fink (1991), Miller's Crossing (1990), Raising Arizona (1987), and Blood Simple (1984).
The Passion of Publicity
Mel Gibson's 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, was a blockbuster long before it saw wide theatrical release. Alternately viewed as a profoundly inspiring cinematic rendition of the last hours of Jesus by vocal religious advocates, and an anti-Semitic slasher flick with a happy ending by equally vocal critics, the controversy over Passion generated astonishing publicity and hype through virtually every source of worldwide media.
Much of the film's controversy centered around concerns in the Jewish community that the perception of ancient Jewish participation in the crucifixion would be exacerbated by the graphic violence Christ suffered at the hands of Roman torturers. Although the story is one of the oldest and universally well known in history, the swelling of anti-Semitic claims produced a media frenzy that any publicist and film production would love.
The Passion of the Christ was considered an unviable box office risk by most Hollywood producers and distributors partly because the dialogue was in Aramaic and Latin. Much of the hype surrounding the film was Gibson's own investment of a reported $8 million in funding to complete filming. Although impressive, this amount was probably not much of a stretch for Gibson, who is one of the most commercially successful actors in film history.
Predictably, all of the critical tongue-wagging and positive religious posturing produced virtually no worldwide backlash against the Jewish community, and probably resulted in only limited permanent religious conversion. With an estimated budget of $30 million, the storm of controversy has produced an astronomical worldwide box office take of nearly $600 million.