What Makes an Independent Film "Independent"?

How to make sense of the controversy surrounding the term.


“It Is a Period of Rebellion…”

Here at Lights Film School, we talk and teach a lot about “independent film”.

But as I gathered my thoughts and research in preparation for a post about independent film financing, I realized that “independent” is a maddeningly elusive term – it’s used by different people to denote different things; a Google search returns dozens of respectable results offering a myriad of definitions.

It’s about time, I thought, to synthesize these definitions for our students and readers, if only so that we can discuss the meaning of “independent film” in one instead of one hundred and one places.

Your rebellious low budget short is an independent, or “indie”, production. With a budget of some $20 million, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave swept The Independent Spirit Awards and went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars in 2014. How can both lay claim to the indie crown?

What is an independent film, anyway?

Photo Courtesy of Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

MPPC Film Company Executives at the Edison Laboratory in 1908 | Photo Courtesy of Margaret Herrick Library, AMPAS

In the Beginning, There Was a Trust

Let’s go back to the beginning of the industry in America.

In 1908, The Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) formed a trust comprising the major American film companies, the leading film distributor, and Eastman Kodak, the primary supplier of raw film stock at the time. In so doing, The MPPC centralized and standardized film production, distribution, and exhibition, prohibiting competition. Non-members were branded “independents” and banished from the realm.

A large contingent of these outcasts packed their bags and went west, seeking freedom from the MPPC’s jurisdiction. Eventually, they found their way to the village of Hollywood, California.

The frontier suited these independents just fine: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco was averse to enforcing patent claims, effectively enabling them to build their own equipment and produce their own films.

Public Domain Image, California Digital Newspaper Collection

Public Domain Image, California Digital Newspaper Collection

By 1913, the independents were ahead of the game with dozens of feature films to their names, while the MPPC clung to an antiquated shorter format. The trust’s patent royalties ended in September 1913, the outbreak of World War I stifled its European business, and on October 1, 1915, the federal court ruled that the MPCC had gone “far beyond what was necessary to protect the use of patents”, proclaiming it an illegal restraint of trade.

Three years later, the MPPC was officially terminated.

The Rise of the Studio System & Hollywood’s Golden Age

While the MPPC floundered, the independents in Hollywood were busy establishing a new system of film production, distribution, and exhibition. Production companies grew into vertically integrated conglomerates that owned studios, distribution divisions, theatres, and personnel contracts, bringing “The Studio System” into existence.

20th Century Fox, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures, and Warner Bros. led the industry. Beneath these “Big Five” majors were “The Little Three” majors: Columbia Pictures, United Artists, and Universal Pictures. Everyone else was a part of “Poverty Row”, smaller studios that struggled for survival, often pumping their resources into B movie content.


Hollywood Studios in 1922 | Public Domain Image, Junkyardsparkle

And so it was that The Studio System came to resemble the very trust it had ousted. Creative teams were considered studio employees, not freelance artists, and for many starstruck hopefuls, the bar to entry was prohibitively high.

Although fiercely regimented, the system facilitated the production of content with such regularity that studios could gamble on medium budget features and unknown actors, resulting in classics like Citizen Kane (1941).

This Golden Age of Hollywood, stretching from the late 1920s to the early 1960s, brought us The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), Stagecoach (1939), Casablanca (1942), North by Northwest (1959), and many others. Business practices notwithstanding, The Studio System was a well-oiled machine that got the job done.

The End of an Era

Only United Artists stood against the tide.

Formed by four pioneers of silent cinema, the studio sought to return to Hollywood’s independent roots. It functioned primarily as a financier and distributor of projects produced outside of the other majors’ integrated system.

UA Founders Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D. W. Griffith, 1919 | Public Domain Image, Patrick Rogel

UA Founders Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, DW Griffith, 1919 | Public Domain Image, Patrick Rogel

UA struggled, but in 1941, many of its founding members – along with Walt Disney, Orson Welles, and others – backed the establishment of The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, a group committed to fighting Hollywood’s oligopolistic practices.

In 1942, the SIMPP filed an antitrust suit, and in 1948’s landmark United States vs. Paramount Pictures case, the Supreme Court ordered the majors to part with their theatre chains, effectively shattering the studios’ business model. The SIMPP closed in 1958, having realized the majority of its goals. Hollywood’s Golden Age was over.

It was believed that stripping the studios of their theatre chains would produce films more affordably and increase their availability. Instead, by 1955, “the number of produced films had fallen by 25 percent. More than 4,200 theatres (or 23 percent of the total) had shut their doors. More than half of those remaining were unable to earn a profit”. The advent of television further hurt the silver screen in America, competing for audience attention.

The Rise of the Independents

But a time of transition is a time of potential as well as peril. SIMPP’s trust-breaking efforts, combined with the advent of inexpensive portable cameras during World War II, put power in the hands of the people. The studios’ stranglehold was no more; the tools of the trade were accessible to all who dared wield them.

Working outside of The Studio System, a new crop of filmmakers took creative risks with low budget features, channelling the spirit of the French New Wave’s art cinema. In 1953, Ray Abrashkin’s Little Fugitive was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, the first “independent film” to receive such sanction from the industry.

However, some independents did not care for “the industry” at all.

“Official cinema is running out of breath,” proclaimed the founding members of The Filmmakers’ Collective, a nonprofit organization committed to the preservation and distribution of experimental films. They believed that the industry had become “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring.” Not surprisingly, the Collective became an important resource for Andy Warhol and the avant-garde.

“Moral corruption” was not high on other independents’ list of concerns. They used their freedom to win the youth market with promises of sex, drugs, and violence, growing the horror and science fiction genres.


Pushing the Envelope | Public Domain Image, lonutzmovie

Pushing the Envelope | Public Domain Image, lonutzmovie

In 1968, George Romero shocked audiences with his explicit Night of the Living Dead, stirring controversy that resolved with the introduction of the MPAA Film Rating System later that year.

“The kids in the audience were stunned,” Roger Ebert reported in his review for the Chicago Sun-Times. “There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.” Variety went so far as to deem the film an “unrelieved orgy of sadism”.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…

While the independents innovated on shoestring budgets and scraped the bottom of the B movie barrel, The Studio System scrambled to recover from The Paramount Case and lure audiences away from their televisions.

Instead of pushing the content envelope, the majors poured their resources into films with spectacle. Widescreen presentations, 3D presentations, stereo sound, even “Smell-o-Vision” – in which odors were released to match events onscreen – sold tickets throughout most of the 1950s.

Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) | Public Domain Image, Alexrdias

Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) | Public Domain Image, Alexrdias

Films like The Ten Commandments (1956) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) dazzled, while others – including the epically expensive Cleopatra (1963) – flopped.

A string of such failures inspired the studios, increasingly desperate, to turn to fresh talent. In 1967, Warner Brothers hired twenty-nine-year-old Warren Beatty to produce Bonnie and Clyde, which ratcheted up the violence past traditional studio levels and went on to gross more than $70 million.

As a result, the studios opened the door to “The Film School Generation”, young writers, directors, and actors – “auteurs” – whom they trusted with the reins.

The Birth of a “New Hollywood” & Subsidiary Studios

Dubbed “New Hollywood” by the press, this era pushed Hollywood into new territory, borrowing from America’s independents and Europe’s burgeoning art cinema. At the behest of their creators, films like The Graduate (1967, financed and released by a small studio); Easy Rider (1969, financed by a small studio); and Midnight Cowboy (1969, the first X-rated film financed and released by a major studio) challenged narrative conventions and social mores.

This American New Wave swept into the 1970s, bringing us major studio-backed sensations like The Godfather (1972), American Graffiti (1973), and Taxi Driver (1976).

It was during this time that “independent film” became especially difficult to define.

Major studios were financing and releasing envelope-pushing pictures, formerly the realm of the independents. Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s – inspired by the success of New Hollywood and its spiritual successors, including auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino – conglomerate Hollywood established subsidiary studios to produce maverick-minded, “independent content”. So Fox Searchlight Pictures, Paramount Vantage, Sony Pictures Classics, and others came into the world.

With majors backing “independent content”, one can’t help but ask: is “independent” independent if it has conglomerate bucks behind it? Is an independent film defined by its backer and budget, or is it defined by something more abstract, say, by a certain “spirit”?

The Ouroboros of Independent Film

To approach this question, let’s recap the story so far:


Indie turns mainstream turns indie again, with an appropriation of the indie back into the mainstream. And so the wheel turns… To trace the history of “independent film” is to trace an Ouroboros; a cycle of empire and rebellion, the stages of which are difficult to distinguish. Where does one begin and the other end?

Perhaps historical and financial analyses attempt to divide the indivisible. Perhaps “independent” is intangible, filmmaking’s eternal return, a current of quality and character that a film either has or doesn’t.

Writer John August says it best:

I’d argue that the term ‘independent film’ should be reserved for talking about the movie itself, rather than how it was financed. There’s a reason the word ‘independence’ so often shows up in proximity to ‘revolution’ – a shared spirit of frustration, anarchy, and apple-cart-upsetting. From their conception, independent films aren’t just made outside of the studio system. They are made in opposition to the studio system, with its relentless need to round off the corners and soften the blows. And in standing against the status quo, independent films help to change it.

Cultural anthropologist Sherry Ortner sheds more light on “independent film” in her insightful essay, “Against Hollywood: American Independent Film as a Critical Cultural Movement”. She argues that they can be read “as embodying what George Marcus and Michael Fischer (1986) have called ‘cultural critique”:

‘[One] promise of anthropology has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions’… It is not a stretch to transpose this idea to the world of independent film, which often uses many of the same de-familiarizing strategies of anthropology and ethnography to ‘disrupt common sense and make us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions.’ Specifically, many independent films embrace a kind of harsh realism, making films that display the dark realities of contemporary life, and that make demands on the viewer to viscerally experience and come to grips with those realities.

Independent is in a film, or it isn’t. It is more of a defining life force, a “spirit”, than a material set of originating conditions.

Framing independence in this way clears up much confusion. The spirit of your rebellious low budget short pushes the envelope; so does the spirit of 12 Years a Slave, with its unflinching $20 million depiction of “the dark realities” of an evil institution.

That said, there is naturally a correlation between the spirit of independence and its originating conditions – because independent content is inherently risky, it’s often made for less money. Indeed, “The best way to have independence is to lower your budget,” the director of The Lives of Others (2006) advises.

Independence in Hollywood: Budgets & Box Office

At risk of oversimplifying the industry, the Hollywood of today makes three levels of films:

  1. Blockbusters produced by the current majors – 20th Century Fox, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures, and Warner Bros. Pictures – with budgets in the hundreds of millions. The box office success of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977, produced by director George Lucas’ studio) birthed a new blockbuster mentality, reinventing the spectacle-driven pictures of the 1950s; high concept premises, tie-in merchandising, and sequels drive this modus operandi. “Something that looks like a blockbuster is much more likely to be funded and supported,” explains professor Joseph Lampel of Cass Business School in London. “Everyone buys into this formula, and if it fails no one gets blamed.”
  2. Independent content produced by subsidiary studios, rarely for more than $20 million, notably the eligibility cutoff for The Independent Spirit Awards 2014.
  3. Independent content produced by small studios and freelance producers, rarely for more than $10 million, purchased at festivals and elsewhere.

To give us a sense of what budgets of $20 million and less can accomplish, let’s examine the ten most recent Best Feature winners of The Sundance Film Festival and The Independent Spirit Awards, two leading American independent film competitions:


According to film financial consultant Louise Levison, in 2013, “The domestic indie box office… is 37.4 percent of the estimated $10.9 billion total box office”. Said differently, roughly 60% of last year’s gross was generated by (1), Hollywood’s major studios, while the remaining 40% – ie., more than $4 billion – was generated by (2) and (3), Hollywood’s subsidiary studios and purchases.

Of greater interest is the fact that more than 80% of 2013’s domestic indie box office – ie., more than $3 billion – was generated by films with budgets of less than $9 million. This is good news for Hollywood-minded small studios and freelance producers; they can rest assured that there is, in fact, box office demand for their films.

Independence from Hollywood: Truth & Control

Of course, not every indie filmmaker sets her sights on Hollywood. There are those who vehemently oppose every vestige of Hollywood’s Studio System; who perceive it to be the commerce that kills the truth of art.

Hollywood, some say, peddles formulaic escapism. “I can’t stand plots,” indie filmmaker Harmony Korine shares, “Because I don’t feel life has plots. There is no beginning, middle, or end, and it upsets me when things are tied up so perfectly.”

Maverick Charlie Kaufman pushes Korine’s reflections further: “I hate movies that lie to me. Should I sit there thinking my life sucks because it’s not like the ones on the screen, and I’m not getting these life lessons? My life, anyone’s life, is more like a muddle, and these [Hollywood] movies are just dangerous garbage.”

For many, the prioritization of commerce leads also to a lack of creative control. Indie legend Kevin Smith recalls his experience making Jersey Girl (2004) within The Studio System:

I had to actually listen to studio notes… So there were changes made to the movie… I never want to go through this shit again… It got me to a point where I was like, ‘I don’t want to fucking work with a lot of money, because that means that the studio is going to make you do whatever you can to make it more palatable to the masses.’

Today, if you don’t care about reaching “the masses” on Hollywood’s silver screen, you’re in luck. There is a plethora of alternative approaches to getting one’s film seen and sold, which we discuss in our article, An Introduction to Indie Film Distribution in the Digital Age.

Indeed, “Every film is different,” as Marc Schiller, founder and CEO of distributor BOND360, stresses in his Lights’ interview. “There really isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ strategy [for distribution].” As the digital age evolves, Hollywood will have to contend with the accessibility of niche content on VOD platforms and elsewhere.

Money Doesn’t Grow on Trees

We’ve concluded that an “independent film” is defined by its spirit. Because they’re inherently risky, most independent films – regardless of whether they’re made inside or outside of Hollywood’s Studio System – have budgets of less than $20 million.

For Lights’ readers, $20 million may seem far away. How does one raise twenty thousand dollars, let alone 1000 times that? Check out our independent film financing primer, where we discuss the basics of raising funds for your production!

 Michael Koehler, with

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