Independent Film

I. Independent Films

Outside studios

Limited Budgets


Commercial Quotient Low




II. Distribution

1. Studios

2. Alternatives

Film festivals, etc.

3. Internet

III. Internet and movies


1. Alternative to Hollywood distribution

2. Easy start a web site

3. Web ideal for short films

4. Provides exposure to film makers

(and further contacts, contracts)

5. Video sales

6. Some indie sites

Always Independent Films. >375 films ($),

7. Publicity for films -- Blair Witch

8. Avoid Hollywood entirely

9. Future: digital film, Internet


1. Download times

2. Poor image quality

3. Viewing comfort

Long films at PC?

4. Movie pauses, waiting for signal to arrive

5. Little or no $, Just exposure

6. Film festivals still ideal

7. Internet being flooded with films

Hard to be noticed

Some leading directors

John Sayles, Spike Lee,Wayne Wang, Kevin Smith

Alternatives to mainstream movies

Is there anything more demanding for adults -- for people searching for something beyond the standard fare of Hollywood? Yes, in independent films. What is an independent film? It used to be a film produced outside of the traditional studios (although the traditional studios have all created divisions that deal with non-traditional types of films). So the best current definition might be this: An independent film is one that appeals to sophisticated audiences, usually produced outside the traditional studio system. Independent movies usually represent a sharp contrast to the large budget movies that represent mainstream movies today.

I. Independent Films

Several aspects of independent films:

II. Economic concerns breed caution in Hollywood.


Studios like Universal prefer to make tepid but derivative action adventure films like DAYLIGHT, which costs about $70m; or DANTEís PEAK, which cost about $100 million, that may have appeal overseas, rather than a delicate $4 million film like Shine.

III. The barriers to distribution for Independent Films : Studios own the key distribution networks; their movies will get shown. How do Independents get into distribution? Three ways:

A. Studios have developed their own companies to produce or distribute these lower budget, non-blockbuster movies. Completely ignored these movies until the 1989s -- when SEX LIES AND VIDEOTAPE was a runaway movie and profit-maker.

B. Alternative routes

Ideally: New York Times, Vincent Canby.

Film festivals: Sundance (Utah); Telluride; San Francisco; Los Angeles; New York; Lesser but important festivals include Seattle.

C. Internet.

1. Alternative to Hollywood distribution

2. Easy start a web site

3. Web ideal for short films

4. Provides exposure to film makers

(and further contacts, contracts)

5. Video sales

6. Some indie sites

Always Independent Films

>375 films ($)

7. Publicity for films

Blair Witch

8. Avoid Hollywood entirely

9. Future: digital film, Internet

Current Problems with Internet and movies

1. Download times

2. Poor image quality

3. Viewing comfort

Long films at PC?

4. Movie pauses, waiting for signal to arrive

5. Little or no $

Just exposure

6. Film festivals still ideal

7. Internet being flooded with films

Hard to be noticed

Longer notes on independent film and the web:

Difficulty for many film makers. Next to impossible to get into distribution. Gary Zeidenstein and Amine Bitar made an independent movie: Triangle and Tribulations. Typical of many Indies. Couldnít get Hollywood studios interested in the 84 minute movie, about a man who sacrifices career and family in pursuit of his dream to play the triangle in an orchestra. They tried film festivals but there was so much competition that they were often rejected. So they set up a web site to publicize their film and show it on-line. They also opened the site to other filmmakers and were besieged with submissions. "It just started to snowball" said Zeidenstein. Today, their site: Always Independent Films ( offers over 375 movies and trailers. It is one of at least 2 dozen sites showing films as filmmakers block to what could be a new means of distribution.

Some independent film makers hope the Web will let them bypass Hollywood and reach viewers directly. Or that they can use the web to drum up huge publicity (as the makers of the Blair Witch Project did. BWP was a low budget amateur film that became a blockbuster in movie theaters after generating a buzz with a clever and appealing web site).

The use of digital film and the Internet may have a profound influence on filmmaking, reducing costs of making and distributing the product. Lower the bar and more may come in. Such a popularization has already happened in music, with garage bands now distributing their music directly over the web by using the MP3 protocol. "The whole indie film world is the next MP3 opportunity." said Joseph Cantwell, executive vice president for new media at Bravo Networks (which runs the independent film channel on cable TV and is developing a web site to show and sell films online).

The Internet could also provide a market for short films, which now have few outlets. Short films are more suitable for the web than full length features because it takes hours to download a long film using a conventional personal computer modem. And many people donít want to watch a full 2 hour movie at a desktop PC. "Americans donít know what to do with short films," says William Azaroff, 29, whose first one can be seen at, which specializes in short films.


Problems with movies on the Internet.

1. Long download times

2. Picture often blurry

3. appears in a little box on the computer screen

4. Movie sometimes pauses, waiting for more of the signal to arrive

But all of these problems should diminish as more people get high speed access.

There is little or no money to be made by showing movies on the Internet. Most web sites do not pay filmmakers for their movies because many are happy just to get the exposure. And most sites do not charge viewers to see the movies, hoping instead to support themselves with advertising.

Some of the sites plan pay per view services or offer video cassettes for sale, but it is far from certain that any of the movie sites will be self supporting. One site that does charge viewers,, allows people to view a film for a day or a few days for a price similar to those at a video store. Itís most popular title, "The Perfect 10 Model of the Year" video is rented about 60 times a month, fewer than a hit movie at a single Blockbuster outlet. In April the site offered the movie PI, which had been in theaters, and fewer than 200 people viewed it.

One way around the technical limitations of the Internet is to use it to sell videocassettes. Some fledgling filmmakers in NY -- Sam Sokolow and Rob Lobl ---have sold more than 800 copies of their film The Definite Maybe on It cost them about $2K to have the cassettes and cover art made and to set up a web site for their film with a link to Amazon. The tape sells for $14.95, and they get about $5 after expenses. so a total so far of over $4k. This has not gone very far toward recovering the $100K it cost to make the movie, but Mr. Sokolow said the exposure helped them land another job directing a sitcom for a web site. "Weíre sidestepping the whole movie business, "Mr. Sokolow said. He said that he and Mr. Lobl had not interested big studios in the movie. "I donít need Hollywood anymore to have 35 million people take a look."

For most budding filmmakers, having the film appear on the web is not an end in itself, merely a stepping stone to the more established entertainment world. "At the end of the day, theyíd like to be seen on a TV screen or even better in a theater," said Mika Salmi, president of Atom Films, which is based in Seattle and receives 50 to 100 films a week.

Todd Lincoln, 33 year old from Tulsa, parlayed his exposure on the web into a job making music videos. "Thereís a lot of people watching the progress of films on there. Itís just a real kind of digital democracy." Mr. Lincoln made 2 films (Honeypot, Xavier) that are among the most widely watched on, a site in San Francisco. while most of its films can be viewed by the public, has also set up a separate site,, that can be seen only by movie industry professionals and is a conduit for filmmakers who are trying to shop their films around. The first film put on that site, Sundayís game, is a 9 minute dark comedy about elderly women who gather on a Sunday and play Russian roulette. David Garrett, a writer and producer of the film, said he and his partner, Jason Ward, had received many inquiries since the film appeared and had closed a deal to produce a pilot for Fox TV. "I do think the Internet exposure increased our visibility and got people talking," he aid.

Still, the odds are very long. Ifilm can point to only a handful of success stories among the 1000+ films it shows. Always Independent Films says that 3 films on its site have attracted distributors, including Mr. Zeidensteinís Triangles and Tribulations. It was licensed by a company that will try to place it in video stores.

The problem is that the very advantage of the web -- its low barrier to entry -- is also a disadvantage because so many films are being shown there that it is hard for one to rise above the crowd. And having a film freely available on the web can discourage a profit minded distributor from picking it up. Then there is the image quality. "We donít want peopleís first exposure to it, if we think we can make a sale, to be on the Web." said Mr. Azaroff, commenting on the picture quality. He said he put ĎCheckmating," his short film from 1996 about a woman who sizes up potential boyfriends while playing chess with them, on the web because it was mainly as a calling card and had little chance of commercial success.

Another film maker said that it is mainly kids who contact him after seeing his short film on the web. The inquiries from industry execs have come from film festivals or videocassette mailings.

Making oneself heard on the web can require aggressive marketing. Two first time filmmakers (Terry Keefe and Michael Wechsler, of LA)not only put trailers of their "Slaves of Hollywood" on some movie web sites but they also sent out hundreds of email messages with links to those sites.



II. How to find independent movies.

1. Reviews on line or in newspaper, magazines.

Look for the less than big budget shows.

2. Identify a few good directors and watch for their work.

John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lone Star)

Lizzie Borden (Working Girls)

Spike Lee (Get on the Bus)

Wayne Wang (Chan is Missing; Joy Luck Club, Smoke)

Gregory Nava (El Norte, Mi Familia/My Family)

Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Am, Dogma)


A. John Sayles.

Born Sept. 28, 1950, Schenectady. "My main interest is making films about people.

In the mid 1970s, Sayles joined Roger Cormanís scriptwriter group, working on THE LADY IN RED (1979) and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980).

Return of the Secaucus 7 His first film as director, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 (1980) was shot in four weeks during 1978 at a reported cost of $40K. It is witty and poignant look at a reunion of 1960s activists on the verge of adulthood. Won BEST SCREENPLAY from LA Film Critics and was nominated for an Oscar in the same category. 1997: Among 25 films chosen in 1997 for inclusion into the Library of Congressí NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY. The NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY was started in 1996; the list of films targeted for preservation so far number 225.

In 1983, Sayles won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" which provided him with over $30K per year, tax free, for five years. One of the results: THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984), an unlikely story of a mute black alien (Joe Morton) adrift in Harlem. It is a captivating look at a variety of issues, including racial prejudice and drug addiction. MATEWAN (1987) explores personal an political dimensions of unions in the W.VA.coal mines of the 1920s. EIGHT MEN OUT (1988): account of the 1919 Black Sox baseball scandal that rocked the baseball world. Examines the controversy through the eyes of individual ball players. Rather than simple caricatures, each man is seen as having complex reasons for agreeing or refusing to throw the World Series. Sayles relies on visuals a lot: impressionistic lighting and scrupulous production design help capture this pivotal period of American history. CITY OF HOPE. 1991. Somber study of life in a mid sized contemporary American town, weaving several story lines together. PASSION FISH (1992) about the relationship between a paralyzed former TV soap star and her live in nurse. Praised for central performances by Mary McDonnell and Alfre Woodard. THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH (1994). Story of a girl living with her grandparents in County Donegal. LONE STAR (1996): deals with present day as well as legends of past lives. Sayles wrote and directed this film, which tells of a Texas sheriff trying to unravel the life and death of his father, who had been sheriff 15 years earlier. LONE STAR was nominated for Oscar for best screenplay (but the COEN BROTHERSí FARGO won). It was also Saylesí most financially successful film to date, having grossed more than $14 million in US. Also won a IMAGEN AWARDS; these awards recognize film and TV programming portraying Latinos in positive roles. LONE STAR took top honor in the feature film category. (NYPD Blue took best TV show). Dealt with some tough issues: incest, murder, illegal aliens and interracial relationships.

Nearly 40 years after the mysterious disappearance of brutal Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson), his skeletal remains are unearthed outside the tiny border town of Frontera, Texas. Rio Countyís latest sheriff (Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) begins to suspect not only that Wade was murdered but also that he died at the hands of the late Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), a local hero and Samís own father. One Internet movie review site: "This Oedipal mystery serves as the pretext for a much broader investigation of the substance of the American past.... Sayles attempts to show how authority uses history to construct the borders that separate countries, communities and individuals."

MEN WITH GUNS: Spanish language political road movie to be released through Sony Pictures Classics. Debut at Toronto Film Festival; will also be shown at Telluride Film Festival. Fictional Latin American country resembling civil-war torn Guatemala. When a wealthy local doctor goes on a mission to find his protégés, he finds that many of them were killed by government forces.

B. Kevin Smith.

Independent film maker. Smith refers to his "NEW JERSEY TRILOGY"

I. Clerks (1994): Budget: $27,575; $230K after post production; Gross: $3.2 million (USA). Financed with: funds earmarked for college tuition, sale of extensive comic book collection and federal compensation money he got for losing his car in a flood. Three week filming period. Won Filmmakers Trophy Award at Sundance Film Festival. Got an NC-17 rating by Motion Picture Assn. of Am; but Miramax was interested in distributing it at this point, so got lawyer (Alan Dershowitz) to fight it; changed to an R. Grainy, low budget, black and white movie about low-renting living in a New Jersey suburb. Much of Clerks is extremely funny and dead on; intentionally satirical. The storyís about dirt-talking characters; profanity is knee deep as bored cash register jockeys Dante and Randal , out there customers and other modern eccentrics engage in endless rounds of sexually graphic repartee. Dante (Brian OíHalleran) is an affable college dropout in his early 20s, working at the QUICK STOP. His best friend RANDAL (Jeff Anderson) works next door in the video store. While Dante attempts to get through his unrewarding non-career with as much patience, politeness and dignity as he can muster, Randal is openly abusive of his customers. When the story begins, Dante has been forced to work the a.m. shift on his off day. Things go from bad to worse: the storefront metal shutter canít be opened because someone jammed chewing gum in the lock. His relief shift never shows. He misses his afternoon hockey game. And thereís a calamitous finale that plunges him into an unfathomable depression. During this time, he attempts to hold his hockey game on the convenience store roof, visits a funeral and goes a few rounds with the women in his life. Oneís an old flame (Lisa Spoonauer) who returns to jerk his chain again; the otherís his devoted girlfriend (Marilyn Ghiglioot) who -- Dante discovers -- has an active sexual history. Danteís basically a gentleman and a pure romantic. And for all his nastiness, Randalís devoted to Dante. Together they have a scuzzy charm. "You hate people," Dante reminds Randal at one point when Randal expresses a wish to attend a funeral. "But I love gatherings," says Randal. Isnít it ironic?

Desson Howe, Washington Post: "Itís clearly not for everyone. But for the right crowd (I see Doc Martens, long hair and black coats - I just donít see Mom), this is going to be a collegiate and post collegiate laugh fest.

Mick LaSalle Detroit Free Press: "The first minutes of Clerks show DANTE opening the store early one morning, and like anything that you know is authentic, these scenes have an intrinsic, though limited fascination. Smith satirizes the various types that come into the convenience store: the fanatic who lectures patrons about smoking, the lady who cleans out the milk case looking for the cartoon with the latest date; and the fellow who checks every egg in he store to make sure its not cracked. None of this is riveting, yet thereís something about seeing life from the distinct angle of the convenience-store clerk that Ďs just new enough to hold you."

.... "Danteís conversation with his girlfriend about oral sex, for example, is a highlight of the movie - not that itís brilliant or hilarious (itís neither) but because it turns the camera on the kind of discussion that could easily happen in life but as yet has never been committed to film.

Roger Ebert: "Hardly anybody ever works in the movies, except at jobs like cops, robbers, drug dealers and space captains. One of the many charms of Kevin Smithís CLERKS is that it clocks a full day on the job. Its hero, Dante Hicks, is a clerk in a convenience store and his friend Randal works next door in the video store. Both stores are in a strip mall in Asbury Park, N.J.: marginal operations with ill paid and disenchanted employees. The movie has the attitude of a gas station attendant who tells you to check your own oil. Itís grungy and unkempt, and Dante and Randal look like they have been nourished from birth on beef jerky and Cheetos. They are tired and bored, underpaid and unlucky in love, and their encounters with customers feel like a series of psychological tests." ....."Danteís day begins at dawn. He sleeps in his clothes closet. He drinks his coffee out of a lid of the cookie jar. When the storeís steel shutters wonít rollup, he uses shoe polish to write a big sing: I ASSURE YOU WE ARE OPEN. He gets in desultory conversations with customers who are opposed to cigarettes, or looking for porno magazines or claim the vacant-eye guy leaning against the building is a heavy metal star from Russia.

Randal, next door, is working in the kind of video store with a stock so bad that he goes to another store when he wants to rent a video. He has customers with questions like: Do you have that one with that guy who was in that movie last year? And he discusses deep cinematic questions with Dante, such as: When Darth Vaderís second DEATH STAR was destroyed, it was still under construction, so doesnít that mean that a lot of innocent workers were killed? Other characters include a guy named SILENT BOB (played by Kevin Smith himself) who seems permanently posted outside the store. Heís allegedly a drug dealer but business seems bad.



Romantic comedy about a straight guy who falls in love with a lesbian, much to the chagrin of his lifelong best buddy. But it is not all that it seems; they become good friends and when the friendship leads to intimacy, crises of all sizes and stipulations bubble and boil. Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and his best pal Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) good pals. They are the creators of a cult comic called BLUNTMAN AND CHRONIC. Their friendship is threatened by the appearance of ALYSSA JONES, a riot grrl comic book artist. Holden falls hard, only to find out that she is a lesbian. "Banky is just flat out angry, figuring Alyssa for a usurper who is getting off playing with Holdenís hapless head. Alyssa is seriously confounded by her attraction to a male, not to mention disturbed by being deserted by her sisterhood support system. But even as Holden finds himself coming to terms with being in love with someone who has heretofore loved only women, and perhaps losing his best friend and collaborator, he is confronted with a revelation that presents an entirely new dilemma. Budget: $250,000. Kevin Affleck: The about men coming to terms with sexual issues, their own and womenís and double standards that exist in relationships. Kevin made it comfortable for everyone who made us feel safe enough to go deeper than we might ordinarily have." Kevin Smith: "Always a thorny issue in any romantic relationship Iíve ever been in, a partnerís sexual past can ruin an otherwise great relationship. And itís never something as easy as the possible disease angle that get some. No, my insecurities stem from the fear of having to measure up to somebody...or a lot of somebodies.. I spent the better part of my romantic career being the ex boyfriend that someone couldnít get out of their system. I never wanted to be on that rotten other end (as the guy who has to deal with the memory of someone elseís ex boyfriend.)


C. Spike Lee

Born 1956. Brooklyn filmmaker. Spike Lee represents one of a new breed of black film makers who are seeking alternate routes of distribution, financing, marketing and exhibition to achieve greater control of black on screen images.

Sheís Gotta Have It (1986) started a big wave of independently made (as opposed to studio made) black films. Released by Island Pictures in 1986. Lee made it for $175K, gaining financing from grants, loans and donations. Picture earned $7 million, making it one of the yearís most profitable film. Not included in the $7m: the soundtrack, the book and T shirts, etc.

Story revolves around the life of NOLA DARLING, an independent, sexy young woman and her romantic entanglements with three men at the same time.

Other movies: School Daze cost $6.5 million; made $14m at box office.

Lee feels that the studios -- which have been distribute by majors lately -- donít do enough. Lee: "It must be understood that Hollywood is now in love with Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy, Keenen Wayans or myself. The studios are not doing me any favors by giving me money to do my films. They do it because they think they can make money"

Other Lee movies include:

1. JUNGLE FEVER. 1991. Consequences of inter racial relationships (black architect who has affair with is working class Italian secretary).

2. GET ON THE BUS. 1996. Fictional story of a group of black men making a cross country trek from LA to DC for the Million Man March. Released in Oct 1996, on the first anniversary of the march. $2 million budget. Independently financed by a group of African American investors, including Danny Glover, Wesley Snipes, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr, Spike Lee, Robert Guillaume, Will Smith, San Antonio Spur Charles D. Smith, record mogul Jheryl Busby; chairman and CEO of BET, Robert Johnson.

Movie shows: shared commitment and can do energy that suit the purpose.


George (Charles Dutton): a sturdy, supportive group leader

Evan Tomas Sr and his son: Junior. Chained together (Father, absentee parent; son in trouble with law).

Half white man who happens to be a cop (Roger Smith)

another who confesses to have been a ten age gang member and murder.

Gay couple (Isaiah Washington and Harry Lennix) suspend their loversí quarrel long enough to discus the role of the gay black men in the larger black community.

Egomaniacal actor (Andre Braugher)

Ossie Davis as an instantly beloved elderly passenger.

Gabriel Casseus as a practicing Muslim.

Wendell Pierce as a boastful black Republican (thrown off the bus)l;

Richard Belzer as Rick, a Jewish bus driver Says his parents worked in civil rights, but balks at supporting Farrakhan.

Movie not really about Farrakhan; instead it is about the men who take the bus to D.C. But the film clearly dismisses attacks on Farrakahn. In one scene, at a rest stop, some black women attack the all-male nature of the march. One of the men says; "Please, itís not about excluding sisters. Itís about gaining your respect and trying to keep it."

One reviewer: " the end of the many different points of view had been raised, but I never felt that any one of them was being shoved down my throat. And I ever thought, when one of the characters was speaking, ĎAhh, thatís what Spike thinks.í He goes to a lot of trouble to show that a Black man in America can be gay, straight, religious, Republican, Democrat, gang member, father, husband, womanizer, actor, bus driver, thief, teacher, student -- itís all in the mix.

"The travelers of GET ON THE BUS donít all make it to the march and end up watching the speeches on TV, just like many of us did. The message is pretty clear: the real march for this particular group of men took place on the bus. ...

But stumbled right away, drying a paltry $2.2 million on its opening weekend. In 5 weeks, it made only $5.7 million.

One of its producers, Reuben Cannon: "Given how a lot of white people felt about the march, I donít think itís surprising they stayed away in droves. But I just donít understand why blacks rejected this film. Itís disheartening because if you canít get black people to support a film like that, then you start to wonder what itís going to take,"


D. Wayne Wang

Some of his major movies:

Smoke, 1995. Focuses on Brooklyn cigar shop. Shop owner (Harvey Keitel) and his customers: a writerís block afflicted novelist, a teenager with a different identity for all he meets; a man struggling to start over and the ownerís ex-girlfriend. Harvey Keitel, William Hurt, Forest Whitaker, Stockard Channing, Ashley Judd. Joy Luck Club.1993. Four women of different ages use their varied life experiences to understand and help each other. From Amy Tan novel, THE JOY LUCK CLUB, sensitive story of the complex relationships that can exist between mothers and daughters. DIM SUM: A LITTLE BIT OF HEART (1985). Chronicles the relationships between three generations of a Chinese-American family living in San Francisco.


Summary on some directors and their movies:

John Sayles

Men With Guns (1998)

Lone Star (1996)

Secret of Roan Inish (1994)

Passion Fish (1992)

City of Hope (1991)
Eight Men Out (1988)

Matewan (1987)

Brother from Another Planet (1984)

Baby, Itís You (1983)

Lianna (1983)

Return of Secaucus 7 (1980)


Kevin Smith



Chasing Amy

Spike Lee

Get On the Bus (1996)

Clockers (1995)

Crooklyn (1994)

Malcolm X (1992)

Jungle Fever (1991)

Moí Better Blues (1992)

Do the Right Thing (1989)

School Daze (1988)

Sheís Gotta Have It (1986)


Wayne Wang

Smoke (1995)

Blue in the Face (1995)

Joy Luck Club (1993)

Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989)

Slam Dance (1987)

Dim Sum (1985)

Chan is Missing (1982)