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in Filmmaking
on Feb 8, 2010

Indie film champions are often fond of comparing what we do to indie music. If bands can tour, why can’t we? If bands can sell merch, then we should too. If recording artists can form boutique labels, then why can’t film distributors? Like, for example, Oscilloscope, the film label of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch.

At Flavorwire, Judy Berman takes this assumption to task in a piece called “Why is Indie Film Dying While Indie Music Thrives?” She bases her assessment of indie film’s slow-motion death on Edward Jay Epstein’s “Can Indie Movies Survive?”, which I found to be a pretty reductive piece. The central question — how can indie movies survive in an event-based moviegoing culture? — is a good one, but Epstein’s article uses one very specific model of independent film production to speak for the whole field. (On this point about indie films and their event-fullness, check out Ted Hope’s newly redesigned Truly Free Film — he wrote about just the issue and came up with ten solutions in a post titled “What Defines an Event: 10 Thoughts on Transforming Small to LARGE.”) Nonetheless, Berman’s article raises some points and perhaps touches a nerve or two. She boils it down to five points, the last two of which speak to broader issues involving our art:

4. Community
This is a simple one: Music fandom is generally a very social activity. Friends dance at shows together and trade tips on (and share the music of) artists they like. While much has been made of the internet’s power to attract fans around the world, local scenes — especially in smaller cities — remain vital. More established bands help promote their newer, more obscure brethren, kids move into warehouses that they quickly convert into DIY show spaces and great performers (many of whom haven’t even recorded an album yet) become well known and loved in their home city, generating momentum that will eventually help them garner the attention of a label.

Film just doesn’t have nearly as many outlets. Yes, there are small groups of experimental and underground filmmakers working together around the country, watching and critiquing each other’s work, volunteering to hold a light on the set of their friends’ project. But this community is much smaller and attracts few fans who aren’t filmmakers themselves. Film just isn’t social the way music is; sure, you go to a movie with friends — and then you sit there, silent, in the dark.

5. Coolness
This point is something of a corollary to the one above. Independent music has a built-in fanbase: young, urban, largely white, middle-class kids — otherwise known as hipsters. That isn’t their only audience, but it’s a major one, and it’s also a group with a lot of cultural capital. They are the trendsetters, the early adopters and (perhaps most importantly) the unencumbered young professionals who spend a ton of money on their own entertainment. For better or for worse, they’re who marketers spend untold amounts of cash trying to win over, and their allure is such that a new shipment of post-college 20-somethings arrives every year in cities around the country to get some freelance graphic design gigs and drink cheap beer at loft parties. Indie music is at the center of this social life.

Contrast that to your stereotypical film geek: unwashed, anti-social, constantly spouting quotes from cult movies you’ve never heard of at inopportune times. (Perhaps the best examples can be found in the documentary Cinemania.) Of course, most indie film fans (ourselves included) aren’t eccentric loners: They’re everyone from the same hipsters who make the underground music world go ’round to, well, our 55-year-old dentist dad who single-handedly keeps Netflix in business. But the fact remains that indie music is an essential element of a certain, increasingly popular, lifestyle, while its film counterpart just isn’t.


In terms of responding to Berman, perhaps the first thing to do is to take issue with her definition of participation in independent film. If it’s just holding a boom on a cold set, going on an awkward first date, or talking to your cineaste dentist while you wait for the novocaine to kick in, then, yes, maybe it’s not an activity you are going to be super passionate about. But independent film should offer more, and the palpable difference between it and mainstream media should create its own need for a certain segment of the moviegoing population. Hope addresses this in the first item on his list as he talks about the imperative of independent film to inspire conversation:

A conversation that inevitably will continue after the screening is over. It is an event if you are compelled to discuss it afterwards. Is that a memorable scene? A relationship to the world we live in? Truth? Understanding? Passion? Beauty? Transcendence? What? What is the return the audience gets on their 90 minute investment? It’s the after-effect, the conversation.

I have a few more thoughts about this that dovetail into another post I’ve been writing that will go up later today. For now, though, I’d be curious your thoughts on Berman’s piece.

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