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"In the late '60s and early '70s, the studios didn't know how to market films for the youth culture, and they turned to new young filmmakers to figure it out for them. The exact same thing happened across the '90s, and when this generation came of age, it put out very original, distinctive, mature work. They revitalized American films after a decade of it being pretty fuckin' flat. It was the first real American New Wave since the late '60s."
-- Edward Norton
On a crisp November morning in 1979, Robert Redford, one of the 1970s brightest stars, inaugurated a three-day conference of filmmakers and arts professionals at his home, a big-beamed ski lodge high up on the slopes of Mount Timpanogos, in the North Fork of Provo Canyon, Utah. It was only a decade since Easy Rider had exploded across the screens of America and kicked off the new Hollywood revolution of the 1970s, changing everything forever -- or so it seemed. As that extraordinary era was drawing to a close, Kramer vs. Kramer became the number one grosser of the year, breaking $100 million; Bob Fosse's All That Jazz was a hit, and so was Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now. One of that generation's greatest pictures was still in the pipeline, Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, but so was Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, which is to say, the palace of wisdom to which that decade's road of excess had led would soon come crashing down. In a preview of things to come, the kids who went to the movies that year also lined up to see the first Star Trek, and the second Rocky, The Amityville Horror, 10, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Hurricane, and Meteor.
The new Hollywood had ended, more or less, by 1975, when Ho Chi Minh's armies marched into Saigon, Mike Ovitz -- to go from the sublime to the ridiculous -- founded CAA, Robert Evans vacated the executive suite at Paramount, and Universal released Steven Spielberg's Jaws, the first mega-blockbuster. By the second half of the decade, the rising tide of the civil rights and anti-war movements that had floated the films of the new Hollywood had receded, exposing a muddy expanse of shallows littered with studio junk. When the Ronald Reagan tsunami swept everything before it, the market replaced Mao, the Wall Street Journal trumped The Little Red Book, and supply-side economics supplanted the power of the people. The boomers who fought the war against the war were staring at the face of middle age, getting ready to move aside for the next
demographic wave, the grasping, me-generationists of the 1980s to be followed by the "Gen-Xers" or "Slackers" of the early 1990s, who couldn't be bothered with either the Yippies of the 1960s or the yuppies of the 1980s.
In Hollywood, the new television regime at Paramount reclaimed the asylum from the movie brat inmates who, like Jack Nicholson's Randle McMurphy in Cuckoo's Nest, had disappeared with the medication cart. Studio heads, sitting happily astride bags of cash labeled Saturday Night Fever and Superman, had raised the drawbridge, stranding marginally commercial directors like Peter Bogdanovich, Bob Rafelson, Billy Friedkin, Hal Ashby, and even, eventually, Scorsese and Coppola, on the far side of the moat. When E.T. burned through the summer of 1982, finishing what Star Wars started, the studios went off on a trip of their own, fueled by cash, not drugs.
In the perennial tug-of-war between art and commerce that is Hollywood, muscular producers were dragging skinny, coked-out directors through the wreckage of the 1970s onto their own turf, which is to say, commerce had won. In the coming decade, Hollywood would fly first class on the Simpson/Bruckheimer Gulfstream. Genres that used to be studio staples -- like the family film -- migrated to TV, pushing the majors in the direction of "event" pictures in an attempt to cash in.
Roger Corman, who produced B movies in the 1960s and early 1970s, used to complain that he'd had a hard time in the 1980s because the B movies had become A movies, with bigger budgets and real stars. Hollywood abandoned the experimentation of the previous decade, losing interest in how-we-live-now small films about real people -- The Last Picture Show, Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces -- in favor of megabuck fantasies. Everything that had been turned upside down in the 1970s was set right side up again. Cops regained their glow, even if they were black and therefore fish out of water like Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cop cycle. G.I.s were top guns again, and comic strip characters like Rambo, pumped up like balloons in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, got a shot at winning the Vietnam War, while Superman and Batman refought battles that Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey (Death Wish) had won a decade earlier -- sans capes. With the bland leading the bland, Spielberg's suburban fantasies replaced Scorsese's mean streets. The utopian attempts to defy the system launched by the most visionary of the new Hollywood directors -- Coppola and George Lucas -- had either failed, in Coppola's case, or succeeded all too well, like Lucas's Skywalker empire. You couldn't really blame people like Redford for just turning their backs on the whole sorry mess.
Redford was not your garden-variety celebrity. Even though he was virtually synonymous with Hollywood glamour, he saw himself as an outsider. Too straight and conservative in his personal habits, and too much the prisoner of the star vehicles crafted by George Roy Hill and Sydney Pollack, Redford was not about to volunteer for the next Dennis Hopper flick, which is to say, he was not going to hop aboard the New Hollywood's
sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll express. He remained married to the same woman, Lola Van Wagenen, for many years and was a stranger to the gossip columns. On the other hand, he was too liberal to embrace the old Hollywood establishment, and throughout his career, he devoted himself to deploying the power that celebrity confers to effect progressive social change, showing a particular affinity for environmentalism and Native American rights.
Still, despite his contempt for Hollywood and disregard for the trappings of celebrity, and despite the noises he made about being a regular Joe, he remained very much the star. Although soft-spoken and courteous, he was notorious for keeping people waiting, breaking appointments, and failing to follow through on commitments. In Hollywood, it was widely known that to make a deal with Redford was to fall into development hell -- script notes, rewrites, and more rewrites -- often going nowhere. Used to being flattered, deferred to, and yessed, he mistrusted the people around him. He valued loyalty, and gave it back -- sometimes. He refused to delegate power to others but was indecisive and slow to act himself. Cautious by nature and almost paralyzed by perfectionism, he continually second-guessed the people around him. He could be charming and entertaining but, as one former employee put it, "He's not a people person."
Although Redford had been one of Hollywood's leading box-office earners for a decade, when he looked around him at the end of the 1970s, he didn't like what he saw. A decade earlier, the studios had been so desperate that directors like Scorsese and Robert Altman, who would have been -- and virtually were -- indies in the 1980s, could work inside the system, so that an institution such as Redford contemplated would have been superfluous. But the landscape had changed so dramatically since then that now it was a necessity. Redford understood that the most creative filmmakers were being increasingly shut out of the system. He also recognized that if a would-be filmmaker were brown, black, red, or female -- forget it; his or her chances of getting a project produced were virtually nil. He knew that indie filmmaking was generally a trust-fund enterprise, because outside of a few federal grants and cash from the proverbial family friends, orthodontists, eye doctors, and so on, there was precious little money available to produce them. Raising money, not to mention writing, casting, shooting, and editing, was brutal, teeth-grinding work that could take years, and if by some miracle it all somehow came together, directors often found, pace the thimblefull of tiny, struggling distributors, that they had to release their films themselves, leaving them broke, exhausted, and disillusioned. In short, indies needed help.
Redford believed that American film culture could contribute more than stale sequels and retreads, that historically, before the renewed hegemony of the studios, film had been a medium for genuine artists and could be again if only they could be sheltered from the marketplace long enough to nurture their skills and find their voices. Oddly enough, he had or thought he had some firsthand experience with the problems they encountered. As he has said repeatedly, "I knew what it was like to distribute a film that you produced. In 1969, I carried Downhill Racer under my arm, fighting the battles that most people face." He came to understand, as he puts it, the dilemma of the "filmmaker who spends two years making his film, and then another two years distributing it, only to find out he can't make any money on it, and four years of his life are gone. I thought, that's who needs help."
In the mid-1960s, Redford had bought some land, semiwilderness nestled in a deep gorge some 6000 feet up in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. Then he bought the lot next door, and the lot next door, and after he made some money on his big hit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, on August 1, 1968, he and his partners bought the Timp Haven ski and recreation area. He must have thought, Build a ski resort and they will come. What he didn't know was that because of its comparatively low elevation, his resort got less snow and therefore enjoyed a shorter ski season than its competitors. Despite the money he poured into it, nobody, or almost nobody came. In fact, the no-snow zone he had purchased would become a running joke. But the hemorrhage of red ink wasn't funny.
Redford knew that Aspen, Colorado, had become the seat of the Aspen Institute, transforming the sleepy town into a Mecca for coneheads with a taste for skiing and a winter getaway de rigueur for Hollywood stars and investment bankers. By building an Aspen-like infrastructure on his land, he hoped to turn a white elephant into an arts colony that at best might enhance the value of the for-profit ski resort and at worst could do a whole lot of good. It was a brilliant stroke, allowing Redford to kill a multiplicity of birds with one not-for-profit stone.
The purpose of Redford's conference was to lay the groundwork for a novel organization that would nurture indie filmmakers. It would be called the Sundance Institute, after the bank robber Redford had played in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The whiff of outlawry that came with the name flattered his sense of himself as a Hollywood maverick. Or better, the new enterprise suggested a movie like The Magnificent Seven, with Redford like Steve McQueen, the golden-haired Hollywood star with his band of outlaws protecting the powerless farmers (read, indies) against the depredations of vandals and looters (read, the studios), so they could raise their crops (read, films) in peace.
The Redford name attracted an impressive array of brain power, but this convocation of like-minded souls was all very informal. The participants -- many bearded, sporting the down jackets, plaid wool shirts, Levi's, and shit-kicker boots that later would become de rigueur at Sundance -- stayed at the nearby resort. It was an idyllic spot. Rough-hewn cabins played peekaboo among the spiky stands of mountain pine and aspen that covered the slopes, while a bubbling brook meandered downhill, paused for a moment to form Bob's Pond, and continued on its way. On a clear day, the air was so crystalline it felt like you could raise your hand and touch the heavens.
Self-effacing as always, Redford, surrounded by his collection of Kachina dolls, diffidently served beer to his guests from behind the bar. His modest posture -- "I'm here to listen and learn" -- along with his Oscar-winning turn as director of Ordinary People a year later, would earn him the fond sobriquet, "Ordinary Bob," but in fact, it was all a bit much, teetering on the edge of kitsch, an Eddie Bauer theme park, Bobworld. (Later, the gift shop at his resort would be stocked with "Sundance" coolers.) Still, Redford had charisma and passion to spare, and they created a powerful gravitational field.
Explaining the lure of Redford's dream, Liz Manne, who would work for him many years later at the Sundance Channel, speaks for many when she says, "It was a combination of politics and aesthetics. He would talk a lot about the independent vision, and diversity, and the importance of unique voices. You wanted to believe in the shining city over the horizon. There aren't many opportunities in this world to do good work that you really believe in. So to be able to work for a guy who stands for what he stands for, who puts his money where his mouth is, and uses his power and his celebrity in a way that is not ignorant, but very informed, that's fuckin' great. At the beginning, I just felt honored to be a part of the mission. I was one of the true believers, I was a moonie."
At the end of the three days the participants, framed by the snow-capped peaks rising picturesquely behind them, posed for pictures in front of a split-rail fence below his home. When the photo op was over, Redford extended his arm to receive a golden eagle that had been nursed back to health after an injury. He removed its hood and thrust it into the air. As the great bird spread its mighty wings and took flight, catching the updraft and soaring high above them, none of the conferees could have been oblivious to the symbolism -- Redford wasn't a movie star-cum-director for nothing -- and even the most cynical among them could hardly help blinking back a tear. They were present at the creation. Like the eagle, Sundance was going to fly.
That same year, across the country in Buffalo, two frizzy-haired, unprepossessing brothers from Queens named Weinstein, more at home with pigeons than with eagles, were preparing to move their tiny film company, Miramax, named after their parents, Miriam and Max, down to New York City where the action was. The brothers were anomalies in the world of indie distribution. In contrast to many of their peers, the distributors who began their careers running college film societies in the 1970s, the Weinsteins had come up through the rough-and-tumble world of rock and roll promotion. Says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Classics, "We all reflect where we came from. The rock promotion business is cutthroat. You're fighting for your territory and using intimidating tactics."
In the late 1970s, Harvey Weinstein had acquired the Century Theater in downtown Buffalo, and to keep the seats warm when it was not being used for concerts, he and Bobby, as his brother was then known, began showing movies. When they moved their act to New York City, Bobby became president. But despite his lofty title, he was still Harvey's kid brother. Harvey always stuck up for him, saying things like, "You might not think Bobby's valuable to this company, but he is. And if you don't believe it, you can get the hell out. Don't fuck with my brother." But Bobby wanted to be his own man. One day he announced, "My name is Bob. Call me Bob." The two small-time music promoters set up an office in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment at 211 West 56th St., on the corner of Broadway. It was not a distinguished address. There was a madam working out of the building.
Harvey Weinstein, born in 1952, was a paler, doughier version of Bob, who was two years younger. He looked like what he was, the first pancake off the griddle, before it's quite hot enough. At six feet, 300 pounds and counting, he was larger in every respect than Bob, with eyes like olive pits staring out of a round, pasty face, neck like a fireplug, and hands as big as lamb chops. Someone, in other words, it might be prudent to cross the street to avoid. With his collar open, shirttails out, and dark crescents of sweat under his armpits, he looked like Broderick Crawford in All the King's Men.
Harvey could always be found with a Diet Coke in one hand and a True Blue in the other, chain-smoking, not so much inhaling as vacuuming up the entire cigarette, smoke, paper, tobacco, and all, one after another, pack after pack. The assistants learned to buy Coke by the case, cigarettes by the carton, candy bars by the gross, or at least it seemed that way, as if Harvey were a founding member of Sam's Club. He was a man of large appetites. Watching him feed was an experience not easily forgotten. It brought to mind the great scenes of movie gluttony -- anything from La Grande Bouffe or the spectacular sequence in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life where a ravenous diner explodes like an overblown balloon. Always working on his weight, Harvey in the early days ate lunches that consisted of a tunafish salad sandwich on rye, toasted, a slice of American cheese, and the inevitable Diet Coke. But then he would chase it with a side or two of french fries as if to reward himself for his restraint. As Bingham Ray, a founding partner of October Films and now head of United Artists, once put it, bending over to mime a close look at an imaginary chest, " 'So Harvey, what did you have for lunch today? Let's see, pea soup, pizza, salad, custard.' That's why Harvey has started wearing black shirts."
Rather than trying to smooth the rough edges, Harvey flaunted them, tried to turn them into pluses. Even though he was known as someone whose word at times meant nothing, he fashioned a reputation for truth telling. He knew that the sweat, the food stains, the slovenly dress, the inner demons writ large on his battered face could be made to send a message, one that went, to quote Popeye, "I yam what I yam." And in the world of appearances -- of Armani suits and 500SLs -- in which he operated, as often as not, it worked. People admired his fidelity to his nature and often forgave him his sins. As Matt Damon puts it, "It's the old tale of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion's sitting on the bank of a river, and a frog walks by, and the scorpion says, 'Take me to the other side.' The frog replies, 'No, because when we get to the other side, you're gonna sting me, you're gonna kill me.' The scorpion says, 'I would never do that, please, I'm asking you for a favor, I can't swim, I need your help to get me to the other side of the river.' The frog finally agrees, takes him across on his back, and just as they get to the other side, the scorpion stings the frog. As the frog is dying, he says, 'Why did you do that?' The scorpion just looks down at him and says, 'Because I'm a scorpion, it's my nature.' It's the same with Harvey. It's his nature."
Harvey loved the limelight and could make himself extremely appealing. He liked, in fact, to be liked. He was funny, wielding a wicked, slashing wit that he could use on himself when he wanted to or just as easily turn against others, reducing grown men to tears. When he was on a roll, no one was funnier. Speaking of somebody or other, he once said, "He's the kinda guy, you gotta hold his hand when you're chopping off his head!"
And dwelling somewhere within Harvey's breast was the heart of -- if not a poet, at least a cinéaste. He genuinely loved movies, A movies, B movies, horror, sci-fi, comedy, musicals, kung-fu, all kinds of movies, but particularly he adored foreign films, art films, "specialty" films. He loved to tell the story about going to see The 400 Blows when he was fourteen, which he believed, for reasons best known to himself, to be a sex film, but during the course of the hour and a half he spent in the theater, he was transported by the magic of François Truffaut. Says Mark Lipsky, Miramax head of distribution in the late 1980s, "I've heard that story -- 'I saw 400 Blows, it changed my life' -- a zillion times. It's significant that Harvey tells that story, not Bob."
Bob, dressed in black, always seemed a little off, uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he were not in the right place, but in some world of his own. If Harvey was bigger than life, Bob was smaller, more intense, a reduction, l'essence d'Herve. If Harvey was the outside guy, Bob was the inside guy. He was quieter, preferred to stay in the shadows. It didn't matter to Bob if he were liked or not.
Despite what Bob told the press -- "We're artists. We're not interested in money" -- he didn't much care about Truffaut. As former Miramax executive Patrick McDarrah succinctly put it, "This business is about ego and greed. Harvey is ego, Bob is greed." Bob liked exploitation flicks, commercial product that could go direct to video. He was focussed on the bottom line. Whatever the movie, he always wanted to know, "Are we gonna make money on it, Harve?"
If Harvey wore his heart on his sleeve, Bob was opaque, subject to extreme mood swings. "You can't really tell what's going on in Bob's mind," says Mark Tusk, who would become one of the most effective of the acquisitions shock troops in the mid-1990s. "He will turn on a dime."
Sundance and Miramax, the twin towers of the indie world, will cast long shadows across this tale. But in 1979, they were no more than dreams. Around the same time that Redford's eagle had taken wing and the Weinsteins had come to ground in New York, three modest indie features opened quietly to respectful reviews and decent business. None had the seismic impact of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda's not-just-a-biker-movie, and all wore their earnestness conspicuously on their sleeves, but for those who hungered for an alternative to the slick, overproduced, and empty studio fare, they were cause for rejoicing. One was called Alambrista! (1978), directed by Robert M. Young, and produced by Michael Hausman; the second was Northern Lights (1978), written and directed by Rob Nilsson and John Hanson; and the third was Heartland (1979), directed by Richard Pearce and produced by Annick Smith. Alambrista! told the story of the struggles of a Mexican illegal to find work in the United States. Northern Lights paid tribute to the hardscrabble radicalism of the immigrant farmers who settled North Dakota and formed the Non-Partisan League to protect themselves against the big banks, granaries, and railroads. Heartland focused on the trials and tribulations of a stouthearted widow who braves the harshness of the turn-of-the-century West to homestead on her own. Whereas the twitchy, paranoid Easy Rider regarded the vast expanse of country between the two coasts as a redneck free-fire zone, Nilsson and Hanson, Pearce and Smith, celebrated it as, precisely, the heartland. All three films were made by Vietnam generation filmmakers, and all were marbled by a residue of its politics. Later, in the 1980s, the kind of salt-of-the-earth regionalism these films celebrated would degenerate into mindless boosterism for barnyards and square dancing, Garrison Keillor-style, but in the beginning they stood out like lonely sentries against the Hollywood hordes.
In 1978, Sandra Schulberg, the associate producer of Northern Lights, helped found the Independent Feature Project, the first institutional brick in the indie infrastructure. IFP conducted a series of seminars about working outside the system -- how to raise money, how to produce, how to distribute yourself -- it was like inventing the wheel. The goal was simple -- to plug American indies into the distribution system already in place for foreign films -- but the execution was anything but. Still, in 1980, the indies' Easy Rider finally appeared in the modest guise of John Sayles's The Return of the Secaucus 7, which, championed by the New York Times's Vincent Canby, played to surprisingly strong box office -- an extraordinary $2-million gross. Despite their obvious differences, the two films were strikingly similar, with the autumnal Secaucus 7 mourning a revolution that failed, a gloss on Fonda's famous line, "We blew it." Unlike Rocky, Superman, and Porky's et al., Sayles's film dealt with a serious subject -- the post-war exhaustion of the peace movement -- that affected and might conceivably interest real people. "Financing really didn't exist when we started," says Sayles. "It was hard to get an independent script to an actor, and you didn't bother going to a studio unless your script was commercial. And even then if you weren't connected through an agent, they wouldn't read it. Independent films were truly on the outside." The Secaucus 7 cost a mere $60,000 out of pocket, was entirely financed by Sayles himself, and could never have been made at a studio -- although, in a preview of things to come, it was appropriated by Columbia and morphed into The Big Chill.
The Secaucus 7 was followed by films like Louis Malle's My Dinner with André (1981) that grossed $1.9 million; Wayne Wang's Chan Is Missing (1982) that did $1 million; Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul (1982) that did $4.7 million; Greg Nava's El Norte (1984) that took in $2.2 million; and a string of John Waters pictures featuring Divine, Mink Stole, and the rest of his patented menagerie of weirdos. In 1984, Jim Jarmusch made Stranger Than Paradise, which cost almost nothing and grossed $2.5 million. The same year, the Coen brothers, Joel, who had gone to NYU film school, and Ethan, who did not, made a wonderfully nasty film noir called Blood Simple for next to nothing that grossed $2.1 million. And another NYU graduate, Spike Lee, broke through with She's Gotta Have It in 1986 that grossed a phenomenal $7.1 million. David Lynch made his mark with Eraserhead (1977), and then Blue Velvet in 1986. It soon became clear that where before there had been a trickle of poorly funded documentaries, supplemented by the occasional underfinanced grainy feature, there was now a comparative flood of slick, reasonably well-produced theatrical pictures, some of which benefitted from the unprecedented level of public support by the National Endowments during the Jimmy Carter years. Suddenly, there seemed to be an indie movement that had people who care about film practically dancing in the streets. For the organizers of Sundance, the hope was that these home-grown filmmakers would generate the energy, excitement, and box office that Ingmar Bergman, the Italians, and the French New Wave had enjoyed in the 1960s.
But the few distributors with enough clout to command decent screens, like UA Classics, where Ira Deutchman, Tom Bernard, and Michael Barker cut their teeth, still primarily dealt in foreign films, which were successful enough that by the early 1980s, almost every studio had its own classics division. For the most part, American indies were still a curiosity, without a demonstrable audience. In 1982, Deutchman left UA Classics to team up with Amir Malin and John Ives to form a new company called Cinecom. "The studios were bidding up the price on the name-brand foreign films, the Truffauts, Fellinis, Bergmans, way out of proportion to what they could earn," he recalls. "As a startup, we said, 'We can't compete with what all these other people are doing. What can we do that's different?' We started tapping into what was just beginning to be called American independent films. It wasn't, 'This is the next big thing,' it was really just running away from what we knew we couldn't afford." As former Miramax distribution VP Eamonn Bowles puts it, "Specialized film was a rarefied little field. If a film did a couple of million dollars, 'Wow, that was great!' You could manage your assets, make sure you didn't get hurt, and eke out a modest profit."
But indie films had one advantage that would turn out to be decisive. Cinecom had the good fortune to open its doors right at the beginning of the video boom. "Many of these startup video companies were so hungry for product to put on their shelves that anything with sprocket holes was worth a certain amount of money to them," explains Deutchman. "Those folks had no interest whatsoever in foreign language films because people didn't want to read subtitles. These American films, despite the fact that they didn't reach a large audience theatrically, were worth something on video."
Video wiped out the foreign film market overnight and, along with cable and European public television, fueled the explosion of American indies with a gusher of money. Companies like Vestron, RCA/Columbia Home Video, and Live Entertainment began funneling cash directly into the production pipeline. Meanwhile, with Deutchman in charge of acquisitions, Cinecom released a string of hits, including Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads documentary Stop Making Sense, which took in $5.5 million; Spalding Gray's monologue film, Swimming to Cambodia, which did $1 million; and Sayles's third film, Brother from Another Planet (1986), which only cost Cinecom $400,000 and grossed $3.7 million.
Older distributors, like New Yorker Films, New Line, and the Samuel Goldwyn Company, also fattened themselves at the video trough, while litters of newbies scampered between their legs. UA Classics had been started by Arthur Krim's United Artists, a company known for its good taste and talent-friendly attitude. When Krim walked out to start Orion Pictures in 1978, UA Classics's Barker and Bernard went with him to form Orion Classics. Says Bernard, "We followed the same theory that Krim did when we had our first job at UA. Once the script and the director were set and it was clear the movie could be made for the budget they wanted, then we stepped aside and let the artists do their work. We didn't interfere in the creative process, like, 'We're going to fix it for you, recut it for you.' The last thing we wanted to do is influence the director's vision." The other indie distributors shared the same attitude. Unlike the studios where, before and after the 1970s, fiddling with films was de rigueur, these companies served the directors.
By the mid-1980s, indie films were starting to build an identity and an audience. Grosses spiraled upward. In 1985, Kiss of the Spider Woman racked up a very sweet $17 million for Island, and The Trip to Bountiful grossed $7.5 million. The following year Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's A Room with a View broke out and grossed $23 million for Cinecom, while a trio of British films -- Sid and Nancy, My Beautiful Laundrette, and Mona Lisa -- also enjoyed strong box office. The field was getting so crowded that there was bound to be a correction, and it happend in October 1987, when the stock market crashed. That, combined with the overexpansion of the most successful distributors, led to a shakeout. At the end of the decade, the heavens parted to let loose a black rain of dying companies, including some, like Cinecom and Vestron, that had seemed most healthy but had made the mistake of turning away from acquisitions to make their own films.
Genuine children of the New Hollywood, the indies absorbed, at least in the beginning, their anti-Hollywood aesthetic. What defines an indie film has been argued ad nauseam, but in those days, despite quibbles about this or that film, there existed something of a consensus. The purists reigned. As director/producer Sydney Pollack puts it, "Independent usually meant anything that was an alternative to recipe films or mainstream films made by studios." They were anything Hollywood was not. If Hollywood made "movies," indies made "films." If Hollywood sold fantasy and escapism, indies thrived on realism and engagement. If Hollywood avoided controversial subjects, indies embraced them. If Hollywood movies were expensive, indie films were cheap. If Hollywood used stars, indies preferred unknowns, even nonactors. If Hollywood retained final cut, indies demanded it for themelves. If Hollywood strip-mined genres and dropped movies out of cookie cutters, indie films expressed personal visions and were therefore unique and sequel-proof. If Hollywood made movies by committee, indies were made by individual sensibilities who wrote as well as directed, and sometimes shot and edited as well. While Hollywood employed directors, hired to do a job, indies were filmmakers who worshipped at the altar of art. While directors accumulated BMWs and homes in Malibu, filmmakers made unimaginable sacrifices and lived in New York, preferably on the Lower East Side. They scammed and hustled, lied and cheated, even sold drugs or their own blood, to finance their films.
Hollywood favored spectacle, action, and special effects, while indies worked on a more intimate scale, privileging script and emphasizing character and mise-en-scène. Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) put it nicely when she described her own aesthetic: The story, she said, is like "a clothesline. I'm interested in what's on the clothesline, not the clothesline itself. For the most part, Hollywood is all about the clothesline." If Hollywood both reflected and pandered to popular taste, indies worked without an audience in mind, and if they found one, it was serendipitous and likely to be a niche, not a mass audience. Likewise, if Hollywood movies were embedded in an economic system that cushioned risk with ancillary markets, indies marched ahead -- often foolishly -- without a thought to distribution. They worked without a net.
Indie films existed in the space between the shots of Hollywood movies, which is to say, they concerned themselves with what Hollywood left out. The converse was true as well: they left out what Hollywood included, not only because they weren't interested, but because they couldn't afford it. Poverty inspired its own aesthetic. Hollywood reproduced conventional wisdom and mainstream ideology, whereas indies challeged both -- sometimes. Like Young, Pearce, Sayles, and Lee, the first group of indie filmmakers which came up in the 1980s was forged in the crucible of the civil rights and anti-war movements, which had enough staying power to survive into the 1970s, and animate its values. Sayles in particular had absorbed the politics of the 1960s, while Lee's work is influenced by the Black Power movement. Both filmmakers carried political chips on their shoulders, and others breached sexual taboos, like Gus Van Sant in Mala Nocha, or explored unconventional aesthetic territory like Jarmusch, or just displayed an ironic, smart-ass sensibility, like the Coen brothers. Indie films were never programatically left wing, or even "political" except in the most attenuated fashion, but many were infused with an Us/Them attitude toward the studios and other American institutions similar to that held by the movie brats of the 1970s. The preoccupations of the 1960s and 1970s -- class, work, race, American imperialism, and gender -- were eventually, with a few exceptions, more or less forgotten, but by virtue of the democratizing thrust of the movement, as a succession of disenfranchised groups -- gays, women, people of color -- gained some access to the camera, in addition to the circumstances of their production (passing the hat), they were almost by definition outsider films, and therefore -- however tenuously -- oppositional in nature.
Many of the successful indie films of the 1980s told the story of literal outsiders, the halt and the lame (Waterdance), angry blacks (Do the Right Thing), undocumented workers (El Norte), AIDS-infected gays (Parting Glances), pushers and petty hoods (Drugstore Cowboy), and even the obese (Heavy). On a sexual or gender level, a good number of them were mildly kinky -- transgressive, to use a buzzword -- giving viewers a glimpse of subject matter rarely treated in mainstream movies, say, Lynch's Blue Velvet, or Lizzie Borden's Working Girls versus Disney's Pretty Woman. Since the pioneers held mainstream films in contempt, the worst sin was to "sell out." Jarmusch always worked outside the system, while Sayles, Lee, and the Coens made forays into the studios, most of which ended badly. The studios, prosperous once again, were not about to bend over a second time for maverick filmmakers with their own ideas about how things should be done.
This having been said, with certain exceptions, like Jarmusch's work, these films were untouched by the kind of aesthetic antics that informed the anti-narrative underground directors of the 1950s and 1960s, like Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Andy Warhol, and even the New Hollywood. "The original sin of the American independent cinema, when it shifted away from the avant-garde, was the introduction of narrative," says writer/producer James Schamus, now co-president of Focus Features. "Once you do that, you're inserting yourself into a commodity system. At that point, whether or not you have seized the means of production, à la Karl Marx, doesn't matter, because what you haven't done is seize the means of exhibition, marketing, and distribution, and so you end up having to play by the rules of the big boys."
Looking backward, it's obvious that the 1980s was the great primordial swamp out of which the indies crawled, flopped onto land, and slithered off into the jungle. As Sayles puts it, "It's like looking at a fossil record of all these animals that once existed." The Darwinian drama of unbridled eat-or-be-eaten corporate competition that destroyed promising companies like Cinecom and Vestron as soon as they got into production, made breathing room for vigorous, younger outfits that were just emerging, which in turn allowed the next wave of indies to rise up on their two hind legs and splash mud in the faces of the studio dinosaurs.
By the 1990s, Hollywood had become even more focused on comic book, event pictures than it had been in the previous decade, creating a space, not to say an entire continent, for filmmakers who wanted to tell stories with a human scale. Although it might be argued that the 1990s -- a decade in which indies reached a détente with their historical enemy, Hollywood -- marked the end of the movement, this is too harsh. For our purposes it was a time when the seeds planted in the previous decade grew and blossomed. The pioneers -- Sayles, Lee, Lynch, Demme, Van Sant, Wang, Waters, and the Coen brothers -- continued to evolve, but within a few short years they were joined by a veritable swarm of films and filmmakers, including Anders with Gas Food Lodging; Steven Soderbergh with sex, lies, and videotape; Hal Hartley with The Unbelievable Truth; Rick Linklater with Slacker; Todd Haynes with Poison; Gregg Araki with The Living End; Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs; David O. Russell with Spanking the Monkey; Ang Lee with Eat Drink Man Woman; Kevin Smith with Clerks; Neil LaBute with In the Company of Men; Robert Rodriguez with El Mariachi; James Gray with Little Odessa; James Mangold with Cop Land; Tom DiCillo with Living in Oblivion; Carl Franklin with One False Move; Nick Gomez with Laws of Gravity; Todd Solondz with Welcome to the Dollhouse; Larry Clark with Kids; Nicole Holofcener with Walking and Talking; Alexander Payne with Citizen Ruth; the Andersons, Wes and P. T. with Bottle Rocket and Boogie Nights; Lisa Cholodenko with High Art; Kim Peirce with Boys Don't Cry; and Darren Aronofsky with Pi. Not to mention the British, Irish, and Australian filmmakers who enjoyed wide U.S. distribution, like Michael Caton-Jones with Scandal; Jim Sheridan with My Left Foot; Jane Campion with The Piano; Neil Jordan with The Crying Game; and later Danny Boyle with Trainspotting.
Like the New Hollywood, with its Jack Nicholsons, Robert De Niros, Harvey Keitels, Al Pacinos, and Dustin Hoffmans, the indies introduced a whole new generation of character actors like Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Tim Roth, Joaquin Phoenix, Tim Blake Nelson, Billy Bob Thornton, James Spader, and John C. Reilly, as well as actresses like Lily Taylor, Parker Posey, Catherine Keener, Janeane Garofalo, Gwyneth Paltrow,
Anabella Sciorra, and Uma Thurman. It's a testimony to the differences between the two decades that for the most part, unlike their predecessors, these actors -- particularly the ethnic ones -- were unable to cross over and become stars. In fact, the movement was in the other direction, with Hollywood stars stooping to conquer by playing character roles in indie films.
Like the 1970s, the 1990s was pregnant with change. "I remember the New York Film Festival where Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise premiered," said producer Ted Hope. "All of a sudden the Coen brothers get up on stage, and I recognized them from my local supermarket....I was like, 'Oh my God, it's those stoners from the neighborhood!' And like two days later, after seeing Stranger Than Paradise, there was Jim Jarmusch on the subway. Somehow it just felt really possible." "I was just getting out of college in 1991," recalls Edward Norton. "I was twenty-two. There was a sense that anything was possible. I was kicking around New York, doing theater, and I had this friend, Connie Britton, who lived across the street from me. I ran into her, asked, 'What are you up to?'
" 'I'm supposed to be going to this audition for some little independent this kid is making. It's out in Brooklyn, and I really don't want to go.'
" 'Read the script?'
" 'Like it?'
" 'Yeah, I did, actually.'
" 'What the hell are you moaning about? You gotta hunk out to those kinda things.' Later, she told me, 'This guy wants me to do it, it's nine or ten weekends, at his parents' house, he's got $25,000.'
" 'Connie, you've never been in a movie. Just do it for the experience.' She did it, and five months later she told me, 'I saw this movie I did, it's pretty good, and we just heard that it got into the Sundance Film Festival.' It was The Brothers McMullen! That's the way it felt, that there was this new vortex that you could head toward that had nothing to do with Hollywood, the sense that, holy shit, some kid with $25,000 from his parents could end up at Sundance Film Festival, and then the doors opened to that new spring."
The indies of the 1990s were a diverse lot, ranging from Haynes, with his astringent exercises in theoretically inflected gay cinema on the one hand to Smith, with his twenty-something gross-out comedies on the other, and with every conceivable variety of film in between. They lacked the cohesiveness of the movie brat generation of the 1970s, and a lot of the latter-day indies missed the feeling of community they imagined the movie brats shared, the sense that they were destiny's children. Says Anders, "It's so exciting when you're starting to make films and you first learn about Scorsese and his peers, when they all started making films together, the stories about Brian De Palma coming in and cutting one of his scenes for Mean Streets, it's like, those guys were all part of a historical moment." In fact, the New Hollywood inhabits the indies of the 1980s and 1990s like a haunting. "I've been pretending that we're in the late '60s and early '70s for my whole career, actually," said Soderbergh. "I've tried to adopt the idea of infusing American material with a European film aesthetic. I mean, that was their great contribution." In the 1980s, there still existed a network of revival houses that gave the larval indies access to New Hollywood movies, as well as foreign classics and the greats of the Hollywood past. "I remember seeing Taxi Driver at one of those Landmark theaters," recalls Linklater, who grew up in Texas. "It was right after the assassination attempt on Reagan. I walked out of the theater, and I was in a daze for the next two days. I'll never forget those years. I was just in love with cinema, and there was something every night -- Badlands, Days of Heaven, revivals like Ambersons, Grand Illusion, Los Olvidados. There was really something magical about sitting in a theater and watching these beautiful 35mm prints. That's all gone now."
With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that the generation of the 1990s was a movement, however ill-defined and unlike the New Hollywood. But their films, with the exception of Quentin Tarantino's, aren't so flamboyant as those of their predecessors; they don't have "Look at me" written all over them, and some of the most prominent filmmakers have even rejected the auteur label. "I certainly didn't feel like I was going to grow up to be Steven Spielberg, but nor did I think I was going to grow up to become Martin Scorsese," says Soderbergh. "I'm not one of those visionary types. I'm sort of in the middle. I want John Huston's career. I want to work for a long time and make all kinds of films." Consequently, their achievement is deceptively understated. Again Schamus: "Most of the filmmakers are aesthetically audacious, but austere and rigorous at the same time. They get up in the morning, and they go to work. They have unique voices, but they're not necessarily staking their claim to their potential greatness on them. The aesthetic work is focused, targeted, and modest."
While the indie rocket lifted a whole new generation of gifted filmmakers into orbit, it never would have gotten off the launching pad were it not for the scrappy, talented entrepreneurs who took chances on pictures that no one thought would sell. As Project Green Light has taught us, when budgets are low and shooting schedules short, the drama behind the camera is as compelling as the drama in front of the camera. That drama is often about deals, getting the picture financed before it is shot and into the theaters afterward. As veteran distributor Ray Price puts it, "A good deal is smarter than a good film. You can have the world's best film, and nobody cares. But a good deal never betrays you." "To make a film, all you need is a girl and a gun," Jean-Luc Godard once famously said. He might have added, "If you want someone to see it, you need a distributor." Says Kevin Smith, "Independent films punched through based on the sales-manship of the distributors that were repping them and the personalities of the people who made the films, and not even so much the personalities as their backstory. Robert Rodriguez is a fantastic example of that. El Mariachi. So is Billy Bob Thornton. The '90s seemed to be all about the backstory."
The people who gave us that backstory were the distributors, the marketers, and if the 1970s was a directors' decade, the 1990s was their decade. Historically, marketing has always been at the heart of the indie business. If "specialized product," wasn't going to make money, it wasn't going to exist, and most of the distribution companies were run by marketing people, like Deutchman at Cinecom and later Fine Line; Barker and Bernard at UA, Orion, and finally Sony Classics; and Bingham Ray and Jeff Lipsky at October. Of course, starting as early as the late 1970s, when marketers muscled production at the studios, gaining the last word over what could or could not be green-lit, it was cause for the wringing of hands and the gnashing of teeth. The bean counters took charge, snuffing the flames of originality that still flickered among the proponents of the easily digested, "high concept" pictures that were being packaged with recognizable faces for pre-existing audiences and tested to death in previews administered by the increasingly influential National Research Group.
But indie marketing was as distinct from studio marketing as indie films were from studio movies. Where studios spent freely on advertising, indies relied on publicity, which was free. Whereas studios practiced saturation booking and launched expensive campaigns that included massive TV buys, newspaper ads, radio, billboards, and so on, aimed at attracting as many people to as many theaters as possible in the shortest amount of time -- usually the first weekend -- indie distributors did the opposite. Instead of taking the money and running, they understood that the first week was going to be weakest, so they depended on good reviews and word of mouth gradually to build an audience for films booked into lengthy engagements at few theatrers. (At its maximum exposure, A Room with a View went out on no more than 150 screens, while Cinecom cautiously marked the one-year anniversary of its run at the Paris theater in New York by taking out its first full-page ad in The New York Times.) Whereas the studios adhered to the law of large numbers, releasing a lengthy slate of pictures each year, gambling that a handful would break out while dumping the rest, indie distributors released few pictures, could ill-afford even a single flop, much less two or three, and consequently lavished tender loving care on each one.
But by the end of the 1980s, distributors had hit a wall. None of the indie hits had been able to crack the $25 million ceiling. They had reached, apparently, the limit of their audience. Enter Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who transformed the indie landscape. As Harvey himself -- never one to hide his light under a bushel -- put it, "If I didn't exist, they'd have to invent me -- I'm the only interesting thing around." Perhaps. Had the Weinsteins never existed, others might have been invented to fill their shoes, but on the other hand, perhaps not, and the 1990s might have been more like the 1980s, with art films still prisoners of the art houses.
Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise is a logical place to begin a book like this because, shot in basic black and white with barely a nod toward a plot, it looked deceptively easy to make, almost a home movie -- just get hold of a camera and shoot your friends. Like John Cassavetes's Shadows in 1959, it was one of those "I can do that" films that inspired a decade of filmmakers, convincing them that they, too, could make movies. But John Pierson, the pioneering producer's rep who kick-started the career of virtually every filmmaker in this group by selling his or her first film, chronicled the infancy of the movement so vividly and well in Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes, that to do so again seems redundant. Besides, under the pressure of the frantic quest for the Next Big Thing, the American film scene changes so quickly that to the second wave of indies, the 1980s already seemed like ancient history; it might as well have been the silent era, with Jarmusch its D. W. Griffith, so irrelevant had it become. In the go-go climate of the 1990s, the refusal of many of that generation's filmmakers to accept the rules of the game as laid down not only by the studios, but seemingly by audiences as well, made them look like fools and losers. Of course, endorsing this view is bad history and does the pioneers an enormous injustice, but it is true that the indie explosion of the 1990s was so dramatic and so distinctive that it deserves a book of its own. And if this story is as much about the indie business as it is about films and filmmakers, it makes sense to start a few years later, and take 1989 -- the sex, lies, and videotape year at the Sundance Film Festival -- as the big bang of the modern indie film movement. Sex, lies not only marked the arrival of Soderbergh, one of the brightest stars in this new galaxy of filmmakers, but it also signaled the emergence of the Sundance Film Festival (then officially still the U.S. Film Festival), which showcased the film, and Miramax, which distributed it. On the face of it, Redford and the Weinsteins would seem to be poles apart -- class versus trash, to put it crudely, with Sundance the finishing school that teaches young filmmakers how to dress for success, and Miramax the reform school where they are cuffed and cudgeled into shape. Sundance and Miramax are the yin and yang of the indie universe, the high road and the low, the sun and the moon, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. But the two had more in common than appeared at first blush. Sundance never would be able to shed its baleful twin, and eventually it would go over to the dark side. That may or may not have been a good thing, but either way, it is the story of this decade.
Copyright © 2004 by Peter Biskind