By Zachary D. Roberts
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The death of American independent film has been prophesied more than once over the last few years, but finally we have a date on which to pin our grief. On May 2, Universal Studios acquired Good Machine, the film company responsible for such low-budget hallmarks as Hal Hartley's Simple Men (1992) and Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993), as well as recent mainstream successes such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and In the Bedroom (2001). Throughout the '90s, Good Machine was the much respected heart and soul of independent film, and its final absorption (or as optimists are calling it, "infiltration") into the studio system defines the end of American independent film as much as the company's early days marked its beginnings.
"This is exactly where we've been heading for 12 years," says James Schamus, who co-founded Good Machine with Ted Hope in January 1991. "When a seed gets put in the ground, you water it." Schamus, a producer, Columbia professor, and screenwriter (Crouching Tiger and Ang Lee's upcoming The Hulk), can now add studio executive to his growing résumé. Along with David Linde, formerly the president of Good Machine International, he now presides over a new "Indiewood" company called Focus (owned by Universal), joining the ranks of such studio specialty divisions as United Artists (owned by MGM), Miramax (Disney), and Fox Searchlight (Twentieth Century Fox). Meanwhile, Hope is returning to his roots as an autonomous producer, with a deal at Focus. "I came to the realization that I had no desire to build an empire," says Hope. "I felt hampered by the responsibilities of feeding the machine and running a corporate enterprise, and that distracted me from what I enjoyed most, which is making movies."
But making movies is not the same as it used to be. The golden era of '80s and early-'90s American independents, in which directors like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, and Good Machine-nurtured auteurs such as Hartley, Lee, and Todd Haynes flourished, is no longer possible. Where there once was funding for innovative newcomers through foreign financing and the burgeoning video market, overseas funders are now scarce, video sales are down, and there is an increased reliance on foolproof bets. And like the burst of the dotcom bubble, the very success of the independent film has led to its gradual decline, with studio systems co-opting some of the brightest new talents (David O. Russell, Christopher Nolan) and the challenging economics of the film business excluding so many others.
Overtaken by bottom-line concerns and big-budget Hollywood ambitions, the American independent sector is far from the groundbreaking band of outsiders it once was. "In late-'70s and early-'80s New York, there was a genuine desire to create films as art," says Amos Poe, who made a series of no-budget films at the time. "We were turned on by the street possibilities of filmmaking more than the studio possibilities. We were making pictures for a very small audience initially; we weren't even sure there was one. The naïveté was liberating."
"Ten years ago," says Schamus, "at a time when video and foreign TV sales were fueling that first wave of directors, I wrote an article about 'Where did all the B movies go?' Why can't we look at the Scorseses, Coppolas, Demmes, and De Palmas, and understand that these guys made a lot of movies before they became who they were. They didn't have to show up at Sundance and be the next Godard. They could learn how to make movies. And now you have people who haven't yet learned how to make movies, but who define themselves as the next Godard. Why is it more difficult now? Today, people define themselves as having to be both commercially and artistically successful all from their first film. I think it's a disaster."
Andrew Fierberg, co-producer of 13 Conversations About One Thing and the upcoming Secretary, blames a Hollywood-oriented ethos for what he calls the "soft and lightweight" work of recent low-budget American movies. "The writer-director pool has headed more toward using independent film not to be edgy or interesting," he says, "but more to produce a demo reel. We become the minor leagues for the studios, training people that they siphon off."
The lack of influential fringe work can also be seen as a result of the institutionalization of indie moviemaking: Every director and his or her mother know the secret to success is launching their film at Sundance, creating a bidding war, and then staging a careful platform release. "All these filmmakers know everything about the industry," says Jason Kliot, co-president of Open City Films and Blow Up Pictures. "What would a Todd Haynes or a Jim Jarmusch do today if they were so aware? There is absolutely no marketability for Poisonor Stranger Than Paradise; they're doomed from the start. So try to imagine someone who is really talented and writes a brilliant script and shows it to their film-savvy friends and they all say, 'No one is going to make this movie.' "
There are also the simple realities of the marketplace. To survive, many producers and production companies are forced to compromise autonomy as well as aesthetic concerns to keep their projects and livelihoods afloat. Killer Films, producer of Boys Don't Cry and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the last remaining mid-sized New York independent enterprise, receives development money through a Hollywood company headed by E.R.producer John Wells. In its heyday, Good Machine had similar pacts with everyone from Miramax to Fox to Universal. And fellow indie stalwart the Shooting Gallery was bought out by a Canadian conglomerate last year, but then crashed anyway because of massive debt.