Independent Cinema in Hollywood – research essay

What role has the independent sector played in relation to Hollywood? With reference to the work of one independent American filmmaker, how have they and their films challenged and defined the Hollywood paradigm? 

Independent cinema has played a notable role in exhibiting a range of perspectives and narratives, subsequently shaping and diversifying the contemporary Hollywood cinema landscape. Whilst the clarification of the term ‘independent’ is in a constant state of adaption, much of independent cinema’s foundations are based on autonomous filmmakers such as John Cassavetes working outside of Hollywood’s industrial system. Further, film festivals have pulled independent cinema into the mainstream, emboldening major production studios to create smaller subsidiaries to engage with modes of independence and embark on more artistic ventures with American independent filmmakers. This is in notable contrast to Hollywood’s historical studio system which saw female and queer narratives forced into subversion and censorship following the Production Code. Furthermore, with female filmmakers in Hollywood few and far between, female auteurship would become evident and valued within independent spheres, notably with Maya Deren. Sofia Coppola’s inherent links to European auteurship as well as the festival world is evident in both her filmography and distribution schemes. Moreover, Coppola’s distinctive filmmaking styles in addition to consistent themes of perspective, femininity and isolation notably in The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette contribute to her status as a female auteur and contributor to counter-cinema. Therefore, with more recent successes of independent films by female filmmakers, it is clear that the spirit of independence and is changing due to the vast popularisation of this genre of filmmaking as well as the positioning of female and diverse filmmakers within the spaces of independent cinema.

Although independent cinema emerged in separation from the traditional structures of Hollywood production and funding, the independent label is in constant state of revision. The discourse of defining the filmmaking mode are separated into either the film’s industrial processes or aesthetic value. More specifically, “the American independent sector stretches from extremes of low- or (according to legend) almost no-budget filmmaking to the margins of Hollywood” (King, 2005, p. 11). However, with aforementioned industrial independence becoming less common due to the strengthening of Hollywood’s marketplace (King, 2005, p. 19), much of independent cinema’s product is defined its position outside of mainstream culture (Newman, 2011, p. 6). In particular, the ‘indie’ style of filmmaking often utilises “alternative representations, audio visual and storytelling styles, and systems of cultural circulation” (Newman, 2011, p. 2), bringing with it an aesthetic unique to the independent genre. Whilst these two contending definitions are valid depending on the context of the varied stages of independent cinema’s development, independence defined “according to formal/aesthetic strategies” (King, 2005) seems to accurately categorise all entries into the indie filmmaking timeline. Further, whether independently funded or not: “independent in relation to the dominant system – rather than… a practice that is totally free-standing and autonomous” (Kleinhans, 1998, p. 328).

The development of the ‘new’ Hollywood style saw divergence from mainstream production and convention as early as the 1930s, with “‘repellent subjects’” (Leff & Simmons, 2001, p. 12) forced underground by Hayes’ Production Code (Neale & Smith, 1998, p. 48). As mainstream Hollywood shied away from subject matter which sought to question regulations on gender, sexuality and race, independent cinema was manifested by the need to “[explore] new avenues in search for territories not already colonised by the major studios” (King, 2005, p. 5). Exploitation and experimental films including docudrama Glen or Glenda as well as slasher snuff film Blood Feast both were made for minimal budgets, detached from the studio system, whilst also pushing against the staunch values of the Code. Indeed, much of what foregrounds the ‘indie’ approach to filmmaking was replicated during this initial struggle to express a point-of-view, “challenging the status quo with visions that have been supressed or ignored by the more conservative mainstream” (Levy, 1999, p. 21).

Further early forms of independent filmmaking can be seen within the work of John Cassavetes during the “New American Wave” (Levy, 1999, p. 102) from the late 1950s. Embodying many artistic focuses shared by French New Wave directors, Cassavetes maintained his career as a Hollywood actor, subsequently implementing his influence and earnings to experiment with film (Levy, 1999, p. 102). Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows explored a love story between an interracial couple with an improvised script (Marguiles, 1998, p. 276). The film was hastily edited by United Artists which “resulted in a compromised picture which did not reflect Cassavetes’ vision” (Levy, 1999, p. 103), burgeoning the filmmaker’s motivation to attain further independence. Nonetheless, Shadows evokes then-unseen independent filmmaking practice and spirit. The film was produced with financial independence and shot with loose structure, “[exemplifying] a new approach for fiction filmmaking and a true alternative to the feature product of Hollywood” (Marguiles, 1998, p. 282). Through his experimentation, Cassavetes maintains an undoubted role in the lineage of American independent cinema, through both challenging accepted filmmaking practices in addition to homogenised subject matter.

Independent cinema’s period of major establishment was set to occur during the 1990s following a spike in demand for films only a decade prior. Hollywood capitalised on burgeoning economic conditions, as well as expansive broadcast and distribution technologies (Neale & Smith, 1998, p. 58). These circumstances would empower production companies to diversify their range of product, generating smaller scale art house films to fill the gaps between scheduled ‘tent-pole’ releases through “strategic saturation releases” (Wyatt, 1998, p. 73). Thus followed a period of transition for independent film, beginning with domestic and international film festivals broadening the horizons for Hollywood’s market.

With distribution holding such a crucial role in Hollywood’s production business, film festivals would become an integral avenue for distributors to “secure access to films that might not otherwise be available to be screened” (King, 2005, p. 17). The process of bidding to obtaining the rights of completed films produced independently became increasingly recurrent during the 1990s at film festivals, notably at Sundance Film Festival. Having run since 1978 (Turan, 2003, p. 37), Sundance became known for its encouragement of independent film, becoming “a prime spot to hear the war stories of filmmakers who were almost burning to get their projects completed” (Turan, 2003, p. 38). One of the great success stories of Sundance which came to reverberate across the independent cinema landscape was Quentin Tarantino and his debut feature Reservoir Dogs in 1992 (Levy, 1999, p. 15). The filmmaker’s guerrilla-style black comedy made its way through several festivals during that year, sweeping through “Sundance, Cannes, and Toronto like a bushfire” (Levy, 1999, p. 16), being bought for distribution by Miramax. Although Tarantino’s filmography can appear problematic and somewhat uniform in today’s contextual standards, his earlier films, especially Pulp Fiction, spoke to an independent spirit would come to define indie modes of filmmaking. Additionally, the convergence of the independent sector and mainstream Hollywood production companies through the festival platform set the perfect climate for Tarantino’s future: “[he] was fortunate in one respect- his first film was embraced by cerebral critics as well as a national publicity machine starved for new heroes” (Levy, 1999, p. 17). However, the process of ‘discovery’ by mainstream Hollywood distribution companies during the 1990s was still influenced by a degree of homogeneity, as the films of women seldom accumulated the same degree of acclaim which “fortunate” (Levy, 1999, p. 17) Tarantino received. The sole female recipient of Cannes Film Festival’s acclaimed Palme d’Or was Jane Campion in 1993 for her independently produced film The Piano. The film was picked up by Miramax for distribution, but, contrary to Tarantino’s continual work with mainstream Hollywood production companies, Campion would continue to fund her films independently in Australia and New Zealand, only working with Hollywood producers for international distribution.

Whilst mainstream Hollywood’s interests neutralise the diversity of film festivals both internationally and domestically, it is reigns true that women filmmakers are far more active in festivals than in mainstream markets (Lauzen, 2009). In particular, Sundance Film Festival has proven “particularly friendly to first time women directors” (Levy, 1999, p. 348), with independent female stories and perspective finding space and audiences respectively.

Seeing opportunity within the successes of independent cinema and the growing culture which surrounded their films, many production companies functioning within Hollywood’s oligopoly would open boutique companies which produced and distributed ‘independent’ films in-house. Miramax, originally a subsidiary offshoot of Disney, would “maintain a consistent market presence, their merger with larger companies [creating]… the ‘major independent’” (Neale & Smith, 1998, p. 86). Miramax’s disruptive strategy to invoke independence as a niche mode, rather than independence in funding, would set broader industry trends in “industrial, aesthetic and institutional terms” (Neale & Smith, 1998, p. 87).

Moreover, the industrial moves of larger production companies such as Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount creating subsidiary enterprises in boutique production houses meant an innate ability to tell more specific stories with atypical directors, without fear of alienating audiences. This shift would enable indie films to continue to challenge audiences on a broader, more accessible scale, whilst still offering the ‘discovery’ process for festival goers.

However, this shift would perhaps result in a set-back with regards to diversity within the newly established indie film landscape during the late 1990s and early 2000s (Newman, 2011, p. 92). As much of independent cinema’s themes focusing on elements of identity, the basis of which frequently derives from the identity of the filmmaker, many resulting films would see the exploration and saturation of “largely white… middle-class identities” (Newman, 2011, p. 93) seen in films such as Bottle Rocket and Being John Malkovich.

In the 1930s, independent cinema became a space for female filmmakers to explore and project their own unique perspectives, rooted in the Production Code’s rejection of non-homogenised representations of female and queer experiences. Although many female centric and queer narratives managed to exist through forms of subversion, many others were censored. All About Eve, for example functioned within the restrictions of Hollywood whilst embedding a queer “seduction fantasy” (White, 1999, p. 206). However, censorship would often manifest in the form of re-cutting a film’s outcome in order to see a woman’s licentious behaviour punished, as exemplified in the gold-digger film Baby Face. The 1933 film sees the central female character Lily Powers work her way up the social ladder through exercising her sexual power with autonomy and gain. Through her ascent, Lily is seen “[destroying] the men who love her” (Jacobs, 1997, p. 71), reeking absolute havoc with her sexuality and femininity. Baby Face’s censorship is seen within the film’s final revisions which aimed to condemn Lily’s action with a “‘voice of morality’, to scold the heroine and denounce her ‘philosophy and mode of life’” (Jacobs, 1997, p. 76). With aim to conserve the morality of audiences, Baby Face’s narrative conclusion is seen as a warning against Lily’s immorality, ultimately entrapping the character into monogamy and domesticity where her incredible power is nullified.

Thus, following the Code’s implementation in the 1930s, women have participated more actively external to mainstream Hollywood production, with “a periodic call for a women’s counter-cinema that would rewrite the patriarchal properties of Hollywood’s language” (Levy, 1999, p. 349). Maya Deren has been hailed as the matriarch of American experimental cinema, with her poetic 1943 film Meshes of the Afternoon cited as inaugurating the independent avant-garde era (Levy, 1999, p. 349). Deren’s statuses as both a filmmaker and activist are clear in her autobiographical debut film, Meshes which focuses on the plight of a central female character played by the filmmaker herself (Geller, 2006, p. 141). Deren’s film engages with gender roles perpetuated by Hollywood, exploring expected femininity which is followed inherently by masculine desire (Geller, 2006, p. 145). Deren’s contribution to independent cinema proved invaluable through her ability to express the specific experience of womanhood, utilising perspective, rendering “the gaze and the objectification of Woman explicit” (Geller, 2006, p. 145). Further, Maya Deren’s innovative foundation of experimentation would work to further independent cinema’s deviation from accepted, mainstream filmmaking techniques. Whilst Deren was one of the first women filmmakers to find spaces to articulate her own experience and point-of-view independently, many would follow including the likes of Shirley Clarke in the 1960s and Joan Micklin Silver in the 1970s (Levy, 1999, p. 351). These specific explorations into gender by female filmmakers would persist would continually persist, clearly contributing to the foundation and identity of independent cinema. Furthermore, women’s involvement in the independent cinema landscape has laid the foundations for the slow diversification process of Hollywood, founding the possibilities for “a distinctly female or feminist discourse in the indie film world” (Levy, 1999, p. 404).

Sofia Coppola is a filmmaker whose artistic identity is comprised from her ascension through the independent cinema world, as well as her family name which has come with various expectations with regards to her distinct filmmaking style. Furthermore, Sofia Coppola has ascertained her own identity as a filmmaker within the bounds of independent cinema, clearing a space for female filmmakers and feminine auteurship.

Born into a cinematic dynasty, Coppola’s education was comprised of an exploration into French New Wave and Italian Neorealist cinema, linked with her father’s own supposed influences (Smaill, 2013, p. 151). Although Francis provided as an example and producer to Sofia, it was her close proximity to the evocation of European auteur which proved most influential to Sofia. Moreover, many cinematic influences also utilised during the auteur cinema era can be seen within the fabric of Sofia Coppola’s filmmaking, yielding a certain sense of awareness through both reference and subversion (Kennedy, 2010, p. 43). Furthermore, the director attended California Institute of the Arts to study photography, foregrounding her innate ability to provide insight into her characters visually, rather than with expository dialogue.

Coppola’s first feature film The Virgin Suicides can be seen as an expansion of early short film Lick the Star which she wrote and directed one year prior to her 1999 debut feature. The short was filmed in black and white, using “graphic images similar to those of [Truffaut’s] 400 Blows” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 43). Further, Coppola’s debut short film builds the foundation for her clear interest in perspective, as well as the baggage that it brings as we follow the plight of schoolgirl Chloe through the eyes of her fellow high-schoolers. Lick the Star invokes the idea of masculinity within auteur film 400 Blows, constructing a film which is “fundamentally concerned with young women’s lack of agency and voice… exploited and determined by the male gaze” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 44).

Coppola’s first feature was independently produced and first distributed by Paramount Classics at Cannes Film Festival. Resonant within Coppola’s adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides again expounds on themes of expectations and perspective. Set in the 1970s, the film’s narrative which recounts the lives and deaths of the five Lisbon sisters, is revealed in hindsight through the unreliable narration of a group of boys from the Michigan neighbourhood. Whilst Coppola makes the outward choice to tell the girls’ story from the neighbouring boys’ perspectives, it is clear that she wished to unpack the degrees of expectations which were placed upon the Lisbon sisters, as well as girlhood in general. The boys seem far more interested in the externality of the girls, with the ideas of them coming to define who they are as characters. One of the boys visits the Lisbon house for dinner, searching the sisters’ bathroom cabinet, ignoring prescription medication for a chance to smell their perfume and lipstick. This idealistic concept of the girls is further demonstrated as we see into the boys’ fantasies, reinforcing that the only two (sometimes overlapping) roles that female youth can inhabit in their world: as saints or as sexually precautious, with “the female body [serving] to shore up and secure (male) identity” (Backman Rogers, 2018). Cecelia and Lux are idealised with incredible contrast, with Lux “[acting] as the main source for the boys’ fantasies and reveries” (Backman Rogers, 2018), which we watch as Coppola beguiles her audience to fall for this version of Lux as the boys have. Conversely, our introduction to Cecelia occurs as she first attempts suicide, her innocence and purity enhanced by “her iconic status… [dramatized by] the sanctity of the young virgin body” (Backman Rogers, 2018). To emphasise Coppola’s collation of these two parallel feminine roles, she utilises Madonna imagery including saint cards to compound yet another layer of expectation on the sisters. Emphatically, Coppola’s positioning of her audience through the eyes of the boys and consequently, their religion, their school and their social circles further emphasises the expectations which were placed on the Lisbon sisters, as well as the female gender. We see the girls through the expectations that are placed on them as adolescent women in a male-dominated society, resulting in the boys’ misinterpretation of their suicides: “at the heart of the boys’ desire to control the girls is the bitter truth of lives lost to the inevitability of time and morality” (Backman Rogers, 2018).

In her second film Lost in Translation, Coppola explores themes of isolation and femininity, again considering expectations within relationships “in a world of fluctuation” (Rogers, 2007). Whilst Coppola is known for her framing of female protagonists, her use of male co-leads generally to provide contrast and insight into the opposite gender, through male characters’ desires to understand the usually reserved female. Moreover, another resonant theme which becomes ever-present within Coppola’s films is that of transition, this time with Charlotte and Bob as they pass their time in Tokyo “in a stupor of longing and dreamlike displacement, seeking to find a path for [themselves]” (Smaill, 2013, p. 156). Again independently produced and first distributed at Telluride Film Festival by Focus Features, Lost in Translation was arguably Coppola’s most successful and well-received film. The writer-director received an Academy Award for her screenplay, as well as a blank check for her follow-up feature Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette is undoubtedly Sofia Coppola’s most maligned feature. Unconcerned with its depiction of Marie Antoinette as an historical figure, rather “the film is concerned with making the audience aware of the degree to which the female protagonist is defined or constrained by the image… imposed by society” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 45). Again exploring a female character in transition under the expectations imposed on her as a woman and, in Marie Antoinette’s case, a ruler. Many male critics downsized the film as a “‘gorgeous confection’” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 38), failing to engage with the hyper-feminine visuals and dismissing them as superficial. Rather, the film’s engagement with beauty “radically reimagines the protagonist’s private space framed within the female gaze… posits the construction of self within the modes of fashion” (Lennon, 2017). Although the film’s release was considered less successful than her previous films, it added to Coppola’s growing reputation as a feminine auteur.

Coppola’s next two films, Somewhere and The Bling Ring further expatiated feelings of isolation and transition, as well as the fleeting nature of youth (Lennon, 2017). Her use of visual imagery in lieu of dialogue, especially in Somewhere calls back to her formative references to French New Wave through the positioning of her protagonists.

Coppola’s most recent film The Beguiled made her the second female in to win Cannes’ Best Director Award in 2017. Her film can be seen as a merging of her earlier works, centred around female protagonists whose assumed roles are transformed following the arrival of a man. Although Coppola’s early work would characterise her as an auteur filmmaker, her awareness of her own work as a stepping-off point in The Beguiled would cement her status. Clearly grappling with her own inherited position in Hollywood, Sofia Coppola’s own career is defined by her own experiences with expectation. However, it seems that the greatest expectation placed on Coppola is that due to her gender, and that she “can only produce pretty films which ‘lack depth’” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 39). Coppola’s films are personal extensions of her own experiences, whilst containing awareness of auteur cinema’s male dominated history. Additionally, although Sofia Coppola’s films are not externally feminist, they “manage, through the guise of American Independent cinema to comment on the very patriarchal tenets of Hollywood cinema (and auteurship)” (Kennedy, 2010, p. 40). Moreover, Sofia Coppola’s filmography has been produced independently and has relied heavily on film festivals, with the filmmaker herself stating that she does not make the kinds of movies that lend themselves to wide releases. Through her films, Sofia Coppola speaks to a specific experience, thus paving the way for further female independent filmmakers follow and pave a culture of counter-cinema.

Rather than comply with the conventions placed within both Hollywood and its independent sector, the idea of counter-cinema is repeatedly referenced through the clearing of space for women filmmakers. The continued desire to “rewrite the patriarchal properties of Hollywood’s language” (Levy, 1999, p. 349) still exists within modern iterations of independent cinema, with young female filmmakers attaining new classifications of independence. American filmmakers such as Andrea Arnold, Dee Rees, Kelly Reichardt and Greta Gerwig have utilised the widened spaces of independent cinema to “shun traditional narrative and cinematic techniques and engage in experimental practice: thus, feminist cinema should be a counter-cinema” (Smelik, 1998, p. 11). Further, the recent popularity of Gerwig’s female-centric Lady Bird, independent cinema demonstrates its specific, targeted appeal, passed through a long line of women and their strife to create space for feminine film within broader Hollywood.

Whilst the definition of ‘independence’ in Hollywood is in a constant state of change, it is clear that many of its diverse auteurs will continue to create with modes which belong, inherently, to independent cinema. This is especially for true filmmakers who can provide unique narratives and perspectives which subvert the gaze of mainstream Hollywood. Film festivals continue to cultivate major influence within the Hollywood industry, showcasing modern auteurs and under-heard voices. Additionally, it is clear that the mainstream industry relies heavily on the independent sector, namely with the creation of subsidiary production houses to saturate their film releases. Although it is hard to identify any one leader of the development of the independent sector, John Cassavetes and Maya Deren’s intentions for the cinema mode are present within more modern entries, with Deren calling for the creation of a counter-cinema. Furthermore, Sofia Coppola’s distinct style, auteurist approach and exploration of feminine perspectives has helped widen spaces for a great number of female filmmakers to follow. Thus, although independent cinema has remained a space for female filmmakers to find their voices, it also possesses the innate ability to project the voices of such filmmakers into more mainstream Hollywood spheres.


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Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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