It used to be that when you thought of Sundance films you thought "independent," as in independent from the glitz of Hollywood. Founded in 1981, the Sundance Film Festival long served as a place for unknown and low-budget films and filmmakers to break through. "Reservoir Dogs," "Clerks" and "El Mariachi" are but a few of the many low-budget films whose directors (Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez) rode the Sundance wave to bigger things.
But over the past 10 years, in an attempt to get in on the success enjoyed by many Sundance films, Hollywood has inserted itself into the "indie" scene by creating or buying its own indie companies. Recent Sundance Festivals, including this year’s, which started over the weekend, continue to demonstrate the growing presence of Hollywood in the indie market with the names of more big directors and stars popping up. As Hollywood is a strange collision of politics, film, the media, fashion and advertising, ultimately this presents the question: How will the growing presence of Hollywood continue to influence indie films?
Emanuel Levy, a film critic for Variety, notes how the relationship has changed in "Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film." "Indies now form an industry that runs not so much against Hollywood as parallel to Hollywood." In such terms, indies retain their legitimacy by coexisting with Hollywood, rather than representing an opposed concept, which would indicate a collapse of their original intent.
As one reporter pointed out, "audiences are being led to consider that Hollywood and indies need one another to thrive." The word "led" is key. In reality, Hollywood does not economically need the indies to thrive. On Hollywood’s part, the involvement in independent films is a shrewd move, co-opting that which was once considered an alternative to the large productions, formulas and atmosphere of Hollywood. Now the indies are seen as a way into Hollywood, as much as an alternative.
In contrast, the indies "need" Hollywood in the sense that such backing allows large budgets and publicity, ensuring at least a measure of notice and success. Perhaps "need" is too strong a word. Rather, with the availability of such support, the contrasting option of a small-scale production and minimal publicity becomes less attractive. Especially for an artist with a cause, the idea of increasing exposure to one’s art becomes increasingly appealing.
However, Hollywood backing carries the potential price of artistic compromise. Should a writer wish to go the indie route, the problem then presents itself that the increasing presence of Hollywood in the indie market leaves less room for the films that are, in the original sense, independent.
The danger is that the term "Sundance" will ultimately become nothing more than a misnomer for independent films. Now, when you see an independent film with major backing, you must be alert to whether the work has the fingerprints of Hollywood on it, whether it falls prey to comfortable formulas.
I suppose for now the answer can only be that each indie film will have to be judged on its own terms, and that as the Sundance Festival and its kin become too Hollywood, new "Sundances" will continue to arise. Perhaps at best it can only continue to be an ongoing battle for artistic space.
Carolyn Duncan can be reached at [email protected].