The Myth of Independent Filmmaking
Though I don’t read film reviews as often or as voraciously as I once did, I make a point to drop by the Pitchfork Media site The Dissolve every once in awhile to read an amusing feature or two. The site employs competent, opinionated writers and has an excellent rapport with their fan community, which often means the comments section of a given article is richer than the main feature. Given how rare that is on the Internet, even among sites catering to those with more cultivated tastes, they deserve some applause for this. At the same time, the site’s discussions usually stay within the bounds of “pure cultural” discussion that doesn’t draw connections between filmmaking and deeper structures of social relations that shape how films are made.
One of the most recent examples of this is their roundtable discussion on the “calling card” film narrative and how it affects film production and reception. Basically, the idea is that independent filmmakers who make more “personal” projects on smaller budgets make their films as calling cards to bring to Hollywood studios. It’s assumed that indie directors and screenwriters are teleologically bent toward directing gigantic mass market films and only “slum it” in the independent world because that’s all they have. It’s essentially the corporate ladder narrative transposed into the much more fragmented and chaotic world of artistic production. This assumption probably gained traction because of a few historical trends in the film industry.
1. After the 1970s “New Hollywood” renaissance exhausted itself, large corporations bought out the American film industry and executives began to take a much stronger role in managing production. Taking the blockbuster model that originated in the 1970s and perfecting it, the new corporations created huge top-heavy bureaucracies that rigorously market-tested and shaped mass market films to appeal to the most lucrative demographics. Another factor in this trend is that American theatre attendance has been declining in absolute numbers and relative to other forms of media since the 1950s, meaning fewer films produced but with huge promotional campaigns to supposedly ensure profitability. This trend has accelerated even further since the 2000s.
2. Hollywood’s relentless targeting of youth and inability to produce much other than prestige films for established directors and blockbusters led to the rise of a respectable independent film industry in the 1980s and 90s. Improvements in technology also allowed for films to be competently made without huge capital investments, though the barriers to entry were still high. Eventually, independent companies like New Line and Miramax were bought by major studios as boutique divisions. Smaller films could get made and distributed, but major studios and corporations increasingly called the shots.
Take, for instance, the director of the latest Godzilla film, Gareth Edwards. His supposed “calling card” film is Monsters, a 2010 monster movie with a socially conscious bent to it that was produced by Vertigo, a company based in the UK. Vertigo is a subsidiary of Vertigo Records, which is part of Universal Music Group, itself part of Vivendi, a gigantic Paris-based media conglomerate. Godzilla is a Warner Bros. film. Though Monsters has some cachet for being a low-budget monster movie rather than a titanic blockbuster, it was still a corporate product through and through. This is the trend for most American independent film, which is little more than the more respectable wing of the bloated Hollywood mansion. There is certainly still a stratum of film production that escapes gigantic studios, but it is far tinier and more obscure, and still falls victim to capitalist logic. Even European art cinema tends to be financed by a collage of companies who are like any other company in that they are producing a product for the market and not attempting to fulfill some human need.
None of this is to say that films produced this way, taken on their own terms, are in any way bad. To say so would be the same as refusing a meal because someone is profiting from it. The logic of capitalism permeates all production in the world today, subjecting every area of human life to its relentless drive for profit. This means that the films that tend to get made are those that reinforce the ruling ideology of our time, and that revolutionary filmmaking is suppressed. Media, including film, thus plays an important role in reproducing capitalist society, maintaining its illusions and, more to the point, keeping for-profit companies solvent. As I said, cinema is not at all unique in this regard, but because it is an artistic industry, at least in theory, it is subject to a special kind of mythical delusion. We often imagine that a film is less tainted by money because the producers spent less money on it, that artistic production is inherently more pure or moral or praiseworthy because it is more obscure.
To be sure, the greater latitude creators have to take risks and break from the suffocating homogeneity of Hollywood cinema is a virtue, but it has its own attendant risks. The risk is that we lionize “auteurs” and other creative workers, imagine them to be special because they don’t make vulgar consumer goods, that we begin to believe there is something sublime or ethereal about cultural or mental production that is not shared in manual labour. While art has a unique place in human life, this particularity does not bestow a hierarchical advantage to it. Filmmaking is an industrial endeavor like any other, full of workers exploited to a greater or lesser degree, exploiting the labour power of the majority to line the pockets of the minority.
By no means does this permit us to automatically discard films produced under this system as having no worth, but we must recognize that all genres, all of what we take for granted in the industry, is historical and ephemeral. Revolutionary thought and practice needs to fundamentally rethink artistic production, soldiering on despite some failed attempts at doing this in former socialist countries and elsewhere. As much as we might enjoy the artistic production we are served under capitalism, it should be that more tantalizing to imagine the possibilities of an artistic sphere free from profit incentives and united to the service of humanity rather than idiosyncratic fantasies or marketing campaigns. Let’s not imagine that small capitalism is a replacement for large capitalism, or small celebrity for large. We need to rather think deeply about the division between mental and manual labor and work toward overcoming it through socialism.