This week, since the big sweep of the Independent Spirit Awards by the sure-doesn’t-feel-like-much-of-an-independent-movie Silver Linings Playbook, several film observers (including us) have raised the perennial question of what “independent film” even is, aside from a useful marketing designation that indicates the film you’re about to see will probably not include robots that transform into cars. This ongoing controversy got us thinking: if “independent film” is just a label to begin with, then why not expand it, and get a little more specific? Every film isn’t either indie or studio — let’s break it down, so we know exactly what we’re getting when we go to the cinema. Our suggestions for new, ultra-descriptive movie classifications, from lowest to highest profile, are after the jump.
We’re not exactly coining this one, but it’s a useful description for a very specific kind of independent film: one made for next to nothing, usually in an uncommercial format (high-contrast black and white, faded Super 8 film, ViewMaster slides, Instagram flip-books), trafficking in surrealistic imagery, and utterly incomprehensible to the average moviegoer.
Examples: Eraserhead, El Topo, Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Low-budget movies from novice directors with unknown casts, except that unlike underground movies, these cede to conventional notions of narrative and structure. But they deal in such extreme subject matter, or are so complicated, that Joe Multiplex will usually walk out or click away in confusion or disgust.
Examples: Pink Flamingos, Primer, Spanking the Monkey
Same as indie-ground or indie, but with a whole lot more nature shots and voice-overs.
Examples: George Washington, The Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints
As with indie-ground, the “indie” has a low-budget, an up-and-coming director, and no one in it you’ve ever heard of; the filmmaker often has a new and unique voice. But the stories they tell are virtually indistinguishable from those of mainstream studio filmmaking — about all that separates these films from the multiplex is the lack of recognizable faces. If one of these movies is a hit, the director usually gets a studio deal for their next picture.
Examples: Clerks, The Brothers McMullen, She’s Gotta Have It
A film made outside the major studio system, either independently or for an indie studio, but featuring enough marketable elements (movie stars, traditional storyline, genre flourishes) that it could have been made a studio, if the budget were just a little more bloated.
Examples: Silver Linings Playbook, Pulp Fiction, Good Will Hunting
Foreign film usually translates to art house film — but occasionally imported efforts are so steeped in Hollywood genre trappings (most often those of action cinema) that they can cross over to audiences who would normally never sit through a dubbed or subtitled picture, but will make the effort with this one because it kicks so much ass.
Examples: Mad Max, The Raid: Redemption, Run Lola Run
The inverse of the “indie-wood” movie: a film released by a major studio (though occasionally produced independently and picked up for distribution by a major) that seems like it should come from an indie outfit — the style is more unconventional, the storylines and characterizations more ambiguous, the conclusions more complicated.
Examples: Pretty much everything Steven Soderbergh directed for a studio that didn’t have Ocean’s in the title
The rom-coms, the melodramas, the gross-out comedies, the suspense pictures — the bread and butter of Paramount, Fox, Universal, and the like. Easily classifiable films featuring above-the-title stars, proven directors, and a concept that you can put across in a thirty-second TV spot.
Examples: Identity Thief, Safe Haven, Beautiful Creatures, pretty much anything with Katherine Heigl in it
Produced by a major, with a robust budget, featuring big names above and below the title — but just a little smarter than average, with a little extra effort put forth to distinguish itself from your average studio “product” (usually just in time for a fall release, in order to capture some little golden statues).
Examples: Lincoln, Argo, Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, and even a few others that weren’t this year’s Best Picture nominees. But not many!
The genre that allows the suits to finance the studio-plus stuff: big action epics filled with things blowing up, cops making humorous comparisons between their age and current activities, and superheroes, lots and lots of superheroes. It’s only a true “explosion-ganza!” if it has “tent-pole potential,” i.e. allows for endless sequels, crossovers, and (inevitably, when one of those tanks) reboots.
Examples: The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, A Good Day to Die Hard, anything Michael Bay directs