Judge’s Ruling: Indie or Not?

Prompt # 2

When Newman talks about the different way indie films are judged, he says, “In the case of indie cinema, depending on the nature of a given festival, its selection committee has the power to nominate films as indie or, more importantly, to establish which indie films and artists will be considered exemplary.”  What I think he means by this is that there are factors to be taken into account when judging an indie film. One of these factors is which festival the film is being screened at. Each festival has a different purpose to it, such as the Sundance festival, which is mostly just about indie cinematographers trying to make it in Hollywood. Then there are others, such as the Austin Film Festival, with a gentler attitude toward film. People come out just to enjoy the arts, it’s not so much about getting one’s name out. 145


Based on the categories a film can be nominated in (shown here), Austin Film Festival, as mentioned before, seems to be more interested in the arts, not the recognition (other than the award, of course). Although, the prizes do include cash and reimbursement for hotel stays and plane flights, so it’s actually more of a contest than just a gathering of film lovers. I think in this case, that this is how the films are judged on whether they are indie or “exemplary” or not.


Festivals don’t always bring success

   When deciding on what films should be screened at a certain festival, the committee of that festival gets together and choose films that may have an impact on the audience that await the list of films. The way it chooses the certain films, for example what “indie” films it should screen that year, is by already having an interpretation of what the word “indie” means to them. With that in mind they are the ones that put a certain label to the “indie” films that will be screened that year. Having been chosen by the committee to participate in the festival is a great honor, since it may open doors to indie directors or newly found actors. It may also start a movement or inspire other people to support them. This in turn shows how Newman’s comment on how film festival committees choose what is considered “exemplary” that year. Saying that the committee has a lot of power. 

    We can see that power in the two film festival examples, the 2012 SXSW film festival and the 2012 Sundance film festival. Showing that by participating in theses two festivals brings some success, but it may also bring misfortune. It also shows how sometimes movies that may be good looking may not always succeed. 

   In the 2012 SXSW film festival two movies “ The Tall Man” and “Girls against Boys” showed to have been successful by getting distribution deals. Yet it did not do very well in the box office. SInce “The tall man” was only able to get 5.2M after having a budget of 18.2M. and “Girls against Boys” ended up getting only 7.5K in the box office. Showing that not always being at a festival bring success to the movie. Even though both movies had known artist playing the main role. 

   As for the 2012 Sundance film festival two movies that stuck out for me were “Safety not guaranteed” and “The invisible war”. Both were low budget, but had a different impact. “Safety not Guaranteed” premiered in the film festival and won the ‘Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award’ and also ended up grossing more than 4 million dollars after having been made with a 7.5K budget. It showed that even though it was very low budget, it ended up gaining great success. As for “The Invisible War”, the movie won the ‘Audience Award’. Having been screened at the festival it was able to influence the Department of Defense, two days after its screening, creating a plan on how to help the sexually assaulted survivors. 


Spectacular, Spectacular..

Newman argues, “In the case of indie cinema, depending on the nature of a given festival, its selection committee has the power to nominate films as indie or, more importantly, to establish which indie films and artists will be considered exemplary.”

What I believe he means by this, is that the selection committee uses their own definition of indie to handpick certain films and call them indie. Then the chosen indie films get put up in the festival, where they compete for awards. The ones that receive the awards are put above the rest to be considered exemplary. The committee, by choosing what films are accepted into the festival, give the films a higher status.  By being specifically, selected to compete, the films become more indie.

I think Newman’s point in all this is that the selection committee has the power to decide what films become exemplary because the festivals are so highly thought of.  Take for example the Sundance Film Festival, the site Total Films has a list of the 50 Best Sundance Films and after reading through the list, which notes what happened with the film and artists after Sundance, I began to see a pattern. Most of the films on the list received oscar nominations or awards after showing at Sundance. In some cases the actors grew in fame and crossed over to mainstream cinema. The film did not have to win the competition. They just needto be selected and shown in the Sundance festival for people to take notice. Here are some examples:

  • Primer (2004); Hedwig And The Angry Inch (2011) — became cult sensations
  • Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) — Todd Solondz grew in reputation as a director
  • Brick (2006) — Director Rian Johnson was able to crossover to mainstream cinema
  • Napoleon Dynamite (2004);  Secretary (2002); Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994); Winter’s Bone (2010) — helped the main actors (Jon Heder, Maggie Gyllenhall, Hugh Grant, and Jennifer Lawrence) break away and gain success in Hollywood.

The Sundance Festival helps establish these artists just by having them in the competition.  The reputation of the Sundance festival helps launch the films forward.

In Which The Sundance Selection Committee Has More Influence than Barack Obama

When I think of the committees responsible for selecting films to be shown in their festival, I imagine a round table of elitist men with white beards, trying to decide what could be profitable. But that’s probably not at all accurate.  The masterminds behind film festivals have to work very hard to select a handful out of thousands of entries.  Similar to curating an art exhibit, these committee members have to decide which movies fit into the “indie” criteria, which we all know is hard to define.  So, how do they do this?

Essentially, since the term “indie” is so loose and mysterious, these film festival officials make their own assessments as to what the word entails.  Usually they try to select artistic, groundbreaking films that differ from the mainstream.  Newman states that these members who choose what will be screened at these festivals, act like God in deciding what will be the ultimate in indie films that year.  By choosing these films, they are equating these indie films with “the highest artistic echelon of international filmmaking.”  These festival officials try to maintain their indie cred by staying away from anything that may resemble “mainstream”. However, based on some comments on the Sundance webpage, they have been criticized for giving too much attention to big budget films, which, to some, negates the “indie” label.  Alternatively, Newman cites Kenneth Turan, who states that some movies get into these film festivals simply because they have no chance of making it elsewhere: they make the cut “because they will never reach a wider audience.”

In January 2011, Sundance premiered one of my favorite indie films Like Crazy.  Starring Anton Yelchin (Star Trek, Charlie Bartlett) and Felicity Jones (British films I’ve never heard of), this is a modern, realistic take on a typical romance that is basically everything (500) Days of Summer failed to be.  Sundance’s role in this film’s life was essential.  Because of the festival, it came onto my radar through the social media site, Tumblr.  Because of all the reblogged quotes and heart wrenching screen caps, I was able to garner interest in the movie.  Once it was available on Netflix, I immediately watched it and became just as infatuated as the others on the site.  As it turns out, at the festival, the film was purchased for $4 million by Paramount and Indian Paintbrush, which allowed it to flourish outside of Sundance.  It went on to play at more festivals throughout the US, Canada and Europe.

Because of its reputation, those who choose films for Sundance have to choose films that are quintessentially indie but can also make money.  The festival is a springboard to get these names out into a wider audience and show films that might otherwise never be seen. These festivals establish which indie films are considered exemplary by a process of determining a fine balance between indie and profitable.  I think Like Crazy is a good example of this because it is indie in that the plot is character driven, the script is partially improvised and a low budget ($250,000) but it also had the potential to be a crossover hit because of its heart wrenching story line and beautiful cinematography.

don’t be fooled

actually very sad

“omg i won thx Sundance”

How Far is “Indie” Actually from Hollywood?

Film Festivals have become the best way for an Indie movie and director to show to the world that it has what it takes. It’s not much a stretch to call these festivals an open market for the film industry, considering this is where a large portion of independent films/directors/actors are picked up by major companies. But how exactly do these particular movies get selected for their shot at being seen by the masses? According to Newman most festivals have moved to a system that has a selection committee in charge of deciding what movies of the year are worthy of honor and merit. To me, this seems rather troubling.

The independent industry seemingly prides itself on being an alternative to the mundane Hollywood structure. Why then does it seem to have modeled it’s film selection process much like Hollywood does? With these committees in charge, the choices for a “good” indie movie are in the hands of a small collection of people who believe they can accurately choose the good from the bad. Who knows maybe they can? I am not at all familiar with each members background and credentials. It just seems shockingly similar for my taste to the Hollywood structure. 

In the same light, this structure lends itself to having a few people control what the definition and idea of “indie” is at the time, since theses festivals have grown into international phenomena. It’s plain to see that the international community, as according to theses film festivals, have a general consensus of what actors or directors constitute an indie hit. All it requires is a Google search about past selections of Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto film festival.

So it seems we have a small group of people, at least in this case, who are helping to define the massive culture that is “indie”. While not inherently bad, I do believe that this mirrors Hollywood culture in a way that is shockingly familiar and it makes me begin to wonder just how far apart the “indie” and Hollywood institutions really are. Even though the process of film festivals may be a good way to applaud the efforts of independent films without the approval or constraint of Hollywood, it only seems like a hop, skip, and a jump from those very things. 

Independent Cinema doesn’t appear from thin air

Independent cinema doesn’t simply appear from thin air. Throughout chapter two Newman continues to refer to “institutions” when discussing independent cinema. In this case, when Newman refers to institutions, he is referring to the film festivals which are the foundation from which independent cinema originates. Film festivals as institutions are important because it shows how there is a cultural category through institutional channels when discussing independent cinema. According to Newman, “This makes a community of the different persons and groups for whom indie is a meaningful concept; they form this community around their investment in ideas of what indie is and is not” (Newman, 50). People are able to be involved and participate with these institutions and feel as though they are sharing a common culture. 

Film festivals as an institution are a great way to create a community within the art world. In order to maintain an institution there are a lot of factors to be considered. According to Newman, “The roles that I want to consider most centrally in this chapter are the institutions through which independent films are most directly assessed: the venues of the cinematic experience and the discourse through which they are experienced” (Newman, 51). Not only is the venue for which the film festivals are held important but the way in which indie cinema draws in people from all over to discuss something they all have in common. 

Institutions can be seen as a cultural category for many reasons. First of all institutions represent film festivals and are used as a way to bring people with similar interest together. According to Newman, “It is only by distinguishing some kinds of films from others that the cultural logic of the arts institution can be made to apply to cinema. And it is primarily through the institution of the film festival that this cultural logic is applied” (Newman, 57). Film festivals are the central place where independent cinema can be viewed and where people from all over can discuss the art of independent cinema. Through the different categories of independent cinema film festivals have to offer, such as Sundance Film Festival, people are able to support and show their common interest. This creates a cultural category for independent cinema, which is traced back to institutions.

Low Budget doesn’t have to Mean Low Quality

Newman goes into chapter two with the idea of trying to explain what helps to shape the credentials that make a film indie at any given point in time. He makes continual reference to the “institutions” that shape what indie is in this chapter. What they represent are the channels through which indie films are shared and experienced, which for the purpose of this chapter are film festivals. Newman asserts that these cinema institutions, or film festivals, help to shape indie as a cultural category by the “legitimacy” indie films gain separate from and “in comparison to Hollywood” (Newman pg. 49). Essentially, it is indie films ability to be successful outside of the mainstream that helps to dictate their uniqueness as a cultural category.


Films festivals help to create and maintain what is to be considered indie. The way in which these festivals shape what “indie” is occurs in the selection process of what films they allow into their festivals and what seems to be the basis of their selections. If they want to alter what genres or aesthetics are viewed as “indie” then the selection committee can start to accept different material for the festival. Newman seems to embrace this idea of selection because it gives the viewers and people involved in the indie film world to define their own work. Also, since the indie scene is meant to be a “parallel to Hollywood,” these selection committees can make sure Hollywood doesn’t try to infiltrate by not accepting their films (Newman pg. 55).

As far as the institutions he included I think he could have made an attempt to show which indie films end up at the movie theatres and how they got there. Not all movie theatres, in particular those with just a few screens, show indie movies, but there are an array of them that do towards the more urban centers of states. Other than that, Newman seems to touch base on most of the important institutions.

The issue with all of this is that there doesn’t seem to be any form of responsiveness when it comes to what is actually accepted as indie. As Kenneth Turan put it, it feels like the selection process only accepts “’films that feel as if they’re making the cut because they will never reach a wider audience’” (Newman pg. 55). From the outside looking in, it appears that the movies shown are just obscure movies that, had they been released any other way, would have been laughed at due to their shoddy camera work and poor sound quality. There is nothing wrong with doing something small scale, but it seems like low quality is being accepted over low budget a large portion of the time.