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How Indie Film Ruled The 90s (And How It Fell)

Audiences used to really care about independent films - so why does it feel like no one’s watching them anymore? We can still see the remnants of that cultural impact whenever we’re watching a movie by Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson. These directors, who came up through the ‘90s independent film scene, established distinctive individual styles in our minds. But since then, priorities have shifted away from “adult” movies and toward mega-blockbuster tentpoles or prestige-minded streaming shows. So was the ‘90s indie explosion the last of its kind, or can today’s low-budget, quality films find audiences and shape culture to come?

TRANSCRIPT

Once upon a time, Indie Films were immensely popular, but today they’re seeming increasingly endangered. Why does it feel like nobody’s watching them anymore?

It may be hard to picture today, but back in the ‘90s, indie movies had a cultural impact — almost on par with one of today’s popular franchises. We can still see the remnants of that excitement whenever we’re watching a movie by Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, or Wes Anderson. These directors who came up through the ‘90s independent film scene (along with Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Darren Aronofsky established distinctive individual styles (or brands) in our minds, so that we can instantly tell when a film is theirs.

But looking back, it’s striking to see how much has changed since then, as priorities have shifted away from “adult” movies and toward mega-blockbuster tent poles or prestige-minded streaming shows.

Robert Downey Jr. “There’s a lot to be said for how these genre movies denigrated the art form of cinema.”

Today, it’s not the director’s style but the Marvel, Star Wars, or DC franchise identity that we look to to create clear audience expectations about what kind of movie we’re about to see. And directors who have successes in the indie scene jump onto superhero movies or TV projects quickly. So was the ‘90s indie explosion the last of its kind, or can today’s low-budget, quality films find audiences and shape culture to come? Here’s our take on how we’re still feeling the effects of the ‘90s indie boom today.

What Happened?

The ‘90s indie explosion was basically Generation X’s version of the New Hollywood film movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, when a series of big-budget flops led studios to take gambles on idiosyncratic, independent-minded directorial voices and less conventional fare with countercultural energy.

Movies like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Midnight Cowboy ushered in the primacy of auteurs like Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), Brian De Palma (Carrie), Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude), Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye), Steven Spielberg (Jaws), and George Lucas (Star Wars). But by the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Spielberg and Lucas wound up experiencing enormous, blockbusting success with projects like Jaws and Star Wars, while ambitious auteur-like projects like Heaven’s Gate or Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart turned into costly financial failures.

So just as studios had rushed away from the lavish, spectacle-driven blockbuster model in the late ‘60s, they rushed back toward it in the 1980s — more interested in recapturing the magic of Jaws or Star Wars’ box office than finding the next Coppola, Altman or even Lucas or Spielberg. The decade’s excess-driven crowd-pleasing meant plenty of sequels, in turn inspiring the real beginning of franchise mania.

Still, sequels still weren’t quite as big in the ‘80s as they are now, and as expensive follow-ups like Rambo III, Ghostbusters II, and Star Trek V left audiences underwhelmed, there was at least a small opening for other types of movies. Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival was starting to gain more media attention, while some independent productions like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho garnered attention from both critics and audiences, and important filmmaking voices like Spike Lee and the Coen brothers emerged.

Spike Lee: “What I feel I have to do as a filmmaker is present problems so that the discussion can start.”

All this lay the groundwork for the Indie Film boom of the ‘90s. For our purposes, independent film generally refers to a movie that was financed and produced without the help of a major studio like Warner Brothers, Disney, Sony, Paramount, Universal, or 20th Century Fox, who were the “big six” for most of the ‘90s. Many of these did wind up distributing some independent films and later forming their own subsidiaries to finance smaller films directly, but during the ‘90s indie boom they were generally paying for marketing and distribution after the movie was finished. Hence, the movies were at least made independent of the big studios, and plenty never went to a major studio at all, finding homes at smaller companies specializing in indies, like today’s A24.

Part of what drew more attention to independent film in the ‘90s was the success of movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi. These broke stereotypes about independent film, showing that these types of movies could be exciting and violent, not just highbrow arthouse fare.

And then, in 1994, Tarantino’s second film Pulp Fiction took everything to the next level. Its financing came from Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s studio which had just been bought by Disney, so by a strict definition, it may not have even qualified as a true independent film. But it had the spirit and attitude of an indie, and its $8 million budget was small by any big-studio standards. Either way, Pulp Fiction established a kind of formula for the runaway indie success in that era: it featured a director with a major, media-friendly personality, big stars taking unusual and comeback-friendly roles, and an independent-minded aesthetic that still prioritized unpredictable entertainment over seriousness. Pulp Fiction got great reviews, awards-season attention and, most importantly, made a whole lot of money.

This helped contribute to a major indie gold rush. More titles were sold out of Sundance, for more money than ever — and more studios started their own indie-film divisions to pick up and sometimes directly finance these smaller movies. By the year 2000, feature debuts had been released from David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey), Alexander Payne (Citizen Ruth), Kevin Smith (Clerks) Darren Aronofsky (Pi), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight), Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides), and Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich). Many of these filmmakers’ most-loved works, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights in 1997, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore in 1998, and Alexander Payne’s Election in 1999, were actually at least partially studio-financed, but they often got their studio backing because of an earlier indie movie that made a splash.

None of these subsequent movies were Pulp Fiction-sized hits, but they were successful enough with critics, audiences, and awards bodies for indie cinema to become more commodified throughout the decade. Harvey Weinstein — who would later be convicted of rape and sexual assault — mounted increasingly ambitious and elaborate awards-season campaigns for Miramax.

Washington Post: “He (Weinstein) built relationships with members of the Academy by personally calling them to chat about his movies, arranging dinners for them with the stars of his films, and hiring Academy members at his companies.”

This culminated in 1999, when the 1998 Miramax film Shakespeare in Love overtook the presumptive favorite Saving Private Ryan to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Shakespeare in Love was not really an indie movie — Miramax, owned by Disney, financed it from the start, it cost a substantial $25 million, and the idea for the movie had been kicking around other major studios for most of the ‘90s before Miramax acquired it and had playwright Tom Stoppard rewrite it completely. But it was still a symbolic defeat, with Steven Spielberg’s big-budget, big-studio war movie defeated by a smaller, relatively scrappier upstart.

But the victory also signaled that the ‘90s indie era was nearly at an end. Though the Weinsteins went independent again in the 2000s, leaving Miramax to form their own company, Harvey Weinstein himself remained seemingly obsessed with awards glory — not exactly the most independent-minded goal. And even before Weinstein’s criminal conduct came to light, he was known for meddling in the editing room of the movies he produced — basically, a one-man version of the exact same big-studio interference that indie filmmakers were trying to avoid. Meanwhile, the big-studio subsidiaries specializing in acquiring indie films, like Universal’s Focus Features, or Fox’s Searchlight division, also became more interested in finding crowd-pleasing hits with awards potential, like Little Miss Sunshine. These divisions filled a void in their parent companies, but helped squeeze out genuinely independent distributors, while over time taking fewer chances with their own acquisitions. The indie gold rush seemed to be over, at least in spirit.

What Made the Indie Boom So ‘90s?

It’s easy to see the indie boom of the ‘90s as part of a broader cycle where big-budget hubris gives way to lower-budget innovation, which in turn eventually inspires more big-budget hubris, and so on. But there were aspects of this particular movement that were specific to the time in particular.

First, it’s notable that the New Hollywood movies of the 1970s were often coming from within the studios. While plenty of ‘90s indie movies wound up distributed or owned by major studios, there was a perception, especially early on, that these movies really were coming from outside the system more than ever before, with lower budgets and a DIY sensibility. Movies like El Mariachi or Clerks made news out of just how little they cost, with original budgets well under $100,000 — this in a world where $2 million still counts as low-budget. The idea of being scrappy, anti-corporate, and independent-minded was cool in the early ‘90s, and likewise in the indie music scene, punk, hardcore, and underground music flourished before giving way to the mainstream breakthrough of Nirvana in 1991.

Just as music in the ‘90s took advantage of the disposable income of a younger audience, independent films made the industry see that there was money in youth culture. Movies like Rushmore, from Wes Anderson, and Election, from Alexander Payne, brought a new understanding of adolescent mindsets, while Richard Linklater and Sofia Coppola both explored 1970s youth in movies like Dazed and Confused and The Virgin Suicides. Both Linklater and Kevin Smith also turned their attention to characters in their early twenties in movies like Slacker and Clerks, highlighting the lack of direction that was becoming more common in Generation Xers with projects that avoided glossy, overly polished imagery.

Cynthia: “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.” - Dazed and Confused

That youth-culture cool factor affected an industry interest in these types of movies — major stars of the 1970s and 1980s like John Travolta (Pulp Fiction), Bill Murray (Rushmore), Matthew Broderick (Election), and Burt Reynolds (Boogie Nights) found some of their best and juiciest roles in years by signing on to movies from this new wave of independent directors. And less established performers like Reese Witherspoon (Election), George Clooney (Three Kings), Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket), and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Boogie Nights) stood out by prioritizing collaborations with independent-minded filmmakers.

Which brings us to another major factor in the rise of independent film: The cult of personality that formed around the directors themselves, especially writer-directors like Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. These ‘90s indie filmmakers were probably some younger fans’ first exposure to what directors and writers actually do. While they reached smaller audiences than Spielberg or Lucas, they made bold thematic and stylistic choices that ultimately made it easier to notice a personal stamp on the work. Many of these filmmakers emphasized dialogue and character over generic, formulaic plots, which made movies from Tarantino or Linklater or Kevin Smith feel unpredictable

From the ‘90s to Now in Indie Film

All these well-established, indie, name filmmakers entered the new millennium prepared to take over the cinematic establishment. In fact, despite the hype that these filmmakers often received for their first or second films, most of them had bigger commercial successes a decade or more later. Today, those ‘90s indie directors remain fixtures in awards seasons, best-of-the-year lists, festivals, and even the U.S. box office. Still, they’re not the people making billion-dollar superhero movies. In recent years, both studios and audiences have moved away from the kinds of mid-to-low-budget, adult-oriented, non-franchise dramas and comedies that these directors make, and the struggling ratings of the Oscars are but one sign of this. Today, the director of a Sundance sensation is often faced with the choice of either signing on to make a mega-budget franchise movie as seen by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck moving from Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind to Captain Marvel. Directors also often take their more personal or risky projects to streaming or TV, like Ava DuVernay directing When They See Us as a Netflix miniseries.

There isn’t a clear new class of superstar indie directors coming up behind Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Sofia Coppola, or Spike Jonze because newer filmmakers aren’t really encouraged to follow their muses in the same way as those ‘90s today’s indie legacy directors. The result is just one more aspect of the widening gap between big-budget cinematic extravaganzas that receive huge theatrical releases, and everything else fighting for scraps of cultural recognition

Martin Scorcese: “The marvel type pictures where the theaters become amusement parks, that’s a different experience and it’s like I was saying, it’s not cinema, it’s something else. We shouldn’t be invaded by it.”

At the same time, the ‘90s indie boom remains influential. For one thing, it vastly increased the prominence of film festivals, as film fans and critics still flock to Sundance, Toronto and New York, as well as a plethora of smaller festivals, to see new independent features. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, those festivals have started to become more accessible than ever before, offering films to stream online for the ticket-buying public.

The ‘90s indie aesthetic also made low-budget a more permanent part of a movie’s potential marketing story. When The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance 1999, so much of its buzz depended on its low-budget, documentary-style look and feel, and this was a natural outgrowth of ‘90s indie-movie PR machines that emphasized how little some of these movies cost to make. The Blair Witch Project inspired countless more low-budget imitators, and not every ultra-low-budget miracle is a genre piece. Think of Once, the musical romance that cost less than $200,000 to make, or Tangerine, Sean Baker’s movie about transgender sex workers, shot entirely on iPhones. Even Sex, Lies, and Videotape director Steven Soderbergh has recently returned to his roots making movies outside the studio system — also sometimes shooting on iPhone.

In some ways, with the advent of streaming, there are more outlets for these types of movies than ever before. Soderbergh, for example, has largely stopped releasing his films in movie theaters. Surely, CODA appearing on Apple TV+, and Palm Springs appearing on Hulu — platforms that anyone with an internet connection can subscribe to for under 6 dollars — were more accessible in their first weekends than any Sundance sensations from the ‘90s. And of course, it’s important to recognize that those ‘90s indie director stars were overwhelmingly white and male, so there’s been a very positive change in that many of today’s most beloved recent indies, like Moonlight, Parasite, Nomadland and Minari, showcase the perspectives of more women and POCs.

Yet despite these good developments, it does feel like something has been lost along the way. Directors like Tarantino, Rodriguez, and Smith garnered attention for their backstories, interviews, or talk-show appearances as they hyped up their movies, whereas directors just don’t enjoy that immense mainstream recognition. And contemporary indies aren’t really marketed to hip youth culture anymore. They’re more often modest, middlebrow awards bait, pitched to older adults who want to see something smaller, quieter, or less superheroic. The indie studios of A24 and Neon are notable exceptions who’ve made some effort to capture the attention of a younger crowd with movies like A24’s Midsommar, Uncut Gems, and The Green Knight, or Neon’s Parasite, Ingrid Goes West, and Pig.

Overall, like in the music scene, the increasing number of niche audiences in an increasingly fragmented media landscape has made the idea of a smaller project with mass appeal seem unlikely. More audience members have more immediate access to independent films than they did in the ‘90s, but are they actually watching them? Almost certainly not in the same numbers that turned out for Pulp Fiction.

Independent movies make viewers more curious about filmmakers; big franchise movies make viewers interested in watching more of that franchise. Indies also tend to emphasize human experiences and faces, as opposed to the numerous sequences filming machinery, technology and special effects that dominate big-budget fare.

Attentive, curious viewers can still potentially get these quality films and sense of discovery from the way that micro-budget indies will turn up alongside major Hollywood productions on platforms like Prime Video and Hulu. This is especially a bonus for viewers in areas that haven’t been able to support an independent or arthouse cinema, who are now able to see a greater variety of movies, faster and easier than ever before. Yet with so many choices piled on top of choices of endless so-called “content,” and most streaming services offering limited promotion to smaller films, it’s no sure thing that viewers will find the best stuff that’s out there. And with movie theaters feeling the financial pressure to show the biggest sure-thing franchises, a pressure that’s only increased in the wake of pandemic-related closures, the communal experience of independent film is surely vanishing. The positive ways that independent film has been assimilated into the mainstream and more democratized in how it’s made might mean that we’ll get more good movies than ever — but that fewer people than ever will actually watch them.

Martin Scorcese: “There’s a more insidious threat, and that’s the devaluation of cinema itself. “