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Independent films changed face of “˜90s movie industry

By Daily Bruin Staff

May 24, 2000 9:00 p.m.

By Sandy Yang

Daily Bruin Staff

At the 1997 Academy Awards, frontrunner “The English
Patient” and three other independent films were nominated for
Best Picture (Columbia Pictures’ “Jerry Maguire”
was the exception). Above the nominations, several newspapers and
magazines used the headline “Independent’s Day,”
punning on the previous summer’s aliens-invading-earth,
crowd-pleasing hit.

Though the “˜90s generated a good number of
action-saturated blockbusters, the independent films of the last
decade were also a force to be reckoned with. It wasn’t just
an “Independent’s Day,” but an
Independent’s Decade.

This “˜90s phenomenon comes on the heels of the “˜80s
when big-budget movies dominated the theaters with sequel-spawning
institutions like “Die Hard,” “Lethal
Weapon” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Meanwhile,
independent films barely had enough room to breathe or even survive
without the support from big studios, who just didn’t see
these art-house films as lucrative projects.

Then in 1989, filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (“Erin
Brokovich”) premiered a drama called “sex lies and
videotape” at the Sundance Film Festival. It made an
unusually hefty $25 million, about five times the amount an
independent film typically made in the “˜80s.

Three years later, Neil Jordan (“The End of the
Affair”) unleashed “The Crying Game,” a film that
made even more ““ $62 million ““ and convinced Hollywood
that independent films were profitable after all.

“Pulp Fiction” in 1994 cinched the deal. Grossing
past the $100 million mark, Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore
effort was an unheard of victory for independent films, giving
Hollywood clearance to support these novelties. These films
weren’t risks anymore; they were sure things.

Thus, the independent film became a cinematic trend.

Today, film festivals are common events and not just limited to
film buffs. Before the “˜90s, however, Sundance was a
little-known film festival in little-known Park City, Utah. For the
most part, the mainstream crowd was oblivious to young hungry
filmmakers struggling to tell stories.

The “˜90s also brought new technology to the world of
filmmaking. Digital cameras made filmmaking a less costly venture,
making support from a big Hollywood studio less vital. Last
year’s “The Blair Witch Project” emerged as the
poster child for filmmaking digital camera-style. This $150 million
grossing film became the Cinderella story of the starving artist

For the most part, the independent film emergence was good news
for aspiring filmmakers and even better news for film critics like
Los Angeles Daily News film writer Bob Strauss.

“Overall, the independent influence on the whole decade
was a marvelous injection of personal point of views, daring
concepts, real cinematic work rather than bonehead,
lowest-common-denominator entertainment (of the “˜80s),”
Strauss said.

“Studios are actually making more intelligent and
accomplished adult-themed films. “˜Three Kings’ and
“˜The Straight Story’ came out of major Hollywood
studios. Paramount came out with “˜The Talented Mr.
Ripley,’and FOX comes out and does something like
“˜Fight Club’ … They were more artistically ambitious
stuff. That’s just the residual overall effect of how well
indies established.”

Not everything, however, was ideal. Though the heightened
interest brought in more films of personal vision from more
filmmakers, there were pitfalls to the mass interest that
filmmaking suddenly drew.

“You can equate filmmaking in the “˜90s to being a
lawyer in the “˜80s. It was a very trendy thing to do,”
said Greg Sax, a MFA student at UCLA’s School of Theater,
Film and Television. “So many people wanted to be filmmakers,
but not for the right reasons.”

Sax, who has screened two short films at Sundance, criticized
the late-“˜90s approach to independent films, an erosion of
the early “˜90s sincere attempt to showcase viable

“People are making films based on the consent of economic
powers, at least in the second half of the “˜90s,” Sax
said. “There was a narrow spectrum of what stories get
financed, and indie films became as formulaic as studio

There is yet another side effect. Today, independent films may
have to be as big a spectacle or garner as much hype as your
average studio film.

In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, director/screenwriter
Kevin Smith said he doubted “Clerks” would get the same
recognition now as it did in 1991, when the then 21-year-old made
the $28,000 black-and-white picture about a day in a life of two

“The bar is higher now,” said Smith in Entertainment
Weekly. “For example, say I make “˜Clerks’ today,
and it goes out and it does the $3 million it did theatrically.
Nobody gives a shit, because we’ve had “˜The Blair Witch
Project.’ A low-budget film that goes on to make $140 million
domestically ““ nobody could’ve imagined this in the
early “˜90s. No way in hell.”

But at the end of the day, or rather, decade, independent films
have revolutionized the way a story gets told and how much
intelligence studios credit their audience with.

In 1997, the UCLA Film and Television Archive started a Sundance
Collection, where about 100 independent film prints from the past
25 years are collected and preserved. Having these preserved prints
means that they can be shown in screenings to mass audiences. As a
result, the Archives can loan to film festivals, museums,
screenings and film classes.

“We think (preserving these films) is necessary because
they’re artifacts of the 20th century,” said Cornelia
Emerson, development in public affairs officer at the Archive.

“Independent films are more endangered. They don’t
have as many prints or they aren’t stored. A 23-year-old
student can borrow from his parents or charge his credit card and
get his friends to act in it, and they only make one print,”
Emerson continued. “It’s interesting to look at the
early efforts of someone who gets to be a big director.”

And even if independent films have increasingly become a fashion
statement with Miramax as the brand name, the quality of the
“˜90s wave of independent films can’t be disregarded,
Strauss said.

“The “˜90s American indie film saved American

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