If you're an aspiring filmmaker with ambitions to create unique and thought-provoking works, you’ve likely come across the term ‘independent film’ more than once. But what exactly is it, and how does it differ from its mainstream counterpart?
In this article, we'll begin to explore the world of independent cinema. We’ll examine its characteristics and highlight just some of the many must-watch films to come out of indie cinema.
Defining independent film
At its core, an independent film, often lovingly referred to as an ‘indie’ film, is a production that’s created outside the traditional studio system. It's a cinematic endeavour where the filmmaker has the freedom to express their creative vision without the constraints typically associated with big-budget, commercially driven films.
They might take risks, express unique perspectives, or explore creative and esoteric themes you won’t find elsewhere. Independent films are usually funded by private investors, grants, or even the filmmakers themselves, which allows for more artistic control and a distinctive voice to shine through.
What are the differences between independent films and studio films?
Now we've defined independent films, let's take a closer look at how they differ from studio films.
While both aim to entertain and captivate audiences, they have different approaches and priorities.
First and foremost is money. Studio films are usually backed by major production companies with substantial financial resources (and therefore more control over the creative process). These movies are designed to appeal to wide audiences and generate substantial profits. As a result, studio films often follow established formulae, rely on big-name actors, and prioritise commercial success over artistic experimentation.
Independent films, on the other hand, are produced by smaller companies and may use alternative sources of funding. With lower budgets than studio films, they rely more heavily on innovative techniques, resourcefulness, and raw talent to bring their visions to life.
Independent films usually have more creative freedom and flexibility in the production process and aim to challenge or engage the audience with original or unconventional stories. They might explore unorthodox narratives, tackle social issues, or showcase distinct directorial styles.
What are some of the most notable independent films?
Here are some examples of independent films that have made their mark in the industry, achieving critical acclaim and commercial success.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino, this cult classic exemplifies independent filmmaking at its finest. With its non-linear narrative, sharp dialogue, and an ensemble cast, Pulp Fiction shattered conventional storytelling norms and became a ground-breaking work of cinema, earning numerous awards including a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
This poignant and introspective film, directed by Barry Jenkins, beautifully captures the struggles and self-discovery of a young black man. Moonlight defied expectations and became the first LGBTQ+ film and the first film with an all-black cast to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, among many other awards.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite made history by becoming the first South Korean film to win the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the first non-English language film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This darkly comedic social satire explores the class divide through the symbiotic relationship between two families, challenging societal norms and leaving a lasting impact on audiences worldwide.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
This heartfelt comedy-drama, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, follows the journey of a dysfunctional family on a road trip. With its quirky characters and poignant exploration of family dynamics, Little Miss Sunshine resonated with audiences and garnered critical acclaim, earning two Academy Awards.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
A low-budget horror film directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Shot with handheld cameras, it revolutionised the found-footage genre and became a cultural phenomenon. The Blair Witch Project showcased the power of minimalist storytelling and innovative marketing strategies, paving the way for independent horror films.
Independent films at the Oscars
Over the years, independent films have captured the attention of the Academy and secured many nominations and honours. We’ve already touched on some big winners, but let’s discuss a few more of the independent films that achieved success at the entertainment world’s most prestigious awards.
In 1991, The Silence of the Lambs was the third-ever film to win the “Big Five” categories at the Oscars. Produced by independent studio Orion Pictures and directed by Jonathan Demme, the psychological thriller scooped Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film's chilling performances, gripping storyline, and masterful direction hooked audiences and solidified its place in cinematic history.
2014’s Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, triumphed at the Oscars, taking home the awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Screenplay. The film's unconventional narrative and innovative cinematography beautifully exemplified the artistry and impact of independent storytelling.
Another indie success from 2014, is Boyhood. Richard Linklater’s ambitious coming-of-age film was shot over 12 years, garnering critical acclaim, and receiving six nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay. Patricia Arquette’s performance earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 film, The Hurt Locker, earned widespread critical acclaim for its realistic portrayal of the harrowing experiences faced by soldiers on the front lines, delving into the psychological toll of bomb disposal in the Iraq War. The film secured nine nominations at the 82nd Academy Awards, ultimately taking home six, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.
Through its raw and unflinching narrative, immersive cinematography, and stellar performances, The Hurt Locker offered a gripping exploration of the human cost of war. Although production company Voltage Pictures faced lawsuits from several soldiers who claimed unauthorised use of their likeness, its status as one of the most acclaimed and influential independent war films of the 21st century remains undisputed.
Unleash your creative potential with AUB’s online MA Film Practice
Whether you aspire to direct, write, produce, or explore the varied roles that film offers, AUB's online MA Film Practice will help you find your place in the industry and develop your unique voice. Through a blend of theoretical knowledge, practical exercises, and collaborative projects, you'll refine your craft and gain invaluable hands-on experience. Visit the MA Film Practice course page to find out more: