Independent features
at the crossroads

by Lynn Garafola

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 35-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

The history of U.S. independent feature film is a saga of wasted talent and little recognition. Since the thirties, when independent filmmakers first tried bucking Hollywood and working outside the studio system, they have fought an uphill battle against vastly superior financial resources, distribution and exhibition monopolies, and the expectations of an audience bred on the film capital's assembly-line product. (By "independent," I mean a broad range of feature length, documentary or fictional films financed outside traditional Hollywood and corporate channels, but at the same time seeking serious public exposure. Although this definition does not necessarily exclude "experimental," "educational," and “militant" films, these types of films tend to be addressed to more specialized audiences.)

Although today's independents still contend against overwhelming odds, the outlook has brightened. Barbara Koppel's HARLAN COUNTY, U.S.A., Miguel Pinero's SHORT EYES, and Claudia Weill's GIRLFRIENDS have drawn critical and popular attention to movies made outside the Hollywood establishment. At the same time, the release of government monies through the National Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts and individual state councils has sparked a new bid among independents for public visibility and increased financial support.

The six-day Festival of American Independent Films, held in autumn 1979, heralded this new status. With entries selected by the establishment-minded Lincoln Center Film Society and the Film Fund, independents were, for the first time, guaranteed more than token representation at the annual New York Film Festival. Under the direction of Sandra Schulberg, a program of fifteen pictures, including six of recent vintage, gave New Yorkers an intimation of the vitality and diversity of independent feature filmmaking.

In an interview in In These Times, Schulberg noted some of the differences between independent features of the past and today's “new American cinema.” In the sixties, independent films, supported by a large college audience, "were political by virtue of form.” Today's filmmakers want to make "socially and humanly responsible films," but they also want to reach a larger audience. In particular, they want to tap potential filmgoers outside the 18-25-year-old "commercial" market. Hence, she notes along with a more populist approach to the U.S. “heartlands,” there is a new theatrical emphasis among the recent crop of independent filmmakers. To compete with Hollywood, today's independents are favoring conventional narratives over documentaries (assumed to have less audience appeal), "sophistication" at the expense of experiment, radical content instead of radical form.

Selection screenings for the festival confirmed a strong regional vein in recent independent work. Unlike the past, when aspiring directors flocked to Hollywood and New York, the country's twin motion picture capitals, today's independent films increasingly emerge from a local] setting, the work of filmmakers with roots in local communities. Socially and geographically, the films showcased at the 1979 festival evoked a very different United States from Hollywood's. Robert Young's ALAMBRISTA!, filmed in Mexico and the Southwest, explored the plight of undocumented workers. BUSH MAMA by Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima depicted the changing consciousness of a welfare mother in Watts. In GAL YOUNG 'UN, Victor Nuñez showed a backwoods Florida woman who marries a bootlegger, while from the Great Plains came NORTHERN LIGHTS, a film by John Hanson and Bob Nilsson about farmers in the North Dakota Non-Partisan League, and Richard Pearce's HEARTLAND, the story of a woman homesteader in Wyoming.

With the exception of ALAMBRISTA! and BUSH MAMA, these films are rooted not only in the diversity of United States but in its past. Like the ethnic revival and "roots-mania" of some years back, a strong vein of antiquarianism runs through them, a mystique of the past that in varying degrees equates family relics with social history. As the picture's community resource consultant, Sam Gowan, remarked,

"GAL YOUNG 'UN enlivens our sense of self. It brought noise back to a long empty and great house. Old people said, 'I remember …' and younger people searched attics. The film involves the community, it continues the record, and it has given us greater continuity."

The North Dakota community where NORTHERN LIGHTS was filmed was equally a source of inspiration. Both Hanson and Nilsson grew up in the area; they know its Scandinavian traditions and its people intimately. Moreover, as radicals, they bring to their subject an understanding of the political and economic forces that threatened to destroy farming communities throughout the Midwest on the eve of the WW1.

NORTHERN LIGHTS evolved from a half-hour documentary to a ninety-minute "docudrama," described by Michael Dempsey in Film Quarterly as "a saga of grass roots politics, a love story, and a period setting." In the passage from fact to fiction, however, the movie wavers between historical recreation and dramatic invention which are never completely fused. The beautifully wrought interiors, like the threshing and other farm scenes, are genuine evocations of another era while Judy Irola's masterful black and white cinematography, in the words of one critic, "works... to give the film the nostalgic remoteness of a turn-of-the-century family photograph." Indeed, at times, the camera work and period setting take on a life independent of the film's dramatic development.

There is nothing wrong with recreating the past. But in HEARTLAND, GAL YOUNG 'UN, and NORTHERN LIGHTS, the approach to history is a romantic one. Families are idealized as a condition of group survival, and the obsession with "authenticity," defined as specific artifacts — oil lamps, farm machinery, and the like — ends up fetishizing the past as something merely "quaint." Nor are there many references to a larger historical context. In NORTHERN LIGHTS, for example, the Non-Partisan League exists in a vacuum, isolated from the political currents of its day. The Socialist Party, although active in the area, receives only passing mention, while the war raging in Europe is ignored altogether. Equally "unhistorical" in many of these productions is the depiction of personal relationships, which too often smack of television soap opera.

Even a film as ostensibly "radical" as THE WOBBLIES, the token documentary screened at the 1979 New York Film Festival, is curiously depoliticized. Structured around the recollections of surviving Wobblies, the film allows oral history to dictate the parameters of its story, never questioning the raw data of reminiscence or recasting what is being said into a broader historical context. Why did the Lawrence strike succeed and the Paterson strike fail? What was the relationship between the I.W.W. and the Socialist Party? Who were the "hobos" who rode the boxcars and worked in the lumber camps? Questions like these, suggested by the script itself, go not only unanswered but unasked.

There is a curious dichotomy in the film between the radicalism of the Wobblies — which survives in the individuals interviewed — and the apparent desire of the filmmakers to make the I.W.W. respectable and sympathetic to a contemporary audience. The cutting of reminiscences on humorous upbeats and the juxtaposition of rag tunes with pre-war film footage cast militant events within a framework of anecdote and musical innocence. The protagonists, shot in the homey comfort of retirement, spin their yarns like "old folks" rather than revolutionaries. The Wobblies' dream of an anarcho-syndicalist world controlled by workers is equally sanitized. If the immediate causes of pre-War radicalism were the social and economic injustices of the day, alleviating bad working conditions, overcrowded tenements, and suppression of free speech was not the Wobblies' only goal. In shifting the emphasis from revolution to reform, the filmmakers not only fail to explain the intense repression to which the Wobblies Were subjected, but the film effectively transforms radical aspirations into a "liberal" and hence politically neutral context.

The trend toward "social antiquarianism" is fostered, in part, by government funding policies, and especially by the "populism" of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funded THE WOBBLIES, NORTHERN LIGHTS and HEARTLAND. Whether awarded directly or channeled through state councils, NEH grants have become, since the mid-seventies, the single largest source of government funding and the first major alternative to the patchwork of private investment, loans, deferments, and cheap labor typical of independent film financing in the past.

NEH's sister organization, the National Endowment for the Arts (which through its Florida council funded GAL YOUNG 'UN), has, for its part, committed over a million dollars since 1978 to film production. Claudia Weill's GIRLFRIENDS and Barbara Koppel's Crystal Lee Jordan project are among the features which have received NEA support. Although the maximum size of grants awarded nationally is $50,000 for institutions and $15,000 for individuals, NEA's policy of spreading the wealth among as many projects as possible has meant that its grants are generally too small to affect the budget of most independent features. (A budget-conscious filmmaker like Walter Ungerer, however has proved that it is possible to make a feature-length color film on a 25,0OO NEA grant.)

Filmmakers are, understandably, excited by the possibilities of NEH funding and are pressing for additional allocations. Making even low-budget movies is an expensive business, and the $2,000 per minute rule of thumb quoted by an NEW officer to a prospective applicant is considerably more than most independents normally have at their disposal. NEH, however, does not fund films as such, but only where they are felt to be the most effective treatment of a subject that will "convey an understanding of the humanities to a broad general public." Moreover, it is not the only model of government aid nor, indeed, the most desirable. By contrast to Western European subsidy programs — advances on receipts in France, production grants in England, direct aid and screenplay awards in Germany, film bank loans and distribution in Italy — guidelines for content and bureaucratic input at critical stages of the filmmaking process are built into NEH procedures.

In 1978, NEH committed over eight million dollars to 66 media projects. Just under half went to film production, pilot, and script development grants. An additional 3.3 million was pledged to 18 TV projects, 15 at the script development stage, a number of which will probably be produced in a film rather than video format.

Despite an impressive track record, a look at the projects funded in 1978 indicates the impact of NEH guidelines and the "self-censorship" many in the business feel they induce in both the pre-selecting of material and its final presentation. Of the 41 projects in the production, pilot, and script development categories, at least three-quarters were "historical." Subjects ranged from a five-hour film series on Edith Wharton (which received a $400,000 outright production grant plus matching funds) to "One Hundred Years of Struggle," a television series on the history of the women's suffrage movement (awarded an $800,000 pilot grant), and "Tales of Medical Life in America," a WGBH (PBS Boston) series on the social history of medicine from 1721 to 1921 (given a $91,937 script development grant).

The impulse behind many of these shows is the notion of history "from the bottom up." But where in the sixties and early seventies, this radical reinterpretation of the past was tied to a contemporary political framework and, in particular, to the struggles of groups disenfranchised from history,

Time and again, in many NEH projects, the radical edge has been blunted by deflecting political analysis into historical exposition. Thus a film about Baltimore's black community looks back over 200 years at the organizations created by slaves, free blacks, and freedmen, while "Mexican-American," an eight-part television series, dramatizes episodes in the history of Mexican Americans. In both, almost no provision is made for analysis of events since the fifties. In stressing ethnic or sexual "pride" and "roots," history is viewed as a neutral territory, distinct from politics and ideology, or even a refuge from them.

Although film is a collaborative medium par excellence, it is also a genuinely creative one. Under the present system, however, creative projects are defined by functions, their organic unity subdivided into a series of operations, the idea of a film turned into a synthesized product. At each stage — planning, script development, pilot, and production — there are proposals to write, budgets to revise, humanists (the NEH's slightly exalted term for academic experts) to consult, reports to file, while approval at one stage does not guarantee a favorable decision at the next. Many who have worked on NEH projects suspect that the maze of bureaucratic requirements and administrative stages exist less for the benefit of individual projects than to enable NEH to justify potentially controversial grants to Congress. (Unlike the BBC with its independent income, NEH relies on annual appropriations.) Of course, the rules may also reflect a fear of taking chances and the simple unwillingness to relinquish control of projects at any point in their production.

Some projects, like THE WOBBLIES and HEARTLAND, the first completely funded NEH feature, are lucky to make it to the finish. "One Hundred Years of Struggle" is typical of less fortunate projects. After funding a pilot on the pioneering U.S. feminists Angelina and Sarah Grimke, NEH said it would be prepared to finance additional episodes only if money from outside, sources was forthcoming. But raising money from "outside sources" is easier mandated than done. Since 1978, production has been suspended, and "One Hundred Years of Struggle" remains a victim of the piecemeal system of NEH support. Indeed, an advisor to a number of NEH projects, who asked that his name be withheld, has asserted that endowment funding of a multi-part series almost guarantees the project will fail. (See the case study of HEARTLAND below.)

A further drawback to NEH support is that its subsidies extend only through production. They do not cover the post-production costs — release prints, distribution, publicity, and numerous other expenses — needed to bring the finished product to its audience. NEH does not oppose theatrical distribution, but its funding rationale in the past has favored programs for broadcast as the most cost-efficient way of reaching a large audience. While it is certainly true that a one-shot airing over public or educational television reaches a statistically larger public than theatrical release, the latter has what Schulberg calls "an undeniable legitimizing effect." A film that opens in a bona fide theater commands serious attention from the public and press.

On the question of financing, Schulberg favors a combination of private and public funding. A position paper she drew up for the Independent Feature Project

"supports the establishment of an Independent Feature Corporation to help finance a significant number of independent features … partly through direct subsidy, and partly by helping to secure additional financing."

The IFC could be funded, she suggests, in a number of ways — through a special box office tax on-commercial films, grants from NEA, direct Congressional appropriations, contributions from the Hollywood studios. Apart from the difficulty of imagining Universal or the Transamerica Corporation forking over half a million dollars, ostensibly to "develop new talent," this proposal, like the Feature Project's endorsement of tax shelter legislation to encourage private investment in "quality motion pictures," is politically questionable. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that tax shelters would necessarily stimulate investment in independent as opposed to more commercially viable films. In Germany, for example, such legislation had the opposite effect. Instead of putting their marks on the New German Cinema, investors preferred to bankroll Hollywood productions which control the lion's share of the local market.

Another area of production financing is public television. Unlike PBS, which, with one notable exception, has a poor track record on independents, state-subsidized television in most European countries provides direct funding of all or a substantial part of the budget of many feature films. In Germany and Italy, the system has worked well. National television stations financed Fellini's ORCHESTRA REHEARSAL and much of Fassbinder's work. (Mark Rappaport, a New York based independent, has had two films commissioned by West German television as well. THE SCENIC ROUTE, his 1978 German-financed production which won the British Film Institute's Award for the Best and Most Original Film of the Year, stood out among the festival offerings as a distinctly personal vision.) European television looks to government-subsidized film industries as a source of cheap programming, which in some cases can even return a profit. Charles Eidsvik notes in an article, "The State as Movie Mogul,"

"In France in 1977,while over 611 films attracted only 170 million theatrical viewers, ORTF (the state-owned TV network) broadcast over 500 films, reaching over four billion viewers. ORTF paid an average of $30,000 per film; each film reached an average of nearly eight million viewers — at around three-eights of a cent, American, per head."

In Italy RAI backed PADRE PADRONE and THE TREE OF THE WOODEN CLOGS, both of which brought the television network considerable profits from theatrical release at home and abroad.

By and large, public TV in this country has used British productions as a cheap source of tele-films and tele-dramas, availing itself of BBC expertise as well as its salary scale, low even by English standards. PBS has itself initiated a number of dramatizations — the ADAMS CHRONICLES and THE SCARLET LETTER — inspired by British productions. With much of the funding coming from NEH, they were undermined by an obsession with "authenticity" at the expense of drama and the kind of red tape that belongs in corporate bureaucracies, not television studios.

The Visions series, funded through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NEA, and the Ford Foundation, was instrumental in fomenting today's independent movement. Funded by a seven million dollar consortium of grants over a three-year period, the series developed over 100 scripts and produced over 30 dramas, including more than 10 independent feature films. Although financed largely through public monies, production was relatively streamlined. In 1975, Robert Young, a film journalist who co-wrote NOTHING BUT A MAN, received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a screenplay for ALAMBRISTA!. Living among Mexican and U.S. farmworkers in the Southwest, by the following year he was filming on location. Equally important, his work was assured of broadcast and publicity as well as critical attention. Funding for the Visions series, however, was not renewed, and there is currently no replacement although a proposal is being circulated within PBS to encourage feature film production through "a partnership between federal support, private investment, and other-than-public television-distribution." Despite Bob Kanter's assertion that "PBS would like to become a catalyst and facilitator for the production and distribution of independently-produced feature films," plans remain, apparently, at the talking stage although local public television continues to be a major outlet for regional productions. WNET's 1980 series Independent Focus seems to have marked an important breakthrough for independents. Nevertheless, the controversy over WNET's alleged censoring of political films — although some were eventually shown -may well be a harbinger of further difficulties.

A major problem independents face is distribution. One of the premises of the independents, says Schulberg, is that "the heartland is just as hungry as people living in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston for the more substantial fare" that independents are trying to offer, and that "this silent majority has been ignored by the media powers, corporations — and studios." The latter command the vast financial resources that can turn a picture into an event. They can blanket the country's shopping malls with the latest blockbuster and expend thousands, even millions, of dollars on advertising.

Independents cannot compete with such outlays. Yet the distribution of films like WORD IS OUT, THE TRIALS OF ALGER HISS, NORTHERN LIGHTS and THE WAR AT HOME indicates that a theatrical audience does exist for so-called "noncommercial" work. Filmmakers must learn the ropes of self-distribution — how to target "primary audiences" and grassroots organizations likely to support a film, how to develop promotional strategies that will generate free and effective publicity.

Independent feature filmmaking is at a crossroads. The talent is there. So are the ideas. There is also an audience. Today's independents, says Schulberg, are "making films that come from the body politic," "handcrafted" rather than "corporatized" visions of an United States "ignored by those in power." The independents' demand for increased funding, together with their insistence on greater access to the film-going audience, is essential to build a significant alternative to Hollywood. But money alone cannot guarantee this. The way the purse strings are controlled goes a long way toward determining the final product, and the best-intentioned filmmaker may find him/herself inadvertently "playing it safe" under the benevolent aegis of endowment-style organizations. What is needed is a thorough revamping of current media programs, and the creation of subsidy programs that will foster a cinema where "independent" means, not simply "low budget" or "non-commercial," but "alternative."


HEARTLAND, the pilot of a dramatic series about 19th century pioneer women, was funded in toto by NEH. As such, it is a milestone in the escalating movement among independents for government subsidies. A report by Annick Smith, the film's executive producer, for the Independent Feature Project suggests some of the drawbacks of NEH funding. She also reveals why it takes so long — in this case, three years — to produce a single 95minute film.

"In the summer of 1976, while producing a series of documentaries on Northwest Indians, I became friends with Beth Ferris, a wildlife filmmaker who also lived in Missoula. We decided … to work together on a series about women and wilderness. In the course of seeking funds I approached NEH's Public Media Program. At that time they were interested in developing historical, biographical programming for PBS. They encouraged us to submit a proposal for a series about historical women on the frontier.”

"We immediately began three months of preliminary research and slowly put together a well-documented proposal for a research, writing, and development grant. We contacted well-known historians, writers, archivists, and media professionals to serve as consultants. Since we were relatively unknown filmmakers with no institutional ties, we decided to apply to NEH through the University of Montana's Wilderness Institute — a nonprofit organization with grant administering experience. We submitted the proposal in November 1976 and received approval from NEH in March 1977.”

"In retrospect, we would have been wiser to form our own company then, rather than later, and apply for the grant as independent producers … The problem we had with the University was one of ownership and copyright as well as red tape. NEH automatically gives copyright of grant-produced material to the official recipients of a grant, no matter who runs it or whose idea it is. In any case, after considerable legal negotiations, we began the official research stage in June 1977, with an $82,500 grant."

The filmmakers devoted the next year to researching primary source material and selecting the seven women to be featured in the series. A preproduction plan, including budget, for a pilot film was drawn up, and a director and co-producer chosen. Consulting with research associates and advisors, the filmmakers narrowed down the list of subjects to two women and settled on a treatment on Wyoming homesteader Elinore Stewart to be the pilot script.

"From March to June we completed the research, two scripts and a production plan. In June we submitted a proposal to NEH for pilot film production and additional writing and development money. This included script, budget, talent and time plan."

Four months later, a $600,000 grant came through to produce a feature length pilot film on Elinore Stewart. It did not include further writing and development funds. Thus, while the filmmakers were fortunate in getting the opening segment produced, the time and effort (to say nothing of public monies) expended on researching, scripting and developing the overall series were effectively wasted.

NORTHERN LIGHTS: Self distribution

NORTHERN LIGHTS is an example of how imaginative self-distribution can work. John Hanson writes in his paper, “It's a Nice Little Movie, But It Isn't Commercial":

"Instead of opening in New York, getting reviews, moving to the biggest cities in the country, and gradually spreading out to the medium-sized cities, we did exactly the opposite. The World Premiere was … in Crosby, North Dakota, a town of 1800 people and the major location for the filming of NORTHERN LIGHTS. We played in the Dakota Theatre on Main Street … and broke the house record."

In the following months, the filmmakers and associate producer Sandra Schulberg crisscrossed the state promoting the film in what amounted to a “grassroots political campaign." Working with volunteers, they did mailings, spoke before meetings of Sons of Norway, Senior Citizens, Democratic-NPL lunches, high school and college classes, appeared on talk shows, put together radio and TV spots, organized gala opening night ceremonies and receptions.

"All this represented a tremendous breakthrough because no one else had ever done anything like this for an independent feature film in this country, and we were proving that it was viable, at least on home turf."

The movie, Hanson adds, also made money.

Minneapolis, the first test of a wider market, "represented a quantum leap as far as the time and energy that it took to open the film." The filmmakers contacted Scandinavians, political groups, cooperatives, farm organizations, labor groups, schools, film societies — "every conceivable interest group that might embrace the film." Opening night was a sellout, and for the first couple of weeks the film did well. However, blizzards on consecutive weekends, the winter holiday season, and the opening of big pictures like LORD OF THE RINGS kept receipts down. Despite a $4500 share of the box office take, the $6000 they had spent to open the film meant that the filmmakers lost money while distributors in Los Angeles remained wary of a film with no sex, no stars, and few prospects of making money.

A ten-page article in Mother Jones led to an invitation to the Belgrade Film Festival, where NORTHERN LIGHTS beat out U.S. entries like THE DEER HUNTER and A WEDDING to take third place. "We sold the film to Yugoslav TV, had renewed interest from other European countries, and began to develop an international reputation."

Meanwhile, Seattle exhibitor Randy Finlay took a gamble on opening the film at a small art house near the University and Scandinavian community of Ballard. Giving themselves six weeks to lay the groundwork and with the support of a first-rate publicist, the filmmakers launched a campaign similar to the one they had organized in Minneapolis. This time, however, they received "tremendous media coverage" and "had a real word of mouth going before the film opened."

"According to our time-tested strategy, we organized an opening night gala and held a benefit for the Morse Home. The opening night benefit has become one of the keys to our distribution plan, the use of a benefit for a community organization or group of people who can identify with the film, use it as a tool, because after all the reason we make films is for them to be used and seen by as many people as possible."

The seven-week Seattle run, grossing nearly $35,000,

"gave the film a real legitimacy for other exhibitors. We were now having a good run with a strong audience, good response, good reviews, the box office written up in variety each week."

Once again Europe beckoned. Accepted by the "Semaine de la Critique," a prestigious part of the Cannes Film Festival, NORTHERN LIGHTS walked off with the prize for Best First Feature Film, an award that helped clinch $75,000 in European theatrical and television sales. This coupled with a growing domestic box office, led to bookings at art theatres in San Francisco, Boston, and Los Angeles.