Reeling in on Independent Films

Another Oscar Sunday has come and gone. Amid the red-carpet glamour and long acceptance speeches lay the opportunity for a film to be cast in Oscar glory, and vying for these awards were a mix of creations from major film studios and independent filmmakers. Over the last decade, the latter have increasingly merited recognition by winning awards like Best Original Screenplay. Unfortunately, independent films still lag behind in other categories - not in terms of quality, but appreciation by the Academy. Independent films’ inconsistent performance in different awards is a phenomenon that relies on their brief history and can ultimately be improved to showcase the diversity of ideas in Hollywood, as well as talent in the field of films.

While the definition of independent films has changed progressively, the original association with the term is a smaller budget. Major film studios spend upwards $100 million creating blockbuster films, whose purpose is typically generating sales, while independent films require budgets from around $2 to $12 million. Independent films also rely on multiple investments by showcasing their films at major independent film festivals such as Sundance, and due to their budget, they typically are more adventurous with the themes pursued. Nevertheless, as the prominence of independent films began to grow, their definition evolved into a movie genre, rather than a budget-based sector of film. Movies that evoke realism, lack special effects, or embrace eccentric themes have become the indie film genre touted today. While many of these films are still produced within the budget of independent films, major film studios have caught onto the craze by establishing their own indie studios, such as Fox Searchlight Pictures of 20th Century Fox or Focus Features of Universal Pictures.

Of all the films competing in the 2018 Academy Awards for Best Pictures, all were distributed by a major film studio or its subsidiary indie studio, yet four of the nine were produced within the budget allotted for an independent film. The winner, The Shape of Water, was produced on a budget of $19.5 million which falls slightly above the range for it to be considered independent. Last year’s winner Moonlight was made on a budget of $1.5 to $4 million, certainly an outlier, compared to the list of winners before it, which had operated on budgets ranging from $15 to $50 million. In general, the nominations of independent films for Best Picture have increased, and as Hollywood moves towards politicization, independent films will certainly be receiving a nod when they address topics which redefine, or sometimes even upset, the status quo. Nevertheless, independent films are not always made to produce a political statement; rather, they are created with the goal to embrace intrepidness and invention.

In another category, Best Animated Feature, Disney has wholly dominated the field while upcoming independent animated films fell short. One of the primary reasons for their dominance is not only their animation, but a predilection towards animated films stereotypically catering a younger audience. Topics that pursue less traditional avenues of animation, such as the fully painted texture of Loving Vincent or the stop-action figures of R-rated Anomalisa, are nominated but not awarded. Again, these instances illustrate the difficulties independent films encounter in being accepted by the established Academy community.

Independent films are not produced with the intention to become blockbusters fed to hungry eyes of the masses, nor are they created as “Oscar bait.” Instead, they offer plenty of playfulness with new ideas and techniques, sometimes pioneering modes of filmmaking. It becomes imperative, then, to preserve and recognize this subset of films. This is not to say that established directors and studios’ work should be disregarded. Rather, this is a call for simultaneous greater appreciation towards independent films in large award shows, such as the Oscars. Too often, films are awarded by conforming to a set checklist of characters or themes. If the Academy Awards’ purpose is to truly commend the year’s most laudable films and showcase artistic creativity, some of their best bets will be in independent films.