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Waiting For The Next 'Wow' in Independent Film

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The laminate on my driver's license was still warm as I took the two-lane blacktop leading out of suburbia and onto the onramp of US Highway 91. My knuckles turned white clamped at the proper "ten and two" position. The only sounds louder than my pounding heart were horn blasts from cars whizzing past (I took "slow lane" literally). I assume the driver of every third vehicle was flipping me the bird, but didn't dare take my eyes off the road to confirm.

With downtown's city lights in my rearview mirror, I mercifully reached my exit on Hartford's outskirts. One might assume this was a teen's trek in search of trouble -- an isolated spot for clumsy backseat groping or getting high. Nope. Not me. My 120 minutes of happiness stood at the end of the industrial park -- a space usually reserved for the adult video store or seediest of strip clubs. I parked the car in the shadows of the arthouse cinema.

I can't remember what film I saw, but I made that drive so often eventually I could have done it bound and blindfolded.

When I moved away, the trip took a less clandestine and a more metropolitan hue. Every Sunday the sidewalks of New York took me to the Film Forum, Angelica, or Landmark Sunshine.

Sure, some films were clunkers, but I was a woman under the influence. My addiction didn't wane because scattered among the "so-so" and "pretty good" would be something lovely and amazing-- like a delicious novel that's the perfect length yet ends too soon. I'd sit there in the dark just feeling . . . wow.

Sadly, that "wow" ended along with the belle epoch of independent films--the 1990s when the Sundance Film Festival launched the careers of countless filmmakers who made groundbreaking films on shoestring budgets. These films once shown only in big city arthouses were distributed by companies like Miramax to theaters across the country . . . where weirdo kids like me could sit and swoon. Ah. Happy, happy days.

Then what happened was . . . what always happens. "The Man" ruined it for everyone. Disney purchased Miramax. Hollywood conglomerates acquired scores of independent production companies. The genre's focus shifted from high art to high commerce. Independent became not so independent anymore.

I'm oversimplifying, but it's safe to say the chances of the next Kevin Smith maxing out a credit card to make a smart, career-launching film with low production values and unknown actors are slim. It's harder than ever for a newbie to get noticed. Directors need a star (preferably a naked one) to get a project funded. Like commercial releases, independents have become star-based enterprises.

To be clear, I have nothing against stars. Some of my best friends are -- well, no. But it's delightfully effortless to get lost in a narrative when you're watching a storyand not a celebrity. Furthermore, stars cost money. Stars require access. Money and access some Undiscovered-Kid-Genius-in-Detroit isn't going to have. It's a shame because I'm betting Undiscovered-Kid-Genius-in-Detroit has something to say. And I am certain Undiscovered-Kid-Genius-in-Detroit has a film I want to see.

I hoped Kickstarter would reignite my indie affliction. Aspiring filmmakers could get family and friends with money -- even a little money -- to fund their projects, spread the word and start a groundswell. Instead of a profit percentage, donors receive incentives commensurate with donation level -- often a free screening or DVD, giving the fledgling a built in distribution channel.

Alas. As if passed down by law to Moses himself, "The Man" had to get a piece of the Kickstarter pie (or pi, if you will). This time taking an unexpected form -- established star filmmakers like Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), Zach Braff (Garden State), and Spike Lee (too many to mention).

For this, Thomas, Braff, and Lee have received a slam or two from critics. Me and you and everyone we know could live on Thomas's or Braff's TV salaries for eons. Ten decent films could be made off of Spike Lee's incentive gifts alone (courtside Knicks seat anyone?). One would assume he is in the company of men and women who could scrounge up a buck or two to invest in their old pal's film.

Conversely, a super cool incentive gift coupled with being a part of their idol's next film is priceless to their fans -- fans they have earned through their work's merits. The current Hollywood conglomerate system is no picnic for anyone with a visionary or quirky bone in their body; it's now solicitous of the action-flick-friendly foreign market (which could equal 70% of a film's revenue) and eschews culturally specific dialog-driven projects that get lost in translation.

Nonetheless, foraging-for-a-crumb artists read these celebrity Kickstarter pages and likely think, Damn! I wish I had your problems!

Maybe it's me. Every generation thinks the music/art/films of their youth were the best (ours really were though) and mourns their passing. After all, filmmakers dubbed "the mumble core" have risen up with micro-budget pictures all seeming to star Greta Gerwig. (Though she is like crazy charming, on occasion I'd like to see a film without her in it.)

I miss fresh voices. Different voices. Independent film was the voice of the counterculture, the proletariat, the marginalized. If I can't find them at my arthouse cinema, where can I find them?

I do still see independent films every now and then. What can I say? I'm the believer who can't stop believing this love jones will be sated and I'll once again sit there in the dark just feeling . . . wow.