Independent film isn't what it used to be.
Declining production costs and ever-proliferating distribution options have encouraged everyone from the U.S. Navy to fringe religious groups to dabble in filmmaking, with results that range from unsettling to explosive.
The latest example -- The Innocence of Muslims, an incendiary piece of anti-Muslim bigotry that advertised its casting call in the pages of Backstage and shot scenes on a Paramount set -- has inflamed tensions across the Islamic world and inspired a series of violent outbreaks, including an assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Would a pamphlet or a web posting have had the same effect? Or is there something about filmmaking that lends authority to an expression of stupidity that would otherwise be dismissed out of hand? The answer has something to do with the history of independent filmmaking, and the changes that have turned it upside down.
During the heyday of indie movies, roughly 1989 to 2002, renegade auteurs including Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Kimberly Peirce and David O. Russell embraced the opportunity to work outside the studio system, creating arty, low-budget movies about characters and issues that had no place at Columbia Pictures and 20th Century Fox.
They enjoyed freedom, up to a point. And their budgets were low, at least by comparison to what the Steven Spielbergs and James Camerons of the world were spending. But even guerrilla filmmaking was expensive in the pre-digital era. "My generation, we didn't go to film school to get a degree," Spike Lee told me last month. "We went to film school to get the equipment."
Moreover, most filmmakers in those days agreed that the primary purpose of these films was to tell great stories. If they made money, great, but if that really mattered to you you'd be working for a studio. If they raised awareness about a topic, swell, but if that were your primary purpose you'd be in Washington, not Hollywood. The culture of filmmaking -- its view of storytelling as an inherently valuable, even virtuous act -- shut out the most shameless propagandists and provocateurs. They weren't invited into the club.
And suppose you somehow managed to raise enough money to make a film that had nothing to do with on-screen quality and everything to do with advancing some pet cause or tearing down some enemy, real or imagined. Who would show it? A legion of tastemakers guarded every distribution outlet, from festivals to art house cinemas to VHS rental chains. Sure, you could sell your movie at one of those disreputable video shops -- right next to the imported European pornography -- but how big of an audience could you hope to reach with that strategy?
Clearly, things have changed. If Hollywood used to be a club, now it's more like a casino. At the studios, anyone with a recognizable "platform" -- be it a book, a board game or a Twitter account -- is encouraged to "monetize their brand" with a feature film. And in the indie wilds, all bets are off.
In many ways, the independent-film world is a scene of exciting innovation, as new voices gain access to audiences without having to contend with artificial barriers to entry. But there is a dark side, too.
Let's say you're the U.S. Navy. Recruitment is down, given that whole endless-wars-on-foreign-soil thing, and you could use a way to get young people excited about the armed forces again. Why not do an open call for filmmakers willing to build an action movie around the exploits of Navy SEALS, and release the resulting movie -- Act of Valor -- in theaters across the country? No one needs to know that they're sitting through a feature-length recruitment film.
Or let's say you're a rabid anti-Muslim zealot who, for reasons that remain mysterious, wants to antagonize a sizable portion of the world's population. You don't need an agency. You don't need a studio. Just put an ad in Backstage, hire up a crew and release your trailer on YouTube. The bars to production and distribution are so low today that literally anyone can do it.
Unfortunately, that's not always apparent to viewers. As laughable as the production values on The Innocence of Muslims may seem, it's reasonable to expect that those who saw the trailer's Arabic version did not immediately conclude that it had been made by a handful of charlatans. In the popular imagination, if not in reality, anyone can write a blog post or shoot a cell phone video, but only Hollywood, Bollywood and a select few others can make a movie. To get a movie made, you need backers, producers, marketers, advocates of every description. The mere existence of a film seems to suggest that it has been endorsed by a lot of people -- people with money, people with connections, people with taste.
We don't live in that world anymore, but ideas don't always move as quickly as reality. In the meantime, we should all pay closer attention to who's projecting their ideas onto our screens -- and why.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in an attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya; the embassy is in Tripoli, and the attack that claimed Ambassador Stevens' life took place at a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.
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