Movies: the Year in Review -- From Major to Minor

Why the best films of 2004 look like indies but aren't

Over the years, Miramax accrued an enviable reputation as a maker and breaker of directors, an awards machine and generic art-house-movie assembly line, a setter of standards and a lowerer of them, too. But Miramax now is essentially out of the indie biz: At year's end, it released two lavish biopics in which famous living people (Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio) portrayed famous dead people (Peter Panauthor J.M. Barrie and Howard Hughes, respectively) in expensive movies aimed as much toward garnering awards as audiences. The combined budgets for Marc Forster's Finding Neverlandand Martin Scorsese's The Aviatorwould have paid for 200 sex, lies and videotapes; their casts, including Depp and Kate Winslet in Neverland, and Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Jude Law and Gwen Stefani in The Aviator, would fill a year's worth of Entertainment Weekly.

Where once "independent film" meant a movie made outside the clutches of Hollywood, now it means simply a movie that resemblessomething done on the fringes. It's no longer a question of ownership, but of aesthetics: Is it quirky? Dark? Inscrutable? Full of famous people taking off their clothes? Made with shaky cameras and set to a minimalist score? Is it funny but not laugh-out-loud funny? Do people talk and talk but never really do anything? Yeah? Then it's indie.

"Who could say anything bad about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and who is more quirky and individual a creative voice than [its writer] Charlie Kaufman?" asks Mark Urman, head of distribution at ThinkFilm, which is not affiliated with a major studio. "But there is nothing about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that was ever at risk. It's a film that, once somebody green-lit it, said, 'What do you need? You need Kate Winslet? Let's get Kirsten Dunst. A walk-on. Let's get Elijah Wood. A walk-on. It's barely a role. I've had bigger parts in movies. Let's cast it up. If it's gonna be quirky, we better protect it with as much production value, as much music, as much light, as much beauty, as much location, as much snow in the summer, as much sunshine in the winter. What can we do for this movie to guarantee that this quirky movie might reach an audience?' That's not independent. That's just the opposite of independent, where you walk that tightrope and there is no safety net in sight."

Hollywood see, Hollywood do: Kinsey is only one example of the influence Miramax has among the major studios.
Hollywood see, Hollywood do: Kinsey is only one example of the influence Miramax has among the major studios.

And there's the rub.

What irks Urman is the fact that, among the nominees for the respected Independent Film Project's Gotham Awards (handed out December 1), only one of the five features was trulyindependent -- Primer, the dazzling if occasionally head-scratching debut by Shane Carruth, a Dallas software engineer who wrote, directed, starred in, edited, and scored his quasi-sci-fi movie for $7,000. The rest of the nominees -- Sideways (which won), Huckabees, Eternal Sunshineand Before Sunset-- were all financed by the specialty divisions of major studios. What chance does a tiny movie like Primerstand when faced against the likes of Payne, Linklater, Gondry and Russell? No chance at all. Urman was understandably ticked: ThinkFilm distributed Primer.

But this year has completely blurred the line between "indie" and "studio" so that not even the Independent Film Project seems aware of the irony at work in its own awards proceedings.

"Well, the line is moving, let's say that," insists Mark Gill, head of newcomer Warner Independent, which this year also released the acclaimed marital drama We Don't Live Here Anymore. Gill and ThinkFilm's Urman, as well as Fox Searchlight's David Linde and Magnolia Pictures' Eamonn Bowles (which released the remarkable Ramones documentary End of the Century), are Miramax vets -- and they are all, says Biskind, "people who learned the Miramax tricks without becoming colonized by Harvey and Bob's personalities, meaning they're actually decent people and treat filmmakers well." Gill began there in 1994 and for five years was president of its Los Angeles operations, acquiring and developing and marketing their movies. He was there when, in 1996, The English Patientwon nine Oscars, and he recalls thinking then how 20 years earlier, a major studio would have released Anthony Minghella's film.

"But what's happened is the studios' major divisions are under pressure to do $200-, $300 million movies that can be a worldwide success, because when they hit, boy, does that pay dividends," he says. "The emphasis is on very, very broad stories and themes. But what I find appealing is the opposite: smaller stories with a human dimension to them, which will work around the world but on a smaller basis. All the so-called 'indie movies' have one thing in common, which is a singularity of voice. The biggest change is an independent film can be made for as little as $10,000 and for as much as $30 million. The ceiling has been raised. 'Independent' is not an economic proposition. It's not about who owns it. It's an aesthetic, which is how people pick movies. They look for a transformational experience, something that enlightens and informs their experience. It's okay that it's just a state of mind." He laughs.

The irony is that the year's best "indie" movie, writer-director Paul Weitz's In Good Company, is being distributed by a major (Universal) even though it looks and sounds and feels like something that should be sold in the art house. In the movie, Dennis Quaid loses his magazine ad-selling job to Topher Grace, who, at half Quaid's age, becomes the old man's boss. Weitz's movie is full of everyday stuff -- second mortgages, fear of losing medical benefits, petulant bosses -- and feels as honest as any fiction released this year.

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