Independent Movie Festivals Show Up Big Budget Premiers

by Susanne Siebel

In today’s culture, it takes fancy special effects and high-paid pretty people to make a “blockbuster.” It takes huge budgets, green screens, animatronics, sound marketing strategies, and perhaps even an action figure or two…

Note that I did not include anything about the obvious: the script or the story.  That’s because the mainstream movie industry often overworks motion pictures until they are unbelievable to their audiences—the script and the story don’t seem to matter anymore if we can watch stuff blow up behind a close-up of a romantic lip lock between Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

However, don’t fret; if it’s substance you crave, you only need to dig a little deeper.  Independent films are different. These movies are usually made by people who want to show their aesthetic, as well as focus on the story itself. They want to create works of art that mean something and they do it without the help of big budget studios.

In the studios such as 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios, the spending of endless amounts of money to produce and promote films has become out-of-hand. The costliness for their publicity is worthless because many of their motion pictures lack creativity or strong perspective.

A Little History

Here’s the root of this change: during the 1960’s, movie demographics began to change. Young adults no longer wanted to watch musicals. After the flops of several “major films,” the studios began to hire unknown directors in order to create something fresh.

In the 1970’s, filmmakers such as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese,  and Francis Ford Coppola made huge splashes in the movie industry with their new film concepts. These directors did not think of the trends of the time. For example, instead of using constructed sets, they filmed in real places, or “on location.” Despite travel expenses, this actually saved the studios money.

During this transition, The Godfather and Jaws made bank at the box office. Coppola and Spielberg used the fresh and innovative ways to direct movies and the public wanted more. The studios began to profit and kept the directors that they felt would continue to direct successful movies. Spielberg and Lucas went on to make movies such as E.T., Indiana Jones, Star Wars, while the others quietly faded into the background.

Today’s Independent Films

Today, however, the unknown director are rarely supported by mainstream studios or mainstream movie-goers. To find current unknown directors, the public can attend movie festivals. Independent movie festivals are located in any city in the world.

The most well known include: Sundance Film Festival (Salt Lake City, Utah), Cannes Film Festival (Cannes, France), and Sacramento Film & Music Festival (Sacramento, California).  Each festival draws celebrities to corners of the Earth to celebrate creative and experimental motion pictures.

Sadly, most indie films never see big success. Once in a blue moon, however, an indie film finds luck and turns a profit. Since low budget films are, well, low budget, the paycheck for all the contributors is huge.

Most recently, Paranormal Activity made headlines as “the scariest movie of the decade” (Moviefone) and is now out on DVD. The film was directed by Oren Peli in 2006 at his home. An Israeli native, Peli and his team create the horror film with a mere $15,000.

Peli wanted the movie to be as real as possible. In an interview posted on, Peli explained, “I didn’t want the actors to worry about lighting or camera angles or anything like that. At the same time I didn’t want it to look bad. It was all about the performances and not distracting the actors with filmmaking issues.”

The movie only took seven days to film and was submitted to Screamfest 2006, a horror indie festival in Los Angeles, California. At the showing, the response was overwhelming.  Consequently, it was passed on to other movie festivals when an executive at Paramount Pictures saw it and brought it up to the big leagues.

When Paramount Pictures released the movie in major theaters last September, it made over $105 million dollars. In terms of earnings and style, it has been compared to another low budget film, The Blair Witch Project. Both films rely on achieving their chills through the illusion that what you are seeing on the screen is live footage of the characters’ experiences.

Many other independent movies have become well-known based upon their merit. They can draw in an audience by the sheer fact that they are well-made, without relying on millions of dollars in special effects or actors that demand $20 million salaries. The advertising for them is minuscule. The directors allow their work to speak for itself and use word-of-mouth. This, for many films, is more powerful than advertising. And for independent movie festivals, the art is more important than the fame.

Check it out…

If you want to learn more or care to view some independent films yourself, you’re closer than you think.  The most popular festival in our area is the Tribeca Film Festival, located in New York City. This festival was established in 2001 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal, and Craig Hatkoff, immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In a time of confusion and sadness, each wanted to bring culture and life back to Lower Manhattan. In addition, the festival has generated over $425 million for New York City tourism.

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