While We Were Sleeping

by Patrick Taggart

Quick - what are the best films of the year so far? A reasonable list might include Smoke, Clockers, Babe, The Usual Suspects, The Brothers McMullen, Crumb, Living in Oblivion, Apollo 13. Unashamed romantics might want to include While You Were Sleeping.

Omit the last two and look at the list again. Something is missing, and it's rather easy to see: Hollywood. Big bucks. Movie stars.

This past summer would appear to have been the season of the independents. Normally a time when studio blockbusters dominate the market for weeks on end, this summer turned out to be a romp of the raggedy underdogs. The titles of the big-budget releases have all but faded from memory. What is there apart from Apollo 13, the one truly good mainstream film? Congo? Batman Forever? Free Willie 2? Nine Months? Oh yes, Waterworld.

It could be argued that against competition like that, even Ed Wood, were he alive and working today, would be filling theatres. But films like Crumb, The Brothers McMullen, and The Secret of Roan Inish did not find success merely by default. Even if the major studios had managed to find a few more palatable, big-budget movies besides Apollo 13 to release this summer, people would still be paying attention to their low-budget siblings.

It should be made clear that "success" is a relative term and that "critical" success is rarely equaled by "financial" success. There can be little doubt any three of the independent features that have played for weeks at the Village and Dobie have together grossed only a fraction of a film like Nine Months. Those of us who look to the indies as a source for revitalizing the tired blood of blockbuster filmmaking are under no illusions: Big-star, high-concept films are the money-makers in this game. Hell will freeze over before Hal Hartley gets a suite of offices and final cut at Warner Bros.

Financial success, then, is measured in small increments. Although John Sayles' Roan Inish was a low-grossing film in the big scheme of things, it is his highest grossing film to date. That's a hopeful sign. (Especially since the film has less commercial appeal than his earlier Passion Fish or Eight Men Out.)

When one considers the relatively modest grosses of even the most successful arthouse films, it becomes more meaningful to speak of success as a measure of enthusiasm. In this area, business is boffo. Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction brought the snarling, quirky, and smart-mouthed world of underground film to millions of Disney-doped Americans. And they liked it. Tarantino significantly altered the way mainstream audiences saw off-mainstream films. Just as Spike Lee did years before with She's Gotta Have It, and Hector Babenco before that with Kiss of the Spider Woman.

And by the way, interest in alternative film does come in waves or cycles. In the 1960s, a movement in the U.S. developed, inspired somewhat by the French New Wave and led by filmmakers like John Cassavetes and Andy Warhol. Ten years ago, films like Spider Woman, Blood Simple, and Stranger Than Paradise caused more than a few people to seek relief from an explosion of special-effects films and sequels.

To these eyes, today's outbreak of significant, highly enjoyable, and even profitable independent films carries the hint of - dare we say it - revolution. But even if we accept that the current phenomenon is just another cycle, isn't it possible that the cycle will end with audiences and movies in general on a slightly higher plane? It is already obvious that some indie-minded filmmakers, like Spike Lee and the Coen brothers, can be absorbed into the Hollywood machine without being co-opted. (Some others, notably the Australians and perhaps John Woo, have not.) This means they can make the same kinds of movies they always have, and reach larger audiences.

Something else that's relatively new is the trend among major studios to set up distribution arms especially for imports and independents. In the 1980s, a number of small distribution companies were created in order to handle the swell of off-Hollywood film. When the boom ended, many of them disappeared. One of the big ones in recent years has been Miramax, which was acquired by Disney. Gramercy, which distributed the last two films of Steven Soderbergh, is owned by Paramount. That these studio "boutiques" are being formed is evidence of a growing belief that the independents are a market to be tapped.

But what will sustain this boom, boomlet, revolution, wave - however you perceive it?

Hollywood itself will help. A blockbuster like Home Alone or Die Hard can alone dominate up to 20 percent of the industry's revenue and screen time. But the chase for the $200 million blockbuster is dangerous, and enough of those films fail to keep the juices flowing for other stuff.

And it's not magical thinking to believe that a significant portion of the audience is becoming alienated by films that resemble theme parks and video games, films that use the same stories to play to the same emotions and which employ the same actors. They're turning away - to the many excellent Chinese films crossing our borders, to the scruffy movies being made by Tarantino and his pals, to gentle romantic comedies with budgets big and small.

"These [independent] films are making enough money in theatrical release that they're going to continue to be made," says UT film scholar Tom Schatz. "The audience has reached a critical mass to sustain that."

This isn't a blanket call to support your local arthouse; a lot of off-mainstream films are as crummy as any other. But if that critical mass diffuses itself, it could be a long march to the next up cycle. As Robin Williams said in the emphatically mainstream Dead Poets Society, "Seize the day." n

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