Hollywood’s Influence on Independent Filmmaking from the Inside
By Dan Swierenga
Independent film is slowly becoming part of the Hollywood machine. Every major studio now has an independent production wing and most successful independent production companies now look to studios for funding and distribution. In the past independent filmmakers were their own bosses and made decisions without recourse, but now everything in Hollywood is subordinated to executives. This may not seem alarming to some, but to people who care about the integrity of filmmaking it should be vital. However, this is not an essay about the changing trends of the business of making movies. If you want to read an article about the death of independent film read the Village Voice. But it provides the backdrop for the topic that I do want to explore. Place and Hollywood specifically plays a very intrinsic part in how art, and film in particular, is made.
Why movies? Because they require so many more resources to create than most other art forms generally, and locations play a major role in their creation. Here I will analyze the filmmaking process itself and discuss the effect that Hollywood has on artistic integrity.
I came out to L.A. a little more than a year ago with a desire to work on artistically important and meaningful films while learning the process at the same time. I faced a harsh reality coming out here, as many people do. Work is not easy to find if one is trying to accomplish the stated goals above. I did eventually find work at a literary agency. There I could observe the industry from the inside and understand how movies are made. When most people think of Hollywood an abstract idea pops into their heads, usually negative: a single malicious entity capable of decimating third world cultures at a single glance. But it’s more complex than that. Scripts, treatments, and projects go through many different hands and revisions before they’re approved. There isn’t one guiding force behind what is released to the public called Hollywood. It’s a series of individuals making choices, trying to agree on what will sell. A movie like Little Miss Sunshine went through the same turnaround and rigors of the developmental process just like any typical Hollywood film. An agented screenwriter wrote the script, the agent sold it to a production company, the production company got money from a studio, attached talent and crew and a movie comes out ten years later. That’s not to say it’s a bad movies per se, but it feigns independence in order to become more marketable. A Wikipedia definition would be in order at this point: independent film is classified as film initially produced without any funding from any financing or distribution from a major movie studio. Little Miss Sunshine was made independently of the big six studios, but it still went through the whole development process and was eventually marketed and distributed by Fox, which to me doesn’t mean independent.
The developmental process is where the problem lies. Some may argue that the ends justify the means, that even if movies aren’t truly independent and still good, they ask, what’s wrong with that? While those movies might be good, in the process to get there, there is a definite compromise of artistic integrity. The script goes through so many hands and opinions that it becomes a packaged, field tested product instead of a spontaneous creation. (This doesn’t always happen. When very powerful filmmakers or writers do a project, they are generally given total creative control. But this rarely, rarely happens in Hollywood.) Even before a script is sold, agents give advice to the writers on what to change so that they can sell it more effectively. Of course this system makes sense and Hollywood is a business, but beginner filmmakers are eaten alive by it. Before they even have a chance to develop a voice, they are crushed by the pressure placed on their first projects. That’s why there aren’t so many younger American auteurs anymore, because they aren’t given a place to grow.
The success of first films are seen as a lottery and all the query letters that my office received reflected that mentality as well. Some people would query seeking representation with only this for the body of their letters: “Due to the recent success of religious type movies, like Da Vinci Code and Passion of the Christ, I have written a script that is guaranteed to capitalize on this trend. If you want to make millions together I’m sure we can work something out. I look forward to meeting with you.” I can’t tell you how many letters I read like this. They don’t send ideas; they send what they think will make money.
Money becomes a bait, a way to snare filmmakers into a system that uses them and spits out them out. Inside Hollywood, these filmmakers must obey the demands set forth by executives, because they haven’t “proven” themselves yet. But creatively speaking, it’s the blind leading the blind. The filmmaker is at the mercy of his investors, and the executives wants to make money. It fosters a specific type of fake independent filmmaking. That system is what creates the crap, the immoral, the violent, etc. (pick your vice). Anytime someone submits themselves to a corporation or business as an employee, they’re agreeing to work towards the goals set forth by their employer. And generally when an employee’s goals become subtly co-opted by his employer’s, that person then mutates into an executive, not a filmmaker. Once you give up that part of you, once you compromise that internally, you have lost something vital to the creation of art. But in any employment, one must decide before subordinating themselves whether the cause is worthy or not. Rarely, it might be a great company that fosters diverse works and originality. But even then, you become a proprietor not a creator. I’ve come to the realization that Hollywood’s methods as a system (not an entity) are not aligned with mine.
You might argue that it always takes years of unhappy work to be able to move on to something better. To me this is not acceptable. This is your life. I would rather work as a bus driver and make my own films than work for a production company that releases I, Robot or other travesties. At least I maintain my integrity. Are you willing to throw away ten years in the hope that one day you might work for another powerful executive? And I’ve noticed a trend working at different places in Hollywood. Those folks who once discussed Tartovsky or Bresson are now discussing how well Employee of the Month did at the box office and what that means for them. Being in that environment begins changing your mind towards the dark side. You’ll naturally start to reading Variety and the Hollywood Reporter for business and they will gradually replace Film Comment and Cineaste. And the more you do, the more your critical powers become whittled away until they’re nothing more than the defense of box office hits. Reverence for great filmmakers or great films turns into rope tow servitude for successful production companies and executives. This doesn’t mean that you’ll have no control over what you become if you work in Hollywood; it simply means that environment influences your thinking and being in an environment like Hollywood will slowly shift the victim’s attention from the aesthetic towards the bear and the bull.
So what alternative does that leave? In my mind there are two obstacles to making films independently. One is finding talented, experienced and reliable actors and crew. The other is raising money individually for camera equipment, film, and any other expense that may come up while shooting. In Hollywood, the first problem is much easier to overcome. Everyone out here wants to work in film. Usually professionals will only work for money, but nonetheless beginners can have potential as well. The second is very difficult to do in Hollywood. L.A. is so spread out that costs and time are compounded in everything you do. Not to mention having a job that pays enough to have extra cash lying around. In Grand Rapids on the other hand, it’s much easier to accomplish the second. Cost of living is much lower, everything is within fifteen minutes and you don’t need a permit for almost anything. However, the first need is sorely lacking in Grand Rapids. Most people have little devotion to filmmaking, but communities do exist. I don’t want this to be an ad for G-Rad, but from what I’ve heard it seems like a great community that fosters creativity and exploration in a practical setting.
For anyone thinking about moving to L.A., I would challenge you to think why you’re coming out. If you love Hollywood movies and want to make movies like that, then I would encourage you to move out. Most of the business out here is focused on that sort of product. Just be aware of the sacrifices that you’ll be expected to make. If you want to make films that are important, meaningful or original, I would encourage you to stay in Grand Rapids. Learn everything you can about filmmaking on your own and make films. Grand Rapids is a very inexpensive place to live and there is access to just about everything you’d need. It’s not easy to rally this many resources, but it’s important to maintain hope in the face of Hollywood. I’ll be moving back to Chicago or Grand Rapids in the next month, and I hope that other people there have had similar thoughts about independent film and Hollywood.
Dan Swierenga went out to LA after graduating from Calvin College with a BA in Film Studies. Possessing at least a semblance of depth, Dan completely failed at being a Hollywood filmmaker. He did, however, star as an extra in the recent Hollywood failure, Poseidon Adventure
Posted on October 12, 2006 4:55 AM