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The changing definition of an indie film

Cassie Pence
AE Film Pannel SM 9-18 Shane Macomber/smacomber@vaildaily.com
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According to Robin Cass, producer of “Falling Angels,” an independent film is a nongenre and nonformulaic movie that is not driven by the stars that act in the film, but by the story itself.”It’s about the burning desire of a filmmaker to tell a story. It’s as if he will die if he doesn’t get the story out,” Cass said during a Beaver Creek Film Festival panel discussion Saturday at Saddle Ridge. Cass’ definition seemed to be the most optimistic among the panel crew. Fellow panelists Walter Chaw, master of ceremonies and film critic; Tom Delapa, Denver Art Museum Film Series curator; and Bob Denerstein, film critic for the Rocky Mountain News, defined independent film slightly different, which sparked the first discussion topic of the morning.”I see independent cinema as a genre itself,” Delapa said.Independent films used to be more risqué, more experimental. Now there is a prototype for independent films, Delapa said.What changed independent films forever, the panelists agreed, was Steve Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989 and arguably began the resurgence of independent films.”When it was found out that a low budget film could make a lot of money for people, there was a market for independent films,” Denerstein said. Independent films are now made as keys to open the door into the film industry system, Denerstein said, not in reaction against the system.

Generally speaking, characteristics of independent films are small distribution and small budget. Cass said an independent budget usually taps out at $10 million. “Funding is quite a bear,” said Cass, whose company, Triptych Media, is one of the leading independent filmmakers in Canada. “But because I’m from Canada there is a whole government pot of money to tap into. There are federal grants and tax incentives.” The rise of documentariesAs seen in the successes of “Spellbound” and “Winged Migration,” documentaries are rising in popularity among independent cinema.”Documentaries are where the creative juices are flowing,” Delapa said. “These filmmakers are the ones doing the risk taking and the experimentation.””Spellbound” follows eight teenagers on their quest to win the 1999 National Spelling Bee. The film reveals the kids’ personalities, different parenting approaches and comments on the social impact of spelling bees. “Winged Migration” is a documentary on the migratory patterns of birds, shot over the course of three years on all seven continents.

“The world loves a great truthful story,” Cass said.This speaks well for local filmmakers Jim Butterworth and Lisa Sleeth, who opened the film festival Thursday with a preview of their documentary “Seoul Train.” The film chronicles the plight of North Koreans who attempt to escape into China. The film has been accepted to a prestigious film festival, and its premiere date will be released in the next couple of weeks.Critic influence decreasingOne of the more interesting portions of the discussion was watching the dynamics between a producer and three film critics unfold when the topic of critics’ influence arose. Chaw, who writes for LA Weekly and FilmFreakCentral.net, asked producer Cass what influence critics have on the distribution and success of films. Cass answered, unfortunately or fortunately, critics can effect film sales, especially for smaller films.”I don’t think it’s a shame that critics play a role in the acceptance of films,” Chaw said.But Chaw’s colleagues pointed out that critic influence is decreasing, due mostly to the mass marketing and release dates of major Hollywood films.



“It used to be that a film’s success would build on the base of critical approval, by word of mouth. It’s not that way anymore,” Delapa said.Films used to be released slowly, theater by theater and area by area, which gave critics time to comment and spread word about the movie. Now, the public is bombarded by TV commercials and print advertisements months before the film is released, and when it is released, the film hits every theater in America at the same time.A story Chaw told about the premiere of George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” was quite disturbing. Chaw claimed that members of the media were handed fabricated quotes, like “the thrill ride of the summer,” and then had to choose to which quote the company could attach their name. The film critics hadn’t even seen the movie, which is a good thing to remember when reading the bottom of promotional movie posters.The discussion ended with a common sentiment among the panelists that in the end it is up to the audience to support quality filmmaking, whether the movie is a Hollywood blockbuster or has a shoestring budget. “The audience has to make the effort to find out what movie choices are out there,” Denerstein said.Arts and Entertainment Editor Cassie Pence can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 618, or cpence@vaildaily.comVail, Colorado


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