"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," Gill 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 OK 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.
If In Good Company (which opens December 29 in New York and Los Angeles) were a Focus movie, there wouldn't be much pressure to succeed; the studio would roll it out slowly, letting it garner acclaim and awards and momentum rather than springing it on thousands of screens in January. But this is a Universal movie, which means it needs to make a lot of money in a hurry, lest the studio bury it in the boneyard with other well-intentioned studio movies that were never given the care and consideration bestowed upon their most respected indie brethren.
Which brings us back to Primer, the very definition of a transformational experience, and a movie that's very much a state of mind.
In January, not two weeks after Biskind's book had been published, Carruth's movie did a most unexpected thing: It won the coveted Grand Jury Prize at Sundance--beating out, among others, Napoleon Dynamite and Garden State. For weeks afterward, Carruth could not believe his good fortune and convinced himself that the only reason he won was because the jurors had read Biskind's book and were determined to award a truly independent film.
"The only reason I even have this question is because of this book and because of what's happening in independent film," Carruth said when we spoke in February. "I am sure a lot of people look at this and go, 'Sundance is worried about their image, because they're starting to look like a showcase and not so much a festival for independents, so, hey, they just happened to pick the cheapest film in competition and say that's their winner'...I didn't set out to be the poster boy for independent film."
Alas, Primer hasn't made a fortune, despite being touted by Esquire as the best sci-fi movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey. A major would have buried it long ago: Primer has pocketed a meager $414,000 since its limited release in October. Yet ThinkFilm is still opening it in theaters, and Carruth agreed to share the expense of promoting and distributing his movie. And it doesn't need to make a fortune. After all, it was made for a pittance--you could make 2,857 Primers for what it costs to make a Warner Independent "independent"--and, more important, Carruth made the movie he wanted to, for himself if for no one else. That, and nothing else, is the definition of an independent film.
"A preponderance of the best films released this year were independents, and that's not speaking for anything I did," Gill says. "It's a panoply of material, as it should be, and the range of diversity is stunning, and it shows no signs of slowing down because the audience wants it and because there are enough companies out there with some economic wherewithal to distribute these movies. It feels to me like it's the beginning of a new golden age of independent film."