I recently read an article hypothesizing that independent film was dead, and after working on one such set this past weekend, I can't help but disagree... but I must not how different today's indies are compared to even just a year or two ago. Independent film allows an artist room to grow, which is why so many gravitate towards that medium. If you're passionate about your craft, you usually don't want to spend years working your way up through a system that ultimately may never reward you, and you certainly don't want to get stuck working with material that is not what you love. But where it gives, independent film is also known to take away: without the financial and reputation cushions of a well known studio or production company, a filmmaker can’t literally turn their imagination into reality, as they are often restricted by budget and time.
By a studio's definition, an independent film is primarily funded by one person or institution. However, that means the actual budget of the project can be anything from SAG Ultra Low Budget (under two hundred thousand dollars) to IA Tier Three, which is just under ten million dollars. With such a discrepancy in numbers, the gap in production value is just bound to be as wide; it doesn't matter how talented someone is or how many favors one can pull, there are just certain things that can't be done with only a few thousand, especially when compared to those that had triple the money.
But the common audience member doesn't think of such things; the common audience member doesn't even see budgetary figures. So what is an independent film to them, then? Is it still something that doesn't feature big name stars? Well, perhaps, depending on what one considers is a "big star," but Juno features the exceptionally recognizable Jason Bateman, Allison Janney, and J.K. Simmons, not to mention Jennifer Garner. So, is it something that features a ton of monologues, dialogues, banters, and virtually no action? Sometimes, especially on the ones with severe budget constraints, but even that is not an all or nothing formula: Contour is a low budget martial arts flick, Broken is a guerilla horror/suspense flick, and That is a straight-to-DVD snowboarding flick. Really what independent film has always meant to me is that you're just free from a studio's control: you can tell the story you want to tell and in the way you want to tell it. Sometimes this means hiring specific actors that maybe you see a lot of potential in but who, for one reason or another, would only get typecast and/or Under Five roles in bigger projects. Sometimes this means telling a story outside its "typical" genre structure and not being forced to open the first five minutes with some big and flashy just to hook the audience. Sometimes this means being a hybrid filmmaker (Writer/Producer, Producer/Director, Director/Writer, or many more permutations...), but all of it means (IMHO) that for once the film is really yours because you don't have a studio head breathing down your neck and controlling the important creative decisions about which they usually know nothing anyway.
Independent films are no easy feats: with less money to play with and without the cushion of having a studio attached, often times shots must be sacrificed and scenes rewritten to work around the locations you actually get versus the ones you have on a wish list. Same goes for talent on occasion, though after the surge of independent films sweeping major awards shows, perhaps starting with 1999's Boys Don't Cry, many more A and B list stars are reading (and loving, I might add) those "small" scripts. Well, small in budget, but big in substance: after all, some of those offer the meatiest character work some of these actors will ever get offered, and you can't argue with that!
There is rarely distribution in place before production begins on independent films, though, so there is often a post-production limbo that can go on for years before anything happens with the project. Things like product integration, advertising, and marketing often falls on the shoulders of the producers, no small jobs that undoubtedly the people aren't used to doing; in the studio system there are whole departments dedicated solely to each of those things. At least in the beginning, when the film is just in the can, you are your own publicist with independent films-- taking them to festivals, hosting private screenings, trying to get write ups in the trades. You have to sell yourself and your work to not only get someone to buy the completed work but to also hopefully give you money for the next one. And sometimes that's the hardest thing of them all for artists to do.