What is an independent filmmaker? History + more

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What is an independent filmmaker? Simply put, an independent filmmaker is someone who creates independent films, which are commonly referred to as indie films or indie movies. Independent filmmakers create films outside of the major studio system. Some indie filmmakers are hobbyists, while others pursue it as a career. There are larger independent film production companies that are household names, and there are also independent filmmakers with unrelated day jobs who make films on weekends.

What is the major film studio system?

Commonly referred to as the “big five” or the “majors,” the major film studio system is composed of five film production studios: Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, and Sony. All five of these studios have their origins in Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” The big five are all located within 15 miles of each other, in and around Hollywood.

There are also several film production companies that are outside of the major film studio system, but are often referred to as the “mini-majors.” These production companies include Dreamworks, Netflix, Lionsgate Films, and Paramount. While these film companies are considered independent, since they aren’t part of the “big five,” this is not what people are typically referring to when they talk about independent filmmaking. 

What’s the history of independent filmmaking?

In 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Edison Trust was formed. The Trust had a monopoly on both film production and distribution. It was composed of nine major film production companies, the primary distributor, and Eastman Kodak, the primary supplier of raw film. Filmmakers who were refused entry into the trust came to describe themselves as independent filmmakers. 

The MPPC controlled many patents related to filmmaking, which at the time were owned by Thomas Edison. This included the patent for raw film. The MPPC was litigious, and often brought suits against independent filmmakers. Edison lived in New Jersey, and many independent filmmakers began making their own films and moving to Hollywood, California, where it would be more difficult for the MPPC to enforce patents.

The MPPC was disbanded after the Supreme Court of the United States canceled all MPPC patents. This decision essentially “legalized” independent filmmaking, but a system where there were major players elevated above outsiders, aka indie filmmakers, already existed. 

The monopoly of the major Hollywood studios helped to spark international filmmaking movements, from Italian Neo-Realism to French New Wave. Independent filmmakers produced stories that big Hollywood studios would never touch. To learn more about different independent filmmaking movements, check out this Crash Course video on the history of independent cinema.

What is independent filmmaking like today?

There are many independent film production studios you may have heard of. I already mentioned some of the “mini-majors,” and that list also includes indie production studios like A24, IFC, and Searchlight Pictures. 

There are also lots of independent filmmakers who are not associated with a larger film production company or who run their own film production company. The New 32 blog has featured interviews with independent filmmakers who are active today. 

Many independent filmmakers work with micro budgets. While big studios are able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on films, independent filmmakers often have much smaller budgets. This can range from a few million dollars to significantly less; for example, Skinamarink (2022) was shot on a budget of $15,000, which was mostly crowdfunded. You can read more about micro budget filmmaking here.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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