The death of the indie film?

For as long as cinema has existed and major studios have released movies, there have been independently released films running alongside them. The popularity of independent films perhaps reached its peak during the ’70s, when indie movies such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Nashville were seen by large theater audiences.

In later years independent films occasionally opened to great success, like when The Blair Witch Project grossed more than $100 million in 1999. But in the new millennium, fewer and fewer success stories are emerging, making many wonder if independent film is dead.

Movie critic Bob Ross believes it is. One reason for that, he said, is publicity.

“(Independent films) don’t have advertising, don’t have a huge budget,” Ross said.

Moviegoers are often not even aware when these films are released, he said.

“One of the tragedies is that newspapers and other smaller outlets are dumping their film critics,” Ross said, noting that critics are vital to getting the word out about independent projects. Ross himself was laid off after a 22-year stint as a film critic at the Tampa Tribune.

Ross said major studios with divisions that release independent movies, such as Fox Searchlight and Disney’s Miramax, may also be contributing to the decline of independent film companies.

Though these divisions can run into financial trouble, it isn’t anything the larger companies can’t handle, Ross said.

“The big studios can afford the losses, which are inevitable,” he said. “The smaller companies can’t, and can only afford two or so flops.”

In addition, movies like Fox Searchlight’s Little Miss Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire often make big box office returns when picked up by major distributors. Slumdog in particular turned a large profit, costing $15 million to produce and grossing more than $140 million in the United States. alone, according to

However, Ross saw Slumdog’s success in theaters as an exception to the rule rather than the sign of a trend.

“The interest in offbeat films with a smaller audience has diminished,” he said. “If it provokes (a viewer’s) mind to think and wonder, maybe they’ll look on DVDs and TV.”

Despite its troubles, Ross champions the independent film and claims that “the independent filmmaker follows his vision.”

Robert E. Snyder, a USF professor whose Florida on Film class syllabus includes such independent films as Ruby in Paradise, said independent movies can involve both regional and universal themes.

“The bottom line with independent films, I think, is they’re more concerned with the statement they make rather than star-studded notoriety,” Snyder said.

James Cavendish, a professor who teaches Social Inequality Through Film, concurred that independent film is an invaluable part of the modern cinema, though he acknowledged that at least half of the movies watched in his class are mainstream films.

Cavendish shows his class Mardi Gras: Made in China, an independent documentary that follows the production of Mardi Gras beads in Chinese factories.

“Independent films are more willing to take on controversial issues,” Cavendish said of the film, though he admitted that such challenging subject matter is not a primary concern for all movie theater audiences.

“Most people who go to the cinemas these days want to be entertained,” Cavendish said.  “Much of popular film doesn’t delve deep into social issues.”

“People don’t necessarily want to go see a ‘message’ film,” Ross said. “They don’t want a sad ending, they don’t want anything foreign and they don’t want anything unexpected — really.”

Snyder, however, was not so sure independent film is in a state of decline.

“There’s still a considerable audience because a lot of these independent films are premiered at independent film festivals,” he said. “Studio distributors come to festivals looking for new movies.”

Though it is becoming harder to finance independent films, Ross remains hopeful for more indie breakthroughs like Slumdog Millionaire. He admitted that 2009 has been a slow year so far for independent films, but said he has seen a few worthwhile ones.

Ross said that while independent film may be dying in the movie theaters, it could still thrive in other media.

“Anyone can get a film distributed online,” he said, mentioning that whatever the future holds, independent film will have to rely on creativity and invention to stay alive — as it always has.

Indie success stories:

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
•Distributor: Fox Searchlight
•Production Budget: $15 million
•Total Domestic Gross: $140,785,786

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
•Distributor: Fox Searchlight
•Production Budget: $8 million
•Total Domestic Gross: $59,891,098

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
•Distributor: Buena Vista
•Production Budget: $21 million
•Total Domestic Gross: $52,364,010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
•Distributor: Focus Features
•Production Budget: $20 million
•Total Domestic Gross: $34,400,301

Garden State (2004)
•Distributor: Fox Searchlight
•Production Budget: $2.5 million
•Total Domestic Gross: $26,782,316

Information from