American independent cinema has always been a notoriously difficult concept to define. This is primarily because the label ‘independent’ has been widely used since the early years of American cinema by filmmakers, film critics, industry practitioners, trade publications, academics and cinema fans, to the extent that any attempt towards a definition is almost certainly destined to raise objections.
For the majority of people with a basic knowledge of American cinema, independent filmmaking consists of the low-budget projects of (mostly) young filmmakers with a strong personal vision, away from the influence and pressures of the few major conglomerates that tightly control the mainstream American film industry. Far from the clutches of, among others, Time Warner, Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount), which are mainly in the business of producing expensive star vehicles and special-effects-driven films as part of franchises that bring larger profits from DVD sales, streaming and merchandising than from theatre admissions, independent filmmakers create films that stand against the crass commercialism of mainstream Hollywood while often pushing the envelope in terms of subject matter and representation. As film critic Emanuel Levy put it, ‘ideally, an indie is a fresh, low-budget movie with a gritty style and offbeat subject matter that express the filmmaker's personal vision’.
This ‘ideal’ definition immediately brings to mind films such as Return of the Secaucus 7 (Sayles, 1980), Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984), She's Gotta Have It (Spike Lee, 1986), Poison (Haynes, 1991), Straight Out of Brooklyn (Rich, 1992), Clerks (Smith, 1994), Welcome to the Dollhouse (Solondz, 1996), The Blair Witch Project (Sanchez and Myrick, 1999), Lost in Translation (S. Coppola, 2003), Juno (Reitman, 2007) and many other films that emerged post-1980 as low-budget ‘alternatives’ to the considerably more polished, expensive and conservative films produced and distributed by the conglomerated Hollywood majors. Despite its popularity in public discourse, however, this is only one definition of independent film and, significantly, fails to demonstrate what all the above films are independent from, while also excluding other groups of films that could also lay claim to the label ‘independent’.