When I think of breakthrough independent cinema, I think of films like Night of the Living Dead, Clerks or Eraserhead or to a lesser extent Cube, El Mariachi or Bad Taste. These films have many things in common: a micro budget, a first time director, immense sacrifice & finally huge international success.
All of these films were also made well before the DSLR revolution & the much heralded Democratisation of Filmmaking that came with it. Half of that list were shot in Black and White (and I could add Following and Pi to tip the scale further in B&Ws favour..) & were shot with limited availability of equipment, actors, locations, glass & perhaps most importantly: Film Stock.
Every foot of stock was precious; every frame cost money up front and on the back end in Lab costs. Nothing was wasted. The price for failure was also much higher: If your film failed to secure a distributor, you had little to no hope of a second opportunity. I suspect this is why when we think of break out indy flicks, they’re almost all first-timers. There must be a huge sea of one-time film makers that spent the rest of their lives paying off a debt (The Wizard of Speed and Time), or taking the long way around to getting a second opportunity at success (Monte Hellman).
Having grown up in the digital age, I missed having any direct experience in these developments. My first exposure was using Betacam SP and MiniDV with Final Cut Pro for real-time capture. A far cry from waiting on a lab, splicing film or even the relative-ease of tape driven Linear Machines for news gathering.
These freedoms allowed me to learn my craft much faster than any generation before me. Theory was available in text books, online and equipment was readily accessible. Mistakes weren’t costly to correct & iteration was fast. It’s a gift all film makers today benefit from.
However I also believe this newfound flexibility is double edged - Having crawled through the video trenches I have seen much of the good and the bad that digital brings. The wheat to chaff ratio is exponentially lower than it used to be (Ever tried to randomly find something good on youtube..?) & independent film makers are frequently lazy or insist on biting off more than they can chew.
The movies I listed at the beginning of this post were successful because in spite of their ambitions they had the steady hand of a filmmaker who could work effectively within hard-walled limitations.
Limitations fuel creativity & an empty canvas is the enemy. Make a few marks, force your hand, then invent a way out.
Co Founder Luminary Studios