- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Once upon a time, there were movies that made you feel good, and others that made you feel bad. On the one hand, Hollywood studios painted by numbers and let the spirits soar. They could push one audience button that said tears — as the hero crashes the wedding and scoops up his rightful bride — and another that said cheers — as the scrappy underdog drags his wounded buddy from the jungle.

Independent films, on the other hand, were all about low budgets, breaking taboos and, often, trying hard to avoid a happy end. Indie was genre-bending, glass-half-empty shock versus dream-peddling schlock. Indie directors cast a wide net of anomie — urban, suburban, and rural — exposing with mischievous glee any slice of sham behind the American dream.

Then, in 1994, along came a former video-store clerk, Quentin Tarantino. “Pulp Fiction,” which he directed for indie pioneer Miramax, ditched art-house earnestness in favor of the guns and gore of America’s B-movie pop culture. In the process, he gave Miramax its first film to bring in more than $100 million at the box office.

It’s hard to say what Mr. Tarantino’s lasting legacy will be. One thing, however, is clear: Feeling bad never looked so good as it did in “Pulp Fiction.” People overdosed; blood splattered everywhere; dark, leather fetishes abounded — and it was somehow funny. Aided by Mr. Tarantino’s rise, the glitz of the Sundance Film Festival and the promotional muscle of Miramax, by 1996, indies dominated the Oscars.

All this is recounted in Peter Biskind’s deliciously gossipy, if exhausting, recent treatment of the indie film industry, “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and The Rise of Independent Film,” (Simon & Schuster, 2004). It is less a cautionary tale of commerce trumping art than of art catching the Hollywood gravy train while trying to retain its dignity.

Drawing from hundreds of insider interviews, Mr. Biskind shapes his plot from two main, and rather unsavory, characters: Robert Redford and his Sundance Festival, which emerged from a Utah ski resort to become America’s festival showcase for independent film, and Harvey Weinstein, who, with his brother Bob, rose from Queens, via Buffalo, N.Y., to pose a serious challenge to the big studios’ grip on Hollywood with his production company, Miramax.

There is far too much in the book about film financing (equity positions, net points, billing blocks, etc.) and a surfeit of detail on Harvey Weinstein’s boorish behavior. But readers can take voyeuristic pleasure in watching these characters not so much rise and fall as simply bloat themselves to the point that they’re delivering the same slick fare as Hollywood.

Mr. Redford, controlling yet indecisive, stands by as Sundance grows from a creative laboratory to a see-and-be-seen spectacle of diamond-studded snow bunnies, a sort of Alpine Cannes. And you can watch Mr. Weinstein, the potty-mouthed, power-tripping demagogue, as he descends, even as his profits mount, from the genuinely indie “Trainspotting” down through the middle-brow “Shakespeare In Love,” finally reaching his nadir in the Freddie Prinze Jr. prom drama “She’s All That.”

By the end, Mr. Weinstein’s cynicism says it all. “I wanted to prove to [the studios],” he tells Mr. Biskind, “that I can make a piece of … and compete on their level. And I did.”

On that low note, did Indie die and move to Hollywood?

It sure looks that way, especially once Mr. Weinstein penetrated the date-movie mall demographic. But, more plausibly, Indie seems to have struck a benign Faustian bargain with the Hollywood studios: We’ll sell a part of our soul in exchange for a part of your power. We’ll give you street cred and critical acclaim in exchange for big budgets and distribution muscle. In other words, we’ll give you art, and you’ll give us commerce.

Commerce still has the upper hand, but scanning this year’s crop of Oscar nominations, it’s hard not to notice an almost historic harmony between the two. The big-budget Civil War epic “Cold Mountain” was brought to us by Miramax, which is now owned by Disney, whereas the grim and gritty “Mystic River” was released by Warner Brothers.

Focus Features, which released the nonlinear “21 Grams” and the hushed and contemplative “Lost in Translation,” is now owned by Universal. The feel-good “Seabiscuit” was released by Steven Spielberg’s mainstream DreamWorks, but that same studio also released the very indie-esque “House of Sand and Fog.”

Then you have predominantly indie actors doing turns in mainstream family fare, such as Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Conversely, A-list actors are happily exchanging star glamour for dark indie verisimilitude. The jowly and hung-over Bill Murray of “Lost in Translation” and the fatted-up and uglied-down Charlize Theron of “Monster” come to mind as examples.

If Hollywood and the indies now seem hopelessly entangled, it’s maybe not such a bad thing. Indie in its purest form, without studio pressure or any concern for the potential audience, can easily become self-indulgent therapy for self-important directors. Anyone who has sat through student films full of post-adolescent angst, pregnant pauses and loopy camera angles, could easily welcome a Hollywood film where something — an exploding chopper or a car going off the cliff — actually happens.

Ultimately, they had to meet in the middle. Hollywood has embraced Indie’s gritty realism and given it higher production values and a faster pace. The studios will accept high-brow dialogue as long as the characters blow away a few lowlifes with assault rifles.

But there are some worrying trends. For one, as Mr. Biskind concludes, the major studios, after some commercial big-budget duds, are increasingly eager to reclaim their lost Oscar glory. This would be a shame for movie-going audiences. The star-driven feel-good movies can always rely on the deep pockets of the studios for promotion. But indie films depend on festival awards and critical acclaim to even get into theaters.

Second, aspiring directors and screenwriters are increasingly treating the indies as a bush league for Hollywood rather than as an alternative creative universe. At the Hollywood Film Festival a few years ago, the winning screenplays featured an alien circus artist, a psychopathic dog kennel owner and a cheating senator. They could all have been made into standard Hollywood fare. They just didn’t have a production deal. Unlike the mid-1980s, when directors such as David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and the Coen brothers plied their uniquely radical visions, Indie is lately in danger of becoming synonymous with “not quite ready for prime time.”

So here’s a final lesson for aspiring filmmakers. Unless the product is way out there, the studio suits and bean counters don’t really care what your film is about. It can be mindless or thoughtful, feel-good or feel-bad. As long as you can get an A-list, or upper B-list, actor on board, they’ll feel confident it will play well in Ohio. A-list actors, in turn, tired of being typecast, crave critical respect as much as aspiring directors crave a Beverly Hills mansion and funding for their next film.

As it looks now, the Faustian bargain will remain in place. At the very worst, it will turn cancerous, and Indie will fully sell its soul. At best, Hollywood will treat Indie the way that a popular gang once bullied the nerd loner, only to realize he was pretty cool all along.

D.C.-based writer Stefan Sullivan’s first novel won a Discovery Award at the 2001 Hollywood Film Festival.

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