In 1992, the debut film of a little known writer/director out of Manhattan Beach rocked the Sundance film festival, quickly becoming the most talked about independent film of the year despite relatively modest success at the box office. That film was Reservoir Dogs and the man behind it (writing, acting, directing and producing the picture from scratch) was Quentin Tarantino. The film was the first in what would become an iconic canon, and in a growing field of talented indie filmmakers, Tarantino himself emerged as an exceptional but prototypical figure in a new wave of Hollywood production.
In the 1990s, American cinema took opposing elements of something film historians call ‘New Hollywood’2 productions and combined them to create a stylistic trend unique in the history of U.S. film. Instead of creating big budget, high concept movies and low budget, independent films separately, studios began to hire successful indie film artists for larger projects that could be marketed and sold on the same scale as a standard blockbuster. Through this, a commercial marriage was arranged between the more critically acclaimed alternative filmmaking and the more profitable style of high concept blockbusters.
By the early 1990s a shift in so called independent production became evident whether you argue that independent studios were assimilated by major media corporations as Justin Wyatt does in The Formation of ‘Major Independent’, or whether you argue that independent cinema fractured across a spectrum of large studio involvement and cannot be readily defined as King et al. argue in American Independent Cinema: Indie, Indiewood and beyond. The production quality and methods noticeably changed for independent filmmakers in between the late 1980s and the year 2000, but what was responsible for this shift? Was it independent film festivals’ successful recruitment of great directors, or the work of of the auteurs themselves? Was it the product of clever marketing strategies from wannabe OldGuard studio execs or a result of technological innovations that allowed Americans to watch movies at home without ever having to set foot in a theater?
Much like Wyatt, I would argue that the main factors that affected the commodification of contemporary independent film can be found in the actions of studios both large and small. While film festivals’ rising prominence boosted critical reception for smaller budget movies and shifting technologies prompted a shift in ancillary markets (making box office earnings just part of the total profit a film could earn), both changes were relevant only through the deliberate involvement of businessminded studio executives.
However, unlike Wyatt, who explored the phenomenon through the tempestuous rise and fall of large independent studios such as Carolco and Orion in the 1980s, I would like to focus on how the career of an individual director working within the 1990s reflected the trends in contemporary independent cinema. Seeing as Quentin Tarantino’s was a seminal success story within the independent film explosion, I believe much can be explained by looking through his work, in examining how studio efforts guided his films into the public eye and in gauging the quality of their reception in both box offices and more critically by audiences.
To be sure, if film holds any significance for cultural or literary study, then it is my view that emergence and the hybrid successes of bigindie film producers like Tarantino deserve some carefully concerted scrutiny. It is through this firebrand lens that I hope to engage the major questions of contemporary American cinema as it turned the corner of a new millennium. But before we can understand this period of ‘indie’ Hollywood film we need to understand its context, which requires a foray into the history of independent film itself.