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LONDON – Independent films, audience’s appetite for them and the challenges of financing – those where some of the topics discussed by a panel of U.S. and U.K. filmmakers here on the second day of the inaugural Sundance London film and music festival.
Among the indie-spirited industry people at the event were Josh Radnor (Liberal Arts), Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and James Marsh (Man on Wire).
Clare Stewart kicked off the debate by highlighting differences in the definition of independent film in the U.S. and the U.K. In America, only movies made outside the studio system are considered indies. But in the U.K., there is “not such a dominant position of the studio system,” meaning that many movies are indies. “There is substantial government support. A majority of U.K. films are independent, including The King’s Speech,” she said.
While several panelists highlighted that the Oscars of late have seen many indies with leading numbers of nominations, Marsh said the studio system in the U.S. has in many cases stopped consciously pursuing indie-type projects. “Narrative risky work has moved to TV,” and great filmmakers are finding freedom on television, he said. “A lot of good writing is done in American TV, too. The studios have given up on this.”
He said while “there are great films being made even in that system,” great scripts often don’t end up making it to the screen – or only in weakened form. “The system is just there doing what it’s doing. Great scripts…they will either ruin them or never do them.”
Radnor said he loves about his indie film work that “this is my film – I stand by any frame of it. No studio money has every touched a movie of mine.” Straddling the line between indie spirit and commercial appeal is always the challenge, he added. Big-money films are often not creative. Often, problems facing indies lead to “more elegant shots,” he said. “The best, most creative thinking comes when [your back is against the wall].”
While “crowd-pleasing” is sometimes used as a criticism against indies, he said he tries to find middle ground – where audiences feel “enriched and learned a lesson…but feel like they had a delicious meal,” because most people don’t want to be taught lessons.
But Radnor said the big downside of indie filmmaking is the lack of money for crew and talent. In a reference to his starring role on TV hit How I Met Your Mother, he said: “Even though have a really great day job on a TV show…I would love to pay them appropriately. You’re asking people to work for free kind of. It sucks.”
Marsh also said that “in the U.S., I barely made a living.” U.S. indie filmmakers need their own money or make commercials, he argued. “How do you make a living? I actually had to leave because I had the feeling I couldn’t survive…There was no clear way of surviving.”
Is government funding like in the U.K. the solution? While it would help financially, Radnor had creative concerns. “What kind of films can’t be made now,” he said he would wonder.
Marsh said the U.K. system may sound appealing, but it is “very unstable” amid constant attacks and defenses of the system. The current conservative government has made things tougher. “It has missed out on that soft culture is power…a right-wing government doesn’t see the benefit of that,” he said.
Sally El Hosaini (My Brother the Devil) said though that “Hollywood to me seems like capitalism gone mad.” She said she prefers not to be commercial or think in formulas.
But she said the U.S. indie system has “much more of an entrepreneurial spirit, because [government financial support] doesn’t exist as a carrot, so you just have to make it happen anyway.”
She said she tried and got rejected for U.K. funding. The first time, her project was called too ambitious. “I thought that was actually a compliment,” she said. The second time she heard Britain “doesn’t need another film about alienation and multi-culturalism,” she recalled.
Chadha said she also got no financing at first, hearing that she won’t find an Indian girl who plays like soccer star David Beckham. “I played the race card completely,” she said. “Then the film got financed.” But while it has made a lot of money, “it’s still hard to make another film,” she said.
She also suggested that UK audiences want to support British movies and that Tyler Perry‘s success should become a role model. “It would be great if we could somehow channel that into some kind of specialist art label. People would come out and support that,” she said.
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