5 Things Indie Filmmakers Need to Learn From Studios to Survive

What to do when you're a micro-budget indie filmmaker given the reins to a multi-million dollar franchise. 

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All’s not well in indie filmmaking. The wave of smart and highly influential independent films of the 1990s, driven by auteurs such as Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, proved to big studios that the minor leagues of moviemaking were ripe for recruiting. Today, indie directors are still making diverse and innovative small pictures. But the bench there is thinning, as studios pluck micro-budget filmmakers out of obscurity and hand them massive blockbuster studio tentpoles, hoping to catch the next Jon Favreau or Bryan Singer on the way up.

As a result, we’re in a golden age of blockbuster creativity. Yet it has come at a price. Think of it like a skewed version David Foster Wallace’s Inverse Cost and Quality Law: the larger a movie’s budget is, the shittier that movie is going to be. The chances are high that a greenhorn indie filmmaker given the new and complex responsibilities of a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster will struggle to maintain the qualities that made his smaller films significant.

The larger ramifications of this concept aren’t anything new, and part of it is a logical progression that allowed the likes of Favreau, Singer, Darren Aronofsky, and, significantly, George Lucas to eventually grow into blockbuster directors. What separates the new class is the disparity between where they came from and where they’re going.

Largely led by opportunities handed out by studios like Marvel or Lucasfilm, directors like Rian Johnson, Colin Trevorrow, Ryan Coogler, Gareth Edwards and others have jumped from quaint Sundance dramas to the biggest movies ever made. It’s the tendency that made James Gunn or Christopher McQuarrie into big-budget filmmakers to watch, and the same liability that chewed up up former indie directors like Josh Trank and Marc Webb and spit them out. The trend looks like it won’t stop anytime soon, so here are some things indie filmmakers need to learn before they step out into the spotlight.

5. Take the opportunity

Contemporary Hollywood filmmaking has drained most of the cachet of staying “indie.” Even someone like John Cassavetes, the godfather of American independent filmmaking, knew he had to take studio jobs on bigger, broader movies like Too Late Blues or A Child is Waiting to pay the bills before he could undertake definitive indie classics like Faces or A Woman Under the Influence. It seems the only people clamoring for contemporary indie filmmakers to turn down huge opportunities are torpid internet writers who still think selling out is a relevant concept. We want creative people like Rian Johnson to reap the benefits of fascinating indie movie stepping stones like Brick by turning down huge opportunities. Otherwise he and filmmakers like him would just keep making variations on their indie darlings without getting the resources and the platform to expand the resources and the platform to expand as filmmakers.

4. Keep doing smaller movies

Just because you sign on the dotted line on the studio lot doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stuck with meddlesome studio overlord. Regardless of what you thought about Colin Trevorrow’s $750,000 debut, Safety Not Guaranteed, or his $150 million follow-up, Jurassic World, the dude hasn’t forgotten his small-time roots. Sure he’s been tasked with the immense neurosis-inducing duty to round out the Star Wars sequel trilogy by directing Episode IX, but before he has to worry about that he’s been hard at work on a more focused drama called The Book of Henry that’s due out this year and which likely doesn’t feature CGI dinosaurs marauding an amusement park. By going small after going big you give yourself the range and the experience to handle both extremes.

3. Don’t lose your vision

Bigger budget, more cast and crew, higher expectations from the boss and the fans, more personal pressure; it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you suddenly find yourself answering to an expensive movie with a storied mythology. The key for indie-to-blockbuster directors is to maintain their perspective. After wowing audiences with the Sundance favorite Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler used his father as the basis for the plot to his Rocky spinoff Creed, and created one of the best films of the year. He’ll most likely be able to graft that personal vision on such a wide canvas when he tackles Black Panther for Marvel. Other filmmakers would do well to stay close to their inspirations.

2. Don’t let nostalgia overwhelm you

Picking up the mantle of a Jurassic Park or a Star Wars or a Marvel movie means a hell of a lot of fans — the director included. That kind of pressure could cripple a director’s first attempt at a studio movie. J.J. Abrams was such a Star Wars fan that he essentially configured the new Star Trek movie as a sort of Star Wars adventure before tackling the real thing. He obviously didn’t want to ruin something so revered by him that was also revered by Star Wars fans everywhere, but he was able to strike a balance that honored the old while leaving room for his own contributions. Nostalgia is a great source of power — in moderation.

1. Make any movie like an indie movie

The assumption with studio movies is that creative control vanishes as soon as a director yells “action” on day one. It’s easy to see why. Gone are the days when your crew was family and classmates; now you’re slogging seven hours to set up a shot that some executive producer just knows should go in. But don’t abandon what you know — it’s what got you hired, after all. Sam Raimi worked his way up from the likes of the Evil Dead movies to Spider-Man, and smartly kept touches like the weird P.O.V. shots and the potentially over-the-top gags that helped make the first and second installments into comic book adaptation classics. He didn’t change despite the change going on around him. He remained, in a word, independent.

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