Arts & Culture

On Culture: Are indie films dead?

“Boyhood” received six Oscar nominations.
“Boyhood” received six Oscar nominations. IFC FILMS

“Hipsters love independent movies

[Expletive], I love independent movies

Actually, I just like independent movies,

So I think I’m cool there”

Homeboy Sandman, “Problems”

As you read this, the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 38th year, is going down in Park City, Utah. Over in Mormon country, the Robert Redford-founded film festival is littered with celebrities and filmmakers schmoozing, partying and making deals as a bevy of independent films are screened, many of them hoping to get bought by a studio and distributor so it can get a theatrical release in the coming months.

But even though there are a bunch of people currently in a snowy town watching low-budget, alternative cinema, I wondered how important independent filmmaking is to the moviegoing public. Back in the ’90s, when Bob and Harvey Weinstein ran Miramax Films and had art-house game changers like “The Crying Game” and “Pulp Fiction” racking up box-office grosses and Oscar nominations, it seemed like there was an indie-movie revolution on the horizon. Studios began launching their own boutique wing for indie films. Young up-and-coming visionaries like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Richard Linklater, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, filmmakers whose debut films were screened at Sundance (both Andersons initially came to the festival with shorts), were being heralded as the new, filmmaking whiz kids. It was considered cool to see art-house films instead of expensive studio blockbusters. Oh, those were the days.

Cut to today. The Weinstein brothers eventually started another film distributor, aptly named The Weinstein Company, a studio more intent on sending Oscar bait to the Academy Awards for easy statuette pickup then championing independent film. (Miramax is still barely around, now co-owned by Rob Lowe, of all people.) Those young-turk mavericks are still making movies, most of them for major studios. (“Inherent Vice,” P.T. Anderson’s latest, is distributed by Warner Bros.)

When those aforementioned filmmakers release a movie these days, acclaim, audiences and award nods are certain to follow. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” were acclaimed smashes last year. But, as of a couple of Thursdays ago, they became Best Picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. But what about those lesser-known, indie films that are lucky to get theatrical releases? When these movies do get released, lack of marketing or publicity often keeps these films from getting some sort of audience.

I recently talked to Denver Hill, general manager of the Colony Theatre here in Raleigh, one of many art-house theaters in the Triangle area, about who checks out films at his two-screen spot. Hill said most local moviegoers aren’t willing to check out just any independent film. “I mean, as far as the Colony, I think our movies do well if they have big stars,” says Hill, who notes that it’s usually middle-aged or older audiences who flock to these films. “If they don’t have any big Hollywood stars, it is kind of difficult for us to play a variety of movies because of that.”

He said that while “Boyhood” and “Budapest” were obvious hits when they played at the Colony, there were other well-received yet little-known films, like “Love Is Strange,” “Dear White People” and “Land Ho!” (written and directed by UNC School of the Arts alumni Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens), that failed to click. “We played all those films, and we couldn’t keep them more than two weeks, because they were so slow,” he says. “We still try to do what they can, but we still have to pay rent, and prices in Raleigh just keep going up. So, we’ve got to balance between making money and trying to play a variety of films.”

These days, those small, obscure flicks can be found both in theaters and on your laptop. While it can take weeks or even months for a movie to hit art houses around here, cinephiles can check out independent films immediately through cable and satellite providers or streaming sites like iTunes and Amazon.

So, that’s 21st-century, independent filmmaking for you, where filmmakers pray their films will either be seen on the silver screen or on an iPad. And even though a night out at the art house isn’t considered as hip as it once was, Hill says there are audiences who are still willing to take in these low-budget indies. “People still come (the Colony) on the weekends,” he says. “We have a lot of loyal customers, and we have a lot of customers who are willing to take risks. So, hopefully, that will continue.”