I don’t mind saying that I really enjoyed Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Loved it, in fact. It was a spectacle that might not have been the deepest or most layered storytelling I’ve seen recently, but was a veritable feast for the eyes. Obviously, if you’ve been paying attention at all over the last week or so, you’re aware that my opinion of the film is part of a very small minority. Well, a small minority of those who actually saw it, that is, which is already a relative pittance.
Legendary French filmmaker Luc Besson’s adaptation of the French comic book ended up costing over $200 million to produce, and was financed entirely by independent sources. It is the most expensive indie flick of all time. This erases from the record books what I believe was the previous record holder, the incredibly underrated 2012 flick, Cloud Atlas. While Valerian’s grosses could still be somewhat salvaged by a China release (it was finally given a date at the end of August), what’s really interesting about this is how prime an example it is of just how drastically the indie film world has changed over the years. It used to be that the only “real” independent film was low budget fare that may or may not have looked like it was shot on proper equipment and with adequate lighting. It starred actors who were either total unknowns or just starting their rise, and were the first or second movies by directors having various levels of talent who may or may not ever be heard from again.
How times have changed. Now, an independent film is literally anything not made directly by the studios, which means that it refers to the vast majority of movies because of how much smaller those studio slates have become. Larger financiers are putting up higher budgets — budgets in the mid-eight figure range, which is exactly the kind of movie that most of the studios have pretty much stopped making entirely — and attracting the biggest stars and filmmakers to ply their wares.
This is not really what people had in mind when the indie film movement began, 30 or so years ago, but just like anything else in this business, it has evolved into something different simply because it had to. While there are still plenty of low budget movies being made, the concept of what makes an indie film an indie film has shifted to the point where there is a genuine concern about what this means for the genre’s future.
More recently, it’s not the way that the financing of films has changed that has had a deleterious effect on the lower budget movies that still drive so much of the industry, it’s television. Whereas before, actors looking for a challenge, or even just looking for steady work, were much more eager to take on smaller projects that might pay less money — but which could also have enormous upside, should lightning strike as it sometimes does — than they are now. Now, the siren song of the small screen calls them away to an equally prestigious gig, but for much more money. Even actors who are not necessarily up for major television roles aren’t automatically taking on indie projects anymore, for the simple reason that they want to keep their schedules open in case one of those TV jobs comes along, and the money they’re forsaking isn’t enough to cause too much angst about it.
That doesn’t even take into account the general disdain the major agencies have for independent film because the salaries their clients might make for a few weeks’ worth of work on a project that may or may not make it to major film festivals simply isn’t enough to garner their attention. No work, it seems, is better than lesser paying work, which doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, but that’s a rant for another time.
With pretty much everyone involved in Valerian losing money from the endeavor, the questions had to be asked. Will this spell the end of such projects? Are studio-type films financed by outside entities going the way of the Dodo? The answer to that is, of course not, for the simple reason that, as long as there are rich people who are fascinated by either the movie business or with celebrity, there will be opportunities for filmmakers like Besson to get the funds they need to execute their particular visions, no matter the cost.
A better question is are we watching the slow, painful death of the lower budget indie film? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we have been for a very long time, but no, because every time we have this conversation — and I have been having it in some form for close to 20 years — we are forced to point out that there are few things more stubbornly single-minded than an independent filmmaker, who will always find a way, as long as there is the will.
Just as the definition of independent film has evolved, so have the smaller films that used to be the genre’s lifeblood. A perfect example is the style of movie being made. Twenty years ago, an independently made romantic comedy couldn’t find a buyer, because those movies were exclusively the domain of the studios. Now, the studios don’t make those kinds of movies anymore, which means that they have become the exclusive domain of the indie world. Doubt it? Look no further than The Big Sick, a movie that is becoming a sensation today, but which, as good as it is, would have been nothing more than a festival hit in the late 90s.
Edgier fare is still being made and discovered, as it has always been, but with the shift in how independent film is perceived, it’s getting harder and harder to find an audience. This is where video on demand and the streaming services have come in, to provide an outlet, but that marketplace gets crowded very quickly. What successful independent film has become is, essentially, commercial fare that can’t be made at the studio level, made to appeal to a much wider audience.
That’s not how it used to be, but it’s where we are. If you’re unhappy with that, you probably won’t have to wait too long for that paradigm to shift yet again. It’s sort of inevitable.