The indie film aesthetic is taking Hollywood by storm. Nearly every bit of popular media has touches of sensibilities that are jarringly left of center. What is even more surprising is that mainstream audiences have embraced this shift wholeheartedly. They enjoy the rich mythologies and quirky language that has come to define contemporary narratives, and they are willing to go along for the ride when a writer or director emerges with a unique vision.
Part of this rising interest in unusual methods of storytelling has to do with people’s fascination with kitsch. The B-movies of the ’70s have attained cult status due to the freedom exhibited by the directors; as long as they fulfilled studios’ rote requirements for including racy scenes, directors were allowed to do whatever they wanted. Therefore, underneath the blatant grabs for mainstream appeal, one can see the genesis of the current independent film craze.
Though the Sundance Film Festival launched in 1978, it hit its stride in the early ’90s, encouraging filmmakers to make unconventional stylistic choices. Similar film festivals sprung up, which gave aspiring directors and screenwriters the confidence to commit their oddball ideas to film. The existence of the festivals gave them the assurance that the films would eventually be screened, no matter how strange they were. Interestingly, this first wave of indie mainstreaming occurred in tandem with the rise in huge blockbuster “event” movies. While those big summer movies were hugely fun, they lacked depth and intelligence, and audiences definitely noticed a decline in movie studios’ esteem for them. Audiences began to feel that filmmakers were treating them as if they were not smart enough to enjoy complicated, intelligent plots or relate to characters with ambiguous morals.
This is why television has become such a wonderful medium for risky storytelling. The smaller scale allows for the telling of less forceful stories, and the stories often play out more fluidly when stretched out over the length of a full season. In an ironic turn of events, television quickly became the medium of choice for film writers, directors and actors who wanted to make low-key artistic statements. In an effort to put more long-form stories on the small screen, networks turned to history, fantasy and science fiction. Just a few years ago, no one would have imagined seeing shows like Game of Thrones, Outlander and Mad Men on television, let alone becoming massive hits. Sprawling casts and convoluted plots have become the norm, and television is often described as having entered a true golden age. The devoted followings that sprang up around Arrested Development and Community prove that fans flock to shows that reward them with inside jokes and long-running subplots that casual viewers would not notice.
Perhaps the mainstreaming of independent film can be best exemplified by Zooey Deschanel’s star status. A longtime supporting player who established herself as an independent film mainstay, she is now the star of one of the most popular sitcoms currently on the air. Her style, once thought to be strange and overly girlish, has been imitated by fashion mavens the world over. Independent film has become so legitimized that major film producers like Marc Shmuger have ditched major studios for greener indie pastures.
Having an affinity for off-kilter media has become a badge of honor. People are proud of how strange their tastes are, and studios are finally learning that it pays off when they actually listen to consumers and give them what they want.