In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Independent Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Histories
  • Filmmaker Interviews
  • Gay and Lesbian Film
  • Cult, Exploitation, and Midnight Movies
  • Horror Film
  • Nontheatrical Film

Cinema and Media Studies American Independent Cinema
David Sterritt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0061


American independent cinema, often called “indie cinema,” has no clear historical starting point and no single definition. Most broadly, the term refers to films made outside the Hollywood system, although some scholars date independent cinema from 1908, when enterprising filmmakers defied the near-monopoly of the Motion Picture Patents Company, formed by Thomas A. Edison and others hoping to control the rapidly expanding industry. The creation of United Artists in 1919 established a nominally independent studio within Hollywood, although its founders—Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford—were celebrated movie stars. The advent of cheap, flexible equipment facilitated truly independent filmmaking during and after World War II, and the prolific producer-director Roger Corman gave the movement a major boost in the 1950s and 1960s. Another pivotal moment came when actor John Cassavetes wrote and directed Shadows (1957, revised 1959), the first of many profoundly personal films (e.g., Faces in 1968 and A Woman under the Influence in 1974) financed in part by his earnings as a top Hollywood star. Subsequent critical and/or commercial successes brought heightened attention to indie cinema, which then entered a New Hollywood period in which a gifted “film-school” or “movie-brat” generation blurred the lines between independent and Hollywood production by drawing on industry resources or setting up alternative studios, even as quasi-independents such as Robert Altman made both Hollywood and non-Hollywood films. In the same era, the “midnight movie” scene began with such radically distinctive pictures as John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972), a scatological satire of middle-class Americana, and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), described by the filmmaker as a “dream of dark and troubling things.” More recent developments include film/video hybrids and “postcinema” films (e.g., The Blair Witch Project in 1999) that extend their fictions into neighboring media such as websites and video games; all the while, drastically individualistic moving-image artists have created avant-garde and “experimental” works ranging from Maya Deren’s oneiric Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) to Stan Brakhage’s dazzling Commingled Containers (1996).

General Overviews

Andrew 1999, Levy 1999, and Merritt 2000 make up in savvy and perceptiveness what they lack in up-to-the-minute information. Hall 2004 spotlights an impressively diverse assortment of films and filmmakers. Holmlund and Wyatt 2005, King 2005, and Newman 2011 are somewhat more theoretical than the others, but still clear and accessible. Tzioumakis 2006 is especially strong on detailed practical information.

  • Andrew, Geoff. Stranger than Paradise: Maverick Film-Makers in Recent American Cinema. New York: Limelight, 1999.

    A well-known British critic analyzes the individualism, playfulness, and eccentricity of independent auteurs ranging from David Lynch and Todd Haynes to Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, with brief glances at some female filmmakers. Clear and well organized, although somewhat dated in its choice of filmmakers.

  • Hall, Phil. The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies: Films from the Fringes of Cinema. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2004.

    Not actually an encyclopedia, this lively survey of low-profile cinema is especially valuable for its attention to such little-known works as Jason Rosette’s Bookwars (2000) and Garrett Scott’s Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story (2002) as well as unsung production companies, distributors, and underground and experimental film festivals.

  • Holmlund, Chris, and Justin Wyatt, eds. Contemporary American Independent Film: From the Margins to the Mainstream. New York: Routledge, 2005.

    This collection takes a comprehensive view of independent cinema, regarding it as a shifting and heterogeneous category that is identifiable by its opposition to dominant film-industry practices and incorporates genres as different as pornography and children’s films. Pays particular attention to the rise of independent productions aimed at mainstream audiences.

  • King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    Places the subject in a conceptual framework, focusing on five key topics—industrial practices, narrative, form, genre, and social and ideological considerations—and supporting its arguments with references to a broad array of films and filmmakers. A coda asks whether indie cinema may now be merging with mainstream film.

  • Levy, Emanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

    Lively, comprehensive survey, beginning with the emergence of David Lynch, Charles Burnett, and Victor Nunez in the 1970s and proceeding to the end of the 1990s. Especially valuable for its discussions of the Sundance Institute and Film Festival and for its distinctions among different regional approaches to indie production.

  • Merritt, Greg. Celluloid Mavericks: The History of American Independent Film. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2000.

    Traces the history of independents from the birth of cinema in the 1890s through 1999, arguing that an “indie system” of production and exhibition is an essential support mechanism if filmmakers are to have creative and financial control over their activities. Lively and opinionated. Includes an indie-film timeline (pp. 413–423).

  • Newman, Michael Z. Indie: An American Film Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

    Deeming the middle 1980s through 2010 to be the “Sundance-Miramax” era in independent-film history, the author explores distinctions between indie and mainstream production as perceived by American moviegoers and analyzes marketing and exhibition techniques. Topics include audience viewing strategies, indie institutions, narrative structure, and pastiche.

  • Tzioumakis, Yannis. American Independent Cinema: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748618668.001.0001

    Clearly written presentation of key information about the field, with strong attention to distribution, marketing, and other economic factors, beginning in the 1920s and continuing through the early 2000s. Contains numerous tables as well as case studies of people and movies ranging from James Cagney to Clerks (1994).

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