Looking Back 25 Years: The Indie Film Awakening

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This article is part 4 of 4 in a series. 

Read Part 1 Here: Looking Back 100 Years: The Birth of Classic Hollywood

Read Part 2 Here: Looking Back 75 Years: The War on Film

Read Part 3 Here: Looking Back 50 Years: A New Generation Takes Over

On December 26th, 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved. This signalled the formal end of the Cold War, which left the United States as the sole remaining superpower, but did not necessarily usher in an era of peace at home and abroad. This shift in power instead opened a void in eastern Europe and the middle east which would come to be a source of conflict for the next two decades and beyond. A deadly civil war broke out in Yugoslavia as Bosnia and Herzegovina attempted to become independent. In western Europe, the EU was established and began to establish a central governing body to assist in creating a European economy where members were more closely tied than ever before. In the US, the Los Angeles uprising took place when thousands of people took to the streets to riot and loot as a result of the acquittal of 4 police officers in the beating of Rodney King. A recession meant that unemployment was at its highest levels since 1984, which hurt many industries, including film. 

In this era, Hollywood found itself in unexplored territory. The growth of home video meant a new revenue stream for studios, but also reduced theater attendance which is where films had traditionally earned their money. The advent of computer generated effects meant more realistic visuals in film, but at substantially higher cost. Furthermore, film stars who had become used to the success of the 1980’s began demanding more in their contracts, often creative control which filmmakers and studios were uncomfortable to give up. As movie costs expanded, audiences came to associate big budgets with high quality. Because of this, studio executives had little choice but to keep spending more and more money on their films, despite increased competition and the economy reducing theater attendance and therefore revenue. 

In this environment, independently-distributed film began to flourish for the first time. Many people went to theaters to see their first “indie” or “art house” films because they were quickly becoming more available to the mainstream public. Although the 80’s had seen its fair share of well-made big budget films, the pressures on studios resulted in cutting corners in many areas  resulted in some backlash against the system. A number of big-budget flops in 1992 opened the door for alternative methods of producing high-quality film. Independently produced films offered filmmakers many advantages, including maintaining creative control of their film, more freedom to use new or alternative filmmaking techniques, and not having to rely on having a star in the film to attract audiences (also there was the advantage of not having to deal with a star’s excessive demands). The major studios noticed the potential of this niche market, especially once a few independent films started having success at the box office and at the Academy Awards (The Crying Game, A Few Good Men). By the end of the decade all of the major studios had established their own business units that focused on producing these “independent” films. 

 


The Stars

 

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One of the hottest actresses of 1992 was Demi Moore. Moore started acting in the early 1980’s mostly in small films, but became a star with 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire. That film wasn’t well received by critics, but became a success nonetheless. Moore’s career would be marked by many films that either flopped at the box office or were not well appreciated by critics. Despite these hurdles, Moore remained very popular with audiences. This was a marked change in pop culture compared to previous eras of film where stars were typically only as successful as their films. Moore became known for starring in romantic films, including 1990’s Ghost which would become her most successful film. She began branching out to thrillers and later, even action films (G.I. Jane). In 1992, she co-starred in A Few Good Men, one of the most successful films of the year (and was also nominated for Best Picture). By 1995, Moore would become the highest-grossing actress in Hollywood, starring in a four blockbuster films in 5 years.   

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Perhaps the biggest star at the time was Tom Cruise. Cruise had first become a superstar with 1985’s Top Gun, and earned his first Academy Award nomination for 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July. His career is full of a variety of films, including both dramas and action roles. Although Tom Cruise had established himself as a star in the late 1980’s, 1992 was a good year for him. In that year he starred in Far and Away along with his wife at the time, Nicole Kidman. He also starred in A Few Good Men, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best actor. 

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The most successful filmmaker of the era was Steven Spielberg. While he gained fame in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for a string of incredibly successful films (Jaws, Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial), his career picked up again in the early 1990’s. In 1989 he released his third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade, which became his highest grossing film since 1982’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. His next film was 1991’s Hook, which also became a hit in theaters. He did not direct any films in 1992 because he was busy working on two films that would release the following year, which would be the most successful of his career. First, he released Jurassic Park, which was a groundbreaking film for its special effects and would became the highest grossing film of Spielberg’s career. He followed up that incredible success with another one, Schindler’s List. This film won best picture at the academy awards and is widely considered as Spielberg’s best film. 

 


The Successes

 

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The highest grossing film of 1992 was Disney’s animated musical, Aladdin. Aladdin was an important film for Disney as it was part of the company’s return to relevance after poor performance of their films in the previous two decades. After the death of Walt Disney in 1966 and his brother Roy in 1971, Disney’s management was unable to repeat the success of their past films. In the 1980’s they lost a number of illustrators to a rival company and as a result had to rely more and more on live action movies for company revenue. The turnaround started in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, but the box-office success the company pursued was not achieved until 1991’s Beauty and the Beast which was the third highest-grossing film of that year. Aladdin built on that success, gaining a huge victory at the box office and even earning 5 Oscar nominations (with two wins). It would be the most successful traditionally animated film until The Lion King came out the following year. Part of Aladdin‘s success was due to the fact that it had several important firsts. It was the first Disney film to gross more money overseas than in the US. It was also the first animated film to promote the fact that one of its characters was voiced by a major movie star.

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1992 was a year of sequels, remakes, and spinoffs. A Few Good Men was the highest grossing film besides Aladdin that was not a sequel. A Few Good Men was a military courtroom drama based on a play that was itself was inspired by actual events at Guantanamo Bay. This film is important for many reasons, and is a good reflection of the types of films that resonated well with audiences at the time. First, it was not produced by a major studio. The rights of the film were offered to several big studios, but they turned it down because it didn’t have any stars that were interested in doing it at the time. Eventually, Castle Rock Entertainment, an independent studio at the time, picked up the rights. Rob Reiner was able to generate interest, eventually getting two of the hottest stars at the time to join (plus Jack Nicholson), which immensely helped the films’ box office draw. The film’s courtroom drama was a throwback to the 50’s and 60’s when that type of a film was more popular, but it was updated to reflect modern times. The 90’s would later see many more films that would “reinvent” old film styles to suit contemporary tastes. 

 


New Developments

 

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One of 1992’s biggest blockbusters was Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. That film built on the original 1989 Batman film, featuring the latest special effects and production tools including CGI and water sets. Of important note was the fact that it was the first film to utilize Dolby 5.1 digital surround sound on 35mm film. This was an important “first” for Hollywood. Although 5.1 surround sound had been available in film since the 1970’s, it could only be utilized in conjunction with 70mm print due the the larger physical size of the film having room for the separate sound channels. More traditional 35mm did not have enough room for 5 channels, and the sound playback could not be as complex. The problem with 70mm was that theaters required larger screens and the projectors were expensive. Therefore, 70mm was typically used only for special prestige pictures and showings limiting the usage of 5.1 surround in theaters. Batman Returns changed this. With the advent of digital sound, the channels could be reduced in size and printed onto 35mm film. This opened up an entire new era of high-quality sound in most movie theaters. 

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Lawnmower Man was not a film that became overly successful at the box office, nor was it a film that critics swooned over. Yet, it was an important film because it made two very important leaps in technology. The first and most lasting impact of the film was its special effects. In particular, it was the first film that used motion capture in order to create a CGI character in the film (for a history of CGI characters in film, check out this article). The second impact of Lawnmower Man was its virtual reality-derived plot. This was the first major film to feature virtual reality, and was important in demonstrating the potential in VR as a topic that could be covered in film. Indeed, creator Brett Leonard would go on to make another virtual-reality influenced film, Virtuosity, and it would become a popular science fiction topic throughout the 1990’s. 

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For an example of how much Independent films were becoming influential in cinema in 1992, consider Miramax studios. The Weinstein brother founded Miramax in 1979 as a production and distribution company for independent films. They found initial success by taking international films and re-formatting them for American tastes. In 1992, Miramax formula hit a nerve in mainstream audiences. They distributed the Irish/British film The Crying Game in the United States and thanks to a solid advertising campaign and word of mouth, it became very profitable. More importantly, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. This began the Miramax success streak that would last until 2002 with eleven consecutive years where a Miramax film would be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. This success surely influenced the company’s purchase by Disney in 1993. Miramax also helped to distribute films from talented filmmakers that would later become international sensations, including Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. The Miramax breakthrough in 1992 was only one of many indie film production companies which began proliferating into the mainstream. No longer would big budget films dominate as the most critically acclaimed features. People began to appreciate the stories and unique perspectives that these films offered, especially when Hollywood was struggling to find success through its traditional big budget methods.  

Connection to 1917: Although the Soviet Union wasn’t officially formed until 1922, it has its roots in the 1917 October Revolution. The breakup of the Soviet Union 75 years later in 1992 would have major influence on international affairs and events. The first American film was shown in Russia in 1992 following the fall of the Soviet Union. That film was 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life

Connection to 1942: Paul Henreid, the actor who portrayed Victor Laszlo in 1942’s most successful film, Casablanca, passed away on March 29th, 1992. 

Connection to 1967: The highest grossing film of 1992 was Disney’s Aladdin. The last year prior to 1992 in which a Disney animated film was the highest grossing film in any year was in 1967 when The Jungle Book was number 1 at the box office.