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While I lived in Minneapolis from 1997-2003 (toward the end of my old information technology career), I discovered a vital filmmaking community. The Twin Cities (Minnesota) has its own chapter of the Independent Film Project.  The Chapter ran many different activities and workshops, including a producer’s conference in June, a film festival in the fall, and various screenings at theaters like the Heights and Oak Street Cinema. The third Wednesday of every month there is a free showcase of independent shorts in the auditorium at the Bryant Lake Bowl, on Lake Street near Uptown. The local community helped sponsor an annual AIDS benefit on Academy Awards night every year, at either the Orpheum or State Theater on Hennepin Ave., and the Maybery awards for local films were presented at a separate event that night. Today, visitors will also want to look at Minnesota Film Arts.    Elsewhere on my sites, I document what got me interested in all this—my 1997 book. Here, I want to survey what I found in the indie business. The smallest films often covered interesting topics, which could be either local or global.

 For example, there was a one hour documentary “Married at the Mall” (Melody Gilbert), about weddings at the Mall of America. Chuck Olson was making “Blogumentary” about bloggers in the days before myspace.com, and Neil Orman offered “Dotcommies Revisited,” about the life of a teen entrepreneur after his dot com experiment busts. Jon Springer with his Cricket Films has made some socially important films, sometimes in black-and-white: The feature “The Hymens Parable” about a priest struggling with family pressures, and the long short “Heterosapiens,” which turns the debate about gay equality around. There is a supernatural short from the Battle of the Bulge, “Retreat,” by Darin Heinis; I tried out for a part of a field grade officer and came close to getting it. These very small films have moved in on important topics, such as “Urban Warriors” (2001), by Matt Ehring. Some local films combined locations from two areas, as Jon Swon’s  “Jerome’s Razor”  (2001) starts with office comedy in Minneapolis and becomes a vagabond road movie, exploring a mysterious commune in New Mexico.

 We move on to the more “established” indie labels, usually subsidiaries of major studies. There is Warner Independent Pictures, Picture House (formerly Fine Line Features, from New Line), Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, Focus (Universal, including Rogue for horror films), and Sony Pictures Classics (Columbia, with varied labels like Screen Gems for horror and Tri-Star for midrange). Sometimes these “boutique” brands buy their releases at film festivals (including, of course, Sundance). Some of these studios are more “independent.” Lions Gate is a public company of its own now; it has incorporated Artisan (which still is used as a trademark for DVDs), as well as Lifetime television. Lions Gate does a lot of horror (the Saw films), and also picks up films at festivals often shunned by other distributors (such as “Fahrenheit 9/11”, which was answered by another film, “Fahrenhype 9/11”). Miramax is now part of Disney, but the Weinstein brothers have gone it alone, or partnered with the Independent Film Channel. There are various other small distributors with independent only, like ThinkFilm. Magnolia, associated with Mark Cuban, has been particularly innovative with experimental releases, including simultaneous DVD and theatrical release (“Bubble”).  Some studios, such as Dreamworks and to some extent Lions Gate, walk the line between independent and full studio filmmaking.

 Many “serious” films about social issues come out on these indie labels (“Thank You for Smoking”) but a limited business is developing to produce these films, particularly Participant, which has had releases on both indie (“Good Night and Good Luck”) and major studio labels (“Syriana”). Go to any major studio release at a multiplex, however, and you will be inundated with previews of films designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It’s too bad that these films are needed to get enough bottom line so we can afford the films that matter.  Sometimes independently financed films are still released on a major studio’s label (like “Ray” from Universal in 2004), and it is becoming common for major players in the movie business to arrange their own projects. Actually, that was common in the 1950s, as that was how United Artists, eventually absorbed into MGM and Sony, came into being. Some industry commentators still claim that the main difference between independent and full studio production is simply budget. A couple of successful independent films (“Cavite” and “Primer”) were made for about $7000 a piece, and “My Date with Drew” was supposedly made in 30 days for less than $2000 on a Circuit City rental, maybe the cheapest commercial film ever made.

 Where does this leave the aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter?  It depends a lot on what the individual wants. Screenwriting has long been a profession, with its own unions and guilds and practices. “They” set up walls to keep you out and then open up all kinds of mouse holes. All creative businesses are like that. The business is extremely varied. Some companies, most of all those that provide films and shows for children (like Nickelodeon) need to format their content with such strict guidelines that they develop their writers from within, with internships. Many production companies and agents tend to look for narrow genres of material (varying from monster movies to family films), because each genre is something that the individual business knows well. So that means there are many companies and the aspiring writer has to explore a large field with many smaller players carefully.  Most agents, in screenwriting seminars, stress the importance of character and plot and the three-part structure. Screenwriting is a literary form that by definition is minimalist, because you write only what can be seen and heard, not what is imagined. The dialogue and visual images must tell the complete story and usually need considerable entertainment value to hold an audience. As with music, where there are well established forms (like the Sonata), you have to know how to follow the rules before you can learn how to break them. Yet, we all know that many powerful films have “broken” the rules of conventional wisdom and conveyed powerful messages.