Updated: 05/10/2013

Film, Radio and TV - 6



"Indies" and

Film Ratings




Today's Independent Producers

>>Today, the term "independents" (or "indies") has a different meaning that it did in the 1940s. 

Originally, independent producers and production companies were out-of-the-mainstream operations that resisted—some might even say rebelled against—the perceived content and business-minded limitations of mainstream production companies.

This independent film production, especially as it was originally forged, was important to filmmaking because:

  • It provided a training ground for new talent.  
  • These films introduced and explored topics that were seen as too avant-garde or politically risky for mainstream producers.
  • They introduced new techniques that were later adopted by mainstream producers.

  • Because they typically made films at a fraction of the cost of those made by the major studios, they could tailor content to small, select audiences.

  • Unfortunately, most of these films lost money. (Today, with many "films" being made with the high-definition video cameras available at most electronics stores, production costs have dropped considerably.)

>>Until recently, so-called "independent films" were typically low budget films that screened at special interest theaters and cable and satellite channels and didn't make it as mainstream releases.  

However, by 2007, the majority of the films that won Oscars were technicality "independent," in that they did not originate with major studios.  It was only later that they were picked up for major studio distribution.

The low-budget, high-budget independent line was first blurred with such films as Chariots of Fire, The Blair Witch Project, Leaving Las Vegas, and Sex, Lies and Videotape.

One of the most successful independent films to date is Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, released in 2004. Boosting its popularity were the many fundamentalist churches across the U.S. that promoted it in their pulpits, ran ads for it, and rented theaters and took bus loads of people to see it.

The comedy, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, released in 2002, has been another highly successful independent film. The film first appeared in very limited distribution. Once it became successful, it was quickly picked up by mainstream film distributors.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding costs about $5-million to make, less than $20-million to market, and within the first few weeks it had made $100-million. Whereas most new releases stay in the top-10 listings for only a week or two, My Big Fat Greek Wedding stayed in the top-10 for months.

new paragraphThe top 10, highest-grossing documentary films as of 2008 are listed below. (We are leaving out some IMAX, high-budget, and early films. A full list can be found red
                  dot here.)

Even before its release on DVD, the controversial Fahrenheit 9/11, generated revenue comparable to popular mainstream films.  An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film on climate change, won the Oscar for best documentary in 2007. The film cost $1-million to produce and within a short time had generated $50-million in revenue.

Documentary Revenue in Millions
Fahrenheit 9/11 $120
March of the Penguins $77.4
Sicko $24.5
An Inconvenient Truth $24
Madonna: Truth or Dare $15.1
Winged Migration $11.7
Super Size Me $11.5
Mad Hat Ballroom $8.1
Hoop Dreams $7.8
Tupac: Resurrection $7.7

>>Recent entries in annual independent film festivals, such as the Sundance Film Festival, have been shot with digital video, a medium that is not only far less costly than 35mm or 16mm film, but provides major postproduction (editing and special effects) advantages.

Shooting 40 minutes of film costs about $10,000, while shooting 40-minutes of video costs a small fraction of that.

A professional video production team working on location is shown on the left.

Today, most audiences can't see a difference in quality between good video projectors used in theaters  (referred to as electronic cinema, or E-cinema) and traditional 35mm film projection systems.

This chart indicates the excepted growth of theaters moving to some form of digital "film" projection.

Percentage of Digital Theaters
blue  (3%)
blue  (70%)

Today, most audiences can't tell the difference between professional film and video projection systems.

>> Traditional "Hollywood" thinking has long opposed production with video equipment for "serious, professional work." 

However, today, the cost savings for video production alone, not to mention video's many production, post-production and distribution advantages, make the move to video for both production and theater presentation inevitable.

The key differences between film and video are – discussed here.

A number of well-known mainstream film people actively support the independent film cause.  One of the best-known is Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute, which is devoted to training new talent.

Today's Movie Ratings

>>The content of films gained the legal protection of the First Amendment after the Supreme Court's Burstyn vs. Wilson decision in 1952. It took 50 years, but the Court finally decided that films were "a significant medium for the communication of ideas."

Even though films had First Amendment freedom after 1952, the Hays' Production Code Administration (PCA) seal of approval was still used to determine what was not acceptable in film content. (You will recall from a previous module that once Hollywood got on more secure financial footing after the depression, the code once again became important.)

Hand-in-hand with the production code was the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency that had banned some films now considered classics and endorsed films such as Godzilla vs. the Thing. Judgments such as these set the stage for rebellion—even when producers were faced with a $25,000 fine for disregarding the code.

The well-known director Otto Premminger challenged the code when United Artists agreed to release his film, The Moon Is Blue, in 1953, without the Production Code Administration (PCA) seal of approval.   

" The film had been denied approval because it contained such words as virgin and mistress, which were seen as being unacceptable, even for adult ears."

Three years later, Premminger directed Man with the Golden Arm, a film about drug addition.  It was also released without the PCA seal of approval.  Since both films were highly successful, the power of the PCA code was essentially broken.

>>In 1966, Jack Valenti, former advisor to President Lyndon Johnson, took over as president of the Motion Picture Producers Association (MPPA) and made numerous changes. Once again, things seemed to be moving a bit too fast for much of the public, and so Valenti instituted a rating system patterned after the one used in Great Britain.  

  • G - for general audiences
  • M - or mature audiences (later, the parental guidance of PG and PG-13 were added)
  • R - for restricted (no one under 17 admitted without an adult)
  • X - for no one under 18 admitted (Since X was also used for unrated films, NC-17 was later added to designate films that were rated, but not found suitable for anyone under 17 years of age.)


>>Although Valenti saw this rating system as being advisory only, many feel that because of what it will and will not allow, the code ends up having economic control over film content.

Although Valenti died in 2007, his the code lives on. However, in recent years it has been under attack by those who feel it is often applied capriciously, restricts creative freedom, and is biased toward the films of the major U.S. studios (as opposed to independent and foreign films).

>>In 2012, the power of the NPPA was once again challenged. This time with the film, Bully.

Although Bully was made for young people to address the serious problem of bullying, because of some four-letter words it was initially rated "R." This meant the target audience could not see the film without a parent.

After hundreds-of-thousands of letters of protest, including many from well-known media personalities, the NPAA changed the rating on the film to "Unrated." But that generally translates to "NC-17," which meant that young people under 17 couldn't see it even if they were accompanied by a parent.

Feeling that the value of the film outweighed the four-letter words, and knowing the damage bullying can do, when the film was released to theaters in April, 2012, some theater managers simply ignored the age restriction. (This issue is discussed in more detail Yellow Marker here.)

The Economic Impact of MPAA Ratings

>> In addition to the fact that much of the youth market is not allowed to see PG-13 and R-rated films, many newspapers refuse to run ads for NC-17 (and especially X-rated) films.

So why not avoid problems and make all films either G or PG-13?  

First, there's a bit of a bias against them.  Films that are given G, or PG ratings are stereotyped as being "kids stuff." Some people, including much of youth market (the ratings are designed to protect), tend to shun them.

Second, G and PG ratings greatly reduce the chance of including provocative, edgy, and thought-provoking content.

>>It's important to note that the present system of rating films is based on the conclusions of a committee selected by the MPAA group.  The only actual criterion for committee membership is being a parent (and, we assume, having quite a bit of free time).

The committee members are kept secret, and individual members are rotated out and replaced at regular intervals. The committee's primary criteria for judging films centers on parental responsibility, as they see it.

Because so much money rests on how films are rated (for example, an "Rating" eliminates a major section of the audience) there is much controversy over what ratings films get.

>>Studios that get a more restricted rating than they want on a film will generally trim down or eliminate scenes that they think the committee may have objected to (they don't have to explain themselves), and then resubmit the film.

Specific changes are neither dictated nor suggested by the committee. That, in their mind, would constitute censorship.

There's obviously a lot of tension in this process—especially between the studios, who want the widest audience, and writers and directors, who want to keep the film cutting-edge, realistic, and maybe even disturbingly controversial.

>>Can you have it both ways—a G- or PG-rated film that will also appeal to older and more sophisticated audiences?

Yes, to a degree.

For example, some films can be interpreted on more than one level. The early James Bond films are an example (action for the kids; pretty women, handsome men, and sexual situations and innuendos for adults).

Many animated films represent even better examples. In Aladdin, Shrek, and Finding Nemo, for example, children can enjoy the action and spectacle while adults pick up on the adult humor that children (it is assumed) don't catch. Films that appeal to different age groups are called crossover films.

>> A good source of information on film censorship and ratings can be Red dot found here.

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