Independent films, or “indies,” are a major part of the film industry. But what exactly makes a movie an “indie film”? At its core, an indie film is one that is produced outside of the major studio system, on a relatively small budget, and with a focus on artistic merit over commercial success.
The Rise of the Indie Film
The independent film movement really took off in the 1990s, with landmark films like Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, and El Mariachi proving that compelling stories could be told on shoestring budgets. While the studios were focused on big blockbusters and franchises, indie filmmakers were free to take risks and experiment with unconventional styles, stories, and techniques.
Out of the indie scene came many of today’s most respected directors, like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson and Robert Rodrigues. Their early indie work allowed them to hone their craft before transitioning to larger studio films with bigger budgets. Check out this helpful guide for more about the role of the director.
Now indie films are far more wider reaching and some even find themselves in the mainstream media, despite their popular growth, they’ve still retained their outsider spirit.
There’s no rigid formula for what makes a film an indie, but there are a few characteristics they tend to share:
- Low Budgets – Indie films are made for a fraction of a studio budget, sometimes just a few thousand dollars. This forces filmmakers to get creative and resourceful.
- Unknown or Amateur Actors – Unable to afford big stars, indie films showcase fresh talent and character actors. Breakout performances help put new faces on the map. That’s not to say this is always the case, you will occasionally find big stars in smaller indies because they want to either work on their craft or they love the story.
- Original Stories – Indie directors have the freedom to take narrative and stylistic risks that studios shy away from. The stories are often quirky, offbeat, or personally important. They’re the kind of stories that are often defined as low concept.
- Authentic Locations – Without access to studio lots and sets, indie films shoot in real locations whether that’s in houses, city streets, or in the woods, giving a sense of authenticity to the story.
- Intimate Focus – Indie films typically have a narrow focus, zeroing in on a handful of characters or specific subcultures overlooked by Hollywood. Having a smaller focus means less cost.
- Festivals– The top indie films make their debuts at festivals like Sundance, Toronto, and SXSW, which can launch them to wider success. This is often how first-time filmmakers get discovered and where more established filmmakers establish some good publicity for their projects.
Learn more about indie films courtesy of Arc Studio here.
Low Budgets, High Creativity
One of the defining qualities of indie films is that they are made on extremely limited budgets compared to big studio blockbusters. While major Hollywood movies regularly have budgets upwards of $100 million, indie films are often produced for less than $1 million. Some micro-budget indies have even been made for just a few thousand dollars.
These tight budgets could limit many filmmakers, but the indie spirit turns constraints into opportunities for innovation. When you don’t have money to throw at expensive equipment, sets, stunts, and visual effects, you have to get creative. This ingenuity is what gives indie films their unique aesthetics and sensibilities.
Shooting on Consumer Cameras
Digital technology has been a game changer, allowing indie filmmakers to shoot high-quality video on affordable consumer cameras. Tangerine was famously shot on an iPhone, as was the thriller Searching. With the shrinking cost and even size of high-end cameras it’s now easier than ever to produce stunning quality images without the high end costs.
Natural Lighting and Practical Locations
Big studio films build huge, elaborate sets with extensive lighting rigs. Indie films embrace natural light and real, practical locations. Films like Florida Project and American Honey shot largely outdoors and on found sets like motels and stores. Using available light gives indie films a raw, organic look and feel. Finding unconventional shooting locations also adds authenticity on a low budget.
Inventive Editing and Camerawork
Editing and cinematography techniques can be used creatively to elevate indie films visually despite budget limitations. Energetic editing gives films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World visual pop. Careful framing and handheld camerawork lend intimacy, as in Blue Valentine and The Florida Project. These innovative techniques require creativity, not money. With the size of cameras shrinking accessories like gimbals, drones and rigs are now readily available on a smaller scale allowing for more flexibility and even more experimentation.
The Next Wave of Indie Ingenuity
As digital technology keeps evolving, a new generation of indie filmmakers are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible creatively on low budgets. Apps like FiLMiC Pro and the new Blackmagic camera app allow even greater control for smartphone filmmaking. Utilizing a phone might seem very unprofessional but imagine the different spaces you could put your phone that bulky cinema cameras can’t fit into? It’s about how you use the technology rather than what technology you use.
Intimate Stories and Authenticity
In contrast to the fantastical worlds of big-budget blockbusters, indie films typically shine the spotlight on everyday stories about real people. By crafting intimate narratives populated with authentic characters, indie movies create emotional connections with audiences.
Indie directors often draw from their own personal experiences to infuse their films with honesty and vulnerability. Take Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. It encapsulates the highs and lows of complicated mother-daughter relationships through Gerwig’s realist lens. While a major studio may have pushed for showier plot points or broad comedy, Gerwig kept the story grounded.
By capturing small moments, we can all relate to, indie storytelling helps audiences see themselves on screen.
Naturalistic performances are key in these authentic stories. Indie directors frequently discover fresh faces whose lack of previous roles allows them to completely inhabit a character. Breakthrough indie performances from actors like Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and Kaluuya (Get Out) demonstrate the power of this authentic acting style.
By taking risks and resisting contrived Hollywood formulas, indie filmmakers are free to tell the unconventional yet relatable stories that define the human experience. Intimacy, authenticity, and realism give indie cinema its heart and soul.
This Celtx blog post is a deep dive on telling non-linear stories.
Many of today’s most interesting films come out of the indie scene. Here are just a few recent indie highlights:
- Lady Bird (2017) – Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story exemplifies the personal, character-driven indie earning Gerwig a Best Director Oscar nod.
- The Farewell (2019) – Lulu Wang’s dramedy about a Chinese family saying goodbye to their grandmother was a Sundance hit that also found mainstream success.
- The Florida Project (2017) – Sean Baker’s vibrant slice-of-life film explores a poor community living in budget motels outside Disney World. It uses mostly amateur actors.
- Moonlight (2016) – Barry Jenkins’ intimate portrait of a young black man growing up in Miami won Best Picture at the Oscars, proving the power of indie cinema.
- Sorry to Bother You (2018) – Boots Riley’s darkly absurdist satire on capitalism and race turned heads with its sheer originality and audacity.
Want to add more indie films to your watch list? Here’s a list of best indie movies from Esquire.
What unites these wildly different films is a spirit of independence, risk-taking, and passion for the craft. Indie directors have the creative freedom to tell the stories they want to tell, even if it falls outside the studio formulas. They can prioritize intimate human stories over box office potential. For audiences, indie films are where we discover the next generation of visionary filmmakers, and where the art form itself continues to evolve. That willingness to buck formulas and take chances is what keeps independent cinema so vital, year after year.
The Future of Indie Film
Indie films have carved out a substantial niche in cinema by embracing independent visions and taking creative risks. As technology and distribution continue evolving in exciting ways, what does the future hold for indie filmmaking? Here are some predictions:
More Diverse Storytelling
One of the strengths of indie cinema is the ability to spotlight underrepresented stories and voices. We can expect indie filmmakers to provide an even broader range of perspectives in the future. Films like “The Farewell”, “Minari”, and “Moonlight” have demonstrated the power of diverse indie films. As streaming platforms hunger for original content, they will continue financing visionary indies.
Leveraging Mobile Technology
Mobile apps and cameras will enable even lower budget indie filmmaking. Advancements in smartphone video technology to give amateur filmmakers professional-level tools. We’ll see more breakout indie films shot entirely on iPhones, that is for certain!
Direct digital distribution will become even more common. Online platforms like Vimeo and YouTube allow indie filmmakers to self-publish. Popular indies can build a fan base and generate revenue without traditional distribution deals. Film festivals like Sundance also partner with streaming services to showcase indie selections.
Freed from commercial constraints, indie directors will keep pushing the boundaries of cinematic language. Films like “Everything Everywhere All At Once” show the creative freedom indie filmmakers have to take risks and blend genres. More experimentation with surrealism, nonlinear narratives, and avant-garde aesthetics will emerge.
Indie directors will complement films with immersive extensions like VR accompaniments, supplemental podcasts, and AR effects. These enhancements provide interactive ways for audiences to engage with indie stories beyond just passive viewing. Films and directors with enthusiastic fan bases are primed for immersive transmedia.
A New Generation
Passionate young filmmakers who grow up with cameras in their pockets will ride the wave of technology to create a fresh aesthetic. Gen Z voices will expand the scope and style of indie cinema.
With some luck the indie film ethos of authenticity, innovation, and creative freedom will only grow stronger in the future. Empowered by advancing tech and unhindered by big studio constraints, indie filmmakers have limitless potential to inspire us with their bold visions.
At its core, indie filmmaking has always been about passion. It’s about directors who burn to tell stories outside the mainstream, and audiences hungry for authentic voices. Financial limitations have never quashed the indie spirit, but rather forced it to flourish through creativity and innovation.
Indie cinema reminds us that budgets and box office returns aren’t what really matters. It’s the fresh perspectives, the candid snapshots of humanity, and the raw artistry that resonates. Indie films take us places a blockbuster never could.
So while the studios churn out remakes, indie filmmakers will continue pioneering new ground. They will give us intimacy where we only expected escapism, challenge assumptions rather than reinforce them, and replace CGI spectacles with emotional insight.
Indie film’s power to connect through our shared human experiences will never fade. The future may bring new technologies, platforms, and voices, but the indie ethos remains the same. As long as there are stories to tell, indie cinema will continue to thrive.
Ready to start your own adventure into indie filmmaking but not sure where to start? Check out our blog on short story ideas to get your creative juices flowing.