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David Poland

By David Poland

Proposition: Jim Cameron Is An Independent Filmmaker

It struck me while I was at the Titanic 3D presentation – really doesn’t need the 3D, but the 4K print looks spectacular and will be a huge hit next April, especially internationally – that Jim Cameron and Jon Landau, as singularly huge as their projects are, are really independent filmmakers at heart. In many ways, this is true of Peter Jackson as well.

Coincidentally, I was talking to Letty Aronson, who is Woody Allen’s sister and producer over the last 15 years… and the same things that she talked about regarding Woody were completely reminiscent of the way that Jim and Jon seem to think.

What say you?

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18 Responses to “Proposition: Jim Cameron Is An Independent Filmmaker”

  1. Tom says:

    I agree with you about Jackson, not so much about Cameron. If I were to define the sensibility of an indie film director, it would be someone who puts their own wants and ideas first, and puts consideration of the audience second, if they consider it at all. I remember when I was at a Q+A with Jim Jarmusch, and he mentioned that when he makes his films he never thinks about how the audience will react. With Hollywood films, the reaction of the audience is always of paramount importance.

    This is clear in the films of Peter Jackson. He is making films for himself, putting what he wants to see onscreen. This works well in his smaller films, but in movies like King Kong and Lovely Bones it comes off as self-indulgent. With Cameron, I think his goal is always to impress and move his audience. Yes he is telling stories he wants to tell, but it seems as if he is attempting to gauge the audience reaction with every scene, shot, and line. The same is true with Christopher Nolan. Even with his actual independent movies, like Memento, there is not the sense that he is making a movie for himself, but rather that he is making it for an audience, with every choice being made with the audience in mind. That’s not how true indie directors work, and why I would not describe Cameron as in independent filmmaker at hear.

  2. Joe Leydon says:

    Funny you mention Jim Jarmusch. He told me years ago that, if you want to be completely honest about it, the only truly “indepenent” filmmakers are those who can finance their own movies. Everybody else is dependant on somebody. By his definition, John Cassavetes would qualify. So would George Lucas. And…?

  3. Martin S says:

    Nolan has a good quote about audience expectation that I’ll try and find.

    As for Cameron, he purposely set out to break the studio model. Once he did that, it freed him to do whatever he wanted while having access to the coffers. Makes him more autonomous than independent, IMO. True independence would be if Cameron hybridized Lucasfilm and Legendary, but not becoming SKG

  4. anghus says:

    i always viewed ‘independent’ as being creatively or financially free of studio control. that you could produce your own work without needing a studio’s assistance financially or creatively.

    Who is out there producing movies without studio influence (either financial or creative)

    Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, and George Lucas comes to mind.

    On Cameron, let me ask this: When he was making Avatar, did he have to run the casting by anybody? Was there anybody at a studio who chimed in on his choices for the cast? Did he have to pitch the idea to a studio to get a chick to film the thing?

    If any of those answers are “yes”, i would say “no, he’s not an independent filmmaker”.

    There’s always checks and balances on a film. Even if you independently finance a movie, the people writing you a check are going to want to know who’s in it. However, the whole point of being “independent” is total creative and/or financial control not contingent on the whims of a studio.

    “At heart”, sure. “In reality”, probably not so much.

  5. Proman says:

    I blame the Independent Spirit Awards for messing up everyone’s definition for what true indipendence means. It went from self-financed and self-distributed(!!!), to released through an indie label/festival curcuit, to low budget, to having under $30 million budget, to released through an “independent” arm of a major studio, to having a an actor in a cast who is a character actor/has indie cred, to being being foreign co-financed or just plain foreign to who-knows-what to, I am independent because I could make a film that I want to make if I chose to, to finally, now everyone’s an independent filmmaker (at heart).

    To summarize. No, neither James Cameron nor Peter Jackson’s thought process is completely reminiscent of the way that Woody Allen thinks.

    But then few people’s thought processes are. Consider this, too.

    When Woody Allen makes a film with his audience in mind, the result is “Midninght in Paris” (and boy, does here ever!).

    When Woody Allen makes a film for himself, the result is, perhaps more brilliant and utterly, shamefully misunderstood, “Tall Dark Stranger”.

    Let me say this also. And this, is the single most important insight on this whole conversation. Being a studio filmmaker does not necessarily make you a lesser filmmaker. It should also go without saying that being the most self-reliant filmmakers doesn’t not automatically guarantee you will make good films. Just because someone works in the realm of the studio system doesn’t make one a non-auteur or a Journeyman.

    Spielberg, Nolan, Jackson, etc – all embraced the studio system because they need to open their potential as fimmakers. In the perfect world, they wouldn’t have to. In the real world, they NEED to. They need the leverage and experience collected by these studios to promote and distribute their films as much if not MORE than they need the extra budgets. Think about it. And they need the bigger budgets to unleash their creative and artistic potential.

    Spielberg is arguably the most fluid fillmaker in film world working on a multi-million scale. He crosses studio boundaries all the time to a degree that is pretty much unheard off and chooses exactly who he wants to work with (WETA vs ILM being the latest example). That he is able to do all of that while being loyal is also quite notable.
    And when he wants to do a movie like Munich he does it exactly as he wants it to be done.

    Spielberg produces all of his (non-Indy) movies. Woody Allen doesn’t, mainly because he puts his stamp on them implicitly. Basiacally, he doesn’t need to produce them. Spielberg produces to offset not just any particular interference but to coordinate the complexity of his works under a uified vision, and there is a genius and how he and other top producers do it.

    Actually, SKG is far more independent than Lucasfilm or Legendary, Martin. I think your idea of true independence is foundamentally flawed because you are dissing the one studio that realistically strived for and done more to achieve the most balance possible in the real (and commercial) world.

    All due respect to Lucas, who is certainly a maverick, it is far FAR harder to run an “independent” studio that
    doesn’t rely basically on one or two franchises to finanace all it’s work (which is, for the most part, limitied to just those franchises) and still creates stready and annual output.

    As for Legendary, I think there’s somethig to be said for someone who only does genre work. I think the word niche describes them better than truly articistically independent.

    Not convinced? How’s this then: neither Lucasfilm (nor Pixar) are independent of their Toy or merchandizing sales. It’s quite one thing to be aware of your audience (there is absolutely nothing wrong with that) and then there’s being aware of the merchandizing possibilities in pretty much 90%+ of everything you do. So there’s that.

    Lucas became successful and then he became independent.
    Indepence brought him the ability to make more money from the films he made rather then more films. This comes off as more negative than it should since I really like his work and think that, at his heart he is more of an independent then most, just as I look forward to “Red Tails”. I look forward to him using his kinetic energy more.

    DreamWorks started out making pretty much what it wanted to make (The Negotiator notwistanding), with quite some initial success. Eventually though this type of approach really started putting them into red. I mean that model really doesn’t work. It is unfortunate. And no one is truly autonomous or independent in the film world.

  6. Triple Option says:

    Nope! The fact that they’re re-hashing a decade plus old project on a money grab (quality, though it may be), even if not for themselves but for a studio should put that thought to bed. Studios, or corporations in general, make a practice of gobbling up so called indie operations. Microsoft was notorious for acquiring smaller software companies and folding their services into theirs. Filmmakers deliberately try to make a low budget w/the expressed hopes of becoming studio financed. Studios look for filmmakers to sorta audition for their projects by seeing them do their own thing and then fold the model they’ve created into their own to hopefully duplicate the financial success on a larger level. Though not as prominently bestowed as past years, these people still get development deals to go out and come up w/more ways to make money for the corporation. It’s not like they’re getting artistic grants from nonprofits or the NEA to create works to beautify or enrich the lives of everyday people.

    Cameron and Landis have been successful in keeping their identity intact. I’m not so sure though if that puts them in the indie camp or just shows they’re well branded. Cameron’s sensibilities happen to be somewhat in line w/corp thinking. Lots of times, whether in game design, advertising, fashion or filmmaking, to name a few, corps will go out and hire indie minds but then get cold feet for the ideas being so different and mold the images or completed work into something more recognizable or homogenized. Cameron’s done innovative things to things people can already recognize. He’s been successful enough to get things his way. I saw him speak a couple of years ago and he mentioned how he still was accountable to the mktg dept and various production execs at Fox when making Avatar, despite his last billion dollar behemoth. He said he understood. It wasn’t just him. Now, he did say, if they gave him $20M to make a film, he’d tell them to go F- themselves. But, he said he realized what was at stake and work cooperatively with them to get Avatar made.

    I’m not sure if “keeping it real” has to be a cornerstone of the indie filmmaker. I don’t believe though that financing can be fully removed from the equation. If his funding through Fox is different than others it could also be because Fox needs to also do things to work to their best interest per the IRS and SEC. Like any other corp doing off balance sheet accounting.

  7. palmtree says:

    Defining “independent film” as a style of filmmaking, i.e. filming without any audience consideration, seems problematic. I don’t think it’s really possible to film without audience consideration unless someone is making an art film or a film without narrative or something that would not fit a known and established genre.

    For example, El Mariachi is an independent film, but it’s also in the action genre. So does it being in an audience-friendly genre make it not an indie movie? Doesn’t make sense.

    No, indie filmmaking has to be defined by the method of production and distribution, either low/no budget or independent/non-studio distribution.

  8. Martin S says:

    Proman – Actually, SKG is far more independent than Lucasfilm or Legendary, Martin. I think your idea of true independence is foundamentally flawed because you are dissing the one studio that realistically strived for and done more to achieve the most balance possible in the real (and commercial) world.

    You’re talking art, which is totally subjective under the context of independence.

    I, like Anghus, was talking about independence being free from constraints. Legendary has total financial solvency, but is dependent on WB for A&M/Distribution and certain properties. Lucasfilm has its own properties and enough solvency to allow it do what it wants. If you crossbred them, then added A&M/Distribution, you end up with SKG circa ’99, which stopped working as model with Carolco.

    Cameron could easily raise the capital to self-finance and build a hedge-investor (like Legendary), but only for properties he owns or holds the license for, (like Lucasfilm). He could then auction A&M/Distribution for each project.

    Cameron knows this. I’m sure he’s mulled it over with a number of people since Titanic. I can only guess that either the Terminator rights nightmare or the Digital Domain headaches made him feel it’s not worth the effort.

  9. Joe Leydon says:

    Seriously: Do porn filmmakers qualify as indie filmmakers? Did Ed Wood? How about Roger Corman? Did Charles B. Pierce make the cut?

  10. The Big Perm says:

    Yeah, that’s why the whole notion of truly independent is tricky. Ed Wood was probably as independent as you can get…but still made movies in a genre for an audience and wasn’t “independent” because he had his investors telling him what they wanted. If you’re taking money from someone to make a movie, you’re not totally independent.

    And independent shouldn’t have anything to do with making films for oneself or not…there are indies that are made simply to make money (i.e. most horror) and studio films that serve one man’s vision (Malick).

    And maybe Jim Jarmusch should think a little more about his audience so he won’t bore the fuck out of me again with a movie like Dead Man.

  11. The Big Perm says:

    Oh yeah, Joe…I have some friends who write and direct porn. But they come closer to being actual movies with plots and characters and are actually fairly well shot. Yeah, those are basically indies.

  12. bulldog68 says:

    Hey Big Perm, can you be my new BFF? 🙂

  13. The Big Perm says:

    Sure, baby.

  14. palmtree says:

    Has anyone ever made porn that wasn’t for an audience?

  15. storymark says:

    Im sure there has to have been a sex tape someone didn’t intent to get out. Probably. Maybe.

  16. palmtree says:

    Well, if they pressed the record button of their video camera by accident and it caught them in the act, maybe…

  17. JoeLeydon'sPersonalPornStar says:

    Hey, I’m off the blog for a few days and you guys start talking about porn without me! Not fair!
    But, yeah, I agree with Big Perm that some porn films qualify as indies.

  18. cadavra says:

    Bruce Campbell put it best: “If you know your release date while you’re shooting, you’re not an independent film.”

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