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What Is an Independent Film?

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The film industry as a whole releases a wide variety of movies each year. While there is an extensive range of stories and types of film in circulation, there are also some important distinctions regarding how films are made, funded, and distributed. You might have heard of “independent films” or “indie movies”, but understanding what actually qualifies as one, and why independent theaters focus on showing them is a bit more complicated.

Salt Lake Film Society operates two independent theaters and we take a lot of pride in the films we show in Salt Lake City. Many of these films, from gripping foreign dramas to small-budget, local documentaries, can be classified as independent films. But we also exhibit and enjoy plenty of films that are created within the major studio system as well. 

This is not to say that one film type is inherently better than the other; there will always be amazing films being made and incredible stories being told, whether independently or studio-supported. At Salt Lake Film Society, we just believe that understanding and contextualizing the differences between independent films and studio films is a part of being a conscientious and engaged cinephile.  

Distinctions Between Independent Films and Studio Films

While there can be plenty of noticeable differences between the experience of watching an independent vs. a studio-supported film, the more clear cut differences usually lie behind the scenes. For the audience, these differences can be evident in the types of stories told and the contrast in creative decisions made. But the differentiating factors that can more clearly distinguish the two revolve around the production and distribution processes, and the respective financial situations of each film type’s budget. 

The definition of what constitutes an independent production can be somewhat muddled, but the most defining trait of an independent film is that it is produced and distributed outside the “major” film studio system. Studio films on the other hand, are defined by their production through a studio owned by one of the “Big 5” media conglomerates (NBC/Comcast, Paramount, Disney, Warner Bros, Sony). These studio films are also funded and distributed by massive production companies that operate under the umbrella of these media conglomerates. 

still of Daniel Kaluuya in the independent film Get Out
Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, independently produced by Blumhouse Productions

While many independent films are made by individual filmmakers, many are still made by film studios, albeit smaller ones. But an important consideration is that these films usually don’t have a guaranteed distribution network or production funding like the larger studios with their parent companies. Independent films need to scrap and source for producers and distributors almost from day one.

Sometimes, these more independent-focused distributors (A24, Neon, Blumhouse) will fund a project at the beginning, sometimes they purchase it halfway through or after it’s made, but the search for funds and distribution is a relentless necessity that characterizes most independent films. That’s why these films often dominate the film festival circuit (and why most festivals even exist in the first place); these filmmakers are showing off their product to distributors with the hope of it being purchased, and distributed.

While there is no specific dollar amount that separates an independent film budget from a studio film budget, spending range is another major factor that distinguishes these two film types. Independent film budgets can range vastly, from tens of thousands dollars to tens of millions, and occasionally will even require fundraising to finish production and find distributors. Studio film budgets will also vary quite substantially, but their upper limits are astronomically higher, with some studio films working with predetermined budgets that can range up to half a billion dollars. 

Different Motivations, Different Expectations

This large contrast in monetary and distribution processes consequently leads to a variety of differences in production, artistic influence, and definitions of success. Studio films are often formulaic and controlled by senior management from start to finish, and while the production needs vary from film to film, they always maintain some form of uniformity in operation, staffing, and expenses. Independent film productions are more free-form, following the direction and desire of the producers and their artistic vision, often sourcing staff, equipment, and money as they go along. 

still of penelope cruz, johnny depp, and ian mcshane in pirates of the Caribbean: stranger tides
Penélope Cruz, Johnny Depp, and Ian McShane in Pirates of the Caribbean: Stranger Tides, the most expensive film ever made with a budget over $400 million

These creative and production differences understandably lead to clear differences in motivation for producing the film, and what defines a film’s release as successful. Studio films and the stories they tell are much more likely to have the biggest names and the grandest visual effects, and are often made with the primary goal of commercial success. There has never been a studio film made that hasn’t undergone rigorous financial calculations by studio executives beforehand regarding the potential money it might bring in. These films are usually designed to cater to as many people as possible, in order to maximize  attendance and box office revenue (often to recoup some of the expenditures from their immense budgets).

Independent films (and the independent theaters that proudly and consistently show them) have different motivations. These films usually put more emphasis on the art of storytelling, and presenting the perspective of a wide diversity of voices. They often don’t cater to the largest possible audience. Instead, they aim to craft a narrative that makes the audience take a mental step back and ask questions, like “Who?”, “What?”, or “Why?”. Independent films are not totally free from the industry’s financial expectations, but their purpose will usually be more driven towards the limitless freedom of artistic expression, the introspection of the audience, and the diversity of filmmakers, experiences, and stories that naturally comes from that.

Muddied Definitions of “Studio” and “Independent” Films

For any fan of film who has explored the varied types of stories and styles the industry has to offer, it’s clear that there are some distinctive differences between smaller budget, “art house” indie films, and bigger budget, franchise-spawning studio films. But just like the real world, the conversation and categorization is a bit more nuanced than that. In reality, most films do not sit neatly in one category or the other, or their content doesn’t fit the archetype expected from their production and funding.

still of John Corbett and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding
John Corbett and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an independent film which grossed $369 million, with only a $5 million budget

Big studio films can spend big while still emphasizing diverse narratives and more artistically-driven creators (consider Taika Waititi now directing Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder). On the other hand, independent films with small budgets can still tell more generalized stories that aim for studio-esque commercial success (the independent rom-com, My Big Fat Greek Wedding grossed $368.7 million worldwide). While some may call these exceptions to the rule, others might say that the definitions are simply more muddied in the modern film era. And when it comes to streaming services now consistently producing and distributing their own content, the conversation can become even more complicated.

Independent Theaters in Salt Lake City – SLFS

At Salt Lake Film Society we are proud to exhibit thought-provoking stories and inspiring films to our community through our independent theaters, whether they be niche independent films or widespread studio films. Our goal as a independent cinema is less about properly defining film as “independent” or “studio”, and more about cultivating in our audience a natural curiosity about each film they see, learning more about who made it, how they made it, why they made it, and what creators or organizations they are supporting by purchasing a ticket for it. 

Our independent theaters love to present independent films that emphasize art, culture, and underrepresented voices, but we all have plenty of studio films that we adore. We just love film, and we love the questions and conversations it can produce, so come see a movie and join the discussion, and learn a bit more about different types of film yourself.

To see a list of our upcoming films and events, click here.
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