Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Pulp Rules: How Sundance Made Indie Movies Mainstream

Two years, 1989 and 1994, sparked a movement that has been all but absorbed by Hollywood today.

As this year’s Sundance Film Festival is put to bed, it’s worth noting that the 2019 festival marks the 25th and 30th anniversaries of its two most important and impactful years, 1989 and 1994. Why? Because the indie films that debuted during that time not only put independent film on the map, they changed the composition of Hollywood filmmaking itself.

The anniversary party is even more noteworthy considering that this year featured two of the famed festival’s biggest shout-outs to its storied past: filmmaker Kevin Smith, who got his big break at Sundance ’94 when Harvey Weinstein acquired Clerks, announced a reboot of his Jay & Silent Bob comedy epic. It’s been 18 years since the first one. Smith, now 48, says he will start shooting on February 25, the anniversary of his near-fatal heart attack.

And on a much darker note, a new documentary detailing the sordid life of Weinstein, who gave Smith (and so many other fringe filmmakers) their breaks in Hollywood, was unfurled. The Ursula MacFarlane-directed film Untouchable is replete with stories and recollections of the worst sexual abuses Weinstein is alleged to have committed. It is ironic, to say the least, since Weinstein used to be the most important attendee at the festival other than founder Robert Redford. But this was necessary—the documentary’s prominence here is an astringent reminder that sexual abuse and harassment must not and cannot be allowed to become the family values of this or any other community.

Before the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hollywood reigned and indie films in American cinema were fleeting. To American and Canadian audiences, “indie” largely consisted of Roger Corman/Hammer Horror sci-fi schlock about vampires, aliens, and atomic bombs in the ’50s, and surfer beach bunnies in the early ’60s. Then came the ultraviolent one-two punch of Blaxploitation in the first half of the 1970s (Shaft, Foxy Brown, Coffy), followed by first-wave slasher movies (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Prom Night, and, of course, Halloween) in the second half of the disco decade.   

That all changed however, with the launches of two of the most seminal filmic cultural touchstones. These were Spike Lee’s grippingly powerful primal scream Do The Right Thing, launched in the spring of 1989 at the mother of all film festivals, Cannes, and Steven Soderbergh’s seminal look at Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which became the talk of the then-upstart Sundance Film Festival in January 1989. (The latter festival had been around since 1978, and officially changed its name to “Sundance” after patron Robert Redford’s most loved character and his own Utah getaway in 1981.)

While the two films couldn’t have been further apart in outlook—one a defiantly diverse study of a Bed-Stuy ghetto during the wack-on-crack, drive-by era, and the other a look at privileged white yuppies playing voyeuristic sex games—both held something in common. By the mid-to-late 1980s, the “auteur”-driven adventurism (and often the eye-rolling conceits) of the “New Hollywood” era was largely a thing of the past. Studio filmmaking had fallen into a marketing-heavy pattern of Top Guns, Red Octobers, and Robo Cops, with pretentious courtroom “thrillers” and heartwarming high-quality cozies (Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias) rounding out the bill.  

Whether it was the defiant, in-your-face hip hop of Spike Lee or the aestheticized, wannabe French technique of Soderbergh, these films struck a nerve precisely because they were dealing with themes that were very real (crime, racial tension, yuppie self-involvement, post-feminist gender dynamics) but were barely reflected on our silver screens.

Of course, this isn’t to say that quality indie filmmaking didn’t exist or was totally unknown to the public before that. David Lynch and Blue Velvet had gotten there first in 1986—the same year Spike Lee made his directorial debut with She’s Gotta Have It—not to mention the films of David Cronenberg and Jim Jarmusch. We also can’t forget the Coen Brothers and their 1980s classics like Blood Simple and Raising Arizona. And the late great John Cassavetes was essentially the pioneer of American independent film. He died in early 1989, before many of these late Boomers and early Xers knew what to do with independent film.

What was new here was that formerly fringe filmmakers were now getting big crossover deals and gushy reviews, redefining indie cinema in the public consciousness. This began a snowball effect with other newer and younger would-be writers and directors. Sundance and Cannes 1989 were the first major “Yes We Can!” moments for those who had had studio and network gates slammed in their faces in the past or who’d never had the confidence or connections to go that far in the first place.

In January 1991, Richard Linklater wowed Park City audiences with his appropriately titled Slacker, a plotless collection of vignettes, sketches, and quickies of various colorful characters from his native Texas. The next year, a former Hollywood video clerk and aspiring actor named Quentin Tarantino debuted his barrier-shattering, ultra-violent romp Reservoir Dogs, starring Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, and Tim Roth. Meanwhile, from an almost antithetical aesthetic, “New Queer Cinema” was breaking boundaries with films like My Own Private Idaho, Poison, Swoon, and Go Fish. And all this was just the lead-up to what was arguably Sundance’s most influential year ever in 1994.

That was when Sundance gave us everything from Kevin Smith’s quintessential “slacker” story of two college-age Clerks to its bigger budgeted, more cynically market-stylish release Reality Bites, starring Hollywood’s Gen-X squad, Winona Ryder, Ben Stiller, and Ethan Hawke. Future studio film royalty David O. Russell broke out with his Jeremy Davies-debuting black comedy of a stifled young introvert in Spanking the Monkey, while Hoop Dreams was a powerful and devastating documentary of young urban basketball players and their hopes, jumping through far more hoops than were merely above the hardwood. And unquestionably the most critically acclaimed and “important” American studio film of 1994 was Sundance vet Quentin Tarantino’s signature Pulp Fiction. That was when Tarantino officially tore through Hollywood’s velvet ropes into the A-list of modern-day directors.  

However, as Peter Biskind noted in Down & Dirty Pictures, his retrospective on the late ’80s/early ’90s first wave, Sundance 1994 marked both the high watermark and the beginning of the end, as these types of films would soon be considered mainstream and dominated by Hollywood. Indie debuts like Swingers (1996) were picked up almost immediately by top distributors. But they also launched A-list careers for directors/actors like Doug Liman and Jon Favreau. The vast majority of the most important filmmakers from the late 1990s through today—Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, as well as Russell, Smith, Soderbergh, Linklater, and Spike Lee—all came out of indie cinema. So did even newer and more diverse voices like Tyler Perry, Lee Daniels, Kasi Lemmons, and Ava DuVernay.

While comics and CGI rule the blockbusters, the rise of alternative platforms like Netflix and the exponential growth in indie cinema since (there are something like 400 film festivals annually now and none of them are hard up for entries) virtually ensures that the “awards bait” movies each year are more and more divorced from whether or not they were popular crowd pleasers. Three of the last five Best Picture winners—Birdman, The Shape of Water, and Moonlight—hardly broke box office records. But they did owe their style, grammar, and tone to the American indie film movement that began in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

It’s hard not to admire the DIY scrappiness and determination that these films show, or their willingness to tackle characters and issues that “mainstream” American film wouldn’t touch. In many ways, the avant-garde has become garde (or at least de rigueur, if you’ll pardon my French). Yet even if those films that were on the cutting edge two or three decades ago are now themselves dated, the hopes and dreams they signified of hitting that Hollywood jackpot still live on in the hearts and minds of many a Millennial aspiring auteur.

Just like a Hollywood movie.

Telly Davidson is the author of a new book, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”