Independent cinema generally is produced outside of customary film studio avenues with financing obtained from grants, foundations, or personal funds and often is distributed via film festivals, cable outlets, and repertory theatres. The works frequently reflect the personal and social concerns of the filmmaker as illustrated by unconventional narratives, the inclusion of challenging or controversial subject matter, and the rejection of traditional cinematic form in favor of experimentation with camera and editing techniques. There are also those independent films that tell traditional stories but through atypical modes.
The first wave of independent cinema in the United States began in the 1920s rather than the 1960s, contrary to popular belief, with filmmakers such as Robert Florey and James Sibley Watson. Experimentation in form, content, and production methods was vital to the filmmakers, with the profit margin at the box office being of little or no interest to this band of iconoclasts. The filmmakers were not rogues but serious artists, setting out to challenge a nascent art form that was soon to coalesce into a commercial industry.
The history of the American independent cinema was and remains socially diverse and inclusive. Female filmmakers such as Maya Deren, Storm de Hirsch, and Shirley Clarke were screened routinely and collected by museums, film archives, and universities. Filmmakers of color such as Oscar Micheaux and Melvin Van Peebles were recognized for telling personal and disquieting stories of the African American experience.
At the current moment in cinema history, the term independent frequently describes a film made by a small production company or distributed by a studio or releasing organization outside of the major film studios. But these works often have multimillion-dollar budgets and feature major movie stars and global advertising campaigns. While the content of the work may be progressive, the business model is thoroughly commercial—exactly what caused Florey and Watson to say no, no, no in the 1920s.
Since the founding of its Department of Film in 1935, The Museum of Modern Art has collected examples of American independent cinema. The films included in this series, all of American origin, underscore the diversity of subject matter, artists, and production means inherent in the field of independent cinema.