What is An Independent Film? [Definition & Examples]

what is an independent film

Key Takeaways:

True independent films are made without major studio backing. They are driven by passion and often explore unconventional or niche topics. These films typically have lower budgets and usually feature unknown or upcoming actors.

You can learn about the differences between what is commonly referred to as “independent film” (but really have been made with at least some studio backing) and true independent films that have been made by industry outsiders (like myself), in this article!

Have you ever wanted to learn more about the world of independent cinema?

Independent cinema is a unique form of storytelling, often featuring gripping stories told through dynamic visuals and memorable characters.

As an independent filmmaker myself, I love learning about the history of independent films and watching great classic works.

In this article, I’ll share what makes independent cinema so special — you’ll understand the power behind its visual storytelling techniques, explore how it has evolved over time, be inspired by great indie film examples, and be able to use these insights to craft your own unforgettable stories!

Read on for an informative guide to everything you need to know about what is an independent film!

What is an Independent Film?

Independent cinema is a segment of the film industry that eschews traditional Hollywood-style films in favor of movie productions that are often innovative, daring, and experimental.

Independent film emphasizes originality, artistic integrity, and risk-taking from filmmakers, enabling them to express their ideas beyond the stagnancy of film conventions. It features stories that go against the grain and challenge film form and content, making it a refreshing viewing experience for film fans.

With smaller budgets than mainstream films, indie films often take on a much different feel with creative solutions for special effects and production design – and some of the most exciting storytelling coming out today is happening in the independent movie world.


The History of Independent Film

Independent Cinema has been around for as long as films have existed.

Making films outside the mainstream film industry can be traced back to the early 20th century when independent filmmakers with limited budgets and resources began producing films focused on personal creativity and expression instead of Hollywood’s need to please audiences.

In the 1970s, with the emergence of new technologies, independent filmmakers were able to take advantage of low-cost equipment and create films that challenged traditional cinematic norms.

The 90s brought a resurgence of the medium, as indie directors and filmmakers reached greater heights than ever before. The 2000s to the present day have allowed for greater reach than ever, thanks to the advent of digital cameras rather than those relying on expensive film stock.

Since then, independent films have increased in number and are now embraced by mainstream audiences who relish the unique narratives that differentiate them from other genres.

From art house favorites to offbeat comedies, great indie films entertain audiences worldwide with stories that both break taboos and reflect contemporary society.

Benefits of Independent Film

benefits of independent cinema

Being independent of studio rules and regulations allows independent artists many benefits. Let’s take a look at a few of the most prominent.

Increased creative control

Independent cinema offers the filmmaker a canvas of creative control unseen in major studio films. Unfettered by committee decisions and corporate policies, independent films allow for more personal expression and originality in the stories they tell.

By having this increased level of independent freedom, filmmakers can explore deeper themes, be experimental with unusual angles and techniques, and challenge social constructs, all while pushing the boundaries of cinema as an art form.

The result is an explosion of cinematic creativity that enriches our cultural experience.


Indie film is a beacon of creativity and resourcefulness for filmmakers looking to make a great movie without the hefty expenses of studio production.

It’s all about making do with what you have, finding alternative solutions, and getting creative regarding budgeting. Making an independent film means having a small crew, a largely unknown cast, and using minimal equipment – all of which significantly saves money for production and keeps costs low.

Photo Of Man Holding Camera

Increased diversity

For many decades, independent cinematic productions have provided filmmakers with a unique and inspiring opportunity to tell stories in risk-taking ways that major studios sometimes fear.

Because independent cinema isn’t restricted by the constraints of Hollywood’s bottom line, audiences are benefactors of an increased diversity of cast and themes.

Cinema provides a wonderful platform to explore different cultures and how they tell stories and view life; it is the perfect canvas that can spark ideas and debate over issues that we may not have considered before.

From independent films, viewers gain cultural knowledge and awareness that cannot be found in mainstream cinema. Many independent films feature unique perspectives on immigration, family dynamics, interpersonal relationships, and community issues – topics that do not often receive coverage in mainstream media.

Moreover, the increased representation of diverse voices on the big screen promotes tolerance and encourages people to think holistically about different viewpoints and cultures worldwide. 

With increased access to independent films globally, we can learn more about unique perspectives and diverse opinions, allowing us to gain insight into new cultures and broaden our understanding of the world around us.

Challenges of Independent Film

Making an indie movie is not without its challenges! Here are two of the main difficulties that independent studios and filmmakers have.

challenges of independent film

Film Financing

Figuring out the finances for an indie film can be an immense challenge.

Film financing is considered one of the toughest aspects of producing an indie movie since money often needs to stretch to cover all the associated costs of creating a film.

With financing sometimes hard to find, independent producers need to make sure their pitch documents – including story, lookbook, budgets, and marketing potential – are well-written and professional in order to appeal to potential investors. 

Fortunately, there are ways for filmmakers to make their dreams a reality. Now more than ever, independent projects can find their way into theaters or alternative outlets by appealing to private investors who are willing to take a risk on little-known works or sell digital rights in order to stream the movie on popular platforms.

Attending prestigious film festivals and networking with industry professionals can help immensely in understanding what investors are looking for and finding willing financiers. Additionally, grants and crowdfunding are other solutions that may help filmmakers find the money they need to make their cinematic dreams a reality.

Another consideration is payment for the cast and crew working on a film. Without a large budget, many indies are forced to ask people to work for far less than studio productions or even for free.

And while some people may be content to work on a film simply for the experience or love for the project – especially if the time commitment is small, such as on a short film – that goodwill typically has its limits.

One way to mitigate this is to offer a percentage of profits to those who sign onto key roles that offer little upfront. After all, the potential of earnings is better than no earnings at all.

Overall, budding filmmakers must do their homework when gathering funds for their films. And, they need to always be thinking of alternatives in order to reduce costs. If you plan ahead, you’re well on your way to making your dream movie come alive.

Film Distribution

infographic defining film distribution

One challenge of Independent Cinema lies within film distribution. Because the indie film industry lacks access to large-scale movie studios and a vast following or fanbase, getting indie films distributed is a tricky pursuit.

Distributors don’t typically take on movies from self-produced directors unless there is assured commercial success or critical acclaim, so many independent filmmakers struggle to recoup any funds spent on their projects as well as have their voices heard in the industry.

However, with increased digital platforms offering opportunities for submissions like film festivals, as well as VOD (video on demand) alternatives and self-distribution, there are ways for indies to break into the cinematic world without a studio’s backing.


The independent film industry has many obstacles to contend with, not the least of which is time. Many filmmakers working in this domain find themselves up against a ticking clock as they try to bring their creative visions to the big screen.

Short on resources and manpower, these filmmakers often have to pull together an entire production against the odds in a limited period of time, with no guarantee of success. Yet despite these hurdles, many independent producers have made great strides in delivering unique and captivating stories garnered from their personal experiences in life.

The best way to address most, if not all, of the above challenges is to start with a good screenplay and a solid creative vision that will inspire others to work on the project. When people are passionate about a film, they’ll make certain sacrifices if it means a great end product that they can share in.

Popular Examples of Indie Films

Reservoir Dogs

reservoir dogs

Reservoir Dogs, released in 1992 on a budget of $ 1 to 3 million, revolutionized the idea of independent film production. It captured the imaginations of people all around the world with its gritty and irreverent script, framed under what would become the trademarked style of writer/director Quentin Tarantino.

Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Steve Buscemi, and Michael Madsen each deliver an electric performance as a group of professional robbers in the aftermath of a botched jewelry heist.

From the first establishing shot, Tarantino cleverly uses music to build atmosphere and express each character’s narrative journey with tracks from obscure 70’s hit songs, balancing out the crime drama and iconic imagery with just the right melodies.

With great critical reception and audiences quickly hailing it as a cult classic, Reservoir Dogs exemplified what true indie cinema could be: a meaningful story featuring complex characters and smart humor that captures its audience’s attention from the first frame.

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine

When Little Miss Sunshine was released in 2006, it quickly became one of the most beloved independent films of all time. This movie, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, centers around the Hoovers, an offbeat family struggling to stay together.

They take a road trip to California so that their young daughter Olive can participate in a beauty pageant. The audience experiences a touching journey full of ups and downs amidst their quirky personalities. It was immediately embraced by viewers, who found themselves laughing and crying along with the film’s characters.

With a box office of over $ 100 million against an $8-million budget, Little Miss Sunshine cemented itself as one of the most profitable examples of indie film production.



Released in 1994, Clerks remains one of the most memorable indie comedies to date. The low-budget, black-and-white movie was written, directed, and produced by Kevin Smith for an initial budget of $28,000, and it brought an exciting new perspective to indie films.

An intimate story set in an actual New Jersey convenience store where Smith worked at the time, Clerks follows two slackers who are just trying to get through their workday. Set over twelve hours and featuring hilarious dialogue, the film inspired countless young filmmakers worldwide by showing them that great stories can be told without breaking the bank.

Two decades later, Clerks is still a celebrated example of independent cinema and continues to show us what’s possible with a circle of great friends, just a few dollars, and a lot of heart.

Spin The Wheel

As an independent filmmaker myself, I’m proud to create art that transcends traditional expectations and themes. Regardless of budget or size, a well-crafted story can be told with the resources you have.

Spin The Wheel is one such example, and I’m excited for all of you to experience it when it comes out! With an amazing cast and crew, this movie about a group of strangers playing Russian Roulette in order to save the world is my first foray as a writer / co-director into the dark themes of supernatural thrillers and is just beginning its festival run.

Made on a budget of $25,000, Spin The Wheel is a return to the 70s and early 80s style of filmmaking my partners and I most admire – character-driven stories with heart, which rely on strong dialogue and purposeful action, rather than huge budgets or over-the-top spectacles that are so prevalent today. In short, it’s a labor of love that, to us, epitomizes indie film.

You can check out the teaser trailer for Spin the Wheel on YouTube!

Common Themes in Independent Cinema

Social Commentary

horror theme of social commentary

Indie films have long been a platform for directors to showcase bold visions to break the typical conventions of cinematic storytelling within the entertainment industry.

Social commentary is one of the most prominent common themes in independent films. Independent film directors illustrate a unique perspective on politics, sexism, race relations, class divisions, inequality, and other challenging social topics audiences may not be accustomed to seeing on larger film screens.

Oftentimes these films are set in a variety of contexts that bring awareness to these cultural issues and challenge the traditional or dominant narrative.

With everyday examples of pressing social matters that spiral through society, indie cinema acts as an exploratory tool for people to develop a deeper understanding of these issues and the possibilities for economic, political, and social change.

Coming of Age

coming of age literary theme

Coming of age is one of the most popular themes in independent feature films. These stories usually focus on young people struggling to find their place in the world to become their true selves.

They often present us with a bittersweet journey of self-realization, love, courage, heartache, and truth. These movies typically explore the otherwise ordinary lives of everyday people and examine the human experience through realism and sensitivity.

A coming-of-age film often leaves viewers feeling empowered because they can relate to it on some level; its intimate perspective allows them to become part of a larger movement around the world, as they realize they are not alone in their experiences.

Quirky Humor

quirky humor theme

Independent cinema is often noted for its unique, quirky sense of humor. While some people opt for big blockbuster movies with plenty of explosions and slapstick moments, independent films are focused more on edgy dialogue and subtextual jokes that leave the audience laughing long after the movie has ended.

It can take a few viewings to fully appreciate the complexity of these funny situations, as the plot often unfolds in unexpected ways. With subtle characters weaving through life’s complications and navigating everything from romance to heartbreak, fans of indie filmmaking know just how powerful a punchline can be when delivered by a skilled actor or ensemble troupe.

Humor has always been one of the most crafty forms of art – with clever indie filmmakers breathing new laughs into comedic filmmaking.

Future of Independent Filmmaking

Current Trends & Predictions

With the steadily increasing ways of consuming media, indie films have come to be viewed as a new way to engage viewers in meaningful experiences. It’s no surprise that more and more filmmakers are turning to independent distributors and cinemas for their releases.

As people shift away from conventional formats like theaters toward online models and self-distribution, the demand for unique viewing experiences is only expected to grow. We likely will see an increase in filmmakers exploring “hybrid” models, which combine different types of distribution to create unique opportunities for alternative works.

city of new york city during night time

Additionally, there is potential for storytelling outside of traditional theatrical releases by utilizing cutting-edge technology like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and 360-degree filmmaking capabilities.

Ultimately, the future of indie filmmaking looks incredibly promising with its ever-increasing breadth of possibilities and opportunities to bring stories alive in unconventional ways.

Impact of Streaming Services

There is no doubt that streaming services have profoundly impacted independent theaters, offering a new, innovative home for many aspiring filmmakers to showcase their artful and creative visions.

With streaming services acting as gateways for quality independent film distribution, we are finally seeing the stories of unique protagonists and storylines reach wider audiences than ever.

streaming movies

The rise of streaming has undoubtedly opened doors, affording independent producers previously unheard-of levels of opportunity to showcase their work. What will come out of these new open doors and into the spotlight remains an exciting prospect.

Potential for Growth & Success

Independent cinema has been steadily achieving more success in recent years than ever before. This is because more and more people who are fed up with mainstream cinema are flocking to independent movies for an alternative experience.

Beyond the pure artistry of filmmakers taking risks and making something unique, independently financed movies open up new channels for stories often not told on the big screen. Unique perspectives, original storytelling, groundbreaking themes, and envelope-pushing narrative styles are only a fraction of what could come out of the continued growth and success of independent film-making.

With the introduction of digital streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, these smaller movies have a larger platform to reach a wider audience. The potential for continued growth and success of independent films is only just beginning to be explored, and there’s no telling where it can take us if filmmakers continue to innovate outside the traditional studio framework.

black digital video camera

There are so many stories out there to tell and so much talent to discover that through sheer ambition and will, we can create something extraordinary. The future of independent cinema hinges on our dedication to it, and together, we can make great things happen!

Final Thoughts

With more of these independent filmmaking projects coming to the forefront of popular culture, it’s easy to see why they are a growing and important part of society.

Independent filmmakers bring something special to their craft, showcasing unique talents and pushing boundaries that haven’t been seen before. They challenge us to look at things in new ways while providing powerful stories and meaningful characters.

Independent cinema is an ever-evolving field with a dynamic style, providing much-needed diversity within our media landscape – that is also heavily reliant on audience support.

So keep your eyes open for the latest indie film in your area – you never know what fantastic story you might find or what future stars you will help to foster!

Common Questions (FAQs)

What is independent vs. mainstream cinema?

When people talk about independent vs. mainstream cinema, they refer to two different filmmaking and distribution styles. Independent films focus on creating an emotionally moving story that is often personal and sometimes controversial. They usually have a smaller budget and crew, as well as fewer stars. Mainstream movies aim to be entertaining and rely on big-name actors and directors. They often have huge budgets with expensive sets and special effects.

Why is independent cinema important?

Independent filmmaking offers audiences a unique experience that goes beyond the traditional Hollywood blockbuster format. Instead of relying on popular tropes and shallow character growth, it emphasizes thoughtful storytelling and character development. It allows filmmakers to explore immersive narratives that don’t fit within conventional genres. Themes such as identity, culture, and relationships are explored more deeply, and independent films often stimulate conversations about social topics such as race, gender, and politics – topics that might be more risky in Hollywood productions!

What is an independent film example?

One ambitious example of an independent film is The Blair Witch Project, a cult classic released in 1999. The film follows a trio of student filmmakers on a journey to unravel the mysteries of the feared, legendarily evil Blair Witch in Maryland’s Black Hills Forest. The filmmakers financed the movie with a reported budget of $200,000-750,000 in a mostly rural setting and using “no-name” actors – a staple of what is considered an “indie” production – despite its subsequent box office success of nearly $ 250 million.

Want to learn more about filmmaking? Check out these other helpful articles!

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