Studio Indie Films vs True Indie Films: Is There A Difference?

studio independent films vs true independent films

Have you ever wondered why some indie films feel different from others, even though they’re all labeled ‘independent’? Independent films are typically defined as those made outside the major studio system, but as you can tell from that definition, it doesn’t necessarily mean outside the studio system altogether. 

As an indie filmmaker, I’ve often thought about what really sets apart studio indie films vs true indie films. I’ve acted in, written, and/or co-directed a number of indie films over the years, and I’ve seen the contrasts up close.

What are the key differences between independent films made by studios and those made by individual filmmakers?

Studio Indie Film: $5-30 million budget, usually has at least one known actor, highly skilled crew, pre-set distribution channels, more likely to be accepted in film festivals, the marketing is done by professional agencies, filmmakers have less creative control.

True Indie Film: Less than $1 million budget, mainly unknown actors, lower-skilled crew, no pre-determined distribution, film festival acceptance depends on the content and filmmaker demographics, the marketing is done by the filmmakers themselves, filmmakers have more creative control.

These two types of indie films differ in the size of budgets, creative freedoms, and the core of storytelling, among other things. These differences are more than just numbers and names – they shape the entire film experience for the cast, crew, production team, and the eventual audience of the film.

differences between studio indie films vs true indie films

In this article, I’ll take you through the differences, using my own journey in indie filmmaking to show what separates studio indies from the real deal. I want to share with you the insider’s view and the little details that make each type of indie film unique.

Let’s take a look at the distinct qualities that define studio indie films and true indie films today. It’s time to peel back the layers and reveal the real story behind these two paths in the indie film world!

To help us evaluate each of these types of films, we’re going to look closely at one studio indie (Lost in Translation) and my own true independent film, Spin The Wheel.

Lost in Translation
Spin The Wheel movie poster

I could pick any number of well-known studio indies, from Pulp Fiction to Little Miss Sunshine, but to me, Lost in Translation perfectly exemplifies a film made in the indie spirit but still made within studio boundaries.

Let’s take a look at each film from a number of different perspectives!

If you’d like to hear my thoughts on this topic in video format, check out my YouTube video below!

1. Budget and Financing

differences in budget & financing between studio indie films vs true indie films

First, let’s talk about what keeps a film alive – namely, its budget and where the money comes from. It’s important to know how much money a film has to work with and also who has given the filmmakers that money!

Studio Indie Films

Low-ish Budget (Typically <$30MM): With studio indie films, ‘low budget’ can mean having less than anywhere from $5 million to $30 million (or more). This might sound like a lot of money, but for studios, it’s on the lower end. Having this budget lets filmmakers make good-quality movies without the huge costs of big blockbuster films.

Financing Sources: The financial backing for these films often involves a mix of sources. Studios typically provide a significant portion, but private investors, venture capitalists, and sometimes government funding or grants contribute as well. 

Co-productions and tax incentives are also common, along with traditional bank loans. This blend of financing sources influences not only the film’s production but also its creative direction, marketing strategies, and distribution channels.

“Whereas money is a means to an end for a filmmaker, to the corporate mind money is the end. Right now, I think independent film is very confused, because there’s excess pressure in the marketplace for entertainment to pay off.”

Robert Redford

True Indie Films

Very Low Budget (Typically <$1MM): True indie films work with much less money, usually under $1 million. This tight budget pushes filmmakers to be extremely creative because they have to make the most of every dollar. It’s also good to note that, with less money from outside, it gives the filmmaker more overall control over the movie.

Financing Sources: Financing for true indie films comes from a variety of sources. Private investment often kicks off the funding, sourced from friends, family, or independent investors who support the film’s vision. 

Government funding and grants are sometimes available, especially for films with cultural or artistic significance. Self-financing is common, with filmmakers investing their own financial resources. 

Co-productions help distribute financial responsibilities, while crowdfunding has become a popular way to not only raise funds but also cultivate a community around the film. Tax incentives and smaller bank loans can also play a role in financing a true indie film. Basically, the money can come from anywhere!

Lost In Translation: Budget of $4 million, coming primarily from presales and licensing predistribution rights for overseas territories.

Spin The Wheel: Budget of around $25k, which all came from private investment and self-financing.

2. Talent

differences in talent between studio indie films vs true indie films

Studio indie films and true indie films have big differences in terms of the star power of their directors, production team, and especially cast.

Studio Indie Films

Famous Stars: In studio indie films, you’ll often see mainstream actors from big movies and TV shows, where the cast is composed of some combination of current A-list movie or TV stars, former A-list movie stars, and B-list movie and TV stars who are on the rise. These well-known faces help attract more viewers to the film.

Union/Guild Members: Most of these actors and directors belong to their respective unions or guilds. This means they get paid according to union rates, which guarantees them some financial security.

Bigger Casts: These films can have more actors because they have more money in their budget. This often means more characters in the film, more locations and elaborate set pieces, and potentially more complex stories.

Famous Directors: The directors of these films are usually pretty well-known. They might have directed big movies before or be up-and-coming directors who are starting to get famous.

“I believe that independent film making is the last frontier of creative expression available.”

Lloyd Kaufman

True Indie Films

Lesser-Known Stars: True indie films usually don’t have famous actors. The lead actors might be somewhat known or not known at all, with maybe one or two recognizable names in minor supporting roles as day players.

Non-Union/Guild Members: Many of these films are made outside of unions or guild affiliation. This means the actors will likely not get paid as much, and some might even work for free.

Smaller Casts: With less money, these films usually have fewer actors, which means the stories have to be told in simpler ways. This includes fewer locations and no-frills set pieces and costuming.

Not-So-Famous Directors: The directors of true indie films are often not very well-known. They might have directed smaller projects like individual TV episodes or other indie films, or they are writer-directors on their own projects.

Lost In Translation: Famous actors include Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen, Giovanni Ribisi, and Anna Farris, not to mention its famous writer-director, Sofia Coppola.

Spin The Wheel: The entire cast is made up of up-and-coming actors, all based within the province where the movie was made (Alberta, Canada).

3. Crew

differences in crew between studio indie films vs true indie films

The people who work behind the scenes to make a movie – the crew – are vital. In studio indie films and true indie films, the type of crew under each banner can be quite different.

Studio Indie Films

Highly Skilled and Experienced: Studio indie films typically feature a crew with varying skill levels, but generally, the key crew members are more experienced. Each department, be it camera, sound, locations, HMU (hair and makeup), art, or editing, is headed by a crew member with extensive knowledge in their field. In some cases, these crew members have more experience than the filmmakers themselves.

Union Membership: The majority of the crew in these films are professional workers in their fields, and are part of unions, ensuring fair wages and working conditions.

Larger Crew Size: Due to larger budgets, these films can afford to have more crew members, allowing for a wider range of expertise and smoother, if not necessarily shorter, production processes.

True Indie Films

Diverse, Often Less Experienced Crew: In true indie films, the crew also varies in skill, but they tend to have less experience overall. The filmmakers themselves are often among the most seasoned members on set.

Non-Union and Low-Paid Labor: Crew members in these films are often not part of unions. They might include film students, amateur enthusiasts in their respective fields, non-unionized professionals working for lower wages, or volunteers.

Smaller Crew Size: Limited budgets mean these films have smaller crews. This often requires crew members to take on multiple roles and responsibilities.

Lost In Translation: The movie was filmed on location in Japan, and relied on key crew positions to be filled by Americans flown over. The majority of the other crew members were hired locally.

Spin The Wheel: All crew members were part of the independent film community surrounding Edmonton, Alberta.

4. Distribution

differences in distribution between studio indie films vs true indie films

Distribution is how a film gets from the filmmakers to the audience. It’s an important part of making a movie successful. Studio indie films and true indie films have different ways of doing this.

Studio Indie Films

Bigger Distribution Channels: Studio indie films often have an easier time getting their movies out there. This is because movie studios already have connections with companies that distribute films. These relationships help get the films into more places, like movie theaters and streaming platforms (which include premium SVOD, AVOD, and TVOD).

More Likely to Show in Theaters: It’s more common for studio indie films to be shown in movie theaters. This is because of the studios’ strong connections and the fact that they can spend more on distribution and marketing.

Minimum Guarantees from Distributors: Distributors, the companies that help get films to the audience, may offer minimum guarantees to studios for the film. This means some profit right away.

“Part of the excitement of doing independent film is the complete unknown of what lies in store for the film’s future.”

Rachel Miner

True Indie Films

No Set Distribution Plan: When true indie films are made, there’s usually no plan in place for how they’ll be distributed. This means the filmmakers have to figure it out themselves after the movie is made.

Theater Showings Less Likely: It’s harder for true indie films to be shown in theaters. They might get into some independent theaters through self-distribution if there’s money for it, but it’s not as common. The more likely route these days is to find distribution on a streaming platform (mostly through AVOD or TVOD, with some SVOD opportunities).

No Guarantees from Distributors: Distributors don’t usually promise true indie films any money upfront. This means the filmmakers have to take more risks, as well as recoup the distributor’s expenses from the profits.

Lost In Translation: Coppola sold the domestic distribution rights for the movie to Focus Features for a reported $4 million and had a successful theatrical run culminating in almost $120 million at the box office.

Spin The Wheel: We made the movie without distribution channels in place. We were able to shop around the completed movie, and it has been picked up by Red Water Entertainment. Watch this space for more information on when the film will be released on streaming platforms!

5. Film Festivals

differences in film festivals between studio indie films vs true indie films

Film festivals are events where movies are shown and celebrated. They can be big or small, and both can be really important for getting a film noticed or securing a distribution deal. But how studio indie films and true indie films get into these festivals can be quite different.

In either case, it’s decidedly easier for short films to be accepted into festivals than features, as the number of slots for the latter is much smaller.

Studio Indie Films

Higher Likelihood of Acceptance: Studio indie films generally find it easier to secure spots in film festivals. This is often due to pre-existing relationships between the film’s producers and the festival organizers. Additionally, the star power of well-known actors or filmmakers in these films acts as a draw.

Impact of Star Power and Press: Even if a studio indie film isn’t well-received critically, its ability to generate buzz and media attention can be beneficial for the festival. Consequently, festivals might favor these films over qualitatively better true indie films that lack an established audience or big names.

True Indie Films

Content-Driven Acceptance: Acceptance of true indie films into festivals is more contingent on the film’s content rather than its stars. This includes a broad range of elements such as plot, characters, dialogue, cinematography, and the overarching message, as well as the backgrounds and demographics of the filmmakers.

Stringent Criteria in Larger Festivals: In more prominent festivals, the criteria for selection become more rigorous. True indie films need to meet a comprehensive checklist of demographics in addition to quality and originality standards to stand out and be selected for screening. 

Lost In Translation: Premiered at Telluride and quickly followed up with screenings at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival, not to mention a slew of awards from BAFTA, Golden Globes, Indy Spirit Awards, New York Film Critics Circle, LA Film Critics Association, and many others. It also received an Oscar nomination for Bill Murray and a win for Best Original Screenplay.

Spin The Wheel: Premiered at Crimson Screen Film Festival, followed by screenings and awards at Vegas Movie Awards, Shockfest, DC After Dark Film Festival, and New Jersey Film Awards, among others.

6. Marketing

differences in marketing between studio indie films vs true indie films

The marketing of a film plays a big role in determining its visibility and audience reach. The strategies employed by studio indie films and true indie films in this aspect are considerably different.

Studio Indie Films

Handled by Professional Firms: Studio indie films benefit from the expertise of professional marketing firms. 

These firms operate under the umbrella of the studio and employ a range of strategies, including targeted advertising campaigns and commercials, strategic social media promotion, and engaging trailers, to attract audiences.

True Indie Films

Self-Marketing Efforts: In contrast, true indie films often rely on self-marketing. This means the filmmakers and their immediate team take on the responsibility of promoting the film. 

Without the resources of large marketing firms, they depend on grassroots methods like social media engagement, community networking, and word-of-mouth to build their audience.

Lost In Translation: Relied on advanced press screenings, magazine publicity, and a successful film festival run to mount an “indie-style” campaign. Notably, it avoided pricey TV advertising to keep costs low, and were it to be released today, it would employ a hefty social media strategy to further increase the visibility of the film.

Spin The Wheel: While Spin has not yet been released, we plan on using social media, networking, and other grassroots methods such as good old-fashioned word-of-mouth!

7. Creative Control

differences in creative control between studio indie films vs true indie films

Creative control is all about who gets to make the big decisions in a movie. This can be everything from the storyline to casting to the look and feel of the film. Studio indie films and true indie films handle this very differently.

Studio Indie Films

Limited Control for Filmmakers: In studio indie films, filmmakers often have restricted creative control. Major decisions regarding the film’s content and style are influenced by focus groups, test screenings, marketing departments, producers, and, ultimately, the studio executives. 

The intellectual property (IP) of the film typically belongs to the studio. Filmmakers in this setting are more like employees hired to execute a vision, and they can be replaced depending on their contracts.

Neil Chase in Babageddon indie movie
Neil Chase on the set of the (True) Independent Short Film, Babageddon

True Indie Films

Greater Autonomy for Filmmakers: Conversely, in true indie films, filmmakers enjoy considerably more creative freedom. 

They usually own the intellectual property (IP), either individually or through their small production companies. This ownership gives them the authority to make critical decisions about their film, essentially placing them in the employer’s role in the film’s production.

Lost In Translation: Coppolla leveraged overseas distribution rights in order to maintain creative control. This is not usually the case for most studio independent films!

Spin The Wheel: As the key creatives, our core team had the final say on every facet of Spin the Wheel, from the script to the music to the direction to the final cut. In every way, it’s a reflection of us as a team.

Final Thoughts: Studio Indie Films vs True Indie Films

In this article, we’ve looked at the differences that define studio indie films and true indie films: from budget constraints and talent pools to the very essence of creative control and distribution. 

Now, as a true indie filmmaker myself, I see immense value in both. 

Studio indies, with their larger budgets and professional networks, bring a certain polish and wider reach, with teams of seasoned professionals in front of and behind the camera. Some examples of Independent studio production companies are Lionsgate, A24, Blumhouse and, before that, Miramax and Searchlight Pictures, among others.

True indies, on the other hand, are testaments to raw creativity and the power of storytelling with limited resources, where the people involved are driven more by passion than a paycheque. An example of a true independent production company is Brimstone Pictures, my own production company!

Both forms are vital to the tapestry of the film industry, offering unique perspectives and experiences. I encourage you, the reader, to dive into both worlds and judge the merits of each for yourself. 

Whether it’s a studio indie’s polished narrative or a true indie’s gritty authenticity, each has its own story to tell. By supporting both, we keep the diverse and vibrant spirit of independent filmmaking alive and thriving.

What are your thoughts on studio indies as compared to true indie films? I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts in the comments below!

I’d love to hear if your production company is a true indie or a studio indie, and what makes it so!

Interested in indie filmmaking? Check out these other great articles:

The 15 Best Filmmaking Books to Read

Artificial Intelligence In Film: Impact & Influence

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