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What Can We Learn from Coppola's Indie Studio American Zoetrope?

American ZoetropeThere has been a lot of speculation about the American film industry being in a time of transition. This summer’s tentpoles haven’t performed as well as expected at the box office, while indies swept the Oscars this past year. These new developments have many wondering if this signals a new wave of low-budget American independent filmmaking. If so, independent filmmakers can take a page from the spirit of Francis Ford Coppola’s independent film studio, American Zoetrope, explored in the inspiring documentary A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope.

The late 60s marked a significant transition from Old Hollywood, which was led by, as the documentary describes, old men with horse whips, jodhpurs, and English riding boots, who had been making films geared toward older audiences. The classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, with its huge stars, formulaic content, and snappy dialog wasn’t appealing to a growing market of younger filmgoers.


Hollywood had lost the pulse of their audience, and decided to give younger, unknown filmmakers a chance to find it, and the film that did, as well as opened the doors for a new breed of filmmakers, was Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, because it proved that a film made outside of studio control and tradition could make money.

The outcropping of this was the development of Francis Ford Coppola’s indie film studio, American Zoetrope, in San Francisco in 1969. Its first film The Rain PeopleOther films that have come out of the studio include George Lucas’ THX 1138, Jean-Luc Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie)Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemushaas well as his own films, and those of his daughter Sofia Coppola.

You can check out the documentary in 3 parts below:

So, after all of the history and backstory of what was going on in the late 60s film culture, what can American Zoetrope’s story teach us about the film culture of today? Are we going to experience a revival of independent film? Are we even ready for one? An interview between Coppola and The Rumpus might offer some answers. In it, Coppola talks about the film he had the most personal connection to:

In my earlier career I liked The Rain People, because that was my first film where I got to do what I wanted to do. I was young; I wrote the story based on something that I had witnessed. Few people know that film – Then I made The Conversation, which was an original as well. That’s what I wanted to be doing. 

He goes on to explain how he never intended to be a big time Hollywood director. In fact, he explains that his pièce de résistance, The Godfather, wasn’t intended to be so:

The Godfather was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be – I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation. I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director.

American Zoetrope 2

It seems to me that at the heart of independent filmmaking culture, it’s all about passion and the freedom to construct that passion. Without those two things, what makes filmmaking anything other than a job, like the jobs we desperately try to escape with filmmaking.

With the millions of dollars being put at stake, I understand why Hollywood tends to err on the safe side and make films that are more or less guaranteed to succeed — big crowd-pleasers, be it the star-studded glamor films of the 50s, or the action-packed, VFX-heavy films of today. But, now that those kinds movies are beginning to show signs of decline, I think it’s safe to say that we are finding ourselves in a similar situation as the American Zoetrope filmmakers did in the 60s. It’s not that they saw a change coming, it’s that they were ready when it did.

A new wave of cinematic freedom and expression may be upon us, but the question is, are you going to watch it from the safety of the beach, or are you going to paddle out into the deep and ride that thing once it comes? Are you ready?

What are your thoughts on American Zoetrope? Do you think a change is heading toward film culture that indie filmmakers can take advantage of? Let us know in the comments.

[via Cinephilia and Beyond]

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  • One can learn that he can go broke by financing own art house movies.

  • Sebastian Roland on 09.6.13 @ 8:03PM

    that was awesome thanks.

  • There is some great ideas in Mr. Coppola interview linked in the article!
    “Also, the short story does much better in translation to film than a novel. It’s already in the right shape and size. A movie is like writing a haiku. You have to be so pared down. Everything has to be so loaded and economic.”
    “Also, in those days, the young men in film were all about camera, films, and editing, and that’s the least important thing. Orson Welles said once that you could learn those aspects of film in a weekend. The hard parts of film are acting and writing. Most film students know nothing about acting.”
    That’s why I think Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color is an underrated movie. It has a different kind of structure. As the director says, it has an “emotional arc” instead of a character development art, it has mystery in it fueled by the gaps in the exposition of the story; the movie shows and don’t explain the world the writer/director created. And it’s, like a poem, is economical in what it exposes the viewer to.
    Like Mr.Coppola says about Terrence Malick movies, “That’s important because radio used to do that. It wasn’t all done for you. Today, in movies, everything’s done for you. The difference between radio and television is that [with] radio you could sit and imagine what was happening, and it was great because you were seeing it in your own mind. Terry’s films are like that.”
    That happens in “Upstream Color” also. So like a good poem we, the viewers, have to fill the gaps with ourselves –with our own cultural baggage, experiences, and views. It forces us to participate, to interact with it, with its mysteries, but not like mainstream cinema thinks about interaction (as an external abuse of the senses), but an inner interaction, like good art has always been doing since bushmen culture in Kalahari 80000 yrs. ago.
    Beside all that, Shane Carruth showed the world WHY independent movies are NEEDED. This kind of structure, of story can only be made this way, with freedom to experiment and to put at risk yourself and your credibility and money also in the process.
    And even better, the former mathematician showed us that you can even make some good money out of it, from U$50,000 the movie made U$444,000.
    Business feeds entertainment and entertainment is not art by itself while art, to entertain, needs rhythm –in movies defined in the miss-en-scene, composition and mostly montage. But none of this is a fixed law. :) there are those who love the art for the sake of the art, and those who are into it for the bling of mainstream industrial culture.
    And the new experiment from Shane Carruth shows us that art can be entertainment (and not for everyone, like generic soulless industrial movies) and at the same time, make some money in return.

    • a character development art (ARC, not art)

    • Thanks for the post-reply Guto Novo. The great thing about Upstream Color is that the independent film world was talking about the “film”. Not about what it was shot on, or how much it cost, or some other technical novelty it might have implored … but the community was talking about what the film might be trying to say.

      Now that’s cool.

      • exactly. as umberto eco says, the narratives are the base of our culture, our myths, the language of the archetypes in our consciousness’ roots and when it struck a chord in the receiver, sorry Marshall Mcluhan, :), it surpass any technology, including the media it uses, so in a sense, storytelling bypass the principle of the media being the message. :) And everything in “Upstream Color” do this. And I think all good mathematicians knows that formal thinking has a limit, as Luigi Borzacchini, an italian amazing mathematician, explain amazingly in his work, so all languages (formal thinking is at the base of all languages and structures from logic to math to english, portuguese, so on) is limited and full of paradoxes, and only art, poetry, music, can subvert its limits and take us beyond it. Films like “Upstream Color”, “Eyes Wide Shut”, “Persona”, “Stalker”, “2001″, “El Topo”, “Pi”, “Fight Club”, “”Twixt” (yes, I loved the new experimental weirdness from mr.Coppola! :D :D ), win wender’s “‘Der Himmel über Berlin’”, etc, these movies are example of what art can do to go beyond the limits of our formal thinking. :)

        btw, good luck with your feature film! :)

  • You know there’s almost something tragic about Lucas. Here’s this art house filmmaker who wants to make films about subjects that truly interest him and then gets burned so badly, he never takes that kind of risk again.

    • Yeah, I kept thinking that about all of them actually. Like Coppola and all the others they wanted to make weird, unsellable “Nouvelle Vague” films – if they had a hit they had it, if they didn’t they didn’t care. Unfortunately that might be an option in France but apparently not in America. It’s fascinating to think if we had all those 7 pictures they sold Warner Bros. made, if they all had the inventiveness of “THX”, what a marvellous set of pictures they could have been.

      But yeah, Lucas definitly flipped a switch right after that one.

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