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.


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]