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Those who enjoy debating whether American independent filmmaking has become completely co-opted by the Hollywood monolith, or merely 97 percent co-opted, would have had a grand ol' time at the premiere party for Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow (Paramount Classics, opening July 13) at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
It had been a sluggish first few days for the dramatic features, with the usual mixture of allegorical dramas starring slow-moving turtles and quirky comedies starring thumb-sucking teenagers. But suddenly a palpable Sundance buzz was in the air. Hustle & Flow—a drama about a Memphis pimp named DJay (the gifted Terrence Howard, late of Crash) who dreams of becoming a hip-hop star—had brought the crowd to its feet that evening at the Park City Racquet Club. And now hundreds of partygoers huddled around heat lamps in the freezing cold, asking all the familiar questions: How much might the movie sell for? How much could it gross theatrically? And how big a windfall did its producer, John Singleton (of Boyz n the Hood fame), stand to reap? (Singleton and producing partner Stephanie Allain financed Hustle & Flow out of pocket, for about $3 million, after shopping the project around and reportedly getting turned down by every studio in town.)
One thing lost in all the excitement was the small matter of the movie itself—which is mostly just shameless, crowd-pleasing drivel. Howard burns with old-school charisma, but he's forced to play one embarrassing ghetto cliché after another: a pimp with a heart of gold (i.e., he smacks his bitches, but only when they deserve it), suffering through an early midlife crisis (i.e., he just can't see himself doing the pimp thing into his 40s). DJay's rise to superstardom is a dopey, Rocky-style wish-fulfillment fantasy, replete with musical numbers from the MTV Jams recycling bin. (Sample lyrics: "You know it's hard out there for a pimp / When you're trying to get money for the rent.") And Brewer hasn't quite figured out how to illustrate his lead character's misogyny without exulting in it: The camera gets in close to the actresses' jiggling backsides; the dialogue—including one soon-to-be-famous line about the constitution of a female pig's genitalia—is even more revolting.
The movie sold to Paramount Classics (partnering with MTV Films) for a reported $9 million; Singleton received an additional $7 million, earmarked for him to produce two more "indie," urban-set, youth-oriented dramas. The next indie sensation was born. Funny, though, that this "vision of what's hip and what Hollywood isn't doing," as Singleton has described it, should look exactly like what Hollywood's been doing for years.
Of course, wringing one's hands about the overcommercialized state of independent filmmaking—or, for that matter, the money-money-money conversations that pass for aesthetic judgments at Sundance—is as tired a cliché as the ones being peddled in Hustle & Flow. But the remarkable success of the movie thus far, and its likely haul in theaters this summer, point to larger matters: It's a sign that Hollywood's blockbuster ethos has now completely infected the indie/art-house landscape. In a curious case of Hollywood's Stockholm Syndrome, the indies have learned not just to love their captors, but also to emulate and refine their ways. Brewer and Singleton's movie looks so familiar that it takes a little while to realize that we've never seen anything quite like it before: the indie blockbuster.
Consider a few of the benchmark indies of the last decade, and you quickly begin to see where Hustle & Flow is coming from—and why its business plan is so foolproof. With The Blair Witch Project (1999), the independent world re-learned a lesson that Hollywood itself had forgotten—namely, that teenage audiences don't care how cheap-looking the horror movie, or how no-name the cast, is so long as it provides a few thuds on the soundtrack, and a frisson of the subversive. (It's a lesson that the makers of Saw and Open Water have followed to mint impressive fortunes.) Hustle & Flow is just as familiarly plotted and predictably rousing as its most obvious Hollywood counterpart, 8 Mile. But Terrence Howard certainly comes a lot cheaper than Eminem, and Craig Brewer probably didn't command even a 20th of Curtis Hanson's directing fee. Will the 14-year-olds in the crowd even notice the difference? If they do, they'll probably be too busy yukking it up to Brewer's grotesquely caricatured treatment of Deejay's hos to care.
As for those more discerning summer moviegoers, well, they might notice that the editing is flat-footed and the crowd scenes are all curiously underpopulated. But they won't see those things as strikes against the movie. Indeed, in the scheme of the indie blockbuster, "cheap" is more than just an aesthetic—it's also a brilliant marketing ploy. That's what My Big Fat Greek Wedding illustrated so cannily in the summer of 2002. Compared to that summer's polished-to-its-death multiplex fare, like Men in Black II and The Sum of All Fears, Greek Wedding's cardboard sets and sitcom lighting seemed downright charming. (Only in Hollywood could the adjective "cute" come to take on subversive undertones.) Hustle & Flow may be just the latest in a long line of indie-ish movies to use bleached-out color and jittery camerawork to suggest urban "authenticity." But in this summer of computer-generated sets (Revenge of the Sith) and computer-generated stars (The Fantastic Four), Brewer's vision of Memphis suddenly looks as searing and clear-eyed as Roberto Rossellini's portrait of Rome in Open City.
Hustle & Flow will open on at least 1,500 screens; its pre-release marketing blitz is expected to include significant cross-promotion on Viacom-owned MTV and BET. (That was one of the reasons Singleton had said he signed with Paramount, instead of the reported next-highest bidder, New Line.) The classic indie product opens small and depends on good reviews and positive word-of-mouth to cross over into the mainstream. The indie blockbuster seeks to create huge pre-release awareness and nullify critical reaction in order to "open big." That's where Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and The Passion of the Christ (2004) come in—they were the first indies to solve that most vexing of Hollywood riddles: the monster opening weekend. What both movies lacked in light sabers and gross-out jokes, they made up for with relentless, demographic-specific marketing and old-fashioned controversy. It's doubtful that Singleton and Brewer can button-push with the efficacy of Michael Moore and Mel Gibson. But if the cast of Hustle & Flow makes enough appearances on MTV's Total Request Live, the result will likely be the same. This indie will arrive in theaters just as "critic proof" as the latest Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza.
That's why the indie blockbuster model seems so pregnant with possibility. (And it's why some of our best and most challenging filmmakers, among them Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, and Spike Lee, are likely to be even further marginalized in the decade to come.) A movie like Hustle & Flow offers all the potential reward of a studio blockbuster with little of the attendant risk; it can be acquired and marketed by Paramount for about as much money as the same studio paid Tom Cruise to appear in The War of the Worlds. And unlike, say, The Spitfire Grill—to cite the most famous instance of a Hollywood studio wildly overpaying for a painstaking, plodding indie that no one in the real world would ever want to see—there's nothing annoyingly Sundance-y about Hustle & Flow at all.
The result is a marriage of exquisite convenience, for both the indie filmmakers tired of toiling in obscurity, and the Hollywood studios tired of trying to spin Sundance esoterica into Oscar-friendly gold. The indies look business-savvy. The studios look "hip." Everyone gets rich. And the only ones who go hungry are the audience.