Any young, aspiring filmmaker who ever picked up their parents’ VHS camcorder in the early ’90s probably knew there was more that could be done with the camera than simply shooting birthday parties and band concerts. When news broke that San Antonio-born indie filmmaker Robert Rodríguez’s Sundance award-winning debut film El Mariachi was initially made for a measly $7,000 in 1992, ballet recitals and footage of baby’s first steps started disappearing off tapes everywhere and getting recorded over with amateur backyard kung fu scenes. If a 23-year-old from San Antonio could make it to Hollywood, why couldn’t they?
“When El Mariachi came out it gave the Average Joe hope,” said San Antonio Film Festival director Adam Rocha. “I think he inspired, entertained, and educated young and hungry filmmakers.” Twenty years later, few filmmakers have found success in the same manner Rodríguez did. From studying film at the University of Texas at Austin to opening Troublemaker Studios and making film such as Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City, and Machete, Rodríguez is still a rare exception to the rule.
Despite the slim chance that any creative kid can pick up a camera and make it to the big leagues — and despite that two decades later the term “independent film” means nowhere near the same thing it did back when Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith were dishing out Reservoir Dogs and Clerks, respectively — Rodríguez is still motivating moviemakers.
“Nowadays the market is flooded with filmmakers with better equipment and resources than Robert Rodríguez ever had,” said local filmmaker Alejandro DeHoyos. “The model for indie films is broken. If filmmakers want to stand out from the crowd they need more than just a fancy camera. They need to be different, have a unique style, and a great story.”
With successful indie films today including Juno, Napoleon Dynamite, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding costing in the range of $400,000 to $6 million and more, the days where ultra-low-budget or no-budget productions could compete on a high level are basically over (unless we’re talking gimmickry like Paranormal Activity, which shot for a reported $15,000). “The film industry has completely evolved,” Rocha said. “Filmmakers today are like bands back in the ’90s. Back then everybody was in one. Nowadays, everybody is a filmmaker. All it takes is a DSLR and a MacBook.”