John Hanson calls it a breakthrough for independent films. From here it looks more like a revolution.

Hanson and his co-filmmaker Rob Nilsson are distributing their picture, "Northern Lights," on their own. This means they are bucking Hollywood itself, the system, the national spider web of studio domination, distributor chains, theatre exhibitor package deals, promotional tie-ins and the mountains of money that we have learned to call the entertainment industry.

The world premiere was at Crosby, N.D., in the Dakota Theatre. It broke the house record with a $5,500 gross that first week in July 1978.

"We started out to do a documentary," said Hanson, who is in town to beat the drum for the film's opening today at the Inner Circle Theatre. "But the minute we got there and started talking to people we realized it had to be a dramatic film."

For the next three years they worked on the movie the way a wino buys drinks: 10 days of shooting on location, then off to raise more money, then some interiors in San Francisco, a day here, a weekend there, and 16 months later another 10-day session on the prairie.

"The script was in constant flux. We had all our central characters from the first meeting, but we kept changing as we found new people or things happened. There was a local banker who looked just right, and he had a fine sense of timing, so we changed that character to fit him and put him into it."

And then there was wonderful Henry Martinson, a 96-year-old Socialist who knew the League and who sets the picture in motion (and ends it, too, with a bravura demonstration of calisthenics) and who decided that because he'd done everything else, "I might as well be a movie star."

On the lat day of one shooting session, Dec. 22, they needed a scene where the farmers thresh grain in the snow, and all week it had been 30 below, and the cameras wouldn't work, but suddenly -- with everyone making plans to fly home for Christmas the very next day -- it warmed up to zero. Hanson marshaled the crew by 8 a.m.

"at noon a wind came up," he said, "and the next thing we knew we were filming in a blizzard, which wasn't in the script, though it's been known to happen in the North Dakota harvest season. We shot until the cameras jammed and it got dark and we went home."

They made the picture for $240,000, mostly in state funds from the Humanities Endowment plus some federal matching money. They still owe $90,000 in deferments, which means their people worked without pay.

Because nobody would distribute the movie, they started pushing it themselves, to North Dakota towns and cities, gradually moving up to Minneapolis, the first outside booking. Along the way they promoted "Northern Lights" with preview screenings, malilings, posters, TV and radio interviews, benefits and Scandinavian contacts.

"It was the box-office figures that kept us going. We moved in quantum leaps. In a couple of cities we opened opposite 'Superman' and got killed." But then they hit Seattle and ran seven weeks and grossed $35,000, very respectable for a 220-seat theatre. And they made the film festival circuit, winning a major prize at Cannes, among others.

Now the movie is showing in about 12 countries, including Australia, and three theatres in Paris alone, and on TV from Scandinavia to Yugoslavia.

Hanson and Nilsson are trying to set up a network of 50 theatres that will handle independent filmmakers' work, and they envision a clearinghouse in New York as well as regional centers where independents can contact art houses, campus theatres, museums and imaginative commerical theatre owners. a

"The independent film has come a long way in the last five years," he said. "Most of us have had some experience in the industry by now." At 37, Harvard graduate Hanson has logged four years of technical film work including a year with Francis Coppola. He and Nilsson helped found the San Francisco film collective Cine Manifest, produced a feature for PBS and a documentary on North Dakota, where Hanson was raised on his grandfather's farm.

They are not the first independent film producers to go big-league. "Harlan County U.S.A." and "Girl Friends" were made independently and then picked up by major studios. Before them was Jerry Bruck, who flogged his hour-long documentary on I. F. Stone by himself, a modern Johnny Appleseed who roamed the urban landscape literally carrying his film cans and 8x10 glossies and marquee banners on his back, sleeping in people's living rooms and having to be reminded what city he was in.

The "Northern Lights" project represents the next step, a permanent alternative system for getting independently made movies before the public.

"In two or three years we'll break even," Hanson said, "and meanwhile we have a documentary on Henry Martinson almost ready, and then I have this idea for a contemporary feature, in the Iron Range country in Minnesota."

He is moving there. He feels that you have to know people before you can film them, you have to know the details that make up their lives. Like how it feels to thresh wheat in a blizzard.