Movies: Mind Over Money
by J. Neil Schulman
A recent article referring to my forthcoming in 2014 movie, Alongside Night, as a “low budget film” frustrates me, knowing that the major studio blockbuster creates in both movie-going audiences and film writers expectations regarding film quality. Labeling an indie film such as mine “low budget” before an audience has even seen it in a movie theater perpetuates prejudices against independent films, and gives the establishment movie studios a powerful weapon against an entire industry of indie filmmakers like me in competition with them for theater venues, retail display space, and—ultimately—the gray matter behind the eyes of its audiences.
It’s been an ongoing trend that the major movie studios now produce only a few ultra-high-budget movies each year. This works to reduce entertainment choices available to movie patrons—a gap we indie filmmakers try to fill in.
The studio blockbusters that dominate movie multiplexes have production costs in nine figures including “A-List” actors being paid in eight figures, plus armies of visual and special effects artists, stunt teams, art departments, and locations. With virtually unlimited resources available to one of these productions the only practical limit of what can be shown to an audience is in the imagination of the filmmakers—and unlimited resources forecloses the market on a whole lot of talent.
The running joke is today’s independent filmmaker’s total production budget is about the same as the catering budget for one of these studio films. It may not be a joke.
There’s no question that some tremendously entertaining movies can be made with these megabudgets. Just to mention two of recent memory that I enjoyed are the science-fiction movie Gravity and the latest installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit trilogy.
Studio produced blockbusters like these have the upside for a movie audience that when all elements come together a unique work of art and entertainment gives an audience an unforgettable experience, like drinking a 50-year-old single-malt scotch, or a night in bed with a $100,000 call girl, or a visit to the International Space Station.
The downside for an audience is that it threatens to ruin any movie experience less breathtaking and eliminates diversity of artistic vision and individual dissent. Movies are a form of theater—an incarnation of storytelling—and what the blockbuster often does is replace character-driven storytelling and performance-driven plots with minimal intellectual content that can only be brought out through the use of words.
Gravity kept me on the edge of my seat. It engaged me with the plight of its characters. But I left the movie theater with no ideas I hadn’t had when I first sat down, and had no meaningful questions left to resolve—or to talk about with anyone else—when I walked out.
Instead of appealing to our minds the infinite-budget movies feed us only every form of adrenaline-releasing action that stunt coordinators and computer artists can engineer—relentlessly. The trade-off of action moments replacing tboughtful moments deletes what the dramatic arts most needfully do: nourish our intellectual imagination and our moral sense of how to contemplate the human condition. It turns a nutritionally rich culture into the equivalent of empty calories—a high fed on snacks.
Not that independent film hasn’t tried to emulate the action blockbuster by crossing a technological threshold where a film made for a small fraction of a blockbuster’s budget can’t on occasion produce a movie with spectacular production values competitive with the studio blockbuster. The crowd-funded 2012 independent feature, Iron Sky, is as visually stunning as a studio-produced blockbuster like Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds—and with a comparable level of story-telling intensity.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with a 2002 opening weekend of less than $600,000 on 108 movie theater screens, was made for about $5 million. It had no A-list stars in its cast. Yet, on the basis of great writing, great directing, and great acting it earned blockbuster revenues in its theatrical distribution—well over $350 million in its worldwide box office take. The audience for this movie wasn’t looking for a rollercoaster ride. It was looking to meet characters who we wouldn’t mind spending some time with in real life, and whose struggles informed our own life challenges. It was a movie that inspired us.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was made for about $400,000—the blockbuster movie’s catering budget—but with quirky writing, directing, and acting also engaged movie theater audiences with a respectable domestic box office of over $44 million. With a production cost of about ten percent of the low-budget My Big Fat Greek Wedding Napoleon Dynamite worked its magic with no known movie stars and even more severe production challenges.
And, perhaps, the all-time champion of production cost to box-office success—beating out even The Blair Witch Project—is 2007’s Paranormal Activity, produced at a cost of $15,000 and which not only earned $195 million in worldwide box-office receipts but which has spawned a series of high-earning sequels.
The legend of how this microbudget video got major theatrical distribution from Dreamworks SKG / Paramount is that it was purchased only so Steven Spielberg could remake it at a studio budget but when Spielberg screened it he decided he couldn’t remake it any better and arranged for its theatrical release.
Every time a microbudget-produced indie like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, or Napoleon Dynamite is mentioned around an establishment movie executive or critic, they will duckspeak the same talking point: these movies are as rare as a casino jackpot. They’re the lotto exception, and can’t be figured into any rational business plan.
That may be true. But what is equally true is that there is no money to pay expensive production salaries and expenses—overheaded as thousands of individual budget line items—on a low-budget independent film. These ultralow-budget nonetheless box-office-blockbuster movies are more frightening to BMW-driving, expense-account holding, Belair-home-owning movie executives than all the Zombies, alien-invading monsters, and global-warming meltdowns put together.
If movies like my own Alongside Night can win movie audiences in meganumbers without spending megabucks, the days of studio execs’ caviar lifestyle are numbered.
We indie filmmakers can give you a richer choice and a diversity of boutique movies—not the Albertson’s selection but maybe the Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods choice.
But—people—you gotta stop using the phase “low-budget” when talking about movies that give you something different, or all that you’ll ever get to see are the movies Monsanto would feed you.