Today’s mainstream theatrical releases that often see the widest of national releases are only those that Hollywood has deemed the most bankable. Time and time again their choices are met with indifference from audiences resulting in discouraging box office returns. However, there also several big budget releases that perform exceedingly well, which then encourages the Hollywood filmmakers to churn out more of the same thing year after year. The bigger the budget the more we are bombarded by thin story lines in exchange for larger than life CGI effects. I enjoy special effects just as much as the next person, but I’d be lying if I said sometimes it’d be nice to exercise a little more restraint as far as beating us over the head with CGI and use effects in a more subtle way, which is something that independent cinema does extremely well.
Film festival audiences often get to witness today’s upcoming talents showcasing their abilities in low budget indie films that vary in quality but in the vast field of indie releases there always lurks quite a few gems, much like a film that was shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, BURIED [Buried Movie Review]. The low budget forces the filmmakers to use their money in more creative ways instead of throwing computer generated effects at everything that’s moves on screen. It is this style of filmmaking that often creates the most interesting and all around satisfying film experiences. The stories are treated with care and wit to ensure that they can stand on their own without the use of the fancy and expensive effects and that the vast majority of audiences can soak in the material and leave happy with what they’ve watched.
It’s unfair to say that every big budget flick leaves the audience cold and bitter, because there are filmmakers, like Christopher Nolan for example, that deserve the budgets they are trusted with and consistently give audiences a worthwhile cinema escape. Other directors that are given the bloated budgets may hand out product that ends up making a ton of money, but are universally panned by the audiences that crave the simple ideas that small budget films deliver. So the question is; will small budget feature ever get the attention and credit they deserve in worldwide cinema, or will we be forced to endure nothing but dumbed down special effects extravaganzas year after year?
The ideal situation is to meet somewhere in the middle, where filmmakers are given a budget that’s not overly bloated but also not small enough to where you can’t afford to throw in some visual flair to give the audience a little more bang for their buck. A perfect example of this marriage in policy is 2009’s DISTRICT 9. Neill Blomkamp constructed an immensely impressive sci fi adventure that was enjoyable on a basic level with a well written script, unknown actors and some very striking special effects, all with a budget around $30 million. DISTRICT 9 performed well at the box office making well over $100 million, but still fell very short of several films with over triple the budget and of considerably quality. Take a film like TRANSFORMERS 2 REVENGE OF THE FALLEN; the film had a budget over $200 million and grossed well over $400 million. I admit to being entertained by the larger than life robots, but the film nowhere close to resembling the cerebral entertainment of DISTRICT 9. The future of cinema shouldn’t be measured by the size of your budget, but by the quality of the film that is released. Cinema is of course all about people’s specific tastes, so it’s not my position to tell everyone how they should plan their trips to the theater, or tell them what they like. The argument stems more from the perspective that if Hollywood simply focused on the fact that great things can be done on discount budgets, and the more money they have for getting those films out to the public without the great risk of releasing a huge budget flick that could flop and lose them great deals of cash.
The added wild card in this scenario is the amounts of money studios are forking over to convert their already high budget flicks into 3D, which might yield a relatively high first weekend gross, but soon when audiences are aware of the robbery post converted films are the drop off can be severe, thus making the process a huge crutch to their plan. The 3D process CAN be used well, but studios have yet to realize the full potential of the medium, instead just opting to risk credibility and integrity by trying to go for the quick cash in that the inflated 3D ticket prices can give them. However, I’ve already ranted about the evils of 3D, so it’d be overkill to ramble too much longer on that subject.
The advantages and disadvantages to the big budget films obviously vary, and the micro budget films also have their fallbacks as well. The lack of cash makes the films open to discovering new and inspiring talent, but is not without the duds. The process is very much hit and miss, it does not guarantee you will have the next Sundance hit or word of mouth breakthrough. If the tiny budgets are misused the result can be detrimental to the overall quality of the film, thus making the pitfalls of the low budget world glaringly obvious. However, if you consider the minimal financial investment a studio puts forth when they buy up the properties, often they either dump the film direct to DVD or in a ridiculously tiny limited release that will likely alienate smaller markets that are clamoring for the chance to view something new and fresh. This plan of action is almost no different to having a big budget flick flop at the box office, and the film doesn’t end up supporting its own weight. One of the Cinderella stories from 2009 was the film, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, which had one of the smallest budgets of any film released nationwide from that year. As we now know it dethroned SAW 6 from its October perch it had so comfortably dominated for years, but the tragedy was that it sat collecting dust for years. It made good use of a marketing strategy that literally had people demanding to see it in their town, eventually gaining enough notoriety to make its way into theaters all over the country. Buzz and word of mouth are the lifeblood of micro budget films, and studios are more often than not spoiling their chances at surfacing the next big thing in cinema.
It might be unfair to compare these two different styles of filmmaking, but if more people like me, who gravitate towards the minimalist filmmaking style, the more prolific the films may become in the future. I do not want to come out and mock the people that work hard on films with monstrous amounts of money being pumped in from the Hollywood machine because I more often than not can appreciate the product. The only thing I wish to evoke from this is the fact that bigger is not always better; stars are made in the independent films that get brushed aside only to be discovered years after they are far from the public’s eye. We make our own decisions day to day, and in our everyday lives I know that if given the chance we would all love to pay less for the things that give us the most pleasure, so why wouldn’t movie studios and investors want to indulge and distribute this ideal all the same.