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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin J. Gohs

Indie films matter more than ever

As Hollywood continues its stagnation of superhero spinoffs, unimaginative remakes, and pointless reboots, the need for bold, unique, and honest storytelling is even more necessary than ever.

We need films that aren't careful, aren't worried about who they might offend, and which don't adhere to stifling and censorious contemporary standards.

And the only place to find this sort of art is in the independent film industry.

Before we can discuss why indie films matter, especially microbudget productions, we first have to define them … to the best of our ability.

No one can seem to agree on just how much money qualifies one as an indie. But the top indie films lists include ranges from the low end of just under $30,000 for Clerks (1994) all the way up to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which cost $180,000,000 … and is considered the most expensive “independent” movie ever made.

Of course, “independent” simply means there wasn’t a major studio involved in the movie’s production.

What we bottom-tier filmmakers—financially speaking—consider indie and low-budget tend to have far more miniscule financial resources. Chris Sparling’s runaway hit Buried (2010) was supposed to cost $5,000 but found a budget of $2 million when he was able to attach Ryan Reynolds.

Is that all ya hafta do?

While independent filmmaking is synonymous with lower budgets, it doesn’t have to mean lower profit margins. Though it often does thanks to a lack of marketing funds, and distribution concerns.

But, hey, lots of bigtime movies with bigtime budgets have been bigtime flops.

Would you rather make a movie for $20,000 that barely made its investment back or be on the hook for a super-stinker like 1995’s Cutthroat Island, which reportedly lost $187M. Ouch!

1998’s film π (Pi)—no, not life of Pi—cost about $135,000 and earned back $3.2 million. Not too shabby.

Slacker (1990) cost $23,000 and made $1.2 million. I still don’t get this movie. I mean, I get it … but I don’t get it.

Blue Ruin (2013) cost $420,000—which to most micro-budget moviemakers may as well have been $4 million. But they were able to more than double their investment when they made back roughly $993,000.

It’s amazing what some people consider “no-budget” films, but the current wisdom seems to be a microbudget movie falls under the $25,000 cap.

Some great microbudget movies:

  • Primer (2004) cost a paltry $7,000 and grossed nearly $842,000.

  • Following (1998) cost $6,000 and grossed $48,482.

  • The Last Broadcast (1998) cost $900 and grossed $4 million. Wowzers!

  • Creep (2014)—according to the Duplass brothers, it didn’t cost anything. And if you’ve seen it, you know why. They used one camera and two actors mostly shot in two apartments and the woods. But it’s a fantastic horror flick. Weird and scary and very engaging.

Of course, the aforementioned only lists some of the bigger indie winners. And we are gathered here today to discuss micro-budget indie films and why they matter more than most people probably realize.

So, now that we’ve narrowed down our idea of extremely low-budget true independent films, let’s talk about why they matter.

Why do independent films matter?

1. Independent filmmaking gives everyone—everyone with gumption and at least a moderate amount of creativity—the chance to make a piece of motion picture art for themselves and to share those stories with others.

2. Indie films get to explore themes and tell stories that the bigger studios, screenwriters, actors, and directors are either too disinterested in or afraid of.

3. Independent film sets are a great place to learn moviemaking skills. Not only do indie filmmakers have to be more careful with their budgets and creative with their shoots, but they must also rely on people who are flexible and can problem-solve. What better classroom in the world than a place where every day you’re faced with creative challenges which can’t be solved with money or star power or Hollywood connections.

My viewing interest lately has been low-budget indie short films. Is there such a thing as a high-budget non-indie short film? Who knows. Not me.

Here are some of my recent favorites:

DOORWAYS – Doorways (Jenkins Film Australia) is about a shut-in convinced he cannot leave his shack because, as he explains to his friend, every time he goes through a doorway or frame of any kind, he is transported to another place. And he doesn’t mean the other side of the doorway. This one has nice special effects and a great ending!

EVERYTHING WILL KILL YOU – RIP (SHARK FILM) – OK, so admittedly a bloated title. And the story on this one isn’t fully fleshed. But, if you treat this more like a vignette or a scene from a larger movie, it’s an enjoyable watch. Great editing, effects, use of stock footage, and quality acting make for a short film that couldn’t possibly have cost $700 to make—except it did!

DEAD END – Here is a horror short featuring a werewolf. I know, I know, werewolves have been done to death … but this one is really good. OK, so I’m a chicken when it comes to anything wolf-related, so maybe I’m biased. But the excellent job Director Jack Shillingford and crew did here with two actors, one car, and a dark stretch of road is something I don’t want to oversell. So, go watch it for yourself.

LOCUM TENENS – This short by Leo Dominique is … really freakin’ strange. It’s about … strangeness. It’s abut loneliness. It’s about friendship—very odd friendship. But this one-camera, mostly one-actor, mostly one-location short has some of the best use of color and camera work I’ve scene anywhere. Like Jackson Pollock said of a painting—you don’t look at a bunch of wildflowers and tear your hair out over what it means. I suggest doing the same here. Just let the imagery, and some pretty good acting for a newcomer, wash over you. Then promptly take a long hot shower. You’ll need it.

THE RAISIN – This 2017 film, written and directed by Rob Carter, doesn’t look like a microbudget film but considering the one location is a shack in the middle of Dartmoor National Park and features two actors with zero special effects, I can’t imagine it cost all that much to produce. This is another picture you’re better off going into cold. Don’t bother reading any synopses or seeing any teasers. In fact, I’ve been making a point over the last few years of trying not to watch movie trailers (not always) or reading about them beforehand because even when done carefully, parts of the story are always given away that would be better kept secret. I’d rather watch the cool parts of the movie in the movie and not have them ruined ahead of time.

The hard truth is, most indies will never earn a dime toward costs, unless they place high in a contest with cash prizes or find distribution with a platform that actually pays. Even then, the chances of turning an actual profit after expenses are very low.

It’s the artist’s conundrum.

But, those who feel strongly enough about the medium and the ideas they’re compelled to share will always find ways to produce their art. Irregardless of economic and political trends.

Thank goodness for indie filmmakers: the directors, writers, actors, cameramen, support staff, and producers who sacrifice financial gains, sleep, and sometimes their sanity to create the kinds of art that make life worth living.

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