Over the past few months I've made a concerted effort to view as many contemporary low-budget independent films as possible. I've been doing this for a few years now, but since embarking on my own feature project, my rate of consumption has grown. Most of the movies have either been financial or critical successes, but all were low-budget (sub $500k). Additionally, most of them have secured some form of distribution as I am able to rent them or see them in the theaters. I've also had the pleasure of watching a few that have not yet seen any distribution (maybe they will get it?). The idea here is to see what works with low-budget film. I'm interested to see what part of the low-budget hurts (or helps) our experience as an audience. There are a few questions I ask myself as I watch:
1. How does it look? - Did their lack of funds or fancy camera affect the overall picture quality?
2. How does it sound? - It's only a problem if I notice it.
3. Budget/Product Ratio - How good of a movie did they make despite their limitations? Do I like/respect this film more because of its low budget?
4. Is the story good? - Would anyone other than an aspiring indie filmmaker want to see this movie? Would they enjoy it?
The only real question that matters here is the last one. There is no escaping it. Without a strong, well-told story, no one cares. In fact, an audience will turn off your movie altogether. You can use the coolest new camera or gadget to make your film look expensive, but no one will notice it if your story is boring. Sadly, this is what I keep finding with most of what I've been watching.
I've got to ask: Do I even like independent film? I'm just not enjoying much of what's out there. I keep watching all of these "festival favorites" directed by the latest wunderkind or prodigy and I've started to feel like I'm missing the punchline to a joke. There are certainly exceptions, but in three months of watching low-budget movies there have been few that I've liked well enough to recommend to others. Most new indies seem so focused on having a "fresh" concept that it seems they opted for just that, concept. Story is secondary.
The good news is, I'm learning from these movies. I'm learning that in all the mayhem of trying to get a movie made, the story can easily get lost. If not lost, it often falls short of its potential. I'm learning that one can definitely make a movie for very little money if the ingredients and planning are there. But, the most important reminder I'm getting is to focus everything everything everything on the story, not the production value. If the story is strong, and if the story is served/supported technically, the production value will be there.
I'm eager to return to my screenplay. Much has percolated over the past few months and I have much that I want to develop and refine in the script. I want to like independent film. More importantly, I want people to like my independent film.
Story isn't just the first part of the process, it's also the last. It's all an audience will care about after watching a (my) movie, so it better be good!