Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Realities of the No-Budget Film

Is it possible to make great film art with no money? I realize great low budget indie films have been made, but I don't mean LOW budget. I mean NO budget. I'm talking about making a film for $20,000 as opposed to a low budget film with $1 million (which is, by most standards, very low.

What I'm wondering is if, by the nature of this particular medium, it's actually necessary to have a moderate budget to make great art.

A painter needs only his or talent and imagination. It matters not if you're painting an epic scene or a hovel. The cost of the paint and canvas is the same.

Same goes for a novelist. Pen, paper, a word processor -- the cost of the medium's materials are the same no matter who you are.

For film, though, the imagination can be stifled by the financial requirements of the medium.

This isn't anyone's fault. It just is. It's the condition under which all filmmakers must work.

For example, while I've learned to adapt to the current circumstances, my imagination -- even for a low budget film like Endings -- frequently outstrips my budgetary situation.

Can anyone name great film art made for less than $100,000 (just to throw out a random low figure)? Sure there are major indie successes like Clerks and The Blair Witch Project, but I don't consider those great art so much as great leaps forward for indie film. Amusing and/or interesting films, perhaps even innovative, but not great art.

So, gentle readers -- can you name truly no-budget films that are great art (with no caveats or excuses made for the budget limitations)?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1/22/2008 8:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Valid choice. I'm not sure I agree that it's great art, but ultimately that might be a subjective determination.

It IS, though, a good example of using the limitations of the budget in your favor.

I'd like to hear what others think of that choice, too...

1/22/2008 8:30 PM  
Blogger Dan Buck said...

I could make an excellent pie for under $100,000.

I have to wonder if there isn't a sports metaphor here.

Can there be an amazing football team in some podunk school of 1000 students. No. No matter how brilliant the coach, the team will be good for their "league" at best. And I have to wonder if in collaborative art like film (and theatre) even if the artist (director) is GREAT, in no budget land, what are the odds that he;ll find enough great team members (working for nothing, on little to no experience) that the end product would stand as GREAT ART.

I think collaborative artists don't suffer so much because of a low budget, but because of the collaborative options available in the world of no budget.

Most indie films that are amazing at low budgets are usually also very limited, and just like the bush leagues of baseball, the stars that made that film amazing get cherry picked by the big budget world very quickly.

Having said all that I think "Once" got quite lucky and landed a great premise, a good director, and some great actors all for $150,000.

1/22/2008 8:48 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Yeah, I think that's sort of the problem. You can only do so much with that kind of money. "Pi" is like that. It does well with its limitations -- but it only has those limitations because it was made by a filmmaker scraping money together.

"Once" is another valid example -- a little over my budget specification, but the number was rather arbitrary.

I'm just thinking about the limitations lately, I suppose, and the frustrations that go with them. There are so many interesting images in my head that I can't make real (or "reel") because of the budget.

1/22/2008 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1/22/2008 9:16 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Another interesting choice (is this the same "Anonymous"?). I'd like to hear a defense of it as great art, I admit.

1/23/2008 6:46 AM  
Blogger Dan Buck said...

I think anonoymous was calling you a SLACKER! :)

1/23/2008 11:19 AM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

ah, well, in that case, i can't disagree.

1/23/2008 11:23 AM  
Anonymous bobdaninja said...

El Mariachi was made for two grand, which was raised by the director subjecting his body to medical experiments. And it won Sundance, which ain't bad. Yes awards are subjective, political, and no basis for greatness according to some people, but seriously, two grand. On film.

1/24/2008 12:35 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

El Mariachi (which was made for $7000, btw) is a great indie success story, but I have to admit that I don't think it's a great film and couldn't be considered great art. That's my opinion, of course, and I know it's subjective. But I just don't think that film is art (and honestly, I think Rodriguez would say the same thing -- I don't think he thinks of his work as "art").

Incidentally, for readers who may not know this, the version of El Mariachi that everyone saw in theatres and that was released on video/DVD did NOT cost $7000. It cost hundreds of thousands more ($350,000 is the estimate I read). Why? Because the distributor that bought it (I think it was Miramax) spent that much to clean up the film print and fix the sound and music).

The $7000 version looked like, well, a $7000 film (in terms of film and sound quality).

I'm not trying to take away from Rodriguez's achievement. We'd all be thrilled to have the same kind of success. I just don't think it's art.

1/24/2008 5:51 PM  
Blogger jmkendri said...

Are we only talking narrative feature films, or can we consider all forms of filmic art? If it's the latter, then all you have to do is look to the films of avant-garde geniuses like Stan Brakhage, who made beautiful works of cinematic art for next to nothing. Of course, for the purposes of this discussion, that may be apple and oranges.

1/24/2008 6:54 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Oo - now it gets interesting. I WAS thinking of narrative, but perhaps I shouldn't have been.

Your Brakhage example may just serve to underline my theory -- is it possible that to make great film art for next to nothing that you have to make it "experimental"?

1/24/2008 6:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was given your blog by a friend and found your thread interesting because it has a fundamental problem. In order to answer your question (can no budget = art), don't you need to define art in measurable terms? If I can say PI was or wasn't art, then I need to be able to say why.

So what makes a film, independent or not, "art?"

1/26/2008 9:37 PM  
Blogger Chris Hansen said...

Anonymous -- you're right, of course. That's the main problem with this question in the first place. I can't deny that. I guess I feel that it's possible for a low budget production to yield art, but it's very difficult to achieve... And is there a way to measure whether something is art? I want to work on this problem, and I will, but it's too late to do so tonight as I'm headed to bed.

I might start a new post on this subject based on your latest comment. I think it deserves more consideration...

1/26/2008 9:54 PM  
Blogger "Cookies & Cream" Movie said...

Hmmm...where do I begin?

Four Eyed Monsters
Mutual Appreciation
Medicine for Melancholy
Hannah Takes the Stairs
Quiet City
The Celebration
Dancer in the Dark

Haven't heard of some of these? Doesn't matter. The right people have. Weekly runs at art theatres, almost all with theatrical distribution, all with countless accolades and phrases like, "innvative," "groundbreaking," "brilliant," "indenpendent film has found a savior," etc. I could go on and on and quite easily name 20 more, but like you, I'm tired and need to sleep. Good luck.

4/12/2008 2:54 AM  

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