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2013 S&A Highlights: What Are You Willing To *Forgive* When It Comes To No-Budget/Lo-Budget Films?

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by Tambay A. Obenson
December 31, 2013 3:20 PM
18 Comments
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Director Philippe Lacote (R) and actor Isaach de Bankole shoot a scene in the film "Run" in Bassam on August 18, 2013.

Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the fifth of many to come, originally posted in January 2013, which generated some good discussion on this blog, and elsewhere. Happy New Year to you all! 

This is independent filmmaking folks, where money is limited, budgets are anywhere from zero- to low-budget, so whenever I'm screening an indie feature, I'm more forgiving, you could say. I don't expect that every single aspect of production will be top notch. I understand that when you're working with a very limited budget, some things will likely suffer; you'll have to make adjustments and compromises. 

Not that all indie films are made equal. First of all, you'd have to define what exactly an indie film is, and that's a conversation the film community (both indie and mainstream) have been having for years now. But I guess you could say that I'm much tougher on studio pictures that cost millions of dollars, usually with top notch talent both in front of and behind the camera, and resources seemingly in near-abundance, than I am when it comes to *smaller* films - especially those in that sub-$500,000 category; and even more-so with those that are made with 5-figure budgets or less.

For example, I made a feature-length film in 2003 (my first and only feature) for $5,000! Does it show? Of course it does! At least I think so.

But when we (my business partners and I) 4-walled a theater here in NYC for 3 days of screenings, over a weekend, the only reactions I got from audiences were on how authentic and real the film's depiction of a relationship between a man and a woman was, with some even asking if the actors were a couple in real life. There was really no mention of the film's low production values.

Of course, that doesn't mean that there weren't those who thought the film was a piece of shit. I'm pretty sure there were. They just didn't say anything to me directly, which is perfectly ok.

But the point is that some were willing to overlook certain inadequacies and instead allowed themselves to be taken in by what many felt were the film's strengths, which they remembered the most. Or, to put it another way, for some, the film's strengths overshadowed its weaknesses, enough for them to appreciate the experience.

Do we expect every film to deliver fully, with each and every individual aspect working perfectly in unison, resulting in a rich, memorable, resounding cinematic experience? Of course we do! But how often does that happen even with expensive Hollywood studio movies, let alone with those made within the resource-limited indie-world?

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that one is inferior to the other, but to consider how we watch those *smaller* films, remembering the challenges the filmmakers had to tackle to see their films through completion. 

So, the question is, what, if anything, are you willing to *forgive,* for lack of a better word, when it comes to watching no- to low-budget indie films? The popular saying is that nothing else really matters but the story. Is that true for you? If everything else is sub-par, but there's an interesting story that hooks you, would that be enough to carry you through the entire film? If the acting is weak, but the cinematography is sublime; or if the sound is poor, but the acting is strong; etc, etc...

Or do you say, tough cookies, I look at every single film, whether studio or indie, through the same lens, and judge them exactly the same way, no matter how expensive or how cheaply-made they are.

After all, there are no-budget/lo-budget films that have impressed in all categories. But like I said, not all indies are created equal.

Discuss...

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18 Comments

  • IGBO | January 2, 2014 4:19 PMReply

    As a filmmaker and filmgoer, I can forgive a film's technical deficiencies to a certain degree if the story is compelling. The only exceptions would be poor quality sound or camera work that is grossly incompetent or distracting. In other words, for the technical quality to be a problem, it has to severely get in the way of being able to see the action and hear what characters are saying. The reason why films are not compelling rarely hinges on the technical execution, but rather the story, dialog and the performances, which are less impacted by a film's budget.

  • Mark Bell | February 5, 2013 12:09 PMReply

    I think it depends. I see, and review, all level of films over at FilmThreat.com, and I can't think of any one thing that, when deficient, ruins the film every time. I watch everything as a level-playing field, and look at what works and what doesn't work, not in relation to other films or budget levels, but in relation to what is contained in the film itself. Sometimes poor visuals or audio work aesthetically with the overall piece, and enhance the experience. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes the story is nothing to write home about, but the performances are incredible.

    So I see it as a case-by-case scenario where what works or doesn't work within a film varies. But I approach each film equally; just because the making of a film was hard (all filmmaking is hard) or the back story of the film's production is compelling, it doesn't mean it deserves a different critical eye than any other film with a higher or lower budget. Again, when you review or critique based on what works or doesn't work within each film individually, it takes a bit of the compare-and-contrast out of it, and you see the singular cinematic experience for what it is. Sure, budget levels allow me to better understand why certain filmmaking decisions were made, but I look at the film as it is, and if it works for me, even with, say, technical failings, I may note them, but if they didn't take away from my viewing experience, I'm usually fine with it.

    Others may have more cut-and-dry ideas of what makes a film good or bad, but, again, I find it to be a fresh experience with each film, and what works or doesn't, while it can be consistent across a number of films, isn't always, and thus each film must be taken as they are.

  • Julius Hollingsworth | February 4, 2013 12:41 PMReply

    Bad sound is unforgivable after 60 seconds of that people will tune you out completely.But great actors,great cinematography and a real story can change a life.

  • monkeysuit | February 1, 2013 9:17 PMReply

    I think technically speaking, audio is the only unforgiving piece of a movie. Look at Blair Witch Project, 28 Days Later or the more recent Catfish. All of them had poor quality video and photography, but great plots and excellent sound. Bad sound is what makes it look amateur.

  • CLAYTON BROOMES JR | February 2, 2013 11:09 PM

    Too me, bad sound doesn't say "amateur" when it comes to filmmaking. Maybe when it comes to music production or any of the audio arts. But not for film, in my opinion. Filmmaking existed for years without sound. I think limited visuals, clumsy editing and poor storytelling screams amateur filmmaker. Just my opinion.

  • CLAYTON | January 30, 2013 1:08 PMReply

    As an indie filmmaker myself, I can forgive poor/imperfect sound, under lit cinematography, white walled production design, unimaginative camera work and some muted supporting performances.

    I will not forgive a bad story with an inconsequential plot/theme, littered with one-dimensional, predictable characters who I cannot empathize with. I will not forgive bad acting. I will not forgive over-lit cinematography. I will not forgive obvious pretentiousness. I will not forgive bad or cliched music. I will not forgive failed attempts to make me laugh, make me cry, make me terrified or simply to make me care. I will not forgive uneventful scenes. I will not forgive mumblecore. I will not forgive a bad ending. @ClayBroomes

  • CareyCarey | January 29, 2013 9:27 PMReply

    Stupid is what stupids do... low budget is what low budget do. I am suggesting that tough titty, I look at every single film, whether studio or indie, through the same lens. Hell, how or why would I do it any differently? First, how do I tell my natural senses to turn off? Lets say I am watching a film and the sound quality is terrible, which jacks my movie watching experience. Do I tell my ears to "disregard that horrible sound b/c the director's money was funny"? Huh- can I do that?

    In short, as Malcolm X said, "if your kitchen is dirty, your house is dirty". In that respect, if a filmmaker jacks with any part of my film watching experience, it's likely to be another love TKO. Heck, rationalizing and justifying sub-par work, does nothing but make poor hustlers into poor filmmakers.

    I'm serious, do we, or should we make allowances (forgive) poor writing b/c the director/filmmaker couldn't afford a good writer? So why should we make concession for any aspect of the process?

  • CareyCarey | January 30, 2013 12:01 PM

    Wouldn't it be nice if we could do it all over again? "Do what all over again, CareyCarey?" Well, even something as simple as yesterdays events, I wonder what my world would be like if I could somehow change everything I said or did the previous day? Stay with me now, I'm going somewhere and it pertains to this post.

    I am reminded of the movies Looper and Inception. The central theme of both was going back to change the future. And who can forget the antics of Bill Murry in Groundhog Day? Well, I really don't remember what happened to him, but I know he was a weatherman who found himself living the same day over and over again.

    So now, having rested my mind upon completetion of a good nights sleep, hours removed from the rat race and confusion of the day before, I'm thinking, did I say something stupid yesterday? Did I lack compassion or empathy while interacting with another person? Did I not call my mother or fertilize any of my friendships? Damn, I did all the above. I dropped the ball several time, but what if I could go back and make things "right"?

    Now here I am, having re-read my above comment, I'm thinking, "Damn, somethings not right about that."

    Tambay asked the question "What are you willing to forgive when it comes to watching no budget to low budget films". Of course I immediately went to the "it's all about me" zone. I mean, the question did ask what would "YOU" forgive. But if used the old "Seek first to understand" concept, and then put myself in other folks shoes, I'd change what I said yesterday.

    So I think it all depends on the purpose/agenda/focus/goal of the film, and the goal of the filmmaker and that of the viewer. Take for instance a skin flick ( yeah, I've watched a few :-(), who has never seen one?), what is the viewer looking for... "quality", great cinematography, close-ups of private parts, crystal clear sound bites of someone saying "do me baby, don't stop, that's the way I like it... [stuttering, deep breathing, moaning], skin touching skin going in and out? Or do they look for great writing, 3 dimensional characters and a plot that seeks to generate and reflect tension with a touch of ambivalence?

    I know, some would call that pornography and then accuse those filmmakers of playing by a different standard, right? Well, again, from the viewpoint of the pornographer, he could call it art, and he define himself as an artist who has his or her own agenda/reasons for going into the film business.

    In short, since film is used in countless endeavors, each having having it's own purpose ( i.e. teaching tool, entertainment, stimulation, information, propaganda, etc,) lets go back to school. Specifically, lets visit Schoohouse Rock's song "Conjunction Junction, what's your function". I think there's a great analogy in the following words: Conjunction junction, what's your function? Hooking up two boxcars and making 'em right. Milk and honey, bread and butter, peas and rice. HEY THAT'S NICE! Dirty but happy, digging and scratching, losing your shoe and a button or two. He's poor but honest, sad but true, boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!

    Soooooo... filmmakers and film enthusiast, what's your function? In the voice of Porky Pig, Th-th-th-th-that's all that matters folks!

  • BURP | January 29, 2013 8:55 PMReply

    I am not overlooking shit.. .the point is if you are a filmmaker and supposed to be "creative" then you will figure out a way to make it work. I have seen stuff on a limited budget look hollywood quality and better(check the french new wave for example). The point is for you to show others what you can do with what you have and if you were to have more what you can do even more. This is how a lot of video directors(Black) got hollywood to notice them. Pariah was done for 500k , Middle of Nowhere was also done on a low budget. Its no excuse...again the business side of the industry will not be forgiving so why should folks who you want to pay money to see your theatrical experiments. STEP YOU GAME UP FOLKS or chose another profession. We as black folks have to hold each other to higher standards thats the only way we as a people we begin to rise. So it does not matter if its 5k or 5mil if it sucks it sucks no excuse. The era of black exploitation films are over..technology has leveled the playing field and if you know what you are doing you can actually do some good things.

  • FLMKR | February 5, 2013 2:06 PM

    You ruin your argument with one line: "this is how a lot of video directors got hollywood to notice them." If your goal is to make movie to make hollywood notice you, you're in the wrong art/business. Good Day to Be Black and Sexy was one of the worst-shot/edited films I've ever seen in my life. Big hit at Sundance and in its NYC screening. Wide distribution. The goal is ALWAYS the audience, not some corporate industry, because the problem for black filmmakers and other non-white male filmmakers is that we don't get to choose who "makes it" and why. It's Middle of Nowhere one year, Black and Sexy the next. Production values don't mean a thing to those decision-makers. They're thinking about what the audience wants. Filmmakers need to begin thinking the same way.

  • dee | January 29, 2013 4:46 PMReply

    I will overlook everything about a low or under budget movies except. The story/ plot/ acting as long as the persons representing are able to convey the story. I consider myself a movie buff and have seen a lot of over budget - over the top movies crash and burn. Whereas the low budget movies told a simple story and won me over by it excecution and conviction.

  • Akimbo | January 29, 2013 3:53 PMReply

    I will forgive any terrible technical aspects so long as your acting, dialogue, and story don't suck. Like, I don't care if you have the actors holding their own boom mikes and the lighting is so bad that I can only see teeth and eyeballs; story/dialogue and character/acting are king to me.

  • Donella | January 29, 2013 3:23 PMReply

    I enjoy high-brow and low-brow, independents, B-flicks, and some straight-to-DVD. Budget means almost nothing to me in choosing films. Story is uppermost. Then acting. Then art direction. Last year I watched two low-budget B-flicks with Lance Henriksen released in 2006 (Sasquatch) and (Abominable). Similar story lines-Monster in the Wilderness Stalks a Group of Humans. One was terribly told to the point of being laughable. The other surprised me by being really good and I viewed it again with the commentary. I believe direction and acting made the difference in these two similar films. I've also watched Primer-a B-flick about time travel. It consisted mostly of two guys, a footlocker or trunk of some sort, and a storage shed. Pretty interesting story. I watched a flick with Lawrence Fishburne in which he and Gina Torres tortured Ryan Phillipe in a garage. Held my interest. There are so many large budget projects with nothing to engage the viewer but machine gun fire, flashing lights, and loud soundtracks, but the story is missing. A story well-told is time well-spent.

  • artbizzy | January 29, 2013 2:42 PMReply

    If you have a strong voice and vision then it doesn't really matter how much of a budget you have. I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino but he is certainly creative. I also believe that if he had no money to make a film he would make a really interesting one anyway simply because he has a strong voice, vision and drive. I know that Reservoir Dogs didn't have a huge budget. The greatest artists are risk takers and make something with whatever means they have available and they do this because more than they want to they need to tell the story that they want to tell. The problem is we keep looking at film in a way that is separate from the way way we look at art, music and literature and we do this because of the amount of money we know that films can cost to make and that if successful the film can make those involved in its production quite wealthy too. Everything is so corporatized now that we believe that substance is inherent in high-concept high budget feature films. Look at Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was a genius. He often had a couple of actors together in a room talking and there's the psychological threat of something. You don't need money to do that. You need to just have the heart to follow your muse. The muse has nothing to do with money.

  • Kansas Street | January 29, 2013 3:30 PM

    Your comment was spot on! Thank you for saying what all artist need to hear at some point. I am in the throws of directing a feature film on a shoestring budget and I am at times, scared out of my mind. I read your comments and all is well on "Kansas Street" again. Thanks.

  • Joe | January 29, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    I don't watch crap. If I'm watching it, it's because people have skill enough to make it look like it's NOT a zero budget production. I'll watch documentary shorts that look like crap, if the subject matter is compelling enough. Fiction, however, no. If you demand 2 hours of people's lives, you owe them the best work you possibly can do. You owe them respect and professionalism. You owe them that you've done your homework and know your way around a lens and a microphone. Or else, fuck off, wanker.

  • getthesenets | January 29, 2013 2:15 PMReply

    has to be entertaining
    don't want to see the visual regurgitation of what someone learned in film school

    seen quite a few low/no budget films where the director was making a film for critics rather than for PAYING audiences.

  • Vanessa Martinez | January 29, 2013 2:13 PMReply

    If the story, the writing/script is good; if it's an interesting premise; if I can identify with the characters; if the acting is compelling/realistic then... I really don't care much about the aesthetics of a low budget production. It's all about the substance; but then those are the types of films that fall through the cracks in the industry. It's the glossy types that end up making it. Money talks. Having said that, it really helps having a good DP, decent sound/score etc.. It's about being resourceful and having some technical skills; a good artistic eye...aside from a great story, of course.

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