There’s no denying the impact that low-budget and short films have on cinema today. Low-budget and short filmmaking have been shaping movie trends and starting careers for generations. Though they’re less glamorous and publicized than big blockbusters are, they can be just as successful.
Take Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, for example. It is widely considered that Reservoir Dogs was made with a shoestring budget (at least as far as studio features are concerned) of $1.2 million. It was very successful, a cult film, and it was one of the big moments of Tarantino’s early career.
Compared to the multi-million dollar blockbusters of Hollywood, Reservoir Dogs appears to have a small budget, but it pales in comparison to some other famous low budget films.
Movies have become easier to produce. Today it’s possible for anyone to pick up a camera and make a movie, but what’s gotten harder is making a film stand out. Without a large enough budget, filmmaking becomes more difficult, and replicating the traditional crisp, easy-on-the-eyes Hollywood filmmaking style is very challenging.
This makes funding short and feature length films a hard thing to do, and it creates a major obstacle for filmmakers. In order to find a way to cover costs, filmmakers have looked to film grant companies willing to pay for films that qualify and are selected.
The film grant is used to pay for filming, and it does not need to be paid back to the company that originally issued it. Problems with film grants arise with the inability and difficult process when trying to get one.
On the other hand, shoestring budget films don’t need grants or a ton of money, and still they’ve been able to start careers and film trends. Here are three of them.
El Mariachi: $7,000
In 1992 Robert Rodriguez’s action film El Mariachi was released. The film was made with only a measly $7,000. Rodriguez understood El Mariachi was a low-budget film, and he directed with this in mind. He refused to spend on anything unnecessary.
No hired film crew, just him and fellow actors manning equipment. Only two lights were used to make the film, each with diffuser sheets on to dim the brightness from the hardware lamps. The film was completed using a total of 25 rolls of film.
Rodriguez saved money by using “creative ways to get around” obstacles. He saved money by using his directing and editing skills to overcome his problems.
If an actor fumbled a prop in a scene, Rodriguez would simply edit the scene to cut away any errors. He would cut the frame, swap lenses, and zoom to make for interesting and interesting scenes while trying to save every last cent.
This would work in Rodriguez’s favor as the low budget style of filming would be Rodriguez’s signature style for his movies. The film was a success and would catch the eye of Columbia Pictures who then offered a distribution deal.
Rodriguez sought no film grant in 1992 when the film was made. The budget came from Rodriguez performing odd jobs such as lending his body to a medical experiment.
In the end, the film would spawn a successful action-adventure trilogy, Rodriguez would become one of the most influential Mexican-American directors of all time, and the film would go on to earn $1.2 million at the box office on a $7,000 budget.
Director Kevin Smith created Clerks in 1994 while he was still working at a convenience store. The film was made for $27,575 and would rake in over $3 million at the box office.
There were a few methods Smith used to keep the price tag low and save money. He filmed the black and white comedy at the very same convenience store at which he worked. After work, he would close the shutters at the store and film all night.
The $27,000 came from maxing out credit cards and using money that had been saved up after dropping out of film school. The film got its start by premiering at a film festival to an empty theatre.
Luckily, a critic was able to see it and praise the film. This praise would lead it to eventually make a showing at Sundance Film Festival, where it would go on to garner its cult following. The film launched Kevin Smith’s career.
In terms of style, the film does feel cheap and a bit unpolished, but this exact “cheap feel” is what makes it so good. The style and cinematography pair well with the characters and themes of the movie, making the already hilarious slacker movie that much better.
The film was huge in progressing the indie and stoner film genres throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In an interview with The Guardian, Kevin Smith spoke about how the film has influenced young filmmakers and YouTubers alike, that it “launched a thousand ships.”
Paranormal Activity: $15,000
Paranormal Activity is the first film in a long series of successful horror movies. The film was a pioneer in the “found footage” horror movie genre and a huge influence on the horror films of the 2000s.
With the releases of The Blair Witch Project and Open Water, Paranormal Activity’s creator Oren Peli realised that “anyone could buy a video camera and start shooting a movie.” (Guardian).
Using $15,000 and his own home in San Diego, Peli shot the film over seven days, using home video cameras. Before its fame, the film was actually rejected from the Sundance Film Festival, and instead shown at Screamfest Horror Festival.
The secret to Peli’s success was that the film seemed so real. The film’s “found footage” style is where the film gets its scares from. Audience members could easily identify with the characters and setting, making the film’s execution that much stronger.
The film was so strong it would be an innovator of the modern horror genre, launch a series of successful films, and itself make $193 million on its original $15,000 budget.
Low-budget films have been breaking boundaries and setting new trends since the beginning of filmmaking itself. They often represent the origins of countless great actors and directors.
Where a big studio film can have too high a budget and not be able to create a sense of uniqueness, a low-budget can set a film itself apart and contribute to a sense of style if utilized well. It’s all about making intentional decisions so that a film can be its own.
In the three films we’ve looked at, the style and mood in each has been a product of the film’s budget and the crew’s creativity. They are the industry-pushers and trend-setters, and they will continue to remain extremely important in the entertainment and art communities.
The Film Fund currently funds short films with a simple and quick submission process. Learn more here. We’ll be expanding to feature film funding soon!