Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

For example, I just watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic fight scene (which, apologies to Michael O’Hare who hates this kind of stuff, I post below) is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Rocky’s shorts don’t match the banner image and his robe is the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. The arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

13 thoughts on “Making Good Movies on the Cheap”

  1. Why has the advent of digital filmmaking – with the consequent disappearance of the cost of film stock, the cheapness of multiple shots of the same take, editing on cheap general-purpose computers, etc – led to a shift away from the blockbuster studio model?

    The extreme example of the potential is shown by the very productive Nigerian film industry, where 1,000 to 2,000 full-length movies a year are distributed on video CDs. Costs are given in the linked article as from $10,000 to $30,000.

    A lot of the answer must lie in distribution. Digital projectors – allowing low-cost distribution on reusable hard drives – havn´t taken off; the savings flow to the distributors, not the exhibitors. Thre´s a lot of hysteresis, as well as hysteria, the movie business.

    1. “Why has the advent of digital filmmaking – with the consequent disappearance of the cost of film stock, the cheapness of multiple shots of the same take, editing on cheap general-purpose computers, etc – led to a shift away from the blockbuster studio model?”

      Obviously, it hasn’t, at least in the US. Tentpole films are where the industry makes the money to finance other more speculative films, yet there is an inherent cautiousness in what is first and foremost a business.

      Visit any number of indie filmmaker blogs, low-budget gear blogs, filmmaker ‘transmedia’ blogs, or screenwriter blogs, visit them and read the comments for a month… you’ll realize that while the tech is getting there, the infrastructure is not. You do, however, touch on that magic missing element. Distribution. Everything is lining up but the game has not yet changed. Forget Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity… That is not a model for sustaining a livelihood as a filmmaker, or crew member, that is a lottery, catching lightning in a bottle (I didn’t care for either of them, by the way).

      Also, Keith, when you mentioned the extras needed in the audience, I immediately thought of this: They probably could have used that in the 70’s.

  2. James — I am going to assume you mean “hasn’t the advent” and speculate as to what may be going on. The drop in cost has resulted in a an explosion of film making domestically and abroad, such that even minor film festivals are jammed with many entrants seeking a screening. But the capacity to distribute and show films in a revenue-generating way has not expanded in step with the increase in the number of films. Rather than sort through a gillion small films to find a money maker, distributors often just go with familiar studios and big name stars.

    1. Yes, ¨not¨ is missing. The Nigerian system works becaus they have very few cinemas. The dark horse here is Netflix.

  3. But isn’t this mostly a failure of imagination on the part of the film industry? The advent of digital filmmaking has largely coincided with the advent of home theater systems and internet-enabled computer and television peripherals. It seems to me that the gap between watching movies at home and in the theater is, at this point, mostly a mental construct, and that clever indie filmmakers ought to be able to exploit cheap, extant technology to allow home audiences to stream or rent their movies without even involving major distributors.


    1. @Josh: It’s a good question. My own two cents is that people have to be aware of the film to purchase it for streaming, which implies the need for an advertising budget, particularly given that there are forth million things to watch for free on YouTube et al.

  4. Keith I think you are allowing nostalgia to blind you to some real issues.
    The primary problem with movies today is that of being found in a sea of content. It is THAT more than anything else which means that half the cost of a movie is its advertising budget, and which results in various phenomena (which I’m sure you hate) like the use of stars, the use of known properties (so comic book movies) and the prevalence of sequels and prequels. Saying that producers could make cheaper movies if they used has-beens, up-and comers, and no special effects, does not change this — all that will happen is a movie will be made that no-one will ever have heard of.

    What does change this is to change the game, to some extent, which is what television does. Television redefines the product being created so that instead of a single instance (which has to advertise itself and make itself known in a world of millions of movies), what is created is on-going. You have to persuade the network that your idea has value and legs, and the network has to spend a (comparatively small) amount of money to get the idea known, but after that you ARE known. And you have scope for a variety of interesting ideas, while also allowing for depth and growth impossible in a movie.

    I’m not ashamed to say that in my opinion TV is vastly more interesting than film, and has been so since, what, maybe the late 80s. You can’t do everything in TV, of course. You couldn’t tell a story like Memento; and the half hour or hour format is a little artificial (though not a straitjacket — the best shows spread out character development and plot over multiple episodes; and film has its own 90 minute straitjacket). We could list The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, the usual greatest hits here, but I’ll go more quirky. I recall a fascinating episode of _Mad About You_ that was shot as a single camera single take with no camera motion, and no interruption for commercials, on the subject of the two (no longer) newlyweds now parents and trying to persuade their baby to accept sleeping alone. Or Community which, no matter the pathologies of its showrunner and at least one of its actors, was a constant high-wire act of daring, every second episode a bizarre adventure into god knows where. Or Arrested Development, which never went for the conceptual pyrotechnics of Community, but which was consistently insanely funny — far more so than practically any movie labelled a comedy.

    To my mind bemoaning the intellectual poverty of film is like bemoaning the irrelevance of opera or poetry to the 21st century — such bemoanings mainly show that the author is unaware that intellectual life has not stopped, it has merely moved from certain old media into different new media.

  5. Just as it sometimes makes sense to think of the US government as an insurance company with an army, so it sometimes makes sense to think of major movie studios as very strangely specialized investment banks. Some of their working capital is internally generated (by revenues from movies and associated products), some comes from outside either in the form of loans or limited partnerships or other complicated kinds of equity participation. Very few people have any incentives to make movies for less, as long as the funding holds out. Bigger budgets mean more prestige, more news coverage (aka free advertising), more friends and associates who can be hired, more enjoyable expenses. It’s like CEO compensation packages.

    Meanwhile you have people who actually want to make movies, and that’s a process that’s become potentially much cheaper. But cheaper isn’t really what the movie industry is interested in, any more than, say, the fine-art auction industry might be.

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