There are stories of filmmakers becoming inventive in order to achieve their vision – thereby changing the industry. One well-known example is the 3D fusion camera system that James Cameron created to film the movie Avatar.
Such stories are common. The film industry is extremely adept at inventing new equipment or techniques in order to continually evolve and improve. In under fifty years, we went from having black-and-white silent films to “talkies”, movies with sound, to technicolor. If you compare A Trip to the Moon (1902) to the Wizard of Oz (1939), the improvements to film in under forty years are incredible.
However, not every creative in the filmmaking world has a huge budget at their disposal. Sometimes, to change the game they need to, well, get creative. Here are a few stories of low budget films that made a big impact on the industry:
1. Popularization Of VFX And CGI – Star Wars
Remember the days when practical effects were the norm? Alas, today when I hear about a movie that uses more practical effects than CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) I get all giddy inside because more often than not studios use copious CGI as a money-saver. And in my honest opinion, they should stop. Sure, CGI has come a long way and can really enhance a film, but there is a whole slew of big-budget blockbusters that leaned too heavily on their graphics team and wound up disappointing their audience with overdone, underwhelming CGI.
Don’t get me wrong, CGI can be awesome and I’m not here to disparage it. However, just like my local baristas tell me “Moderation is key” after my twelfth trip to the coffee shop that day, so too I say to the studios: Moderation, please!
But how did CGI get so popular? It’s all due to a movie made in the seventies, Star Wars, with an initial budget of 7.5 million that stretched eventually to 11 million. Compare that to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which had a budget of 250 million. Sure, Star Wars was at the higher end of “low budget”, but even in today’s dollars, that’s still under 40 million.
Wire-framing style VFX (Visual Effects) was invented for Star Wars, and audiences were impressed. Once the studios realized the scope of what VFX could do, they dove in with gusto. CGI later made leaps and bounds in animation and seamless interweaving into live-action, but without Star Wars it might have died on the vine.
2. Global Viral Marketing Strategy – The Blair Witch Project
Recently, I was watching a webinar by Chris Moore (Project Greenlight, Good Will Hunting) and he mentioned that one of the most important factors for the success of a film is “eyeballs”; essentially, getting as many people as possible to actually see the project. That’s harder than it sounds if you don’t have a huge distribution system or paid marketing team behind you.
In order to combat the possibility of flying way under the radar, low-budget films have to get creative if they want to be seen. There are several “traditional” ways of getting seen – people used to actually load up a truck with reels and drive around giving it to theatres, or entering film festivals, or giving it to drive-in theatres when those still existed. Today, there are any number of self-managed distribution systems online, or you can just pop your movie on YouTube/Vimeo/Amazon Video.
One low-budget film in 1999, The Blair Witch Project, decided to go a novel route with their marketing. Keep in mind that the internet in 1999 was still fairly new in a commercial sense. They hadn’t exactly invented a new film-style – found footage – but they were the first ever wildly successful marketing campaign for a fictional found footage movie. They pioneered leveraging the internet as a marketing resource, to such a successful extent that the film is now a case study in viral marketing.
3. The Rise Of Campy Horror – Evil Dead
It would be a crime not to mention Roger Corman on this list, and he certainly was the inventor of campy horror, if anyone. However, there is another director who needs to be mentioned here. His name is Sam Raimi.
Raimi’s debut came in the form of the movie Evil Dead, which is the ultimate epitome of campy horror films and spawned a full genre fully separate from the B-horror carousel of bad movies. It’s known for its hilariously goofy performances and the beloved anti-hero, Ash, portrayed by Bruce Campbell.
I attended a panel at a comic convention once where Campbell was speaking and promoting the Evil Dead spinoff show Ash Vs. Evil Dead. Campbell chuckled as he explained that Evil Dead wasn’t meant to be funny, it was just a bunch of kids who didn’t know how to act very well in a movie with a microscopic budget. So lines like “We can’t bury Shelly – S-She’s a friend of ours.” were delivered in amusingly awkward ways.
The film was so popular that the camp horror style and even the trope of a group of kids in a cabin in the woods was copied over and over into new horror films; the most well known of those being Cabin in the Woods written by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard.
This sort of self-deprecating humor ushered in an entire generation of intentionally campy horror movies specifically designed to be funnier than they are scary. The Evil Dead franchise made “so bad it’s good” something to strive for in comedic horror.
4. The Acceptance of Violent Horror and Boobies – Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was, at the time, the most violent and risquè film that people had ever seen. Critics initially lambasted it as deviant, hack, low-budget and mediocre “TV” quality. One critic at the time was so offended by the film that she literally walked out mid-movie and resigned her post for the paper she worked for.
Audiences, on the other hand, lined up around the block to get in the theatre. The amount of box office money that came pouring in for Psycho forced critics to change their tune – and ultimately Psycho received four Academy Award nominations. The change of heart with the critics and Hollywood would forever change the landscape of film.
Before all of this happened, the horror genre was exclusively classified as B-list. Horror films didn’t make a lot of money, had a small niche market, and no one bothered sinking significant amounts of money into the genre. Because of the attention and acclaim that Psycho received, Hollywood realized that violent horror is absolutely bankable (and boobies don’t hurt either). A-list stars and directors were suddenly interested in being a part of the genre.
Following in the footprints of Psycho, an explosion of slasher movies came barrelling out of the 1960s in full force, flying boldly in the face of the American Production Code which had strict rules regarding nudity, violence, blood, and toilets. We saw The Birds, The Haunting, Repulsion, Spider Baby, Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby – all in the 1960s after the success of Psycho.
Since then, horror has been refined and revered as more than just a low-budget niche genre. Horror is an experience, with hundreds of flavor combinations for everyone, and horror connoisseurs are forever grateful to Hitchcock for opening the floodgates. It didn’t stop with horror either – the American Production Code was scrapped altogether and replaced with the first version of the rating system we know and love today. So thanks, Hitchcock, pioneer of NSFW movies.