The Difference The Big Idea and The Small Budget Makes

small budget film

There are low budget films, right?

Then, there’s no budget films. Yet they manage to rake in millions in the box office. There are two things that contributed to its success: the fact that it is small budget and that it has a big idea. The big idea is also known as the USP or the Unique Selling Proposition. This is what makes the film different, what sells it, what makes it big, what sets it apart from all other movies. And small budget pertains to… the shackles by which filmmakers [in]voluntarily bound themselves all in the quest to make their dream movie. It also pertains to the mark of slavery put on filmmakers in exchange of their passion. It also pertains to the… you get the drift.

Unfortunately, there is no formula on the kind of USP the studios go. There are the Hangovers of this world that spells hundreds of millions from the get go and there are the Primers of this world that was intentionally written to make the brain cells summersault into insanity.

The best way is to get a feel of how to get the elusive big idea or USP is to look into past movies that did it.

Blairwitch Project Redefined “Raw”

Don’t we always hear that word about other films? Raw.

Many have claimed it before but it was Blairwitch who did it right. So right, in fact, it gave birth to a new genre called Faux-Documentary. Many other successful movies like Paranormal Activity and Once reaped from it. With $20,000 in hand, Blairwitch filmed what was going to be one of the breakthrough films of the decade because, as mentioned, it introduced a new genre, signalled the beginning and potential of digital filmmaking and inspired the “if they can do it, I can do it” attitude among new filmmakers.

Directors/Writers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez began writing the story with clear intention of improvisation. From the beginning, they wanted to make the film feel as natural as possible. They came out with ad calling for actors with strong improvisation skills. During the filming, actors were given clues as to their next location through messages given in milk crates found with Global Positioning Satellite systems. They were given individual instructions that they would use to help improvise the action of the day. The camera was operated by the cast themselves.

It’s like watching an amateur video of an actual event and the marketing took advantage of it by selling it that way. They created a website about the supposed legend and spread the rumors. The movie grossed $248 million worldwide.

In Blairwitch, the USP was in the treatment. It’s like an amateur video, it’s as raw as raw can be. So take a look at your movie, is there anything new with the treatment?

Primer is Made of Stuff Indie Dreams Of

The movie grossed $424,760 but if you consider the $7,000 budget and the recognition it won, the movie was and is a success by any yardstick.

The USP was purely on the story and it’s intelligent. That’s a word not often used to describe films but if there is any film that deserves it, it’s Primer. Shane Carruth was the Director, Writer, Editor, Lead Actor, Scorer, DOP and Sound Engineer of the film. He also made a 1:1 shooting ratio which means every foot of film shot ended in the final cut. Carruth never held a camera before, never acted, and certainly never directed. This film was born out of love, heart, and stubbornness.

The movie is about two guys who accidentally created a time machine with a twist. The Box (that’s how they called it) creates a second version of themselves that travels several hours back in time. They used it to make money using the stock market. Although they think they have it under control, they realized that their other versions are more ambitious than they are.

As you may predict from the premise, the movie becomes more and more complicated. It also kicked the ass of about 99% of all sci-fi movies shown ever.

This is a route you can take. Although most big budget movies will never go for highly cerebral movies like Primer, you may opt for limited releases that could, depending on the cost of your film, still give you a decent gross earning.

Following Manipulated the Intangible

Nolan wasn’t born into the filmmaking universe with the Dark Knight spoon in his mouth. He started in the streets of London with a vision to make a film that will play with the one thing in this world we cannot possibly touch, time.

Following was made with a $6,000 budget. It was made with friends on weekends for a year. Their locations were the street of London, homes of family and friends. They rehearsed more than they shoot because he can hardly afford two takes of each scene. He used available lights and friends as actors.

It naturally abused the one thing that didn’t have limitation, time. He used it in production and in the story itself. He shot for a year. He really took his time. He shot only when he absolutely can. Time was also the main subject of his movie, rather, the main device that manipulated the entire movie.

(spoiler alert) It was about a young man who developed a habit of following people for no reason at all. He accidentally followed a guy name Cobbs who turned out to be a burglar. The young man get suck into Cobbs’ lifestyle joining in some of the burglaries. He starts mimicking Cobbs’ style of clothing and demeanor. The young man starts getting involved with a woman who was living with a gangster.

One day, the woman tells the young man the gangster is threatening her. The young man confronts the gangster only to learn that the woman and Cobbs manipulated him to frame him for Cobbs’ recent murder charge. He goes to the police but as he tells the story, it is revealed that Cobbs didn’t have a murder charge. Cobbs was in fact just about to kill someone and that is the girl. He was framing the young man for the woman’s murder all along.

Nolan’s movies has always enjoyed f*****g with his audience mind and he has specifically mastered the art of manipulating time. That’s another USP you may latch on. Manipulate that which is intangible. Obviously, you can’t use time because Nolan has conquered it. Think of something as impossible to manipulate as time. If you can, congratulations, you just found your gold mine.


Use Words, It Never Fails

If done right, sharp and witty dialogues never fail.
Exhibit A: Sideways
Exhibit B: Clerks
Exhibit C: In the Company of Men
Exhibit D: Before Sunrise and its twin Before Sunset

As diverse at the evidences may seem, they had all something in common, they used words like daggers and they were pretty good at aiming it to the heart.

Each line was powerful and each delivery was so heartfelt, it’s almost scary. They also proved one thing, successful low budget feature films don’t have to have high concepts or have marketable hooks. If you can fill up a blank page with the most powerful words, it still stands as your greatest weapon as a filmmaker.

In The Company of Men was made with $25,000. Director/Writer Neil LaBute had no more than four locations so he composed his shots to make it feel claustrophobic and dangerous, much like its main character Char (Aaron Eckhart). The result is a movie that grips you with hatred. Considering it’s about psychological abuse, I’d say it did well.

Clerks was shot in the convenience store where Director/Writer Kevin Smith was working. He sold everything he had and drained his credit card to come up with $27,000 needed to make the film. He could only shoot at night and had to use minimal lights. These limitations resulted to some of the best examples how limitations could turn to epic details like when they had to close the blinds during filming (because it would show that it’s night outside) so one of the characters hanged a sign that says “I Assure You, We’re Open.”

There are other ways of putting a USP/Big Idea in your film. These films just prove that even in the claw poverty, you can come up with one.

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