Today’s film market is littered with big screens and even bigger budgets. It seems like every theater is adding a “mega-size” or an IMAX screen. Film budgets continue to grow to increasingly ridiculous numbers, even as returns on such investments are decreasing. Such is the logic of Hollywood money.
It is a rare thing for an independent movie to hit the big time nowadays. Sure, many films labeled “independent” make gobs of money due to audience hype and smart promotion, but these are no different from big-budget blockbusters in creation. Modern independent film means that a major film studio uses a small production company to make a movie for a low amount of money (you know, like a middling $5-10 million dollars). In essence, these are low-budget studio films meant to attract the independent film audience rather than movies made by that audience.
This wasn’t always the case in the film world. Movies like Juno, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and anything from the Wes Anderson oeuvre (minus Bottle Rocket), are not as independent as they seem. For some diehard film fanatics, making a movie was the gamble of a lifetime. Directors spent their entire savings, loaded up thousands in credit card debt, or even gathered funds through medical testing, all to make one movie in the hope of hitting the big time. What did they find out? Sometimes it works.
In 1992 Robert Rodriguez shot an entire movie for $7,000: the infamous El Mariachi. He gathered most of the money as a volunteer for experimental medical testing, hired no film crew, bought no professional lighting equipment, and used locations provided by friends. The actors helped out on set when they were not on-camera. El Mariachi was intended for the Latino home-video market, but Rodriquez sent it to larger U.S. companies and got a lot of attention. The film later won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and jump started the director’s Hollywood career. He went on to direct Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (to complete the Mexico Trilogy) as well as many other successful films like Sin City and Spy Kids.
Two years later in New Jersey, writer/director Kevin Smith shot Clerks after selling his comic book collection and maxing out ten credit cards for a total budget of $27,575. Smith convinced the manager of the Quik Stop where he worked to let him film the whole movie in twenty-one days, but he could only shoot at night. Desperate to complete the film, he slept one hour a day and used his family and friends as actors. Kevin Smith had the last laugh when Clerks was bought by Miramax Films and released in theaters: it made over $3 million.
With the highest budget, but also the highest gross, no truly independent film has been more successful than The Blair Witch Project. No stars, no script, no crew, the film was shot by the actors over eight days in the woods of Maryland. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez interviewed locals about the legend of a creature called the Blair Witch and received documentary-style footage of real accounts – even though they made the whole thing up! The finished film, which looks like a home video gone terribly wrong, was picked up by Artisan Entertainment and eventually grossed over $248 million (after spending no more than $750,000 on production and advertisement). The Blair Witch Project is the ultimate independent film success story, even if it is the least cinematic of the bunch.