How to Review the low-to-no-budget Independent Film

Low-to-no-budget doesn’t mean low-to-no expectations.

The blog-o-sphere is strewn with movie reviewers, bloggers, and armchair critics who all have a different opinion about the process of writing about movies.  Some take the approach of good or bad, while others get lost in the minutiae of the film stock (or latest high-tech video camera) used by the cinematographer or the pros and cons of a digital intermediate to the overall aesthetic contribution to the look and feel of the film. Others keep company with opinion.  So you might ask, how does one Review the low-to-no-budget independent film?

It is easy enough to be critical of low-budget films.  It doesn’t require much effort at all really to tear apart the hard work and passion of a film you have nothing vested in except the cost of admission – and maybe a tub of popcorn, a jumbo coke with not enough ice, and at least one chocolate something.  For those of us who receive screeners and the handful who have made their own films, the examination of such movies can be a difficult task.  On the one hand we represent an opinion, sometimes educated, often wielded with impunity, that is expected to contain a certain amount of objectivity and distance, to offer insight and advice on whether a film is ‘watchable’ or enjoyable to the general public and not just a small core of film geeks, fellow filmmakers and celluloid aficionados.  That’s where the challenge really begins, honesty and integrity versus a quick fluff and fold for the sake of something nice to include on the back of the DVD box.

The task of writing a review worth its salt is simpler when the genre is horror, more so when it narrows to the particular sub-genre of High school slasher film and even further when budgetary constraints, freshman stumbles, and passion unchecked makes a fully realized story nearly impossible.  But it is possible.  Despite the urge to throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case the DVD and box into the fireplace, every film contains an experience and an opportunity.  Yes,  I said it.  Opportunity.  Actually, Roger Ebert tweeted a quote earlier today that took a moment to fully register on the heels of writing an editorial about the task of writing reviews.  He wrote, “John Cassavetes born 1929. Whether it’s a crappy film or a good film, anyone who can make a film, I already love.”  I have to agree to a certain degree, though there are some films, by Cassavetes included, that are for the sake of a cinematic experience very nearly unwatchable but for once.  Sure the filmmakers are charming and interesting, or rude and exuberant in their arrogance (see Troy Duffy, Boondock Saints, etc).  Yet a film made is an accomplishment indeed and if you haven’t been on the other side of making and finishing a film it is quite an astounding feeling and one that doesn’t always translate to the screen or even acknowledged by the audience.  Do you know how technically difficult it was to make Water World? I mean it was still pretty terrible but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

What is most relevant to any review is consideration of not only the means by which the film was made but for the intended audience – an audience that won’t have any misconceptions or trouble confusing an indie film with their polished, big-budget Hollywood brothers and sisters.  Those films belong in an entirely different aisle in the rental store or online catalog. You won’t find these movies in the Red Box either.  Independent movies ask a lot of their audience, more than just a suspension of disbelief; movies of this nature very often rely on charade and gimmickry, on gore and body counts, on nudity and vulgarity and fans love them for it.

As a reviewer, blogger, filmmaker and budding movie critic, when I find myself drawn between the hardwood handle of a freshly sharpened ax ala Jack Nicholson in The Shining or the quivering utterance from Jeffrey Rush as the irrepressible Marquis De Sade writing in blood, wine, and feces for the sake of expression or madness or both, I tend to look a little closer and make a point of bringing the audience to some kind of middle ground knowing very well that films are a personal and eventually a social experience and what works for one, regardless of form or budget, doesn’t always appeal to others for the exact same reason.

So the next time you’re struggling your way through a film like I’m Still Here or It’s Pat (1994) remember the person sitting next to you or the person reading your review of the film might themselves have had some transcendental experience as a result of the same film you’d throw popcorn at if you hadn’t emptied your tub already.  Opinions are easy, quick gut reactions that don’t always come from a place of consideration.

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About rorydean

Rory Dean is a multi-medium artist, writer and new media strategist with a background as a creative consultant and technology liaison in the San Francisco Bay Area. His broad experiences and specialties include print-to-web publicity, promotions and design marketing using traditional and social media networks. As a motion pictures and television professional, his short films, productions and commercials have screened to domestic and international audiences. His connections to a diverse client base include artists, entertainers, corporations, non-profits and everyday people.. Dean is co-owner and founder of Dissave Pictures, a boutique production company focusing on audio, video, photography and multi-media designs. Dean's personal and professional background includes dreaming and avid notebook journaling, creative and copy writing, promotions and marketing, audio/video production, photography, videography, editing, web design and new media. He’s also a fan of collaboration and knows when to turn the reigns over, offer feedback, lead the team and step aside. His portfolio includes print, online, film, video, photography, graphic design and promotions. He’ll show you. He has a book and everything. "When not juggling various online worlds, I do a pretty good mime – but that’s another story."
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17 Responses to How to Review the low-to-no-budget Independent Film

  1. joecooler2u says:

    Perfect column Rory! I find myself agreeing with this a lot. I am not hesitant to say that you have more experience, as a filmmaker you know a lot of the inside stuff I’ll probably never see here in Wernersville, PA. In my reviews, whether big-budget films like Avatar or low-budget Indies like Circle or Paranormal Activity, it doesn’t matter the budget or studio. A good-great movie is just that and a bad-awful movie is what it is.

    I try to think of the audience “Will this appeal to a mainstream audience?” is something that often goes through my mind when writing a review. I also try to inform if my review is more for a targeted audience. Say, for example, a movie like Saw or Hostel, I would say – this is more for a hardcore horror fan who doesn’t mind in-your-face gore and extreme visual violence, a mainstream audience might have major problems with this film.

    Reviewing movies is like anything else you can write about, it’s part technical fact – right or wrong (which in movies would be naming things like what a director prefers, cast and crew and studio info etc), part opinion and part writing for your target audience. It’s a juggling act that inevitably leads to mistakes, the trick is trying to minimize those mistakes.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks Joe! Solid points and something I’ve been wanting to write about for some time. I guess it just took the actual ‘sit down and write about this very low budget indie screener I just got and do it!’ to actually do it. I do think you are write that films shouldn’t just be given a pass because there are just as many low budget train wrecks and their big brothers and sisters and often the only difference is the budget and the name brand talent attached. Though if you haven’t seen Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho (a pretty sedate little indie film) there is a truly low budget, low scale gem. I’ve always asserted it is the only film he has ever done where he wasn’t Keanu playing Keanu. I agree, writing about Saw from the standpoint of the average movie goer isn’t going to do a lot of good, for you or your readers, since most aren’t going to see the film even if you told them it was worthy (have you seen The Descent? A really, really good genre film that is essentially a horror movie but it’s so much more).

      Your last paragraph is perfect. That sums it up with a bow.

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  3. Rodney says:

    Great article, Rory (as usual), and you’ve hit upon the most salient point of critical film writing: do you write for the mainstream audience, or for the audience the film is intended? I wrote an article recently on a similar topic (and I’m gonna put the link out there for those who may wish to read it: http://www.fernbyfilms.com/2010/11/04/what-makes-me-think-i-know-about-films/) and I think the art of critical writing for film is an artform in itself, an artform that many too often take for granted. Indie films, low budget fare, and other less mainstream films often find themselves torn a new one due to some overly critical opinionated moron not “getting” the film he/she has just seen, and it’s a shame, because a negative review just because you don’t get the film isn’t the best way to write one.
    Myself, if I don’t like a film, explain why, but don’t try and dwell on savage attacks on the folks who made it (a little light humor is okay, though) – simply say “this isn’t my sort of film” and leave it at that. I try and enjoy all the films I see, but when I don’t, I’ll let folks know, just in the most rational way I can.
    Unless it’s an Adam Sandler flick – in which case I don’t give a crap if his feelings are hurt: man, I had to endure The Waterboy with a chick I was trying to score with… is that a hard luck story or what?
    Great article Rory, and I’m gonna link my article to it when I get a moment.

    • rorydean says:

      O.K. So the fingers aren’t working this morning (I just lost my lengthy response, so lets try this again). Nice points and thanks for the link – I’ll head over there later and give it a good read. It is such an interesting debate – the notion of movie reviews and reviewers, the value of opinions and such. I recall something I read or listened to about the debate between journalism and blogging, the pros and cons, etc. Some say blogging opens the door for people with opinions to yap about something they only truly have a precursory idea about (I mean we all ‘think’ we know something about movies, some of us have been to film school, others seminars and read all the right books, hell some of us have even met/chatted with/been noticed or mentioned by movie maven Mr. Ebert) but what are we really offering? Opinions but that takes us round to the whole idea of writing about movies. I’m not suggesting anyone has the right to tell someone else to stop or you stink (hell, I received my first death threat last week about my Uwe Boll article https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/ewe-bolls-film-auschwitz-2011/) only that this movie thing isn’t as easy as it looks and a great deal of writers are conflicted frequently about their approach to the ‘craft’.

      That’s what I’ve always liked about your reviews, Rodney. You look for meaningful ways of examining the film from an appropriate place, not just the lofty perch of movie reviewer and that is what is at the core of the task – offering people who like movies a chance to see something they might not otherwise see because all the big shots told them it was a waste of time.

  4. nathan says:

    I cannot say that I agree with your idea but then again I do not watch independent movies because from my experience they are generally a waste of time. Why make a movie that no one wants to watch? Why spend money on a bad movie? I suppose your comparison might be better written as a comparison between driving a BMW and driving a Ford or Belgium chocolate versus what you yanks pass off as chocolate — too much sugar and not enough cacao! So all movies are not the same, point taken. But that is hardly the basis for any argument, is it?

    • rorydean says:

      Hi Nathan — thanks for dropping by! How did you hear about Above the Line, if you don’t mind me asking? As far as independent movies are concerned, think of it this way, every filmmaker has a starting place, a first movie, and not everyone leaves the gate and crosses the finish line first. Do yourself a favor and visit some of the big names in film these days and see some of their humble beginnings. You might just surprise yourself! cheers->

  5. joecooler2u says:

    Great point about big names starting out with humble beginnings. Even the likes of Tom Cruise had his Taps, Endless, Love, Losin’ It etc. Most actors/actresses start out that way. It’s the film equivelant of working at McDonalds. You pay your dues and get experience while building a resume. There are a lot of bad Independent films and I used to not be a big fan of them until recently, but I eventually understood that it’s the same with big-budget films. There are a lot of bad ones there as well (Uwe Boll I’m looking at you). Not to say there aren’t good-great moments. It’s finding the gems among all the rocks that makes it all worthwhile. Some of the best films of all-time are low-budget Independents. I’m thinking Halloween, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. What is it with horror that makes some really great low-budget films? Rory I think your inside insight would answer this question pretty well. Some pretty good Independent studios are on the rise. IFC Films, Imagine Entertainment, Vivendi Entertainment, After Dark as well as older ones like Miramax, Weinstein and some others. Most people don’t even know if they’re watching an Independent film or a big-budget one.

    • rorydean says:

      Yeah, I think a lot of people forget about the early work, especially when a filmmaker, actor, or any myriad of the crew have been working on films for decades. I remember my first film and it was “FILM” — 16mm, no sound, shooting with an old Russian camera that hated me. It did. I tried to tell my instructor but he just laughed. I got to use a Bolex on the next 2 1/2 minute project and I was in love. I ended up with my own 16mm Bolex (still have it) and slowly it started to become clear that every second, every 24 frames really mattered and you had to think about what you were pointing the camera at, why, what was your composition, what did that particular angle tell the audience. I don’t think you have to be a filmmaker to be a good movie reviewer or film critic by any means but it does offer, as you say, an interesting perspective.

      It’s just too easy to dismiss films these days, though films like The Wolfman https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/the-wolfman-he-aint/ wasn’t particularly difficult to tear into. At the same time the countless people, the hours upon hours of creating something that can be sent direct to DVD limbo is an awful shame. Pay the dues, can’t say it any better than that. A friend compared watching indie films to listening to and/or preferably seeing an indie band only for them to go on to big success (Green Day started in a punk club down the street from my house, for instance). And you’re right, the line between indie film and big-budget film is almost indistinguishable these days.

  6. Simon says:

    and i think now, with the likes of SKYLINE, MONSTERS and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, it is clear that expectations should be much higher too. Everyone has access to filmmaking equipment so, as long as you have a story, there is nothing stopping you!

    Ultimately, as a critic, your personal opinion is always different from a professional conduct whereby we should respect the filmmakers intentions – and possibly rate it higher than our own. Maybe your not a big fan of 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS but it is important to bear in mind the filmmaker – is it the film that he/she wanted and if so, is that not a success? if its not your bag, thats not the filmmakers fault…

    • rorydean says:

      Hi Simon. I agree, expectations should be higher and efforts be made to further the art of film making as technologies offer new techniques, less expensive alternatives to traditional film stock and cameras, but there is also a kind of desensitization that I feel has been developing for the past decade where audiences are actually expecting less. What I mean points directly to films like Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project, and even the award winning film Hurt Locker (which I liked, btw) whereby traditional style, technique, and formal training have been replaced by shaky cameras, video-zooming and documentary style walk-with-the-action films that while breaking ground to be different can be challenging for the audience. I think the same applies to 3D (which just gives me a headache). My next article is on concept over content – Is No Technique the New Technique in Cinema? Stay tuned for that.

      I agree, the availability of good cameras and home studios mean anyone can (and often do) make movies; some good, many not so much. You’re right to point out story as a starting place but don’t forget character, dialog, direction, acting, etc., as all the parts really must come together in a meaningful and entertaining way otherwise you end up with a film like Blair Witch (sorry to keep hating on that one) that for all the success, attention, and accomplishment is a film that is quite difficult to watch.

      I’m not sure I follow your “personal opinion is always different from a professional conduct” but as far as intent and intention, many filmmakers on all levels are making a film they intend to be successful unless of course their intention is to make some kind of statement to the art form or the subject of the film itself. I’m trying to think of an example. Actually I’m preparing a review of the film you mentioned and will comment further in my review ( I did like the film, btw). I agree again, that it is important to consider what the filmmaker(s) were trying to accomplish but as a critic one must divorce themselves from “their bag” and approach every film with the goal of revealing the ‘experience and opportunity’ whereby the general public might be interested in watching the movie.

      As far as films that go awry from what the filmmakers wanted, see my review of Jonah Hex https://rorydean.wordpress.com/2010/10/21/jonah-hex-2010/

  7. jrarcieri says:

    I especially enjoy your comment on considering not only the means of productions but also who the intended audience is. When I was researching and writing on American independent cinema for my senior thesis in college, I was often asked, “Why these films if they are not mainstream cinema? If no one watches them?” I had to defend why films like Goodbye Solo, In Between Days, and Frozen River were monumental independent productions worth studying in an academic paper. What I came to realize and truly appreciate was that these films, although not widely seen, offer more to the audience because the filmmakers, with their limited means, take more into consideration. More attention and thought is given to the meaning of a shot, to the set design, to the performances. Because these films aren’t glossy or flashy they can be passed over by audiences not wanting to receive a lesson from what they are watching, not grasping how to fully engage with the text before them. Great post. Enjoyed it.

    • rorydean says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you found this article interesting. And yes, as you put it, “monumental independent productions” given the passionate attention to detail, character, and story without needing to rely on car chases, gun battles and alien invasions. These are what some refer to as “character studies” or character-centric in that rather than being about an event (like say Independence Day, War of the Worlds, and Halloween) they focus on a character and his or her journey, dramatic events and ultimately their transformation at the end of the movie where they have learned a life lesson or become a different person as a result of their experiences. I also agree, as you point out, with a limited budget you often have to get creative about your film (I know many of my short films were indeed challenging because we simply did not have the money to do the scene any other way). Thanks again for dropping by!

  8. Klaus says:

    A very interesting and timely topic!

    “For those of us who receive screeners and the handful who have made their own films, the examination of such movies can be a difficult task”.

    While it has been years since I attempted to make a short film – something I toyed with as a teenager with an 8mm camera and a penchant for animation, I very recently agreed to review my first screener – and it indeed was one of the most difficult reviews i’ve written (out of the 450 or so that I have written since late 2008).

    I think there’s something of worth in anyone’s art – whether we may personally like it or not. While it may be difficult to tease out the strands, I personally find a lot of enjoyment in the search – which for me, is reason enough to watch.

    • rorydean says:

      Cheers!

      I love that you “toyed with an 8mm camera” and started was has become a life long passion – that being either making films, discussing them, watching them, or just appreciating them in general. The cinema is a magical place, a place we should visit frequently and often leave our expectations and yes, even our criticism at the door. In discussing films I always try to be constructive, not just I like or don’t like. Constructive criticism is the fodder that makes critics and reviewers important voices now more than ever with the changing landscape of technologies and young filmmakers creating interesting (though frequently bad) movies.

      Let me know which film it was you reviewed – I’d love to read it and see how you approached it. Also, CONGRATS with the 450 reviews. I’m slowly inching behind you but managed to meet my goal of over 100 reviews since May of this year.

      Yes! The search! I’m always excited when I sit down to watch a film, partly in awe, partly the excitement of where the film is going to take me and when the journey is a worthy one it is a gift that should be cherished. And I agree, everyone’s art is worthy on its own merit – now whether you can get anyone else to agree, that’s the question!

      cheers and happy holidays..

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