Ross Douthat was kind enough to mention an essay I wrote a couple of weeks back on the small budget boom we’re currently experiencing in his review* for National Review this week. Writes Douthat:
[Sonny Bunch] argued that, thanks to technological advances that make it easier than ever to shoot and edit, and distribution channels such as Netflix and Amazon that make it easier to catch up with obscure titles in your living room, the decline of the $40 million movie may actually end up ushering in “a golden age of small-budget cinema,” thick with interesting small movies made “at $5 million a crack.”
I won’t say that I was persuaded by Bunch’s argument, in part because I haven’t liked any of the recent small-budget titles (The Bling Ring and Only God Forgives, among others) that his mini-essay mentioned.
But his thesis crept back into my mind while I was watching In a World . . ., which stars Lake Bell and also marks her eccentric, entertaining directorial debut. Bell is an actress you might recognize: She’s played supporting roles in a few middling romantic comedies (It’s Complicated, What Happens in Vegas, and the like) and showed up as a guest star on several sitcoms. In those parts, she’s struck me as the kind of female performer — unconventionally pretty, well suited to comedy, not a bombshell or an athlete — who doesn’t have much of a chance in today’s big-screen landscape, and whose career tends to dead-end in gal-pal roles unless she leaps to television or catches an extremely lucky break. (The always-better-than-her-material Judy Greer is an example of this type; so is Amy Acker, the star of Joss Whedon’s recent shot-on-the-cheap Much Ado About Nothing.)
Douthat concludes by writing “a movie like this, with these stars and this story, would simply never have been made at even a slightly higher budget. The fact that it did get made, in defiance of Hollywood’s priorities, is not necessarily a sign that small-budget movies are ready to fill the void left by the collapse of the middlebrow.** But it is a reason to be glad that such movies exist, and to root for them to prosper.”
Just to clarify one small point: I don’t think that many of the small budget flicks I mentioned were replacements for the $20-$40M middlebrow film, exactly. Spring Breakers and Only God Forgives (one of which I liked, one of which I didn’t) are art films through and through. I was mostly just pleased that modern technologies and distribution methods got them to all the people who would want to see them.
That being said, there have been a number of micro-budgeted indie flicks over the last few years that, like In a World…, could plausibly be considered semi-suitable replacements for the mid-budget movie. Here are five:
1. Robot and Frank
Budgeted at just $2.5 million, this combination sci-fi/domestic comedy was a heartwarming change of pace. Frank Langella stars as a retired cat burglar in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who is given a robot to help him putter about. As he tries to win the heart of a local librarian (Susan Sarandon), he begins to admire the mechanical servant he once loathed.
Slightly outside my “$5 million a crack” limit, Bernie was budgeted at $6 million. I’ll let it slide, because Richard Linklater’s black comedy about a mortician (Jack Black) and the Texas town that comes to love him is really terrific. It perfectly captures the rhythms of small town life and provides an interesting character study of a quirky man caught up in a situation he can’t quite control.
A slightly more cerebral effort, the $5 million directorial debut of Duncan Jones (nee Zowie Bowie) is a pretty remarkable example of making a lot out of a little. Sam Rockwell stars as the sole employee of a mining concern on the moon, his only companion a slightly snarky robot by the name of Gerty.
4. Safety Not Guaranteed
Reportedly shot for less than a million bucks, Safety Not Guaranteed seems to fall pretty squarely into the type of film that Douthat complains won’t get funding from the studios. It stars an actress in Aubrey Plaza who is “unconventionally pretty, well suited to comedy, not a bombshell or an athlete.” The same could be said of her male costar Mark Duplass. This quirky little dramedy about a man who thinks he can travel back in time is a pleasant, memorable way to spend 86 minutes.
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Given that this flick was an Oscar nominee for best picture, this isn’t exactly an underseen feature I’m introducing to the world. And, frankly, I didn’t care for it too much. But it was made for just $1.8 million and practically screams “middlebrow,” with its overwrought concerns about the Big Important Issues of the day. (As I noted in my own mini-review, “The film … is less interesting as story (or, frankly, as filmmaking) than for what it tells us about the fears of our time. Global warming! Flooding! Poverty! The breakdown of the family! The intrusion of incompetent federal government agents into local affairs! Healthcare! These are America’s concerns in the year of our lord 2012.”)
*It will cost you 25 cents to read the review. You should spend the 25 cents.
**The underlying point here, of course, is that the collapse of the middlebrow movie has a great deal to do with the rise of middlebrow/highbrow TV. But that’s a story for another day.