Micro-Budgets May be Good for Business, but Are They Good for Film?

I’ve titled this article with a question in response to Mike Fleming’s post over at Deadline, “Will Micro-Budget Films Like ‘The Devil Inside’ Change The Economics Of Studio Moviemaking?

Something is happening here; studios are re-thinking the idea of overspending on risky projects (Warner Bros just unplugged Arthur & Lancelot and Akira) when audiences are turning out for films like The Devil Inside. That no-budget film, acquired by Paramount’s new Insurge division, got about the worst reviews since Plan 9 From Outer Space, and still out-grossed movies made for significantly more money.

We’ve been hearing this since at least The Blair Witch Project, but ever since the Paranormal Activity franchise started perennially minting cash, the rally cries for micro-budget crap have reached a fever pitch. I say crap because the bookkeepers who run movie studios don’t really care whether the work is good, just whether it comes in on time and cheap. That almost everyone with an opinion hated The Devil Inside is irrelevant. It had a 3,373% return on investment in only its first weekend! Who doesn’t want a piece of that action?

People who like movies.

This is what we call a race to the bottom. The studios will pump cash into any small project with a hopeful pitch (usually based on marketability, not, you know, story) until audiences get hip to the fact that these movies suck and stop going.

Meanwhile, the real loser here will be filmmakers with more ambitious projects because $1 million will be the new $10 million (which used to be the new $40 million). “Why would I give you $10 million to make a film when these guys did it for $1 million?” If the answer to that question is, “My film will be better,” studios won’t care. Success, in Hollywood, is measured in dollars.

Now, I’ll admit I’m being a bit cynical about all of this. If studios are emptying their coffers and making more work with emerging filmmakers, that should be a good thing. In fact, it may well be a great thing. That is up to the filmmakers who can land deals to make low-budget work.

I’m wary because, well, the film that we’re talking about proving this business model is The Devil Inside. Fleming puts it best at the end of his article:

While the Paranormal Activity films and Insidious have been highly profitable crowd pleasers, if studios refocus their attention on these down and dirty films, don’t expect the quality of movie making to get any better in 2012 than it was last year.