10 Great Films Made on a Small Budget in 2014

The Rover - BudgetWarning: What follows has something to do with math. But don’t worry. It’s not very complicated.

I can’t read a balance sheet. The only thing I know about sines is that I am a Capricorn. Cosines? My parents cosigned my first car loan. Anything with the word “multivariable” scares me more than Russell Crowe singing. I’ve always had a knack for quickly figuring out tips, but otherwise, math is not my friend.

However, even someone as challenged as I can see this. Movie producers waste a ton of money on crap.

I realise, of course, that they are in it to make a profit and artistic considerations don’t matter much, beyond the impact a positive critical review might have on the bottom line. But, as a film fan, that’s not exactly my concern. So, here’s a little discussion – a cost-benefit analysis if you will – of some pretty serious misappropriations of artistic capital.

It would have been easy to pick the most expensive movie out there and compare it to all the moderately interesting micro-budgets we’ve seen this past year. But that ain’t my style. I looked for a very run-of-the-mill, average-budgeted piece of idiocy. I think I found the ideal candidate in Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed. A cash-in on a video game and Aaron Paul’s momentary celebrity. The movie had a ludicrously bad screenplay and modest action scenes that were surpassed as soon as they appeared.

And though I chose a few worthy micro-budgets, I looked through my 2014 rankings for movies that I didn’t think cost too many arms and legs. They weren’t all perfect, but they were all worthy. I enjoyed watching them. I’m glad they were made. These are the kinds of movies that I wish the American film industry would truly foster.

Here, then is a balance sheet. Need for Speed’s budget was reported to be an approximate $66 million USD. For that amount of cash, the following ten movies were produced in 2014.

Under the Skin ($13.3 million)

Jonathan Glazer’s eerie sci-fi isn’t for everyone. But even if you don’t like it, I dare you to try and forget it. Can’t be done, and that says something right there.

The Rover ($12.25 million)

This brutal, post-apocalyptic action story is in my own top 20 for the year, and features an award-worthy performance by Robert Pattinson.

Top Five ($12 million)

Chris Rock was able to film a few action scenes. He was able to get pretty much everyone in Hollywood to appear. And he was able to say something. All for what it costs to buy one medium-priced backup quarterback in the NFL.

Begin Again ($8 million)

A feel good, musical love story with Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and James Corden at their adorable best? Count me smiling.

Only Lovers Left Alive ($7 million)

Jim Jarmusch. See his movies. No matter what they cost.

Kill the Messenger ($5 million)

See it in a double-feature with Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden documentary. Then go home and start planning your civil disobedience.

Boyhood ($4 million)

And on a cost-per-year basis, significantly less. If you need any further proof that Richard Linklater is a freaking genius, just consider how he spent 4 mill to virtually sweep 2014’s Best Movie awards.

The Skeleton Twins ($1 million)

Good story. Strong acting. Bit of a weak ending, but I preferred it to, oh, let’s say Unbroken, which cost about 60 times more.

Land Ho! and It Felt Like Love (half a million each?)

My two favourite micro-budgets of the year. I actually have no idea how much they cost, and I’m guessing directors Aaron Katz, Martha Stevens, and Eliza Hittman would have killed for half a million dollar budgets. These small stories, one about two elderly men and the other about a young girl, have more genuine humanity, warmth, humour, and drama, than anything you will find in most movies that cost 100 times as much.

Those ten movies cost about $63.5 million. So, even if Land Ho!’s Paul Eenhoorn demanded an extra million in jelly beans, or It Felt Like Love’s bikini budget went into six figures, they still cost less than one Need for Speed.

And by the way, had I chosen Michael Bay’s latest Transformers excrescence, budgeted at $210 million, as my benchmark, I could have named at least fifteen more quality movies. But sadly, there’s no need to look for such extreme cases. There are plenty of Need for Speeds out there, draining away precious time, talent, and money from what might be good movies.

It’s enough to make me consider studying multivariable calculus.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

17 thoughts on “10 Great Films Made on a Small Budget in 2014

  1. Pingback: 10 Great Films Made on a Small Budget in 2014 – CURNBLOG | Eclectic Pursuits

  2. I would cry if you weren’t making me laugh.

    That ‘Under the Skin’ could incorporate R&D in new camera technology into its budget is even more incredible. So let’s start drawing parallels between ‘Under the Skin’ and ‘Avatar’, shall we? Both needed time for technology to catch up to the scope of their ambition; both feature naked aliens; both were released to a vocal cultural discussion; both cost …. oh – errrrm. Never mind.

    If you ever fancy pumping out a 5000 word article then you could list all the great films of the past ten years that could have fit into ‘Avatar’s final budget ten times over.

    Thanks for the numbers! Best regards from Shanghai

  3. I haven’t seen even half of these, but I definitely agree that “Begin Again” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” belong on any such a list. Great films.

    And yeah, as others have pointed out, I think it’s clear enough by now (I should think) that budget and quality are not in any way correlated.

    • Thanks Cary. That’s one of the challenges the lower budget movies face. They don’t have the distribution system that the major studio releases have. They are harder to see, but well worth seeking out.

  4. Terrific article, Jon–this really shows that quality movies can be made for less. Minor disagreements: I loathed Begin Again (oh, those horrible songs!) and thought Only Lovers Left Alive was strangely unsatisfying. Yet we gotta hand it to Jim Jarmusch; time and again, he crafts his films for very little. I wonder if the expenditure for Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Under the Skin took up most of the budget. Good piece.

    • Thanks Simon. I know better than to argue with you over music. Truth be told, I don’t even remember the songs from Begin Again. I just remember liking the characters and several of the sequences very much.

    • It’s harder for me to find accurate info on budgets on movies from most other countries, and it’s harder for me to guess too. So I mostly left non-American movies off this list, with a few English-language exceptions. But I agree wholeheartedly about Ida. I think Agata Kulesza should be a front-runner for the supporting actress Oscar and it should be considered for cinematography and a few other craft awards.

  5. As we used to be told at school Jon; ‘A good point – well presented.’

    I am always banging on (I know…) about expensive blockbusters, made with little imagination, lots of computers, and a wad of cash that could stop up the Nile. You have made the same argument in a far more erudite fashion, and backed it up with some financial research too.
    Well done for that, and for making it an enjoyable read into the bargain.
    (I expect I will still be banging on in the same old way though.)

    Best wishes from England. Pete.

    • Thanks Steve. I’m a big Jarmusch fan and I’d put Only Lovers at 4th or 5th out of his 11 features, which makes it well worth watching.

    • Thanks Troy. Ten years ago, Chris Anderson of Wired magazine, wrote about the “long tail” concept of distribution. The idea is that increased (and inexpensive) avenues for distributing movies, like YouTube, would even the playing field. He proclaimed the era of the blockbuster to be over. Hasn’t turned out that way, though it still may be too early to judge. The thing I don’t know is whether mainstream American film producers have to be involved in this, or whether smaller independent movies can grow and flourish on their own. Time will tell — but I do wish more mainstream studios would invest more of their capital in smaller movies.

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