It’s pretty difficult to make a film without spending money. Of course, as applied to most things in life, moderation is an important word. Great filmmakers all over the world have consistently managed to find the means to create a base from which their ideas may grow and expand with a relatively small budget. In almost all cases, idea is the substance of film. Let’s site just a few examples. From the late 70’s, films by filmmakers like David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant and Jim Jarmusch were changing the world with an impressively miniscule average budget – look back at Van Sant’s debut, Mala Noche, or Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. Further examples where expenditure has played almost no part at all can also be sited from the French New Wave in the late 1950’s and 60’s. Some of the most influential directors of all time, including Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir, often limited their budgets to ridiculously low numbers – Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme and his celebrated Pierrot Le Fou became instant classics for very little. Or, back to America, some of Roger Corman’s best, features like The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson, which set out to counter the Hollywood machine.
Insanely minimal figures when compared to some of the more well-known Hollywood blockbusters, which often surpass $100-200 million for larger-than-life effects and impressive explosions. Actually, one of my favourite films of all time, Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neorealist masterpiece, The Bicycle Thieves, stayed cheap with its minimalistic plot, and lack of any kind of studio, filming solely on the streets of Rome – making the case for great ideas over money all the more clear. In more recent years, great films by talented filmmakers are competing with the “glamour” that comes with special effects and “A-list” casting. Films like Rian Johnson’s Brick spring to mind, and Kevin Smith’s radically indie debut, Clerks. Perhaps Bill Forsythe’s 1981 comedy Gregory’s Girl fits somewhere in here, which was so under-funded that the actors had to bring their own clothes on set – while ranking at 30 in the BFI list of top 100 British films.
With this in mind, it’s also easy to site examples of excellent filmmaking attached to an extraordinarily high budget, proving that if the concept is there, money can quite happily fit in side by side. For example, Apocalypse Now cost over $30 million to make, while managing to retain the craft and vision of a master director. With this being said, Francis Ford Coppola might be the perfect example of why big spending does not necessarily have to squander creativity in cinema – the difference here is that Coppola would never rely on a high budget for cheap entertainment and box- office sales. At his best, Tim Burton is another good example of a successful money/art partnership. While almost all of his more recent films have allowed expensive visuals and over-the-top effects to somewhat diminish his creativity, efforts such as Big Fish and Sleepy Hollow showcase that there is still art to be found in big productions.
Nonetheless, it’s pretty safe to say that the majority of big-money box-office hits do not qualify as good films. Have a look at the most expensive and highest-grossing films of all time in the USA and you’ll find The Avengers, The Phantom Menace, Transformers, the latest Indiana Jones and many other examples of easy-entertainment rubbish. The two most highly budgeted and high-grossing films of all time simultaneously are Avatar and Titantic – two films by director James Cameron, and at times, it feels like almost every movie Cameron works on becomes a somewhat trivial but ferocious effort to outspend his previous project. Sitting through Avatar, it became clear that it wasn’t necessarily a good film, only an impressively complex one.
Of course, some of the greatest films of the last one hundred years have been made with a high budget. But these films are given their place in cinema because of the vision, the ideas, the craft and the creativity that is so often visible in abundance. The argument comes from so many of today’s filmmakers believing that they can purchase value in film – while others know that money cannot create value in art. If cinema has any value – and it does – then it comes from something much deeper than the green stuff. But anybody would know that, wouldn’t they?