Simply put, the “production value” of a film is its candy coating, its wow factor. Exotic locations, elaborate costumes, and special effects add to a film’s production value. So do A-list actors and dangerous stunts. Think Inglourious Basterds (2009) or Avatar (2009).
A film as commodity certainly benefits from high production value. It’s no different from the flashy packaging and nifty features action figures come with. More wow factor, more sales. So whether one has a $10 budget or a $10,000,000 budget, the challenge is the same: how can the film look as expensive as possible within budget?
Most beginning filmmakers get caught in this trap. Hoping to wow the world with their first film (and sometimes their second or third), many filmmakers pour their energy into elevating the production value of their film. They spend countless hours trying to secure what they cannot afford: famous actors, exotic locations, expensive equipment, etc.. I recently heard a filmmaker boast about his use of the very expensive RED ONE camera. His reasoning: to make his film look more “professional.”
According to Mark Stolaroff, producer and founder of No Budget Film School, production value simply needs to be “good enough.” In and of itself, production value is meaningless. Think of all the big-budget films that flop. They may have the wow factor, but they don’t make a lasting impression. Ever tried a fancy cake that tastes like cardboard?
For filmmakers like me with virtually no budget, Mark points to films like Clerks (1994), Following (1998), and more recently, Paranormal Activity (2009). These films were made for next to nothing, yet they successfully captivated audiences. The key is to write within your means. My script must utilize locations readily available to me and omit expensive elements I simply cannot afford or acquire. Paranormal Activity takes place entirely in the filmmaker’s house and Kevin Smith famously wrote Clerks based on the convenience store he worked at and had access to.
A filmmaker will not stand out by making a cheap film look expensive, rather ingenuity, uniqueness and professionalism will make a mark.
Check out this clip from Clerks: