The Wow Factor

11 Mar

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:



8 Responses to “The Wow Factor”

  1. theproducerexperiment May 19, 2010 at 3:56 pm #

    Dialogue! the most undervalued tool in making a low budget film a success…Tarantino and Kevin Smith are both great at it, and look where it got them…

    • Christopher May 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

      Another great point! And two extremely good examples. I watched Clerks the other day and it’s virtually all about the dialogue….

  2. Miguel N. March 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    It’s all about what you’re looking for and what kind of film you want to make. You could just sit to write a story and go and film it to whatever place it takes you. Which is what I’ve done so far. Sometimes is tough, but if it’s what you want to tell or explore, it’s worth it.

    Now, I’m trying to write something with a few locations and characters. It’s a different approach, more economical, but it’s also a challenge.

    • Christopher March 11, 2010 at 4:45 pm #

      Thanks for the comment, Miguel. I’ve just seen too many folks with unfinished films because they wrote something that they could not produce, due to budget. It’s very, very risky not to write with budget in mind. It’s great that you’re trying to minimize the number of characters and locations. I’ve always said that Tarantino, Lynch or Spielberg would come up with something cool if they could only use one character in one room. I believe as aspiring filmmakers, we have to prove that we can do that first, before trying to make something for thousands of dollars!

  3. Armig Matosian March 11, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Avatar’s “Wow” factor: “Wow! This is just like Disney’s Pocahontas!” Don’t believe me?

    Need further validation?

    Wow! That was great.

    • Christopher March 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

      Hum, interesting. I’m sure I’d have a lot more to say if I had watched either of the two movies, but I did hear about the striking similarities as soon as Avatar was released. The first link is particularly interesting!

  4. Chuck Norton March 11, 2010 at 7:52 am #

    Chris – I’m surprised you didn’t use this opportunity to share your saying you always drill into me about “thinking outside the box inside the box” – writing creatively but inside the space/budget you can definitely afford. LOL.

    I face similar temptations building websites for a living.

    Great post.

    • Christopher March 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm #

      Ha! Way to remember! Thanks, man. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been quoted! LOL Definitely true, huh?

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