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District 9: Low-budget indies are saving the movie business

February 20th, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Chris Romriell

Considering the competition from multi-million-dollar mainstream Hollywood movies, it’s a wonder that low-budget indies can survive at all. Made for pennies in comparison, independent movies are up against such high odds that you have to wonder how any of them ever make it to theatres.

Ironically, though, I tend to believe the indies are better off because of the lack of resources or the big-budget production company. Instead of relying on over-stylized and over-the-top special effects, these smaller movies must depend on quality—good acting, fine writing and direction imaginative, which are often severely lacking in big budget films. Just think Uwe Boll and Jerry Bruckheimer (we are all eagerly awaiting Prince of Persia).

My first example of a great low-budget film is District 9. With Peter Jackson leading as executive producer, District 9 was by no means an indie. With Jackson, I have come to expect big budgets, extravagant sets and high production values (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong), with most being spent on visual/special effects. Jackson, however, got his start making low-budget horror films in the late ’80s to early ’90s, and his love for small films seems to have stuck with him.

Jackson gave first-time director Neil Blomkamp a chance to prove you can make a high-action sci-fi thriller for well under $100 million. District 9 wrapped for about $30 million, but pulled in an amazing $204 million worldwide, according to Box Office MoJo. The special effects used in District 9 could have fooled anyone into thinking it was a big-budget blockbuster.

(For comparison, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra cost $175 million, not including a huge advertising budget. Anyone want to guess how much the film grossed in the U.S.? A whopping $150 million. Terrible acting, writing, and even cheesy special effects were rampant throughout G.I. Joe. Even Dennis Quaid and Marlon Wayans couldn’t force their way through the sloppy plot and bad dialogue.)

District 9, however, with amazing special effects work by Blomkamp (who got his start in 3D animation), delivers an intriguing story that effectively mirrors apartheid (minus the aliens), has a solid supporting cast, and a lead protagonist played by first-time star Sharlto Copely, who proves again that you don’t have to pay a high profile actor to pull in large audiences.

If District 9 has been produced by Warner Bros. or Fox, Copely’s brilliant performance would never have been seen. When you have an over-bearing producer controlling every move, it tends to destroy creativity and the freedom to move beyond the norm. In reality, big-budget films’ biggest accomplishment, in my opinion, has been to take the art out of motion pictures.

District 9 has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Visual Effects, and it will go head-to-head against James Cameron’s Avatar in each of those categories. Avatar’s estimated budget is more than $300 million (actual figures haven’t been released), and it has grossed over $2 billion. I doubt that District 9 will win Best Picture at the Oscars, although another low-budget film, the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, has a chance to give Avatar a run.

Low-budget films drive the movie industry, and their freedom to create without the big studio’s heavy hand can lead to innovation in filmmaking that is otherwise unattainable.


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  1. One Response to “District 9: Low-budget indies are saving the movie business”

  2. By mike on Feb 24, 2010

    I found District 9 to be, in many ways, to be an underwhelming experience. Mainly because it had been built up so much that it didn\’t matter what it achieved it would always be a slight dissapointment. Indie cinema is always better that main stream cinema because it can always look to be innovative (no choice on low budgets) and push boundaries. If you compare the films of Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith the latter always makes better movies as the line is their to be crossed not simply stretched.

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