These days, the filmmaking process has become more accessible than ever. With cameras getting less expensive and ever-smaller, the growing availability of pro-quality editing software, and the advent of the internet as a viable method of distribution and marketing, it’s gotten so just about anyone with a script and a few actors can make and market a horror film. But what does it take to make a truly successful indie horror film? What will set your film apart from every other would-be masterpiece shot on an iPhone?
I recently had the opportunity to sit with Dr André Loiselle, a professor of film studies at Carleton University. Dr Loiselle’s specialty is horror cinema, along with Canadian and Quebec cinema. I asked him what, in his opinion, made for a successful indie horror film in 2016. Now, of course, he warned that there is no sure-fire formula, but he did highlight to components which, in his view, are essential for indie film success.
Firstly, bring something new to the game. It seems obvious, but true innovation is rare and it is difficult to achieve. Which is why it’s so valuable.
As an example, Dr Loiselle brought up The Blair Witch Project. The story, on paper, is simple, almost banal. A group of young people get lost in the woods. They die. This describes any number of horror films. But the filmmakers, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick, thought up a way to make it new, original, innovative. These aren’t just any young people, these are documentary filmmakers, and the entire story is told through snippets of their footage, supposedly discovered long after their disappearance.
Sanchez and Myrick didn’t just find a new way to tell an old tale, they literally created a new subgenre, the found-footage film, a method of filmmaking reproduced in such hits as Rec and Cloverfield and that has now itself gotten somewhat stale and tired and in need of rejuvenation. Their storytelling innovation also allowed for a fresh approach to marketing, as they made many viewers believe that this was actual found footage, that these were not actors but real would-be documentarians, truly lost to a mysterious witch in the woods.
Furthermore, the method used to shoot The Blair Witch Project permitted the filmmakers to cut certain costs—in fact, the film’s concept demanded that it looked inexpensive, like something shot but students and found in the woods. It didn’t suffer from a relatively low budget, it benefited from it. Which brings us to Dr Loiselle’s second component of a successful indie horror film…
Sure, you’re a creative sort, so coming up with a new way to tell a scary story is no real challenge for you, but you won’t have a big studio backing you, ready to throw money at your every fancy idea. From Dr Loiselle’s perspective, this should enervate rather than restrict your creativity.
As writer-director Robert Rodriguez explained in his book, Rebel Without a Crew, an nearly unlimited budget can stymie creativity. Rodriguez argues that Hollywood’s use of what he called the “money hose” to wash away every problem and challenge has made it and the traditional film industry lazy. Having less money forces a filmmaker to find creative and, yes, innovative solutions to problems.
Dr Loiselle concurs, pointing out that innovation should be used not only to tell a great story in a new, original way, but to also do so within the constraints of a small, tiny or even nonexistent budget.
Again, it seems obvious, but this thinking can direct your entire filmmaking process. Rather than fighting to increase your budget, you work with what you have and what you can afford. Rather than raising the money to fit your idea, you come up with a brand new idea that fits your budget.
By keeping the budget low, you ensure that success, as measured by return on investment, is easier to reach.
It should be mentioned that Dr Loiselle even suggested that short films, especially in horror, are often a better investment than features. With $5000 you may not be able to make much of a feature, but you could make one hell of a short. As examples, Dr. Loiselle points to Lights Out, a 2013 short film which garnered over 2 million hits on YouTube. A feature-length version of Lights Out is set for release by Warner Bros this year.
As mentioned, there is no can’t-miss formula for creating a successful indie horror film. However, if you bring a truly new idea to the table and can produce it for little to nothing, you’re already ahead of the game. And don’t dismiss shorts as a viable form; they’re more popular than ever, especially in indie horror.