What was the first film you ever made? Unless you are the rare unicorn who got studio funding right out of the gate, there's a good chance that it was a beautiful, no-budget disaster. There's an even greater chance that it was a horror movie. It was for me when I was 11, and more seriously, when I was in my early 20s.
Horror films seem to have been tailor-made for filmmakers with small budgets, inherently requiring less money and finesse to produce than almost every other genre, which makes them a great option for those just starting out. This video posted by NPR explores the many ways horror movies allow filmmakers to cut costs, naturally making them good for business. Check it out below:
Now, to be clear, "low cost" doesn't necessarily mean "low quality". In fact, that's just the point. You can make a really great scary movie for cheap because scary movies don't require as big of an investment in many of the costly areas of production, like locations, costumes, and casting.
Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, let's dig into the things that make horror films generally less expensive to make.
The more locations you include in your project, the more expensive your project is going to be. Where do most horror films take place? At a cabin in the woods? In a haunted house? In a possessed girl's bedroom?
Horror films don't require a ton of locations, because the action is usually centralized in a single, horrifying place.
Most of 'Halloween' takes place in this one iconic horror house. 'Halloween' (1978)
Horror film villains don't like it when their prey gets lippy, and honestly -- other than begging for your life -- what is there to say to a homicidal maniac with a butcher knife?
Dialogue is limited in scary movies because characters are naturally spending most of their time making out with each other, screaming, running, hiding, and falling in the forest. You don't need lines of dialogue for that stuff.
This is good for keeping costs low for a couple of reasons:
- Speaking roles cost more money
- You can hire less experienced actors, which cuts costs
By far my favorite horror movie scream 'Friday the 13th' (1980)
Fear of the Unknown
The beauty of making horror films is that the things that scare most of us aren't necessarily elaborate monsters or places — it's the unknown. The unknown doesn't cost much money to produce.
"Ah, crap! We don't have money for custom monster makeup and CGI!" Sweet! Just show your audience a fuggin' shadow. Show them a blurry reflection in a mirror. Literally show them blackness! It all has the potential to scare the pants off your viewers.
Think about it. After running around with the characters in The Blair Witch Project for an hour and forty-five minutes, we never actually see...anything, let alone the Blair Witch. 'The Blair Witch Project' (1999)
Cheap Costumes and Props
Making a film about a NASA scientist who, I don't know, investigates a decommissioned space shuttle that is reported to be haunted by the ghost of a Russian cosmonaut armed with an elaborate alien laser cannon, that's fine. Would watch. But if your goal is to cut costs, you might want to go with something more simple.
Tell a story about a bunch of T-shirt-wearing 20-somethings getting attacked by a psycho with a kitchen knife. Or chased by an invisible, mostly off-screen force (like It Follows). You don't have to spend money on expensive costumes and props; just raid your closet and kitchen for the goods.
A simple butcher knife made a generation of (I assume) very smelly movie-goers terrified of taking showers. 'Psycho' (1960)
Low Budget Looks Good for Horror
Horror films, by nature, are allowed to be gritty, dirty, and raw. (Think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre). Your main objective is to scare people, not leave them in awe of your sets or compositions (though you can do that, too).
Horror fans aren't looking for polished filmmaking; they're looking for scares, and those are cheap to produce. You don't need a ton of lighting. You don't need the best equipment. You don't need camera stabilizers...honestly, you can scare the hell out of your audience just running around shooting handheld.
Case in point: found footage films. Projects like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity were such immense successes at the box office because they had that built-in horror film mass appeal but cost as little as $15,000 to make.
Director Oren Peli used a prosumer camcorder, the Sony HDR-FX1, to shoot 'Paranormal Activity'. 'Paranormal Activity' (2007)
This next one isn't only used in horror filmmaking, but it's definitely worth mentioning.
Profit-sharing is a financial concept that essentially means you pay your cast and crew a certain percentage of the film's future profits, rather than paying them a lump sum before shooting.
This certainly helps you as the filmmaker save money upfront, but there are several risks. First and foremost, you're asking your cast and crew to take the big risk of never actually getting paid, since there's no guarantee that the film will actually make a profit. Second, if the film is a huge success, you stand to lose more of the share of profits than you would've liked.
Quantity Over Quality
This one pertains more to how studios can not only save money but also make money by producing a high volume of horror films that cost little to make.
However, if you're a no-budget filmmaker, the heart of this concept still applies to you: high volume + low cost = big returns. Your "returns" may not be "box office receipts", but they're something almost as valuable: "experience" and "important filmmaking lessons."
Now, I'm not saying go out and make a ton of poor quality horror films. That's never the goal. The idea is to not be too precious about the quality and to be okay with your film being "good enough" or "as good as it can be given the budget."
I'm saying go out and make a ton of horror films as best you can with the money and resources you have.
With 12 films in its filmography, 'Friday the 13th' has produced the most films than any other horror franchise. However, the 'Alien' franchise has earned the most money at the box office, at over $515.9 millionCredit: IMDb
Horror flicks are really easy to turn into sequels. It's as simple as saying, "Uh oh! The killer survived that bazooka blast to the face...and now...he's out for revenge." And, in case you haven't noticed, studios like to turn films into franchises.
This is a good thing to keep in mind as a no-budget filmmaker. It will not only prepare you for the filmmaking environment you (most likely) eventually want to enter but it will help you think outside of the box with your scripts and explore their "sequel potential".
The sequel to 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre', a black comedy slasher, went in a totally different direction than the brutal, verite-style original. 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (1974)
For horror filmmakers, making a scary movie is a no-brainer. However, if you're thinking about making a film but are on the fence about whether or not you should try horror, just remember that horror films have a built-in cult following. They're cheap to make, and in my opinion, are the most fun to make. (Because of the fake blood and stuff.)