Indie Sci-Fi: Low budgets and Big Ideas

A profitable genre. Several years ago, I read a business plan for a film predicated on the premise that empirical evidence showed science fiction was the most reliably profitable movie genre. In seeking financing for a low-budget project, the plan included many comparable movies. Naturally, Shane Carruth’s Sundance grand jury prize winner, 2004’s “Primer,” was on the list.

However, that relative success is exclusive to Carruth. No one, except Carruth, has been able to duplicate the exact success of “Primer.” In fact, with his second film, Carruth rejected his former distributor opting to create a self-distribution model.

“Primer” was reportedly made for $7,000, and his followup, “Upstream Color,” for $50,000. And after “Color” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, he borrowed money for a theatrical release and a quick streaming rollout. At the time, it was innovative. And with “Upstream Color,” Carruth repeated “Primer’s” more than half million dollars in worldwide theatrical box office. But he did it without giving a traditional distributor’s cut.

So, there is precedence, plenty beyond the Carruth model, for the reliability of low-budget science fiction. But, as all the film finance books tell you, movies are potentially one of the riskiest investments imaginable. It’s just that certain genres may be safer than others.

In 2018, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead’s “The Endless” amassed nearly a million dollars in worldwide theatrical returns. And, as much as I liked “The Endless,” “Upstream Color” is a much better film and one with potentially broader appeal.  

2019’s impressively mounted arty superhero picture “Fast Color” was not a big theatrical success, garnering less than one hundred thousand dollars in total take. And the budget for “Fast Color,” although relatively tiny, is likely many times larger than Carruth’s movie or “The Endless.”

Also, last year, A.T. White’s “Starfish” gave us an exciting and beautiful bit of indie science fiction. But it’s limited run failed to catch fire for expansion, netting just over fifteen thousand dollars in worldwide box office.

The moral of the story is that low-budget sci-fi has gone to the small screen. We’ll always have massive science fiction epics, as we will see with Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming “Dune,” but if you want to go small with your otherworldly story, you need to think streaming.

Finding the magic in eking out profit from the genre is hardly a science. In surfing Amazon this week, I noticed that that platform offered a large assortment of science fiction films made by indie directors with a passion for the genre. So, below is a survey of four indie sci-fi offerings made for very little money, but that contains more than a few big ideas.

Tangent Room (2017)
Click here to watch on Amazon Prime

Released last year, although made in 2017, this intellectual science fiction entry smartly restricts the cast and locations, making maximum use of its minuscule budget. And it helps that the total running time is just 64 minutes.

The story has four geniuses called by a fifth genius to an isolated facility. When the four invitees assemble in a room resembling a concrete bunker, they discover that they cannot leave. The door is electrified, and with no windows, the fortified place becomes a perfect cell. The foursome is tasked to think their way out of the situation. They are given a long equation to solve; the answer promises to bridge the way between parallel universes.

By leaning heavily on its excellent cast, “Tangent Room” stays interesting, especially if you’re up for an academic challenge. Director Björn Engström writes the screenplay that requires viewers to pay attention. Effective special effects, which consist of basic compositing, helps to sell the egghead premise. It worked well for me, primarily because I admired the constraints that the director put on himself to tell a story basically in just one room.

Travelling Salesman (2012)
Click here to watch on Amazon Prime

Like “Tangent Room,” this one is very math-heavy. But instead of going for fantastical science fiction, director Timothy Lanzone, who co-wrote the script with Andy Lanzone, bases his plot on trying to solve an actual problem—something called P vs. NP. Similar to “Tangent Room,” four of the planet’s smartest mathematicians gather together to prove that P=NP.

While production values are much higher than “Tangent Room,” “Travelling Salesman” is another intellectual gabfest. The cast is strong, as the actors jockey for position, numbers fly with reckless abandon. And director Lanzone attempts to build a thriller/mystery into the dry material by introducing the threat of government crackdown.

Ultimately, even at 80 minutes, I had to watch “Salesman” in installments. Taking a break from the spirited conversations spared my brain from overload, which might undercut the movie’s effectiveness. Computer and math geeks will embrace this one. 

Night Sweats (2019)
Click here to watch on Amazon

Trailers for “Night Sweats” sell the film well. A super-indie, director Andrew Lyman-Clark, who wrote the film with Seth Panman, gets a lot out of his cast and moves the narrative along at a pretty good clip. The problem with the movie is that it’s neither smart enough nor trashy enough to overcome the limitations of its tight budgetary constraints.

The story has happy-go-lucky skateboarder Yuri Burkin (Kyle DeSpiegler) moving to New York City and finding a couch to crash on with friend Jake (John Francomacaro). One night, Yuri meets an alluring waitress named Mary Kate Nardilla (Mary Elaine Ramsey). He’s instantly smitten, but while Yuri is making time with his new girl, Jake has a seizure in the next room. And when Jake dies, Yuri wants to know what killed him.  

The ensuing investigation leads him to Jake’s job with a mysterious company run by the aptly named Nick Frankenthaler (John Wesley Shipp). Will Yuri find out the truth? Or will the virus that killed Jake also take Yuri’s life?

After setting up the elements for a corporate conspiracy film, “Night Sweats” doesn’t know what to do with them. DeSpiegler is good as Yuri, but his character’s chemistry with Mary Kate is lacking. Still, the film works best when it adopts a campy approach.  

Regardless of what you think of the gangling plot, the vomit effects are pretty darned marvelous. As people come down with the quick-moving virus, they puke all over the place—large chunks right on the floor and on anyone in their vicinity. One character, an infectious disease investigator, named Samantha Freemont (Allison Mackie), even comments on the sheer amount of the stuff that came out of one of the victims.

Had “Night Sweats” embraced more fully the goofy elements of the narrative (pulled a Larry Cohen and gone nutty as he did with 1985’s “The Stuff”), the film would have been an indie winner. But as the race to find the cure bounces around town Yuri and a funny CDC agent named Tom Atkins (Trey Gibbons), the film turns into an awkward cautionary tale. Surprisingly, as Atkins, Gibbons nearly saves the picture with his casual reactions and deadpan delivery. That guy even reminds me of Michael Moriarty.

“Night Sweats” is a near miss, but not without some fun moments.

Found in Time (2012)
Click here to watch on Amazon Prime

Some movies have one excellent idea that almost overcomes devastating missteps. “Found in Time” has two. The film takes place in a future time where the government licenses psychics. Chris (MacLeod Andrews) is a psychic who makes a living as a street vendor. He sells important but mundane objects to assist people with their daily needs.

Chris’ friend, RJ (Derek Morgan), runs a unique coffee cart. The cart has an expresso machine of some sort connected to an old fashioned type-writer retrofitted with an LCD screen. If someone comes to RJ and asks for more humility, for example, RJ types in the word humility, and the expresso machine releases a shot of just what is needed to humble the drinker.

Those two ideas are genius, and exploring the consequences of them should be enough for a quirky little indie film. However, director/writer Arthur Vincie chooses to go the Philip K. Dick approach and riff on Spielberg’s “Minority Report.” The “murder in the future” plot and the constant time jumps become tedious and exhausting. Had Vincie maybe embraced his New Age ideas more fully or somehow pulled a Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps this would have come together.

Like “Tangent Room,” “Found in Time” is so much better on every level than the weak-looking trailer. I almost didn’t watch either film because the trailer made them seem incompetently made. This is not true at all. And maybe this points up how tough it is to create a compelling movie trailer.

It’s hard to fault the passion of any of the directors on this list, and the production values of their low-budget films are never unworthy. In the indie world, and especially in science fiction, ambition can be the killer. Of course, just to make a film in the first place, as my wife learned with her political thriller-horror film, “Rave Party Massacre” (aka “Deadthirsty”), getting all the elements right is sometimes an impossible task.

My hats off to these four filmmakers and their cast and crews. Hopefully, their ideas will resonate, and more exciting films will sprout forth.