“Quality” is an interesting word because I don’t think that it can be easily defined. It is, however, easily observable. You can spot bad picture quality from good picture quality; you can tell the difference between low-quality sound and high-quality sound. There are standards of quality that are easily observable by almost every person who knows what a movie is supposed to look and sound like.
These are your “Basic Standards,” something that you can see and immediately judge without perspective or an understanding of the movie as a whole. And then there are standards of quality that are not easily observable, standards that require an investment of time, and these are your “Analytical Standards.” So, if the picture and sound quality of a movie refer to the Basic Standard, then the quality of the story itself, the characters, and the narrative would be the Analytical Standard.
At first glance, 95% of audiences will be able to decide if they want to watch your film (or not) if it meets or exceeds their Basic Standard. If the quality of your film isn’t distractingly bad, if it’s well-edited, well-acted, and well-directed, it could pique the interest of many people who could potentially pay their money and invest the time to watch it. The more your movie exceeds the average person’s Basic Standard, the bigger the chances that audiences would be interested in watching it.
The job of a film critic, for instance, is to tell you whether a film adheres to their own Analytical Standard, and these standards vary from person to person. Different people like different things, and while there is a degree of consent regarding what constitutes a good story, good plot, character, etc., there is always a variation there, and that is why it’s fairly rare to have a 0% or a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. There will always be people who hate a film that other people love, and there are many films made today for hundreds of millions of dollars which have mastered and far surpassed your Basic Standard. They are beautiful to look at, the visuals are spectacular, and the technical side of the film borders on perfection; however, some of those same films do not adhere to most people’s Analytical Standards. In other words, the story is crap. But even those films will have their admirers.
I have no problem with watching a movie that was shot on an iPhone, as long as the picture and sound aren’t distractingly bad, but there is one condition to that tolerance (at least for me). To pique my interest and get me to pay money and spend two hours of my life watching a movie that was shot on an iPhone, it has to have really great content. In other words, it needs to adhere to my personal Analytical Standards, which are pretty high, and that’s where movie critics come in. Movie critics are there to tell me if a movie is likely to adhere to my personal Analytical Standard, so I tend to view the Rotten Tomatoes score as “the chance I’ll like this movie.” And that is ultimately the message that I am trying to convey to you: in the film business, content is king! And your standard should be high and get higher with every film you make.
So, if you lack access to the equipment that’ll make your movie look and sound amazing, you’d better deliver on a really well-told story. And whether your film was shot on the Arri Alexa or the Apple iPhone, its quality will ultimately be defined by how all the different elements come together and mix into a single, coherent product – from beginning to end. Image quality, sound quality, writing quality, the quality of the edit, the acting, the pacing, directing, and lighting are all taken into account and judged by individuals and critics alike.
Your aim should be to improve your craft with every new project you undertake; otherwise, you run the risk of standing still. There’s nothing wrong with making B movies, low-budget guerilla films, and movies that lack a certain standard, especially if that’s done on purpose. But if you’re trying to move ahead to something bigger, or if you’re trying to master the art of these B movies, you’ll need to strive for a higher standard with each new picture.
Be critical of yourself, be judgmental of your product, and give yourself the right amount of shit to motivate yourself into improvement (too little won’t move you, and too much will kill your spirit). The ultimate goal is to keep this in mind: when you’re finished with a script, criticize it, then improve it; when you’re finished with a shot, criticize it, then improve it and reshoot it; when you’re finished with a cut or an edit, criticize it, improve it, and keep going until it meets your standard.
Once you get in the habit of being positively critical of your own work and setting a higher bar for yourself, the quality of your work will improve, and your films will get noticed. To be 100% frank, if you’ve made a masterpiece, like a true cinematic masterpiece, almost every film festival will accept it, every distributor would want it, and audiences will flock to watch it. But that rarely happens on your first low-budget indie film. So, raise your standards and strive to make your movies better.