But I've noticed that the ones that are real standouts for me are ones that I'd consider "quirky". There is something in them that just takes them to a new level in ways that the Hollywood system just doesn't do. The indie movies that try to follow the Hollywood formulas, even if done well don't really make that much of an impact, and really for good reason: in that system, he with the most money wins. You can have a shitball of a movie, but with a hundred-million-dollar marketing budget, it will be a success (Batman and Robin anyone?).
Indies-- especially the indies at the budget level that I'm involved in-- don't have that luxury. they need something else to catch the attention of the potential viewer.
So we get things like fan films: generally short films made in the particular universe characterized by a TV show or movie franchise. Star Wars/Star Trek are both well-covered by fan films, and they get viewings by geeks like us, a sort of built-in fan base. There is a similar horror fan film base with a lot of Jason vs. Freddy kind of stuff, though it's not as prevalent as SF. And I can't really think of a lot of indie films that try to capture the fantasy world of say LOTR; Midnight is the only one I can think of that comes close, and really, the budget on that was easily an order of magnitude higher than what I generally deal with. Still unbelievably low by Hollywood standards, but in a different category.
There is low-budget horror. This is of course a personal favorite because it appeals to the adolescent boy in me that really never grew up despite the admonishments from my family. The popularity of horror as a low-budget genre is difficult to characterize, but I think a lot of it has to do with a very practical aspect: horror is easy to shoot compared with other types of movies, mostly because there's a lot of darkness involved. Darkness hides a lot of sins. Everyone's been afraid of the dark art some point, and attaching to that primal fear brings a lot of emotion bubbling to the surface.
Yet even among the low-budget horror, the ones that rise to the top have something special to offer, something quirky. One of my favorites is the Call of Cthulhu done my a group of HP lovecraft fans. This is an absolutely brillianty done film, and really needs to be the model from which I take heed. It's like a low-budget version of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and arguably better for it, though it is kind of an apples-and-corpses comparison.
There is another in my arsenal that you haven't seen:
Bloody Mallory and D.E.B.S. have both gotten positive responses from my test audience; both are quirky in their own ways, neither of which would be risked by a Hollywood movie. Neither is really horror, though Bloody Mallory borders on it.
It's hard to define the quirk that will draw people in. Take The Incredibles or Monster House as examples: the stories are well-written and well acted, but if they were live action movies they would likely have faded into the woodwork by now. The superb animation is a quirk that draws people in.
Compare that to Beowulf, which although it is a classic story and is CG animated, doesn't have the same kind of draw or memopathic response. Yes, there are reasons for that and they are numerous, but they are all gleaned from hindsight where the need is to figure it out before the movie is made. That's a hell of a lot harder.
(Note: I'm leaving out the discussion of porn here, because even though there's a lot of low-budget porn, it's generally not created to satisfy any any particular "creative vision" or passion, but to make money, and while I would like to make money making movies, my chief motivation is passion.)
The very first thing is to have a good story; without that, all else is just greased up monkeys. What makes a story good is a treatise for a whole other time, and I don't think I'm at the point of having a really superb story in my arsenal quite yet. I have a few good starts.
It's the finishing that's the bitch.