The Caffeine Files - What Is A B-movie
At the bottom line, it's all about money. B-movies usually are filmed on a much smaller budget than A-list ones (say, Titanic): this means cheaper directors, screenwriters, actors, directors of photogtraphy, special effects etc. Cheaper does not necessarily mean lesser, and it is a fact that famous and revered actors and directors (say, Sean Penn and Steven Spielberg) began their careers with B-movies - but at the time they were not yet famous and revered, thus unable to ask for trainloads of money.
To go a bit deeper, due to the lack of talent of many cheap crewmembers*, B-movies tend to be technically poor, making frequent use of trite solutions (slow-motion fights, to cite just one), cliches and stereotypes (slut, good girl, nerd, jock... don't tell me you've never seen those). Among other advantages, those require less writing and direction time and effort. B-movies rarely dare or push boundaries (except when it comes to nudity, gore and general bad taste).
Also, B-movies mainly try to provide instant gratification for a non-discriminating public, so they tend to be rich of chases and fights (or races and strip-tease) and avoid being profound or thought-provoking. The other point is, making profound or thought-provoking movies is not a job for a talentless crew, so B-movies that try to take that road often fail disgracefully.
B-movies can travel across generes, but it should not come as a surprise that the most exploited generes are horror, action, science fiction and combinations thereof. Even a comedy can be a B-movie, but a number of comedies are already intended to lampoon and that confuses matters. Further confusion comes from movies beliberately made in a certain way: Tarantino, especially his Deathproof, comes to mind. He can count on a stellar cast and, I suppose, a very large budget at his disposal, yet his movies are stylistically more akin to the B-grade ones (I also think that Tarantino had a lot of fun simply in filming Deathproof regardless of its success; that's the kind of self-indulgent hobby only a famous and revered director/writer can have, sadly. Because I'd love to force the products of my mind upon the world!).
On another hand, we have the likes of TROMA who take pride in producing films ranging from bad-but-fun to utterly godawful - that's their mission in this world. B-movies are those that still retain a level of dignity, while unwatchable atrocities belong to the C, D or even the dreaded Z-movie category.
There is a subtle distinction between failed A-movies a B ones: the former try (and sometimes pretend) to be good, while the latter do not. There also are B-movie that manage to rise to the A-level because they do have quality under the unpolished surface (The Terminator is typical).
Direction and plot tend to trump acting, that's why we still have a B-movie even when it's Samuel Jackson himself fighting a bunch of snakes on the loose on a 747 (the whole concept at the core of SOAP** can only take the form of a B-movie anyway).
So one may ask, "Tell me, what's a good B-movie I can watch and get an idea of the thing?" So here we go with a short list: Tremors is a horror-action-comedy which, surprisingly, works on almost all levels; a classic of B-movies. Deep Blue Sea is not as good but at least it does not take itself too seriously and provides some real entertainment. Convoy is probably the best you can get if you like big trucks, and it is a bit more profund than you usual car-chase flick. Tough Cop will satisfy your need for police action with a typically Italian twist.
Now, to understand the difference, compare those with failed A-list movies: the exceedingly pretentious Death of a President. The ineptly done The Postman (watch at your peril, it's 3 hours long). The useless, video-game-y Alien vs. Predator.
However, this is still nothing compared to the real heavy caliber crap. The likes of 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Mangler and - well, a truckload of ridiculosly incompetent movies one can see on pretty much any TV channel at night can haunt you forever.
And this is just trying to be objective; if you carelessely thread into the fanboy quagmire, only a very powerful surge can save your ass.
To finish off this beast that is keeping me awake at 01:41, let's explain why some folks watch B-movies and even worse ones. Well, it sounds bloody elitist to say, but there's a lot of uneducated idiots out there. Why chavs do eat only fast-food stuff? Because they don't know any better, and cannot be arsed to learn.
Others instead only want some sort of entertainment and distraction, and they'd watch anything to that purpose (sometimes I do).
Another reason is the clinical interest: you want to know how a movie can be that bad, and dissect it, reach its rotten innards and maybe understand how crappines can be avoided.
Finally we have the camp: holler, laugh, mock the badness on the screen and be merry. Works better with a rowdy company and possibly mind-altering substances.
* Shorthand for writers, director, photographer, editor etc.
** A The Second Version's exclusive, the acronym for Snakes On A Plane