You’ve probably heard the term B-movie before. If you’re into movies and movie history, then you’ve probably heard the term quite a lot.
Oddly enough, the term has stuck around for quite a while, well beyond its original meaning, as we’ll soon see once we get to the explanation.
Oh yeah, and feel free to scroll down to find the answer right away if you’re in a rush.
We’re going to talk about the B-rated movie meaning, although we’ll say right up front that referring to a B-movie as B-rated adds some needless confusion to the mix.
You see, B was never an actual rating, though it’s understandable why some people would think so, as there were and are plenty of other one-letter movie ratings, including the now-retired X-rating, which was replaced by NC-17.
Rather, B-movie was used to refer to the type of movie being shown.
But that’s probably enough of an intro. Let’s get to the matter at hand!
The Original Meaning
Ok, so B-movie was originally a term that referred to the quality of a movie, sort of. The best comparison we can make here is the difference between a single and a B-side.
This idea might be a bit foreign to the younger folks out there, but decades ago, when music was released only in physical formats, an artist would release a single as a 7” 45 record or a 12” 45 record.
Each side typically played exactly one song. On the A-side of the record was the single, the song that the artist and the label really wanted to take off and play on the radio and get purchased many times over by fans.
But to complete the physical record, the other side of the record, referred to as the B-side or side B, was basically a bonus song. The B-side might not even be included in the upcoming full album release.
Over time, B-sides came to be knows as less-than, just some song thrown out casually to complement the single.
B-movies followed a very similar concept.
Many years ago, theaters often showed what are called double features, which is just two movies right in a row, for the price of a single admission, with a short intermission in between.
While some theaters still show double features today, they’re mostly a relic of the past.
In a lot of cases, more people would show up for the first movie of a double feature, and only a portion of the audience would actually stick around for the second movie, or the B-movie.
As a result, the second movie of a double feature was typically of lower quality than the feature presentation.
It wouldn’t make sense for the theater to show two high-quality movies to someone in the audience for the price of a single ticket, so they essentially cheaped out on the second movie.
Just think of when a restaurant offers some kind of promo deal. For example, if you buy a full meal, maybe you’ll get a free coffee, for no extra charge.
That coffee isn’t really worth that much, especially to the restaurant, but adding that bonus might entice people to come in and buy a meal. It’s meant to get people in the door, and the business isn’t really losing any money by providing that small bonus.
So that’s how B-movies came about: they were cheaply-made movies meant to inflate the perceived value of a night at the movies.
But what B-movies have become is perhaps even more interesting. Let’s move on.
What it Means Today
Ok, so this actually happens quite a lot in media where a term that originally carried one meaning went on to mean something quite different.
We’ve seen it in recent years with terms like ‘indie music.’ At first, this term referred exclusively to music produced by artists who weren’t signed to major labels or even signed to any label at all.
But over time, the term became associated with an entire genre of music, a particular sound that could exist anywhere and come from just about any artist, regardless of whether they were signed to a major label or not.
This is pretty similar to how the meaning of ‘B-movie’ has evolved over time.
Yes, originally, B-movie referred to a cheap movie shown second as part of a double feature.
But today, B-movie refers to a relatively low-budget movie that may also contain certain traits that have become associated with these low-budget movies based on consistent trends and content.
If you watch a lot of movie coverage online, maybe you’ve become familiar with the idea of so-bad-they’re-good movies.
The Room is one of the most famous examples of this type of movie. People enjoy movies specifically because they’re bad, but in an entertaining way.
B-movie now also refers to just about any movie that’s not made and/or distributed by a major studio. Made-for-TV movies can be B-movies. Low-budget horror movies can be horror movies. Even certain festival movies can be B-movies, too.
There’s a certain tone that people now expect from B-movies, a tone that puts entertainment at the forefront, not caring too much about subtlety or at the art of filmmaking.
In other words, B-movie now means many different things, but overall, it refers to low-budget movies that are often genre movies rather than straight dramas or more realistic fare.
And that’s about it. The meaning of B-rated movies may change again with time. It’s not like a group of people sit down and decide that a term is going to mean just one thing.
Also, if you’re looking for contemporary B-movies, as in B-movies that have been made within the last few years, we highly recommend digging through the depths of basically any streaming service, but especially free streaming services that tend to offer lower-quality content.
Even Hulu now has a pretty substantial catalog of incredibly cheap genre movies, especially horror movies, some of which are very entertaining in their attempts to be more serious. Others simply embrace their low-budget feel and celebrate the joy of B-movies that will continue to live on for many years to come.