At the time of writing I've been working on audio post for independent films for about five years, and in that time I've worked on about the same number of feature length productions (listed on IMDB), as well as several short films and web series. I would classify most of those productions as residing in the "low-to-no" budget range, with budgets ranging from the low thousands up to about $40,000. This is not a judgement of their creative merit, but it's useful background to consider as we discuss resources and approaches to soundtrack production.
What is production value?
It's clear that monetary budget is linked to the overall production value of a film—that is, its perceived quality aesthetic or "professionalism". Considering monetary budget gives us not only an idea of the technical resources available to the film makers, but also a window into the creative decision making involved in realizing a film as a satisfactory representation of a story when on a budget. Thus, I think it's logical to frame a discussion of the specifics of audio post production with a sense of what production value means in independent film.
Clearly economics and budget restrictions have a direct effect on creative decision making in independent film making, and although this effect is often thought of as negative (we lose that plot essential, film festival winning final helicopter shot), restricted parameters can lead to equally satisfying creative work.
There is another factor that influences the final production value of an independent film that I'm going to call creative budget. This budget is the amount of time and personal creative resources the film makers are willing to invest in a project to improve it.
Because it will be relevant for subsequent discussions, my own definition of good production value is where the technical aspects of a film (for example cinematography or sound design), and the aesthetic choices of the film makers (such as production design or costuming) effectively communicate, subtly enhance, but do not distract from the delivery of the story. This definition is sufficiently wide, I hope, to leave room for plenty of creative maneuver.
Technology and production value
Advances in the technologies available to film makers, as well as a decrease in their cost, have made significant contributions to increase the production value of independent films over the last few years, particularly in the low-to-no budget sector. Even in the short time I've been working on independent films the transition has been made to using DSLR cameras over DV and HDV cameras (the first film I worked on was shot on a Panasonic AG-DVX100B), with RED cameras becoming a popular choice as the cost of renting them drops.
Ease in acquiring high quality location audio has not quite followed the same trajectory, but a wide choice of inexpensive microphones and the steady increase in the availability of portable recorders capable of recording uncompressed audio, have opened up new possibilities for budget conscious productions. Inexpensive, powerful, computer based audio production tools are also now a reality for post production engineers: I recently discovered that one of my favorite DAWs, Cockos's Reaper, supports working to video.
As a post mixer I view part of my job as a responsibility to maximize the production value of a film's soundtrack based on available budget (if any), so I try to maintain a detailed understanding of what level of quality is achievable at a given budget level, and how to realize it. This understanding informs the tools and techniques I use, and the workflows I've adopted for film mixing.