15 Low-Budget Films That Made Big Money At The Box Office

Jay Dawson September 27th 2016 Entertainment
In the days of endless sequels and hyper blockbusters costing hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, it’s easy to think that Hollywood has lost its creative side. But there are still a lot of hungry, penniless filmmakers out there who are waiting to break into the major leagues. They’ll do anything – mortgage their house, borrow off friends, even sell their dog – to see their vision come to life. And every once in a while, it pays off. Big time. Here are some of our favorite tiny budget films that made a whole heap of money at the box office. Who knows, maybe if you dust off the old camcorder and start filming, the next one could be yours.
Mad Max
If there’s one easy way to cut down on your movie’s budget, it’s to set it in a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. It saves on props, anyway, and the light’s always good. That’s just what Australian director George Miller did when he shot Mad Max. Now considered one of the action / science fiction greats, it was filmed on only $300,000.
But it isn’t just considered great now. It may have divided critics when it was released in 1979, but it certainly didn’t divide the fans. They flocked to it in their thousands, giving it huge worldwide box office earnings of over $100m and spawning a number of sequels, including the recent Fury Road. According to legend, Miller – who was a doctor before he made the film – had to raise some of the funds for Mad Max by doing emergency medical calls. Now that’s dedication.
The Blair Witch Project
Even though YouTube hadn’t been invented yet way back in 1999, if you had the right marketing strategy it was still possible to go viral. The Blair Witch Project certainly must have pleased the publicity gods. After spending only $20,000 and a grand total of eight days of filming, they had whipped the audiences into such a frenzy that the film made an insane $250 million.
How did it happen? We’re not totally sure, although we think the big trick is to keep it all a massive secret. Don’t, for example, let anyone tell anyone else that the big bad monster doesn’t even show up in the film. Or that most of the film’s runtime is just kids hiking through the woods and the sounds of twigs snapping at night. We’re not bitter. We’re just jealous.
Enter the Dragon
The late, great, Bruce Lee’s discipline might be the stuff of legend. As a martial artist he lived a strictly regimented life of training, but when it came to one of the best martial arts movies of all time, they faced a different challenge: a very strict budget. Despite the lavish production and choreography, and having both Lee and Jackie Chan on the bill, the total cost of production came in to under $850k.
In Hong Kong, where it was shot, it only saw minor success. But in America the fans went wild. After a publicity run including free karate classes, tie-in comics, and extensive news coverage, audiences flocked to the screen to see it. In all, it grossed just over $21m – a huge amount for 1973. Not only that, as Lee’s last outing before his untimely death, it put its stamp on cinematic history.
Do you have a jar of old pennies lying around? A couple of dollar bills lost somewhere behind the couch cushions? Then you can make a movie. And a million dollars. No, this is not a scam. Jonathan Caouette did it with his 2003 documentary, Tarnation.
Assembled from 20 years of old VHS and Super 8 footage, as well as photos and answering machine messages, Tarnation told the story of Caouette’s heartwarming and rocky relationship with his mentally ill mother. How much did it cost him to produce? Precisely $218.32. No, there’s no zeroes missing. The film went on to garner countless accolades and widespread appeal, and eventually pulled in just under $1.2 million. Let’s hope he bought his mom a truck of chocolates with that.
American Graffiti
These days, George Lucas might have enough money to live in his own Death Star. But before he blew audiences away with the Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas was just another filmmaker trying to make a name for himself. His second film, American Graffiti, about rock ‘n’ roll youths in the heady days of the 1950s, was shot in only 28 days and with a budget of just under $800,000.
The only problem was, of course, that George Lucas was still a no-name. After trying unsuccessfully to sell it to every film company in the business, it took acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola’s clout to get it distributed – he even offered to pay for it himself. He clearly knew what he was talking about: the film ended up grossing a massive $140m at the cinemas and thrust Lucas firmly into the spotlight. Without Coppola and without the film, we may have been living in a world where we could never make Yoda jokes.
If you had a camera and an idea, it seems like the 1970s was a wonder decade for turning low budgets into big profits. Halloween, which came to our screens in 1973, is just another example of a monster success story. With only just over $300k to play with, writer Debra Hill and director John Carpenter reaped (or maybe disemboweled) an astonishing $47m from terrified cinemagoers, as well as kick starting a genre – the slasher – that still hasn’t died.
Having so little money in the budget meant that the production team had to get creative. Most of the actors wore their own clothes, several scenes were shot in abandoned homes, and the iconic mask worn by serial killer Michael Myers was a refashioned Captain Kirk mask, bought for $1.98. It just goes to show that you don’t need big special effects to terrify a generation.
Napoleon Dynamite
There was a time not long ago that you couldn’t joke with a friend without dropping in a Napoleon Dynamite reference or two. And though it’s still, in our expert opinion, one of the funniest films of all time, there was every chance that it wouldn’t have got made. With a meager budget of $400k, Director Jared Hess and brother and co-writer Jerusha Hess had to edit the film in their apartment, on their own laptops.
Not only that, the star, Jon Heder, was paid a measly $1000 for his role in the film. After the film’s stunning (and somewhat surprising) success – it made an incredible $46m in the first year alone – Heder landed himself a renegotiated contract, this time with a share of the profits. Considering it continued to rake in profits from DVD sales and merchandise, and is still quotable today, it was a smart idea.
Super Size Me
We want to be a bit cleverer than saying Super Size Me made Super Sized Profits, but it’s just too hard to resist. It’s true, too: the thoroughly disturbing documentary by Morgan Spurlock brought him almost $30m in ticket sales from a Super Tiny (sorry) Budget of $65k. We’d hate to think how much it cost McDonalds as well.
In the film, Morgan Spurlock – a vegetarian – really put his body on the line for his art. For an entire month, he forced down a strict McDonalds-only diet (which was probably half of the budget, too) and charted the severe repercussions to his mental and physical well-being. He may have suffered dearly, but after the release and the critical acclaim the film garnered, there’s no doubt that it was all worth it. Moral of the story: the next time you binge on fast food, it might be worth filming yourself.
Night Of The Living Dead
For the last decade, we’ve seen pretty much every variation of the undead on our TV screens and computer monitors. And if you’re getting as tired of it as we are, there’s only one person to blame: the godfather of all zombies, George Romero. In 1968, he, four friends, and $6,000 of pocket money changed the horror landscape forever.
The budget eventually blew out to (a still tiny) $114,000. But when you’re doing zombies and charting the excesses of American consumerism, you could allow Romero to get a little carried away. Luckily, he knew exactly what he was doing and tapped into a zeitgeist that is still overpowering the industry today. With eventual box office earnings of 30 million 1968 dollars, you can see why people are still trying to suck the life out of the theme.
A clutch of surreal and highly regarded films, and the generation defining TV classic Twin Peaks, has made director and artist David Lynch all but a household name. Amongst artists and lovers of weird cinema, he’s an icon. But to the film companies, he’s the eternal question: will I make money off this film?
When you look at the plot of his first feature length, Eraserhead, you can forgive the studio executives for getting a little bit nervous. A man cares for his misshapen child and has bizarre dreams? It’s not exactly a romantic comedy. But Lynch scraped together $20,000 had a few long, lean, years of filming, and produced a classic that netted him a cool $7 million.
Open Water
Open Water was always going to be low budget. Based on the true story of a couple abandoned at sea during a scuba trip, the bulk of the film only needed two simple ingredients. A couple, and some water. It was always going to make megabucks, too, with that brand of horror and squirming dread that people love to hate.
And people really loved it. From a shoestring budget of $130,000 – most of which was probably spent on flights to the Bahamas – Open Water ended up reeling in a solid $55m. For a true story, and a script can’t have run to more than two pages, that’s not bad at all. Just goes to show that in every gray, shark-shaped cloud, there’s a silver lining. Or teeth.
Paranormal Activity
Here’s another horror film with a downright chilling return on investment. We’ve actually done the figures and we think our calculator might be possessed. Box office takings: $193 million. Budget: $11,000. Profit: all of it. Does that seem right to you? And why aren’t you making a low budget horror film right now?
Oren Peli certainly had the right idea. In a stroke of creative genius, the up-and-coming director (and writer and editor and producer) replaced an entire film crew and expensive cameras with a video camcorder and a tripod. It may have initially been a money thing, but it ultimately gave the poltergeist flick the creepy authenticity that it needed. Paramount Pictures took notice, anyway, and the rest is wads and wads of greenback history.
El Mariachi
Robert Rodriguez’s films often live in a world of deliberately schlocky, low-budget madness. But despite recently being at the helm of several big studio flicks, Rodriguez has really lived the shoestring lifestyle. For his debut as director and writer, he spent a grand total of $7,000.
The film was El Mariachi, the first of his classy western Mexican Trilogy (later to star Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp). Rodriguez raised half of the funds by submitting himself to various clinical drug trials, and saved money on equipment by filming while being pushed around in a wheelchair. The delightful chaos extended to the film, which audiences lapped up for its grittiness and humor. And he walked away with a cool $2 million.
How many of you have seen the brilliant and mind-bending sci-fi gem Primer? You haven’t? It’s about a couple of engineers who accidentally discover how to time travel, with catastrophic results to their personal lives. We’ve seen it, and it’s a masterpiece. It’s also a masterclass: watch it and you can learn how to spend only $7,000 and still blow every other movie out of the water.
We’re not the only ones who think so. While compared to the other movies in this list $600,000 in box office takings is quite modest, if you do the math it’s an eye-popping, mouthwatering profit margin. Director Shane Carruth used no-name actors – and himself – as well as adlibbed lines, minimal props, and very basic special effects to keep the costs down. The result is an eerie, highly realistic sci-fi that will stay with you for years.
The Evil Dead
For many, Sam Raimi is the guy who brought Spider Man to the masses and launched the cinematic Marvel universe phenomenon that’s still alive and furiously kicking today. For others, Sam Raimi will always be remembered for maybe the greatest thing that ever happened in horror film’s history: The Evil Dead. How much does it cost to make an epically successful cult movie? Oh, only about $375k.
Bruce Campbell’s endlessly quotable ash has stuck firmly in the hearts of gore-and-laughs aficionados since the 1981 release. While at first it only had a limited release, and not-too-bad takings of $2.1 million, it eventually spawned a blockbuster franchise (and that chainsaw for a hand) and brought in a maniacal $30m.

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