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Low Budget Films That Made More Than Their Money Back

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We seem to live in an age dominated by high budget blockbusters that invest big for large rewards. Studios will often pump in more than $100 million to see a $900 million+ return on investment. Unfortunately, this can stifle smaller, independent voices in cinema.

We’ve highlighted some of the most financially successful films that were made with modest budgets. Movies like this often help highlight new talent and kickstart new careers after the filmmakers were given a chance.

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Click on to see which films were successful despite a low budget…

The Blair Witch Project – $60,000 budget

It’s easy to forget just how revolutionary The Blair Witch Project was when it was released in 1999. It was made in a time before the ‘mockumentary’ genre had been explored and sold as a real-life tale from found-footage. Audiences believed in the marketing campaign and weren’t sure if what they were watching was real or not. The film made an impressive $248 million making it the most profitable film of all time in terms of percentage.

The Full Monty – $3.5 million budget

This British cult classic stars Robert Carlyle who leads a group of unemployed steelworkers that decide to make some cash from stripping. Over time, it was praised for its heart and charm and was even nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It’s been described as a ‘no-fuss, low-budget British film designed to genuinely entertain.’ The Full Monty made $258 million and is considered a classic more than 20 years after its release.

Juno – $7.5 million budget

Actress Jennifer Garner agreed to a pay cut allowing Juno to stick to its modest budget. The film was released in 2008 and became an instant smash hit: racking in $231 million and receiving several Oscar nominations. It tells the story of a young girl who accidentally gets pregnant and decides to give the baby away for adoption. It also stars Ellen Page, Michael Cera, and Jason Bateman. The film is largely responsible for launching Page’s career.

Little Miss Sunshine – $8 million budget

This 2006 indie film tells the story of a family’s cross-country road trip so its youngest member can compete in a beauty pageant. It made a total of $100 million from its initial $8 million budget. It stars Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, and an impressive performance by Steve Carrell. The film was so highly-anticipated that it created a bidding war among studios and it ultimately won two academy awards and many more nominations.

Paranormal Activity – $15,000 budget

Credit: Blumhouse

Taking a page from The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity was only made for $15,000! It was shot using a handheld camera in seven days. Its director, Oren Peli, had no previous filmmaking experience and it launched his career. The film made an incredible $193 million and started a franchise with a handful of sequels. Paranormal Activity was produced by Blumhouse Productions, famously known to invest in new horror talent and producing large films with low costs.

Annabelle – $6.5 million budget

Credit: Blumhouse

Once The Conjuring was a proven success, filmmakers tried their luck again with Annabelle to tremendous results. The spin-off focused on a haunted doll and made $257 from its modest budget. The 2014 film was written by Gary Dauberman and produced by Peter Safran and James Wan. Wan is known for his filmmaking abilities in the horror genre and has been behind some of the biggest films in recent years. Since its release, it has attracted a large cult following.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding – $5 million budget

This romantic comedy was a surprise hit after its release in 2002. The budget was so small that they only spent $1 million on its marketing efforts. The film was written by, and starred, Nia Vardalos who plays a Greek woman intending to marry a non-Greek man. The family dynamics portrayed on screen struck an emotional chord with people around the world and from different cultures. It made $368 million at the box office!

Rocky – $1 million budget

Rocky made more than just its $1 million back at the box office. It made a total of $117 million and won three Oscars, planting itself firmly into pop culture even today. Sylvester Stallone wrote the script over a weekend which launched him to global fame for years to come. Since its release in 1976, there have been three sequels and a spin-off series, Creed, starring Michael B. Jordan. It has attracted a cult following more popular today than ever.

Saw – $1.2 million budget

It appears that low-budget horrors are quite the success! This 2004 horror film was filmed in only a few days and made $103 million. It launched an entire franchise with seven(!) sequels – making them a Halloween tradition for most of the 2000s. James Wan had teamed with Leigh Whannell to make a truly original concept on a low budget. Today, Billy the Puppet is widely recognized as one of the most prominent horror mascots in cinema.

Moonlight – $4 million budget

Moonlight broke all ceilings with its portrayal of black and queer culture when it was released in 2016. It famously won the 2017 Oscar for best picture after a mistake claimed it had gone to La La Land. The modest budget saw a return of $65 million at the box office, and the film won three Academy Awards. It goes to show that the power of storytelling doesn’t need to rely on CGI and hundreds of millions to resonate with audiences.

My Left Foot – $600,000 budget

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the 1989 classic captivated audiences. My Left Foot tells the true story of a man with severe Cerebral Palsy and can only control, well, his left foot. Over time, he becomes a painter, author, and poet. The film made $14.7 million at the box office – which is fairly modest – but definitely made its money back. It earned 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and picked up two Oscars and a Bafta.

The Purge – $3 million budget

Credit: Horror Freak News

This horror movie has a particularly original concept. At some point in the future, citizens are granted a 12-hour window each year when all crime is legal. It starred Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, making $89 million overall. Quickly become a cult hit, the franchise spawned three sequels to The Purge and a dedicated following among cinemagoers. The franchise has had generally mixed reviews but has made $445 million and spawned a spin-off television show.

Mad Max – $300,000 budget

Credit: MGM/Photofest

Mad Max: Fury Road made $378 million from a $150 million budget. Before that, the original film with Mel Gibson was made for only $300,000. In 1979, it made $1 million which at the time was an enormous sum. For a while, it held the Guinness World Record for the best profit-to-cost film. The franchise survives today with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron taking the lead. To date, there have been four films in the franchise.

American Graffiti – $750,000 budget

Credit: nytimes.com

Before he made Star Wars, George Lucas was a relatively unknown filmmaker. His first project, American Graffiti, was made for a modest sum of $750,000 and made $115 million at the box office. What else would you expect from the creator of Star Wars? The coming-of-age story proved to be popular among young audiences and critics have rewarded it with 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Universal Pictures was initially apprehensive about pumping so much money into the young filmmaker, but we think the gamble paid off!

Split – $9 million budget

Credit: Universal Pictures

James McAvoy stars in this indirect sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable, starring Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. Shyamalan is known for his horror films with its twists and turns, and this is no exception! McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities, captivating audiences around the world. Split made $278 million against its $9 million budget. The third part of this (now) cinematic universe, Glass is out in 2019. It will bring three of Shyamalan’s biggest characters together in one film.

Star Wars – $11 million

Credit: Disney

Star Wars made a whopping $775 million when it came out  – not bad for 1977! It was the highest grossing film of all time until Spielberg’s ET. It’s hard to believe that Episode IV was actually considered a low budget film, at just $11 million. The space adventure helped make Lucasfilm into a cinematic powerhouse. Today, Disney owns the franchise and pumps out a film a year, each one earning many millions of dollars. Not too bad for a modest indie film 40 years ago!

Open Water – $130,000 budget

The premise of Open Water is an easy one that would help it become a box office success. It made $55 million when released in 2003. A couple becomes stranded in shark-infested waters during a scuba dive and has to survive the dangerous waters. It received fairly good reviews and two sequels were made in the following years. Allegedly it was based on a true story, although this is unconfirmed. The production used real sharks, as opposed to CGI or mechanical props.

Halloween – $300,000 budget

The first film that would one day launch an entire horror franchise was made for relatively little money back in 1978. It is rumored that Jamie Lee  Curtis’ wardrobe only cost the production $100! Halloween would go on to gross $70 million worldwide – a large success in the 1970s. Today, it’s considered one of the best horror movies of all time and has 10(!) sequels under its belt. With films coming out as recently as 2018, the franchise shows no signs of slowing down!

Lost in Translation – $4 million budget

Sofia Coppola wrote and directed the 2003 film which became a massive hit in the box office making $119 million around the world. It stars Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson as two unlikely friends and intrigued audiences everywhere. The dark comedy won an Oscar for its screenplay. It has 95% on Rotten Tomatoes and is widely considered one of the best cult films of all time.  Critics called it “a triumph for all involved, both in front of and behind the camera.”

Pulp Fiction – $8.5 million budget

Credit: The Independent[/caption]

Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore film practically defines the 1990s and is one of the most iconic films in the world. The impressive cast includes John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis and made $213 million at the box office. Tarantino would go on to make more iconic films such as Kill Bill, Django Unchained, and Inglorious Basterds. If you went to college in the 1990s, there’s a chance you had this film poster on your wall!

The Evil Dead – $400,000 budget

The Evil Dead is considered to be one of the best cult classic horror comedies of all time. Written and directed by Sam Raimi film is a supernatural horror classic starring the irreplaceable Bruce Campell. It was made for just $400,000 and made $29.4 million back in 1981. The film quickly became a trilogy and a spin-off show briefly existed in 2015. It is clear The Evil Dead is a low-budget film due to its limited special effects, but audiences agree it more than does the job as a satisfying flick.

Napoleon Dynamite – $400,000 budget

Credit: Bustle[/caption]

Napoleon Dynamite is considered one of the most successful indie films ever made, making 100 times its production budget in the box office! It stars Jon Heder as the titular character who helps his friend run for class president. Audiences immediately fell in love with the characters and the charm of the entire film. It grossed $46 million and still survives in pop culture today in memes and Halloween costumes around the world. Would you vote for Pedro?

Buried – $2 million budget

This Ryan Reynolds horror film didn’t need to spend much on set design – the whole film takes place in a coffin. The 2010 film was made for $2 million and brought in more than $20 million – 10 times its original budget! Reynolds stars as an American civilian working in Iraq who wakes to find himself buried in a wooden coffin. The film was praised for its editing and sense of agitation it would evoke from audiences.

The Inbetweeners Movie – $5.3m budget

Everyone’s favourite group of British teenagers had their film debut in 2011 after three successful season on television. The four unlikely friends from English state school traveled to Greece for a ‘lads’ holiday’ to hilarious results. It made an impressive $65 million at the box office and a sequel was quickly greenlit to similar results. These characters have since become a staple in British comedy and will hopefully reunite again sometime soon.

Get Out – $4.5 million budget

Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit wowed audiences after becoming one of the biggest hits of the year. The unique take on the horror genre and scathing social commentary resonated with audiences all over the world. It scored an amazing 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and earned an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s theatrical run made $255 million and launched Jordan Peele’s career as a respected and talented filmmaker. It stared Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams.

Super-Size Me – $65,000 Budget

Credit: Roadside Attractions

Director Morgan Spurlock fundementally changed how McDonald’s operates with his 2004 documentary. For 30 days, the filmmaker ate nothing but the fast-food, resulting in shocking health results. The film went on to gross $22.2 million and make a star out of the filmmaker. Today, McDonald’s has retired the Super-Size option from its menu and invested in rebranding itself as a healthy option for people. We doubt anyone who watched this film thinks the same way…

Garden State – $2.5 million budget

Caption: Mirimax

Zach Braff’s directorial debut proved to be a critical hit, scoring 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. The first time filmmaker wrote and starred in the indie coming-of-age story, propelling him as a legitimate star in Hollywood. The film made $35 million at the box office and proved that Braff was a unique talent. Today, he has followed up with other films such as Wish I Was Here. Garden State won particular praise for its soundtrack – something Braff personally chose.

Shaun of the Dead – $6.1 million budget

Credit: Studio Canal

This ‘rom-comzom‘ (‘romantic comedy with zombies’) won critical acclaim upon its release in 2004. The Romero homage made stars of its then-television stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and director Edgar Wright gained a cult following for his unique filmmaking style. The film grossed $30 million and led to two more films from the creative trio – known as the ‘Three Flavors Cornetto’ trilogy.

Donnie Darko – $4.5 million

Credit: Flower Films

This psychological-thriller was a modest success upon its release in 2001 but has since become a cult phenomenon. It stars a young Jake
Gyllenhaal as a troubled teenager capable of seeing visions and can communicate with a bunny called Frank. Despite only making $7.5 upon its initial release, it was a VHS classic in the mid-2000s and garnered a large following. The cult film requires multiple viewings to fully understand its time-travel and complex plot points.

Moon – $5 million

Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Moon is a shining example of how an intriguing story and fantastic acting can carry a film with a small budget. Sam Rockwell stars as Sam Bell, an astronaut all lone tasked with bringing energy back to Earth. It’s a rare move to see Rockwell in a leading role – he usually prefers side characters – but it totally paid off. Director Duncan Jones tells an amazing story and is credited for propelling this indie film into mainstream success.

Catfish – $30,000 budget

Credit: Universal Pictures

Another documentary on our list that was met with wild success – Catfish is unlike anything you’ve seen. The horror-doc highlights just how imperfect the realtionships are that you form online are. Are people really who they claim to be? The film made $3.5 million at the box office, 100 times its budget, and scored 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Its success led to an MTV spin-off series which is still going strong seven years after its release.

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