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. 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 who 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 movie 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
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
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
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
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
Before he made Star Wars, George Lucas was a relatively unknown filmmaker. His second 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
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
Star Wars made a whopping $775 million when it came out – not bad for 1977! It was the highest grossing films 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 holds a 95% score 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
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.
Credit: The Independent[/caption]
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!
Napoleon Dynamite – $400,000 budget
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 favorite group of British teenagers had their film debut in 2011 after three successful seasons 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 starred Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams.
Super-Size Me – $65,000 budget
Director Morgan Spurlock fundamentally 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
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
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 budget
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 budget
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
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 relationships 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.
Clerks – $230,000 budget
Kevin Smith’s cult classic film was made for only $230,000 in 1994. Amazingly, it’s been 25 years and the film has survived as a cult classic among college students everywhere. The film explores the everyday lives of video-store and convenience store keepers.
It grossed a total of $3.2 million at the time – more than 10 times its initial budget! Smith has confirmed the production of a sequel to Clerks, set to update the premise for modern times.
Pi – $68,000 budget
Darren Aronofsky certainly left an impression when his directorial debut hit theaters in 1998. Pi made $3.2 million of a budget of $68,000 – turning a massive 6,800% profit!
The film is a psychological thriller exploring the relationship between mathematical regularity and irrational humanity. It threw Aranofsky onto the world’s stage and he went on to direct more classics such as Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream.
Friday the 13th – $550,000 budget
The first entry in the wildly successful Friday the 13th franchise was only made for $550,000 in 1980. The slasher film captured the imaginations of people everywhere and it ultimately went on to make almost $60 million at the box office.
The Friday the 13th franchise is very much alive today. Since its debut almost 40 years ago, there have been 12 films in the franchise and grossed $464 million to date. Would you like to see
Snatch – $10 million budget
$10 million might sound like a hefty budget compared to others on this list, but when you see the cast you understand why. Snatch has stars like Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, and Benicio del Toro – teaming up to star in a film from Guy Richie and Matthew Vaughn.
The film essentially follows a diamond around the underground British crime world, but the story telling and performances made this one of the most compelling films to date.
Ghost World – $7 million budget
Today we live in a world where comic book adaptations are made for hundreds of million of dollars. It’s not a problem since they’re expected to make back billions. Before this trend, there was a film called Ghost Town – a comic book film made for just $7 million.
It’s a coming of age film in suburbia presenting the audience with an authentic and thoughtful portrayal of two girls just trying to make it through life.
Kidulthood – $920,000 budget
Kidulthood came to the world in 2006 from the mind of Noel Clarke. It gave viewers a stark look at the life of poor and lower class citizens in poor west London. It’s famously hard for independent films to get funding in the UK, but this ended up making more than $2 million at the box office.
The film left a lasting impact on audiences and a sequel, aptly named Adulthood, was released in 2008. In 2016, a third film called Brotherhood completed the trilogy.
Beginners – $3.2 million budget
In Hollywood, $3.2 million can be considered a low budget to have stars like Ewan McGregor attached. The 2011 film stars McGregor as Oliver – who quickly learns his 75-year-old father has come out as gay.
Unsurprisingly, the film was based on a true story from director Mike Mills’ own experience. Outside of the family drama, the film also includes a romantic storyline for Oliver after meeting a young girl at a party. It made $14 million at the box office and Christopher Plummer walked away with an Academy Award.
Son Of Rambow – $6.1 million budget
It’s often the obscure stories that pull on our heartstrings the most. In Son of Rambow, a young Will Poulter stars in 1980s England as two young boys try to reenact the famous Rambo film starring Sylvestor Stallone.
The film provides audience members older than 30 with enough nostalgia to keep a smile wrapped around their face for the film. It is a sweet-natured tale that stays close to the ground.
Submarine – $1.5 million budget
Submarine is an impressive freshman film from British comedian Richard Ayoade. Based on a novel by Joe Dunthorn, it tells the story of a 15-year-old Oliver Tate as he goes through everyday problems of young children.
Among the problems, he has to get good grades, save his parents’ marriage, and look after his pyromaniac girlfriend. We don’t need to remember our own terrible time as a teenager – we can watch this masterpiece instead.
Bronson – $230,000 budget
Tom Hardy has been known to transform for his roles, and Bronson is no exception. The film centers around Charles Bronson – one of Britain’s most notorious and violent prisoners.
In a strange production, the film attempts (and succeeds) in making mayhem and violence an art form. Hardy interacts directly with the audience and the camera, making it a truly unique experience. It made around ten times its budget back at the box office.
Grizzly Man – Unknown budget
The renowned documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog makes this bizarre film made from the found footage of Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell was a man who would frequently visit the bears of Alaska, despite advice from the park rangers.
Overall, there were 85 hours of recorded footage over a five year period. After Treadwell’s death, the film grossed more than $4 million at the box office and earned universal acclaim.
Bowling For Columbine – $4 million budget
You either love Michael Moore or you hate him – and that’s exactly how he likes it. Bowling For Columbine is a classic Moore film that tackles gun crime and culture in the US. Often with a left-leaning and liberal point of view, they can be either fantastic or fantasy – depending on who you ask.
Bowling For Columbine won the Oscar in 2003 and made a whopping $58 million at the box office. At the time, it was record numbers for a documentary feature.
Dogma – $10 million
You might not like Kevin Smith, but his cultural and independent films have become cult hits ever since he broke out in the 1990s. Dogma tells the story of two rogue angels and their friendship with an abortion clinic worker.
It doesn’t shy away from the obvious conflicts that could arise in a film like this. It is tackled with grace and respect for both sides and made three times its money back at the box office.
Brick – $475,000 budget
For a man who directed a Star Wars film, it’s amazing to see how little money it cost to make his first film. 2005’s Brick was made for less than half a million dollars, and yet it is a transformative experience for the audience and the actors on screen.
Even though it has an incredibly low budget, Brick made $4 million at the box office and set writer and director Rian Johnson on to a path of stardom.
28 Days Later – $8 million budget
British director Danny Boyle has a talent for taking modest budgets and making fantastic films that transcend across genres. With 2002’s 28 Days Later, there was certainly no exception to this rule.
The film follows four survivors of a zombie apocalypse in the UK. The film is not only a compelling horror movie, but it also provides a scathing commentary on human nature and the breakdown of society. It made more than 10x its budget back.
American Psycho – $8 million
It’s hard to imagine Christian Bale being considered a ‘risky’ choice for a main role, but that was the case for this 2000 surprise hit. With a budget of only $8 million, it made nearly $35 million at the box office and turned Bale into a star.
The film centers around Patrick Bateman, the psychotic Wall Street banker who kills in his spare time. Nearly 20 years later, it is considered one of his best performances.
Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels – $1.35 million budget
The first low budget Guy Richie film to absolutely smash it at the box office. Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels made an impressive $28 million upon its release in 1998.
Today, it is considered a cult classic and one of the most respected heist films ever made. It helped launch the careers of Vinnie Jones and Jason Statham.
A Nightmare on Elm Street – $1.8 million budget
Horror films have proven to be wildly successful with a small budget – provided the right director is behind the camera. In the 1980s, there wasn’t a single child (or even adult) who wasn’t spooked by Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The iconic slasher was made for less than $2 million, and yet it returned $25 million. To date, the franchise has nine films to its name grossing $457 million from a total budget of just $101 million.
Swingers – $200,000 budget
Swingers is set in the 1990s during the comeback of ‘swing’ in Hollywood. Written and starring Jon Favreau, it is considered one of the funniest films ever made.
Despite its small budget, the film grossed $4.6 million and boosted Favreau and Vince Vaughn into the mainstream business. Today, these two have incredible careers with Favreau largely credited for setting the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the most successful film franchise in history.
Night of the Living Dead – $114,000 budget
Even though the film came out in 1968, Night of the Living Dead was released in black and white to add to the spookiness of the film. The story found a group of people hiding from monsters in a farmhouse.
At the time of its release, it grossed $30 million worldwide, which was more than 250 times its budget! It made five sequels and is widely considered to be one of the strongest influences in horror today.
Blue Valentine – $1 million budget
You might have caught Blue Valentine when it hit cinemas in 2010, but it was critically acclaimed when it hit Sundance. It starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, who both also served as producers of the film.
The story shows how a couple suffers a tragic downturn and how they met and fell in love. Blue Valentine made $16.6 million at the box office and is widely considered to be a classic for the actors.
The Hills Have Eyes (1977) – $230,000
The Wes Craven directed 2006 version was a remake of this cult classic from 1977. The film tells the story of a family in the desert who are hunted by savages.
It was made for six digits – a small number but anyone’s standards – yet still made $25 million upon its release. Today, it is still considered to be one of the best films made in the golden age of horror flicks.
Nightcrawler – $8.5 million budget
Nightcrawler tells the timely story of unethical journalism and how far people will go to get what they want. Jake Gyllenhaal lost much of his weight to play the creepy cameraman who shoots crimes in Los Angeles.
Made for only $8.5 million, Nightcrawler made more than $50 million back at the box office. The director, Dan Gilroy recently partnered with Gyllenhaal again for the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw.
Don’t Breathe – $9.9 million budget
Don’t Breathe doesn’t have as much of a modest budget as some of the other films on our list, but its overall return makes it worth it. For just $9.7 million, the movie returned almost $160 million upon its release in 2016.
The film tells the story of three robbers who try to rob a blind man’s home. Little do they know, they get far more than they bargained for. It turns out, so did investors, with the movie making more than 15 times its money back.
The Terminator – $6.4 million budget
Much like the Star Wars franchise, it’s hard to believe that the 1984 film was made for only $6.4 million. The film (in case you didn’t know) stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cyborg sent back in time to kill the mother of the future army general.
It was, of course, a massive success. It grossed $78 million and four sequels have been made, with a fifth on the way. Today, it is one of the most iconic films ever made.
The Big Sick – $5 million budget
Kumail Nanjiania might be best known for his role in HBO’s Silicon Valley, but that didn’t stop him from trying his hand at cinema. In 2017, he wrote The Big Sick, which is loosely based on his own life.
The film turned a $56 million profit from its $5 million budget, making 11 times its money back. The film was also critically acclaimed. We look forward to seeing what else he has in store for us!
The Gift – $5 million budget
Most of us recognize Jason Bateman as a funnyman, which makes his performance in the 2015 thriller even more scary. Bateman stars alongside Rebecca Hall and Joel Edgerton and their performances help tell this terrifying tale.
The Gift made almost $60 million back from its $5 million budget, and left viewers with a huge impact after leaving the cinema. The film is suspenseful, interesting, and high pressure – a far cry from his comedy work.
No Escape – $5 million budget
It’s rare to see Owen Wilson take on more serious roles, but that’s what makes No Escape so captivating. Starring opposite Lake Bell, the two play a set of parents who relocate to South-East Asia with their children. It isn’t long until disaster strikes.
The performances here are strong from both leading actors, resulting in an impressive $55 million box office from its $5 million budget. We would love to see Wilson take on more serious roles in the future.
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.
Eventually, the film 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. Regardless, audiences agree it more than does the job as a satisfying flick.