In today’s film industry, low-budget films are becoming less and less frequent and less, well, low. Today, a $15 million USD budget is considered tiny, relative to the average cost. While there are loads of films made on shoestring budgets, many that have become extremely well known, several that have blown up and earned mountains of cash, the vast majority of these films star relatively unknown actors. Even the biggest stars have to start somewhere. That, at least, is obvious. But what about the low-budget films that have superstars starring in them? How many have gone that route?
By looking at films with budgets near or lower than $15 million, we can see what films were able to cast, or star, A-List actors. By consequence, we also get to see which actors act, let’s say, more for the love of film than the money. There are most definitely many more examples than what’s on this list, but what’s on this list are the best or, at least, the most popular movies. Most of the movies on this list also made truckloads of money on their smaller budgets. So, let’s get at it. Here are the 14 Low-Budget Movies with A-List Stars.
14. Celeste & Jesse Forever
Starring Andy Samberg, Rashida Jones and Elijah Wood, Celeste & Jesse Forever may not have the biggest stars in the world, but relative to its remarkably low $840,000 USD budget, they might as well have been Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and, well, Elijah Wood. Even though this film made very little in the box office, it performs really well, especially if you consider the budget, if you’re shallow like that.
13. Take Shelter
You might argue that this one made its stars into A-Listers. And, because it was the first real big break for Jessica Chastain, you would be right. But Michael Shannon had been in the game for a long time and had done some pretty excellent roles up to that point in 2011, films like Bug and Let’s Go to Prison, even earning an Academy Award nomination for Revolutionary Road. Made for a total of $4.75 million USD, not only did Take Shelter get some real bang for its buck, but it was one of the best films of that year.
Not a great movie really. But, regardless, it was made with a $7 million USD budget, and it stars both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman (Portman also produced it). For many, this film feels every bit its low budget, even though it shouldn’t. Yet, whatever it is missing, which might be tough to identify, it certainly isn’t missing in star power. Coming off of (500) Days of Summer, JGL was not only well known, he was in a hot spot in his career—with Inception being filmed around the same time—so his name was most definitely a draw for this little film.
11. Under the Skin
Admittedly one of the larger budgets on this list, the $13.3 million USD that was spent on making this film is worth mentioning because Scarlett Johansson was as big of a name, during the shooting of this film, as you could ask for. The film seems to carry its small budget as a badge of honor though, giving a very personal and indie feeling. The craziest thing about this well-received film is that, despite its budget, it actually lost money. Some people just can’t win.
10. Young Adult
Starring the great Charlize Theron, Young Adult does a great job with its $12 million USD budget. That the film was shot in only 30 days is another incredible fact about it. While it might not blow anyone away or even be that memorable of a film over time, it is commendable what was done with the time and money that they had. Also, casting Charlize Theron, who proved to be worth every penny, was an excellent decision.
9. The Good Girl
Looking back at the 2002 film The Good Girl, you might think it was luck that fit the gigantic stars under its $8 million USD budget, but really only Jennifer Aniston was, at the time, a true superstar. During the filming, John C. Reilly, Zooey Deschanel and Jake Gyllenhaal were all up and coming, so they certainly weren’t huge draws. But Aniston had that Friends money and fame. Sure, she wasn’t a “huge” film actress, unless you count her brilliant role in Leprechaun, but everyone in the world basically knew her name. In the end, the film did quite well, and not in spite of her, but because of her.
In his second appearance on this list, Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) was once again able to wrangle in some major star power with Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon to lead his 2013 film Mud. The two megastars were fit in under a budget of only $10 million USD and the result is really amazing. While the primary location was only a small patch of land, the strong cast turned a simple story into a memorable film and one of the better ones of that year.
With a $16.5 million USD budget, you might think this film doesn’t deserve to be on this list, but let’s just consider the cast and the outcome. Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone—that’s five household names starring in a movie that won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, earned over $100 million USD and utilizes some of the most powerful camera techniques that make it look more expensive than it really was. All told, it’s simply amazing what the cast and crew pulled off on Birdman.
6. Lost in Translation
Although she had been in a few big roles leading up to Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson really became an A-list name because of this iconic film. But it was the legend Bill Murray, that was the big draw. With a budget of only $4 million USD, the Sophia Coppola hit ended up earning $120 million USD, which means the filmmakers and studio probably made out like bandits. This film, it should be noted, in case you forgot, is also incredible, one of the best films made in the new millennium.
5. Spring Breakers
Call it whatever you want, but Spring Breakers is a financial success. Made with $5 million USD, the filmmakers were able to secure A-lister James Franco, as well as several other huge names. Regardless of how or through which medium they got those names, Ashely Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez are and were megastars. Just to demonstrate the cultural relevance this cast has: between the four mentioned, they have a combined 56.5 million Twitter followers as of the making of this list. Sure, Selena Gomez has 43 million of those herself, but it’s an impressive total nonetheless.
4. Everything Must Go
Love him or hate him, Will Ferrell is one of the most recognizable comedic names in the history of film. To get his name behind a film with a budget of only $5 million USD is pretty amazing. This simple little movie, inspired by a Raymond Carver short story, leans heavily on Ferrell and he delivers a performance that surprised many. It was an interesting choice for both Ferrell, who really hadn’t done anything semi-serious of note up to that point, and for director Dan Rush, because he cast Ferrell, who really hadn’t done anything semi-serious of note up to that point. All in all, it worked out well for both.
Since the majority of the film needed only a coffin and a single actor, it makes sense that this is a low budget film. But getting the superstar Ryan Reynolds to star in it is still surprising, considering it was made with only a $2 million USD budget. It’s a neat film that really is built on its star’s performance, so getting a quality actor with a big, marketable name like Reynolds was a very smart move.
2. Being John Malkovich
This film is full of stars. Written by the amazing Charlie Kaufman (first writing credit), directed by Spike Jonze (first director credit) and starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and the legendary John Malkovich. Being John Malkovich is a model of how to make a great movie on small budget. The $10 million USD budget was made back easily, but, more than that, the film has earned global and timeless acclaim, considered on many lists as one of the best movies of all time.
This nice little film has the great fortune of having two excellent A-list actors in Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor. Not only did it do relatively well at the box office, Plummer also received a significant amount of recognition for his performance in this film. Without the need for gigantic special effects and an intense set design, the film was able to keep its budget at around $3.2 million USD.