The multi-billion dollar Hollywood industry is an intriguing subject for anyone interested in how money makes the world go round. Generally in the movie business, the old adage that you have to spend money to make money rings true. But occasionally, a movie can stand out from the crowd not for its special effects, its A-lister cast or its hard-hitting, pervasive advertising campaigns; sometimes, a movie catches the public imagination based purely on democratically-assessed artistic merit and originality. In these (admittedly rare) cases, a movie that cost in the thousands to make can become a surprise worldwide phenomenon, raking in millions.
When planning a trip to the movies with your closest pals or as an alternative to an awkward first date with a guy your friends set you up with, you probably aren’t taking into consideration the budget of the film. Instead, you might be more concerned with who’s in the film, what sort of reviews it received, and what kind of snacks you want to spend a big chunk of money on- why a small bag of popcorn and a drink costs $20 is beyond us! Even if you’re a special-effects fanatic, and you’re aware of the film’s budget – and are reluctant to see it if the price tag on the production set is well under the multi-million dollar mark – keep in mind that the budget does not always reflect the quality or outcome of the film; especially in terms of profit. Of course, some famously big budget films like James Cameron’s Avatar and the latest Batman have indeed grossed billions worldwide; but as far as box office profits go, this list is proof that producers don’t always need to invest a lot of money in order to get a big pay-out. Several of the movies on our list had incredibly small amounts of money to work with and ended up making a substantial amount of green, through creative advertising campaigns, unique selling points or for some – perhaps – total fluke. These are 10 of box office hits that surprised the producers, the actors, and the world with comparatively enormous box office success.
10. Once: $150,000 budget – $9 million worldwide gross
Once is a movie that falls under the “feel-good” category that both men and women have come to love. Films like this inspire the viewer and have them nibbling their fingernails as they root for the characters to overcome the obstacles at hand. ‘Once’ features an an Irish man who wants nothing more than to be a guitarist and singer/songwriter; the part was played by well-know Irish singer of ‘The Frames’ fame, Glen Hansard. He’s stuck at his day job as a vacuum cleaner repair man but by night, he tries to make a name for himself playing. The movie also features a girl who is following along the same lines as the unnamed male; she too has big plans that involve singing/songwriting and guitar playing but is forced to take on odd jobs to help support her mom. The two eventually cross paths and work together to make their dreams a reality. The song Hansard wrote for the movie, performed by the two lead actors, ‘Falling Slowly’ won an Oscar for best original song.
9. Fireproof: $500,000 budget – $33 million worldwide gross
Fireproof follows Caleb and Catherine Holt through their rocky marriage. The couple is on the brink of divorce until Caleb’s father recommends that they give it one last shot. He suggests that the two delay their separation for forty days and try what he calls “the love dare” that is he sure will make them fall in love all over again. The rest of the movie is a feel-good journey through the lengths that two people will go through to reconnect. Aww! We thoroughly recommend this movie for Valentine’s Day!
8. Garden State: $2.5 million budget – $35 million worldwide gross
With Zach Braff –Dr. Dorian on Scrubs- behind the wheel, how could this movie not be successful? Hollywood darling Natalie Portman also stars in the film, which further insured that it would be a big hit among moviegoers. The film’s plot, based on real events from Zach Braff’s life, follows the main character as he returns to his hometown in New Jersey after his mother’s death. The lead character, played by Andrew Largeman, is a 26 year old actor/waiter who must readjust to life after the death of his mother and must learn how to fit into the city once more after having been gone for a substantial amount of time.
7. Napoleon Dynamite: $400,000 budget – $44 million worldwide gross
Awkward but lovable Napoleon Dynamite hit theaters 2004 and became an instant hit with audiences of all ages. The socially awkward teen captured the hearts of millions as he danced, one-lined, and did whatever he felt like doing, gosh – the movie quickly gained ‘cult classic’ status and remains a fond favourite of millennials the world over. Although no sequels were made following the movie, star Jon Heder landed several other rolls because of his success as Napoleon Dynamite. What a sweet career jump!
6. Open Water: $500,000 budget $54 million worldwide gross
Despite the fact that Open Water was panned by critics who claimed that the film was boring, it generated a lot of revenue – and quickly. In its opening weekend, the film raked in $11 million. Fans were captivated as they watched a couple journey into the sea for what should have been a relaxing dive. Instead, they were left behind to fend for themselves in the open ocean with no clean drinking water, food, weapons, or land in sight. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the pair was surrounded by aggressive sharks. Anybody feel like going out for swim?
5. Saw: $1.2 million budget – $55 million worldwide gross
When Saw arrived on the horror scene, gorefest lovers rejoiced. The film featured plenty of jumps, but focused primarily on the gore. The production company also put a lot of effort into these scenes, making them as realistic and as stomach-turning as possible while still clinging to a decent premise – one which has since become a staple in the horror genre. The first film had an incredibly low budget but made a substantial amount of money; so much in fact, that it prompted a franchise. Saw tells the story of serial killer, Jigsaw, who captures people who take their lives for granted and forces them to survive his “games”. These games usually involve something physically painful and demanding such as cutting off your own foot or crawling through barbed wire to reach an exit. Yikes!
4. Jackass: $5 million budget – $64 million worldwide gross
Rumor has it that the popular television show Jackass started off as a series of video tapes submitted by the guys in hopes of landing their own television show: MTV producers were both shocked and amused by what they saw on the tapes and decided to give the guys a chance. With their own show, the men ran around performing daredevil stunts, embarrassing pranks, and tested their pain endurance. The movie followed the same premise as the show, but with bigger and better stunts as well as painful escapades such as allowing a baby croc to clamp down on Johnny Knoxville’s nipple. Ouch boys, really? However you feel about their stunts, they were relatively cheap to execute and proved popular enough to bring in huge profits.
3. The Purge: $3 million budget – $89 million worldwide gross
With its unique plot, constant action, strong acting from favourites like Ethan Hawke, and a strong base of horror fans, it’s no wonder why this movie did so well in the box office. But producers didn’t expect such a huge pay-off for the film; because of its unanticipated success, there are rumors of a sequel in the works. The Purge depicts an alternative America where a dark event occurs once a year: a day in which all crimes are legal. People can kill their neighbors, start riots, steal, and participate in all forms of debauchery. The only ones who are safe are the rich who literally barricade themselves inside their home. This is the case of the main character and his family who are safe until their son allows somebody inside to hide out during the event. At this point, all hell breaks loose and the family must band together to survive – a truly creepy premise that caught the public imagination to the tune of $89 million.
2. Paranormal Activity: $15,000 budget – $107 million worldwide gross
Despite the fact that Paranormal Activity had such a low budget, the film was well-received with horror fans and made a substantial amount of money. The film cashed in on the “found footage” style – a classic low budget horror movie trope – and used a viral marketing campaign to generate huge buzz around its release. Their 2009 online campaign, was unique: It cost the producers almost nothing relative to traditional advertising, and showed clips of the audience reactions rather than the movie itself – and allowed users to click ‘demand’ to have the small-time cult movie appear in their local theatre. So enormous was the movie’s success that it became the Paranormal Activity franchise we know today. The original movie follows a couple who move into what they think is their dream home, but strange things start happening throughout the night prompting the pair to record their experiences.
1. The Blair Witch Project: $60,000 budget – $140.5 million worldwide gross
Horror movies feature heavily on the low budget, big profit movie circuit – and this film at the top spot on our list was the original little horror movie that could. When The Blair Witch Project was released in 1999, it truly was the first of its kind and a game-changer in the horror genre. Fans flocked to the theaters to see the horror documentary that covered ‘real’ events. The “found footage” and “documentary” style of the film would later inspire countless other productions such as the Paranormal Activity series and Cloverfield. The film follows three student filmmakers who are trekking through the Black Hills in search of evidence of the Blair Witch. During their expedition, the students have a series of bizarre and frightening encounters all of which are documented by their cameras. All three students disappear by the end of the movie, leaving viewers wary about entering haunted woods…