Movies aren’t cheap. Between hiring good actors to getting quality equipment to then marketing and promoting your film for the world to see, proper Hollywood movies can take hundreds of millions of dollars to produce. However, there are exceptions to the rule.
Having a big budget isn’t a prerequisite to making tons of cash at the box office, as I’ll soon prove with the 17 awesome films I’ve listed below. These are movies that, by every definition, should have cost way more to make… yet they managed to work within an extremely tight budget, only to produce some truly exceptional, amazing stories that have gone down in history as staples in our cinematic consciousness. I’ve picked movies from every genre, some with budgets as low as $7,000, that ended up becoming either cult classics or just giant blockbusters all around the world. And while other movies in this list have budgets than run in the millions, they’re still relatively small allowances depending on the genre they’re in.
In the end, it just goes to show that budgets and expensive cameras are only tools in helping to craft a great film. Ingenuity, talent, and a damn good story are what make movies special.
17 Deadpool (2016)
Let’s not even debate the fact that Deadpool isn’t just one of the best superhero movies ever made, it’s also a f*cking awesome piece of filmmaking, period! But what makes this movie really stand out is how it had to battle through a ton of obstacles to get made, especially when it came down to the budget. In the end, Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller were given a measly $58 million to shoot their ambitious superhero love story, because the studios honestly didn’t believe an R-rated superhero flick like Deadpool could make bank, thanks to historical failures like Punisher: War Zone.
Not only did Deadpool crush the box-office, but it ended its global cinematic run with a holysh*tacular $783,112,979! It made more than 13 times its budget and opened the doors for movies like Logan to get made - which was another blockbuster hit for the same studio! Now, you’re probably looking at $58 million and thinking that isn’t a small budget at all, but keep in mind that Deadpool is, by default, a superhero film. And for a superhero film, $58 million (including marketing) is a relatively low budget. The filmmakers were smart enough to channel that money into making the suit (and Deadpool’s eyes) look realistic, while the rest of the movie was made to look like a raw, grounded action flick.
16 Rocky (1976)
It’s the true underdog story; the classic tale of rags to riches, of a dreamer who claws, climbs, and fights his way to the destiny that he has always wanted. The funny thing about the film Rocky is how it perfectly parallels actor-writer Sylvester Stallone's struggle while making it. Armed with a relatively decent $1.1 million as a budget back in 1976, Stallone was able to finally tell the story of a boxer that he had written into existence. But getting the $1.1 million wasn’t easy. Stories of Stallone having to sell his beloved German Shepard because he couldn’t afford to keep it can be found all over the net, and stories of Stallone being shut down time after time by studios are there for your picking as well. But the point is, he finally made it!
Directed by John G. Avildsen, Rocky tells the story of Rocky Balboa; a boxer thought to be out of his prime, who trains harder than ever to prepare for the fight of his life against global boxing superstar, Apollo Creed. Not only did the movie become a box-office success by sweeping $225 million in global ticket sales, but it launched Sylvester Stallone’s career into an echelon reserved for the elites. The film received ten Academy Award nominations that year and is still revered as an instant classic to this day.
Oh, and Stallone got his dog back.
15 Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Who doesn’t love Napoleon Dynamite? It’s the story of a super awkward, alienated teenager who decides to help his new pal win the class presidency in their small no-name high school, while also juggling all the weirdness of his life and family back home. If this isn’t the recipe for getting the average American teenager to relate, I don’t know what is.
It’s amazing how much of a pop-culture phenomenon the film and its titular character have become, and continue to become over the years, considering it started out as an obscure indie flick which comprised of relatively unknown actors at the time. The filmmakers started out with a simple $400,000 budget, but originality prevailed and audiences fell in love with the super awkward geek, Napoleon Dynamite, brought to life by Jon Heder. What’s even better is how the movie has some of the most repeated lines that pop up at social gatherings, and how you can still see a “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt in the wild every now and then. Keep in mind that it has been 13 years since its release, which is a testament to this indie gem’s lasting ability.
14 Clerks (1994)
Kevin Smith’s little pet project is probably the reigning king of all low-budget films. Clerks is living proof that Hollywood favors the storyteller, because that’s all young Kevin Smith was. Aged 24 and with nothing but $27,000 (that’s in thousands, incidentally, not millions) in his piggy bank, Smith set out to make his directorial debut with a black and white film about a group of store employees and two loafers who hung outside that same convenience store… and the rest, as they say, is history.
Clerks only played in 96 theaters in the United States during its run, and it never saw an international release. But what this runt of a film did was beyond impressive, because it collected a sweet $3 million and instantly catapulted Kevin Smith’s career as an underdog filmmaker in the Hollywood sphere, and a demigod to film school students everywhere! He went on to make Mallrats and a slew of other pet projects – some good, some bad, and some awful as all f*ck – and even hosts a series of geek-centric podcasts on his own website. The sequel to Clerks didn’t have the impact of its predecessor, but the original film is still one of the biggest cult favorite stoner flicks of the modern age.
13 Paranormal Activity (2007)
Horror films are a tricky business. They can either be scary enough to frighten you sh*tless, or goofy enough to make you regret wasting your time and money for a ticket. After a while, the jump scares and hideous faces just don’t have the same effect as they once did, and audiences are left craving for something more… something that’ll really get their bones rattling.
Well, for better or worse, newcomer Oren Peli decided to introduce horror film enthusiasts to Paranormal Activity back in 2007. The plot was simple enough; a young couple move into a new home and then things start to go bump in the night. The method of filming was also not new; use cheap handycams and market this as a found-footage project. But the way this movie was shot, from start to finish, made it one of the most nerve-racking, edge of your seat, fingernail-biting experiences that audiences were ever made to endure. The movie cost Oren a measly 15,000 bucks… but it became such a supernatural sensation that, by the time it got done forcing audiences to wet their pants in cinemas, it had a solid $193,355,800 to its name. The movie managed to spawn several sequels, but none came close to having the same effect of the original.
12 El Mariachi (1992)
Say what you want about Robert Rodriguez, but the man is and has always been a bastion of hope for independent and guerrilla filmmaking the world over. His movies haven't always hit the mark, but you won’t ever be able to fault any of them for not being ambitious and experimental. While Clerks may be the “golden child” of indie filmmaking, Robert Rodriguez is the Crown Prince of independent filmmaking who normally floats on an extremely tight budget. Take, for instance, 1992’s El Mariachi. It’s the tale of an anonymous guitar player who comes to a small Mexican town looking for life, love, and fortune… only to be mistaken for an assassin by a group of ruthless gangsters.
It’s also action-packed and a lot of fun, despite the fact that it took only $7,000 to make. That’s right, Rob Rod’s claim to fame is the lowest budgeted film on this list, and it’s also a testament to what you can do with good actors, a fun script, and a lot of ingenuity. In order to stick to the budget, Rodriguez had to improvise by sitting in a wheelchair to get those smooth dolly shots. And it helped that he was the only one handling the cameras. In the end, El Mariachi claimed an impressive $2 million at the box-office, which isn’t much at all compared to even the suckiest movies of today, but for a budget of $7,000, a couple of million means the world and then some.
11 Get Out (2017)
If you haven’t seen Get Out, you need to rectify that, like right now! Besides being a pretty creepy and unsettling thriller, it also contains a lot of racial undertones that are handled very tactfully, yet displayed with brutal honesty in the film. Let’s just say the film is mindf*ckery at its best. Directed by Jordan Peele of Key & Peele fame, Get Out isn’t a comedy or anything even remotely related to any of Peele’s older works. And that’s probably why the movie was only given a tiny $4.5 million to play with.
$4.5 million might get you a limited release and some festival buzz, but Get Out shattered that stigma by breaking some major records in its extraordinarily successful run. The film is now the highest-grossing debut for a writer-director based on an original screenplay, which was a record previously owned by The Blair Witch Project. So far, Get Out has raked in a whopping $150 million in the United States alone, surpassing Blair Witch’s $140 million gross which, to its credit was monumental at the time. Jordan Peele is also now the first African-American director to earn $100 million for his debut film.
10 300 (2006)
Before director Zack Snyder was messing up the DC Cinematic Universe with multiple horrible decisions, he was revered as a visionary filmmaker who had a unique sense of style and knew how to seduce your eyes with two hours of incredible visual candy. His claim to fame came when he directed 300, a film that, to this day, is hailed as one of the most faithful adaptations of any given source material. Based on the highly acclaimed graphic novel by the legendary Frank Miller, 300 tells the story of the brave Spartan army led by the ferocious King Leonidas, in a war against the hordes of the Persian empire. It’s the true underdog story of a 300-soldier battalion versus a wave of invaders led by the god-king Xerxes. You might think that, to pull off a war epic like this, Snyder must have needed hundreds of millions of dollars in budget just to keep people engaged. Strangely, the budget allocated for Snyder’s adaptation was a humble $65 million! Again, this might sound like a massive amount, but for a war epic based on a graphic novel that demanded a certain visual style, $65 million was very a small space to play in.
300 went on to gross an incredible $456,068,181 worldwide, and became a pop-culture phenomenon in the process.
9 The Blair Witch Project (1999)
If you hate handheld, shaky cam, “found footage” horror films, you have only one name to blame; The Blair Witch Project. Back in 1999, first-time feature filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez set out to make their debut movie with a next-to-nothing $25,000 in their collective pockets. The duo were aiming for a release on cable TV at most, but what happened next cemented their names, and their movie, as a staple in horror film history.
Daniel and Eduardo laid the groundwork for their feature debut by marketing the film as a true story, back when “found footage” wasn’t the cheap gimmick that it is today. The duo also employed viral marketing and were some of the first filmmakers to use the method so widely and effectively in the process, thereby introducing Hollywood to an all-new way of marketing films on a tighter budget. The eerier true-to-life reports and interviews posted online created so much buzz that, when the movie came out, it became a theatrical sensation. For months, audiences were left wondering if the film they had just watched was fiction, or if some of the footage was real and there were real missing teenagers out there in the woods. In the end, the movie grossed an enormous $248,639,099 million worldwide and gave way to a format of filmmaking that has been misused, abused, and cheapened ever since.
8 Mad Max (1979)
The name “Mad Max” is better suited for filmmaker George Miller instead of either Tom Hardy or Mel Gibson, because of how truly insane the director was in getting this film made back in 1979.
The story of Mad Max is simple. It’s about the eponymous hero, a former police officer that roams the Australian outback in an uphill battle to contain the spread of crime in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But, with only $300,000 in his pocket, Miller had to use all his resources to make the film look and feel realistic. A former ER doctor himself, Miller’s 3-month stint doing emergency calls helped him fund the film. And his experience dealing with accident victims is what allowed him to create such realistic effects for his film as well. Many of the vehicles seen in the movie are decommissioned or old, and were salvaged from scrapyards. The infamous gang’s motorcycles were donated to Miller by Kawasaki, and, at one point, George Miller’s own van makes an appearance! In the end, Miller’s efforts paid off and Mad Max claimed a solid $100 million at the global box-office, even after the entire movie had to be re-dubbed for American audiences who couldn’t understand the Australian accent. Crikey!
7 Saw (2004)
James Wan’s claim to fame came in the form of a gruesome independent horror film called Saw. The plot was twisted; a group of victims trapped in a room must carry out heinous, awful acts of self-harm and mutilation in order to ultimately survive their sick tormentor's “game” of sorts. Movies like this normally end up directly on DVD shelves or on special cable orders because of their gruesome nature, but Saw managed to become a mainstream hit because of the shock value involved. And yes, it had a story that kept people on the edge of their seats as well. With all the true-to-life practical effects and gore involved, you’d think that James Wan would have needed more moolah to make this work but, in true bizarre fashion, it only took the then-late-20’s filmmaker $1.2 million to give Saw its 90 minutes worth of shock horror.
The movie became a massive global hit and a staple in the horror hall of fame, raking in $103 million during its theatrical run. Saw has become a franchise consisting of seven movies to date, with an eighth currently in production. It also allowed filmmakers to be a little more lenient with their gore, seeing as how much horror aficionados enjoyed Wan’s original magnum opus.
6 Juno (2007)
You’d think that an indie movie with the incredibly talented Ellen Page, the awkward yet lovable Michael Cera, and the Oscar-winning powerhouse actor J.K. Simmons would cost much, much more than $7.5 million to produce, but that’s exactly the price tag that this box-office sensation had on it. It’s a very simple story, really. Juno is a teenager played by Ellen Page, who gets knocked-up and is now faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Her life takes turn after unexpected, awkward, unusual turn when she makes a big decision regarding her unborn child.
Juno became a global box-office sensation because of how the story of this unplanned pregnancy was told; with humor, wit, relatable emotions, and tremendous performances from the cast all around. In the end, it gathered a jaw-dropping $231 million in ticket sales, and the movie still stands as one of Ellen Page’s finest works. Heck, it’s probably even her magnum opus. Juno was arguably one of the first movies to display how a small budget flick could look like it had some serious money behind it by employing a rock solid cast to carry the film… and it worked wonders in their favor!
5 Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Much like The Walking Dead, the word “zombie” is never used in George A. Romero’s horror trendsetter, Night of the Living Dead, but it was the first film to depict the walkers specifically as hungry hordes out for human flesh. The film itself was far ahead of its time, and still is one of the most influential landmark titles in cinematic history. For one, it features an African-American protagonist in a time when it wasn’t normal to do so. It’s also the first film to feature unprecedented, graphic violence onscreen on such a large scale. The plot itself seems pretty dated now - six people huddled together must find their way through a world that’s being increasingly affected by a zombie epidemic - but the depictions of humans turning on each other in the middle of such a crisis, as well as the film’s iconic ending, is what makes it a true trendsetter in horror cinema.
The Night of the Living Dead was filmed with a humble $114,000 budget; a small amount for something with so much movement and practical effects. After its cinematic run, the movie could proudly boast a $42 million global intake; a gargantuan sum for a film back in 1968!
4 Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Ah, Slumdog Millionaire; the movie that sent Hollywood and the rest of the known cinematic universe into a Bollywood craze, and also introduced Indian maestro AR Rahman to the western world. The movie also gave us Dev Patel, who recently received another much-deserved round of tremendous appraisals for his work in 2016’s Lion. Directed by powerhouse filmmaker Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire is the incredible story of a teenager from the slums of Southern India who, through a series of twists of fate in his life, ends up on the Indian variant of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Little does he know that each question triggers a deep-rooted memory that not only helps him recollect his past, but also figure out the answers in the game.
Made with a small sum of $15 million, Danny Boyle had to be incredibly thrifty when crafting his film. In the end, audiences fell in love with Slumdog, catapulting it to blockbuster status and earning it multiple awards and nominations in the process. By the time it was done crushing the box-office, Slumdog Millionaire had made nothing short of $377 million bucks! Not bad for something that had nothing more than $15 million to spare to begin with.
3 The King’s Speech (2010)
If you thought Slumdog Millionaire was impressive for amassing $377 million with a humble budget of $15 million, wait till you hear about The King’s Speech! The film about King George VI and his terrible stutter was able to make a whopping $414 million in worldwide ticket sales, and also rake in a slew of awards in the process. How many awards, you ask? Well, it doesn’t really matter because, in the end, The King’s Speech won Best Picture that year, which was a nice cherry on top of its $400+ million cake.
You know when a film like this gets made, it’s bound to go straight for the big awards and dominate that scene. Not to mention, the movie stars Colin Firth as King George VI, and who better to put in a powerful performance like that than the charming Colin Firth!? And to further cement its chances as Oscar contenders, The King’s Speech also employed Geoffrey Rush – that’s Captain Barbosa from the Pirates of the Caribbean series – to play the King’s speech therapist as his highness ascends to the throne. It just goes to show that a great story and moving performances far outweigh giant budgets and glorious visual spectacles when it comes to quality – and maybe even box-office intake.
2 My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
$15 million seems like a rich man’s ballpark when it comes to My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The instant classic didn't really start out strong, with only a $5 million budget to its name, but it managed to grab a shocking $368 million at the box-office, turning it into a bona fide blockbuster sensation!
Because its budget was so low, the producers had no real money for advertising, and they didn’t have much promotional material either. My Big Fat Greek Wedding relied on email campaigns and good ol’ word of mouth. Can you believe that… email campaigns to market a film? But that’s what it took to get butts in seats at the cinema and, before you knew it, word of mouth was buzzing and brimming and glowing with so much positivity that people started flocking in droves to see what this new movie was all about. It took nearly 14 years for the movie to come up with a sequel but, unfortunately, that sequel didn’t perform half as good as the original during its theatrical run. I guess it was a decent shot, nonetheless... and living up to the first is no easy feat by any means.
1 Lost in Translation (2003)
When a movie is known as Bill Murray’s personal favorite piece of work, you know it’s got to be something special. Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation was made with a tight $4 million in change, but you’d never be able to tell by watching the film because of how gorgeously produced it is.
Shot on an exotic location with leads Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, Lost In Translation tells the story of Bob and Charlotte; two Americans who find themselves in a state of loneliness, with an overbearing feeling of being lost in this mesmerizing yet strange city of Tokyo, Japan. We soon come to learn that it isn’t the distance from home that’s making them dive into an existential crisis, but rather the feeling of isolation and alienation from their significant others, as well as a lack of meaning in life that’s weighing them both down. The freedom they find in this new, neon-lit environment - as well the companionship they find in one another - brings them closer together and helps us watch human relationships unravel and build up again before our very eyes.
The movie is one of Coppola’s most ambitious works. Shot on film for that warm, romantic fuzz, Lost In Translation also boasts an awesome soundtrack. It finally tallied at $120 million during its theatrical run… which is a solid intake considering Sofia and her crew almost got arrested a number of times when filming their outdoor scenes!
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