As rewarding as it is for a feature film to garner rave reviews and be a critical darling, what seems to be increasingly important is just how much money it rakes in at the box office. Filmmaking is an art, but it’s more importantly a business and it’s the properties that bring in a huge return on their investment that keep getting the greenlight.
Unfortunately, a really original idea now comes secondary to factors like franchise opportunity, merchandising, and crossover potential. This can be discouraging in many respects, but it doesn’t mean that challenging, quality films aren’t getting made anymore. In fact, these kinds of restrictions actually force burgeoning filmmakers to get creative and do a lot with a little. A very viable way to make a career is to turn a low-budget indie film into a box office blockbuster. Accordingly, Here Are 20 Movies That Cost Nothing…And Made Millions.
20 Paranormal Activity (Budget: $450,000, Worldwide Gross: $107 Million)
There are a number of horror films featured on this list and it’s because the genre lends itself more than many others to the fundamentals of independent filmmaking. Paranormal Activity is a great example of this because it capitalizes on the found footage sub-genre and tells a compelling story that actually does quite little. The fact that the $450,000 film could make over $100 million turned Paranormal Activity into a hit franchise, all of which were able to make considerable returns on their smaller budgets.
19 Mad Max (Budget: $200,000, Worldwide Gross: $99,750,000)
When looking at the gigantic scope of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it’s kind of mind-boggling to consider that the first film in the series was made for less than a quarter of a million dollars. The original Mad Max features a fresh Mel Gibson and George Miller, who hit the ground running and build a unique, memorable post-apocalyptic classic.
18 Saw (Budget: $1.2 Million, Worldwide Gross: $103 Million)
Saw is one of the most inspiring success stories in the horror genre. The plucky boiled down horror film that barely cost over $1 million would go on to make over $100 million worldwide and become a yearly tradition for horror fans as a wealth of sequels couldn’t be slowed down for the better part of a decades. The Saw films got progressively bigger and more complicated, but the original takes a creepy idea and almost plays out like a piece of theater. Now the film’s director, James Wan, is one of the biggest names in Hollywood.
17 My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Budget: $5 Million, Worldwide Gross: $368 Million)
The genre of “independent film” has been more of a difficult stream to survive in, but when cinema was a less complicated time, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was one of the biggest success stories in the field. Nia Vardalos was able to turn herself into a movie star with her genuine spin on the rom-com. The film did crazy well for a comedy and even though they eventually turned out a sequel, it largely lacked the authenticity of the original.
16 The Blair Witch Project (Budget: $35,000, Worldwide Gross: $248,300,000)
Not only is ‘90s horror sensation, The Blair Witch Project one of the most iconic horror films of all time and still cashing in on its legacy, but it also largely launched the “found footage” sub-genre of horror that has absolutely exploded. The charm of The Blair Witch Project is how real it treats everything. This really looks like some lost student film, which its minuscule budget of $35,000 capitalizes on.
15 El Mariachi (Budget: $7000, Worldwide Gross: $2 Million)
In many ways, El Mariachi feels like Robert Rodriguez’s attempt at a Spanish-infused version of Mad Max. His “Desperado” protagonist pulls from old archetypes like Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” and an instant action classic is born. It’s not surprising that Rodriguez was able to turn this style of DIY one-man filmmaking into his whole aesthetic and form a studio around the idea.
14 Pi (Budget: $68,000, Worldwide Gross: $3.2 Million)
Darren Aronofsky has proven himself to be one of the most unpredictable and creative filmmakers that are currently working today. Not only does Aronofsky create beautiful films that are more like tone poems, but between Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Mother, he’s exhibited an incredible amount of range. Pi is Aronofsky’s debut effort and it’s very in line with his bizarre sensibilities. In many ways, it’s more incredible to see what he’s able to create when he’s forced to work within a meager budget.
13 Night Of The Living Dead (Budget: $114,000, Worldwide Gross: $30 Million)
George Romero is one of the most important names in the zombie sub-genre of horror, but it’s not just because he’s able to create evocative, frightening visuals. He’s also able to create haunting stories on a shoestring budget and find inventive angles on how to be scary. Night of the Living Dead is the very best kind of horror that digs into the social commentary of the times and looks inward. Romero showed everyone that you don’t need a lot of money to make zombies work.
12 Halloween (Budget: $325,000, Worldwide Gross: $70 Million)
Halloween is considered the peak of horror films in many circles and John Carpenter’s atmospheric classic has spawned over a dozen sequels and is currently in the middle of a modern renaissance. Part of what makes Carpenter’s original film so successful even today is that it takes a minimalist approach to horror and explores the power of the unknown. Michael Myers was originally so frightening because he’s just a pure force of nature and Halloween brilliantly looks at his destructive rampage to find Laurie Strode.
11 Super Size Me (Budget: $65,000, Worldwide Gross: $29.5 Million)
It should come as no surprise that documentary films cost drastically less to make than some huge special effects blockbuster. Documentaries tend to rely more on storytelling and their subject matter than fancy tricks of filmmaking, but they also tend to bring in less at the box office as a result. That being said, there is always the odd documentary that breaks through the mainstream and resonates with a culture. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me is such a doc and it made more than 30 times its budget back. Spurlock even recently put together a sequel.
10 The Evil Dead (Budget: $375,000, Worldwide Gross: $29.4 Million)
Sam Raimi used to have a reputation as a punk rock underground filmmaker, but he’s since gone on to become a legitimate heavyhitter in Hollywood. He was even able to help jumpstart cinema’s obsession with superheroes thanks to his Spider-Man trilogy. Raimi now puts together more polished productions, but the original Evil Dead is a testament to how much he’s grown. The horror film is the epitome of just a bunch of friends having fun with a camera in a remote location and the results are glorious.
9 Eraserhead (Budget: $100,000, Worldwide Gross: $7 Million)
David Lynch is one of the most fascinating and purely original filmmakers working today. Each of his films are kaleidoscopic journeys into nightmarish dreamscapes and Twin Peaks remains one of the most influential and important television shows to ever be made. Lynch has put together some lavish productions, but it all started with Eraserhead, which also feels like the purest form of Lynch in many respects. This is very much just a young filmmaker spending all of his time and money to try to bring a production together. $100,000 later and Lynch was on his way to a career that he never could have imagined.
8 Once (Budget: $150,000, Worldwide Gross: $19 Million)
It feels like more and more that in order to succeed at the box office you need to be a part of a major franchise or have a movie that’s some kind of big spectacle. As a result, it’s always reassuring when a tiny film with a lot of heart is able to make an impact and exceed expectations. Once is a pure, optimistic musical about two dreamers. It pushes a human and simple story, yet this Irish export is able to resonate beyond barriers.
7 She's Gotta Have It (Budget: $175,000, Worldwide Gross: $7.1 Million)
Spike Lee has always been an important filmmaker who doesn’t just make powerful movies, but he actually has something to say with his works. Lee’s stories often deal with larger themes, but tackle them from an extremely personal and intimate place. She’s Gotta Have It is one of the better examples of this and its story of lost identity has made such an impact that Netflix even recently turned it into a television series.
6 Napoleon Dynamite (Budget: $400,000, Worldwide Gross: $46 Million)
Napoleon Dynamite was a huge film for its time and it helped introduce the world to Jon Heder and his unusual brand of humor and character work. The film reignited the public’s love for weirdoes and showed that the indie genre wasn’t entirely dead. Napoleon Dynamite is a reminder that a good script and lovable characters are all that you need and they can turn anything into a hit. There are still plenty of people going around in “VOTE FOR PEDRO” shirts.
5 Friday The 13th (Budget: $550,000, Worldwide Gross: $59.7 Million)
It’s kind of incredible that both Halloween and Friday the 13th—two of the most important horror films ever made—were both tiny low-budget movies that were able to transcend their limitations and turn into genuine phenomena. Friday the 13th’s legacy is still going strong, but it’s easy to forget that the first film in the series only cost $550,000 and was filmed at a mundane summer camp with no major tricks.
4 American Graffiti (Budget: $777,000, Worldwide Gross: $140 Million)
Before George Lucas was crafting space epics and creating one of the most popular franchises of all-time, he was a filmmaker on a much smaller scale. Lucas’ larger science-fiction efforts are great, but he showed what a competent no-frills director he can be with American Graffiti. The film is a glowing time capsule of America that cost less than $1 million and hit big with audiences. It’s a real shame that Lucas hasn’t returned to these smaller-scale stories.
3 Rocky (Budget: $1 Million, Worldwide Gross: $225 Million)
Sometimes people pick on Sylvester Stallone, but there’s no denying that he’s a much deeper character than he gets credit for. He comfortably plays the action hero role, but he’s also an accomplished writer and director in the way that other action stars are not. Films like Rocky and Rambo have been able to become such long-lasting franchises becomes of Stallone’s commitment and charisma. The story of Rocky is just as much an underdog tale as the narrative within the film. Stallone’s $1 million film made over 200 times its money back and earned him an Academy Award, too.
2 Open Water (Budget: $500,000, Worldwide Gross: $52.1 Million)
Sometimes all a film has to do to really connect is apply an idea that was previously effective to a new context. In terms of shark cinema, it’s hard to top Jaws, but Open Water basically takes the Blair Witch found footage approach to a shark attack story. Open Water is very frightening for how it throws its two leads into harsh territory and makes them feel especially helpless. This level of danger really connected with audiences as the film made more than 100 times its budget back and led to a slew of sequels.
1 Primer (Budget: $7000, Worldwide Gross: $565,000)
Primer is a brilliant movie because it takes something as complex as time travel, but is able to tell an extremely satisfying story on the topic through heady discussion and intelligent plotting as opposed to fancy effects. Primer isn’t a film for everyone, but it respects its audience and is incredibly ambitious with the scope of its story. Primer technically didn’t crack the $1 million mark, but the fact that it made $565,000 over a budget of $7000 is still an impressive turn of making over 80 times its money back.
Sources: Looper.com, RottenTomatoes.com, TVOverMind.com