Sometimes Less Is More: 40 Low-Budget Films That Broke The Box Office
They say it takes money to make money, but these low-budget films that grossed millions would argue otherwise. The movies on this list have figured out how to balance low production cost with high production value. And not all of them are from big-name studios, either. It’s encouraging to see how many independent films have made it big and become all-time blockbusters. Despite their relatively small budgets, these films defied their financial constraints and went on to become critically acclaimed box office hits, earning a slew of awards along the way. From American indie films like Napoleon Dynamite and The Blair Witch Project to blockbuster British films like The Star Wars and The Full Monty, we’ll take a look at some of the most successful low-budget films.
The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project is the first film that springs to mind when you think of a cult horror film. This movie was the first film to introduce moviegoers to a new type of horror film, and it set the tone for many more to come.
Despite having a $60,000 budget, the film grossed $246.8 million worldwide, with $140.5 million in the United States alone. The budget was tight, as was the filming, with the actors being on set for less than eight days. Thanks to the innovative marketing strategy, even the audience was unsure whether the narrative was fictional or not.
In 2017, Comedian Jordan Peele directed his first movie, the horror film Get Out. Regardless of the $4.5 million budget, Get Out was a great hit. It went on to gross a total of $255.4 million worldwide and earned Peele a name in directing.
The film wonderfully captures what a black person in an interracial relationship goes through when they meet their significant other’s family for the first time. It was so well received that it bagged four Oscar nominations, despite the fact that it was released over a year before the nominations were announced.
Juno had a massive impact for such a small-budget indie film that was made for $7.5 million. Although teen pregnancy was known to be a more serious topic, this comedy got the audience laughing. It skyrocketed Elliot Page’s career due to her breakout performance.
Jennifer Garner even had to take a wage cut to keep the costs down because of the tight budget. Although Garner was in it, the real stars were Elliot Page and Michael Cera, who helped the film bring in $231.4 million worldwide, with $143.4 million in the United States.
The Blair Witch Project’s success served as a springboard for Paranormal Activity. The genre of found-footage horror films wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at the time. The film’s first director, Oren Peli, shot the original version in a week. Paramount Pictures opted to purchase the rights after witnessing how well it did at festivals.
The film was shot with a handheld camera, with only $15,000 to make it. Despite this, the film made a staggering $193.4 million globally. Since then, everyone has tried to replicate the film’s popularity, including multiple sequels to the massively successful franchise.
Little Miss Sunshine
Little Miss Sunshine, like Juno, is an indie film that found huge success. The film received four Oscar nominations and two wins. It only cost $8 million to make but grossed $100.5 million worldwide, including $59.9 million in the United States.
The 2006 film centers around young Olive Hoover, you may recognize some of the other names credited in the film. Steve Carell and Bryan Cranston give it their all in this rare film that depicts family dysfunction in a realistic manner.
When Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky, he didn’t know that it’d become a household name. The cult classic turned him into a celebrity, and the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone went on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
None of the other films came close to the original’s ridiculously low $1 million budget, which still brought in $117.2 million worldwide. Since the film’s initial release in 1976, the franchise has grossed an astounding $1.7 billion. The franchise has grown so popular over the years that it now ranks among the top four highest-grossing boxing films.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
My Big Fat Greek Wedding was an astonishing hit. The cute romantic comedy had a $5 million budget, but it was such a hit with the audience that it lasted almost a year in theaters. The plot revolves around Toula and her not-so-Greek fiancé Ian’s opulent Greek wedding.
A $5 million budget resulted in a worldwide total of $368.7 million. It was only shown in 108 theaters during its initial weekend but still made $597,000. Nia Vardalos (Toula) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The film was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture.
Moonlight was a seminal film in terms of depicting black and LGBT culture. The film, directed by Varry Jenkins, follows the life of a young black teen as he undergoes tremendous life changes. It explores his difficulties with sexuality and identity, as well as the emotional abuse he suffered as a child.
The film had a modest budget of $4 million, but it grossed $65.3 million worldwide and was nominated for three Academy Awards. A cast of unforgettable performances was followed by a memorable moment at the 2017 Oscars. It won the best picture award which was mistakenly awarded to La La Land.
Saw was released in 2004 and it was a smash hit that dominated the box office, grossing $103.9 million worldwide on a $1.2 million budget. Even if you haven’t seen any of the films in the franchise, you’re probably familiar with Billy the Puppet.
Not only was it successful, but it also spawned an entire franchise of low-budget films that grossed big bucks at the box office. James Wan made his directorial debut with this film. Later, he directed the highly successful horror films The Conjuring and Insidious. The concepts behind these films were truly unique.
A Nightmare On Elm Street
Wes Craven wrote and directed the famous 1984 slasher film. A Nightmare on Elm Street, like the Friday the 13th films, was a violent revenge film. It introduced the audience to the character of Freddy Krueger, a reincarnated serial killer with sharp-fingered gloves and a burned face.
The nightmarish (pun intended) antagonist haunted teenagers’ dreams, making them afraid to sleep in case something bad happened to them. The film’s premise was so terrifying that it kept people awake for months. Despite the sleepless nights, the film grossed $25.5 million at the box office.
Nobody could have predicted the success of Once when it was released in 2007. John Carney wrote and directed this lovely musical set in Dublin, Ireland. It had a budget of only $150,000 but blew everyone away by grossing $20.7 million.
A street musician and a Czech immigrant fall in love via odd circumstances and communicate their affections to each other through lovely musical performances. The audience fell in love, too, as “Falling Slowly” won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2008, while the soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Night of The Living Dead
The Night of the Living Dead is arguably the grandfather of modern-day zombie movies. It wasn’t the first zombie movie, but it sparked people’s interest in the concept. It is such a cult classic that the film was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1999.
The film was made on a $114,000 budget. Food was used to cut costs; chocolate syrup replaced expensive fake blood and ham was donated by one of the actors (who owned a butcher’s shop) was the “flesh.” It was worth the effort as the film ended up earning more than 250 times that amount, taking in $18 million worldwide.
Napoleon Dynamite was a well-known 2004 comedy film made on a shoestring budget of $400,000. Jon Heder, who portrays the titular main character, was only paid $1,000 for the role! Despite the low budget, the film grossed $46.1 million worldwide.
Don’t worry, though. The $1,000 was the initial salary, but as the film gained traction, Heder was able to cash in and earn more for his work. The film was well-received by both audiences and critics and it has gained a cult following over the years.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
It would be irresponsible of us to have a list of low-budget films that made it big without mentioning Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Produced by the titular British comedy troupe, Monty Python, the 1975 comedy has become a worldwide phenomenon.
The film only had a budget of $400,000 but ended up pulling in $5 million by the end of its run. One notable example of their cost-saving measures, all horses in the film were replaced with two halves of a coconut.
Split, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 horror film, was made on a $9 million budget. Sure, that sounds like a lot, but in the film industry, every penny counts. But the fans didn’t care how much (or little) it took to make, and the film ended up grossing $278.5 million worldwide.
Shyamalan was actually the one responsible for the low budget — he personally financed the film! Although there is a lot of debate over the film’s portrayal of mental illness, people loved it enough to give Shyamalan a return on his investment.
Friday The 13th
Friday the 13th is yet another famous slasher film that grossed tens of millions of dollars and a large cult following despite having a small budget. It cost only $550,000 to make but ended up capturing audiences and grossing $92.7 million worldwide.
Apparently, director Sean S. Cunningham show the film in only a few weeks, and made it with a small budget, with the expectation it’d be a flop. He took on the project just to pass the time between projects! Needless to say, he was pleasantly surprised at the overnight success.
Blue Valentine is a heartbreaking indie film that follows a young couple from the moment they fall in love until their relationship ends. Made on a modest budget of $1 million, it earned a surprising $16.6 million at the box office.
Director Derek Cianfrance saved money on lighting; he relied on the free light provided by the sun and city lights, instead. But the most fantastic cost-saving measure he took was to give up his paycheck to help fund the film!
Super Size Me
In 2004, Morgan Spurlock directed and starred in the now-famous documentary Super Size Me. He filmed his 30-day journey of subsisting on McDonald’s, eating at the fast-food chain for three meals a day. Given the basis for the film, we’re not surprised it’s both low budget and a big hit.
Spurlock gained 24 pounds, his cholesterol rose, he had mood swings, and fat accumulated in his liver. The shocking documentary was made on a $65,000 budget and grossed $20.6 million worldwide. Most importantly, it changed how we view fast food.
A story of society collapse, murder, and retribution is told in this 1979 action thriller set in a futuristic Australia. The first Mel Gibson-led dystopian thriller was filmed on a shoestring budget of $300,000. It was, nonetheless, a huge success.
The film grossed $378.9 million worldwide, with $154.1 million domestically. For nearly two decades, Mad Max was hailed as the Most Profitable Film in the Guinness World Records. Even if it has since lost that honor, the three sequels are a welcome consolation prize.
The shocking horror film is based on the true incident of Tom and Eileen Lonergan. They were abandoned at sea in 1988 while on a scuba diving expedition. If you’re terrified of sharks, the events of this film will most likely be your worst nightmare.
The film was made with a budget of $500,000. It was shot entirely on digital and had a very minimalist approach to the visuals. Its unusual real-life atmosphere was also well received by the audience. When it was released in 2003, it grossed $52 million, which is quite outstanding considering the film’s low budget.
Possibly one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino has directed numerous smash hits and cult classics, some of which were on tight budgets. Reservoir Dogs had a budget of only $1.2 million. At least Pulp Fiction had more, with a whopping $8 million.
The movie’s ensemble cast included Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, and more. In fact, the actors salaries accounted for $5 million of the budget! On top of the $8 million, an additional $10 million was spent on marketing. But the gross profit of $213.9 million worldwide was well worth it.
Lost In Translation
The grimly humorous film was made with only $4 million and went on to gross $119.7 million worldwide, including $44.6 million in the United States. It starred Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray and was a box office smash as well as an Oscar contender. Sofia Coppola wrote and directed the 2003 picture, which received great reviews from critics.
The film was only shown on 23 screens when it first came out, but the limited distribution didn’t stop it from staying in theaters for 196 days. The intimacy of human connection, and finding someone who understands you amidst all of the love, grief, bewilderment, and sleepless nights in a new place, is perhaps why it did so well.
Halloween notably popularized the slasher genre. Although it is one of the highest-earning indie films of all time, with a gross profit of $255.5 million worldwide, the film was made with $300,000. One of the main cost-saving tools was the Steadicam, which cost less than the tracks and dollys needed for fluid shots.
Michael Myers’ infamous terrifying mask was nothing more than a $2 Captain Kirk mask that had been spray-painted white. The entire wardrobe of Jamie Lee Curtis was purchased for $100 at J.C. Penney. They used to shoot many sequences in one take as well to save some extra bucks.
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
Although we’ve seen many famous films so far, it feels weird to see Star Wars on this list. Episode IV was the highest-grossing film of all time prior to the release of E.T. It was made for under $11 million and grossed an astonishing $775.4 million, and would go on to become a multi-billion dollar franchise.
The Star Wars franchise grew into a global phenomenon with millions of devoted followers and a cultural impact unlike any other. George Lucas had no idea the film would be such a success. Neither did James Earl Jones, who turned down getting credited as the iconic voice of Darth Vader!
We horror-movie fans are cheap dates. All it takes is a creaking door and a shocking edit to make us yelp in surrender. As our sympathetic nervous systems kick in, we grab the arms of our seats or each other. Isn’t there something special about horror films?
Midsommar was made on a budget of $8 to $10 million but grossed $41.1 million globally. One of the most notable cost-saving measures was the filming location. Director Ari Aster opted to film the Swedish-set movie in Hungary in order to save money.
The Full Monty
The Full Monty is more than just a northern comedy about men who strip naked. It is a well-known film from the UK’s mid-to-late 1990s boom period. It was nominated for numerous prestigious awards at the Oscars, including Best Director, Screenplay, and Picture, and won the award for Best Music.
The movie is arguably about a man’s place in a changing world, one in which women wield more power. The Full Monty covered a wide range of topics and was well received by audiences. It made a whopping $3.5 million on a $3.5 million budget.
My Left Foot
My Left Foot could be considered the opposite of Split. While the latter is an exaggerated lie about disossiative identity disorder, My Left Foot is an inspiring story about life with cerebal palsy. It follows Irish artist Christy Brown shows the world what he could paint and write despite his physical limitations.
The film is based on a true story, which makes it even more inspiring! It was made with only $600,000 but grossed $14.7 million in the box office. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award and a BAFTA Film Award for his starring role.
Annabelle had a $6.5 million budget and was a huge smash in theaters. The long-awaited horror film grossed $37.1 million in its first weekend. Naturally, the fact that the film was a spin-off of the already popular Conjuring trilogy aided its success.
Annabelle tells the story of a demonic cult possessing a cursed doll. The film starring Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga was so well-made that it generated a sequel and spin-off franchise. In a sense, Annabelle: Creation was a spin-off of a spin-off.
The Purge is yet another horror film with an extremely unique concept. Perhaps that’s why it was so well-recieved and managed to earn a gross $89 million worldwide. The budget was $3 million, making The Purge the first low-budget film to top the box office since 1988.
The dystopian film follows the lives of people trying to survive the Purge, an annual holiday instituted by the New Founding Fathers. The film was released in 2013, but it has an extra creep-factor nowadays, as it’s set in 2022!
Although George Lucas is associated with Star Wars, four years before A New Hope was released, American Graffiti made its way to the theaters. As he was a relatively unknown filmmaker, Lucas couldn’t get a big budget for the film.
The starting budget was $600,000 but Universal Studios upped it to $750,000 when Francis Ford Coppola came on as the producer. Not only did they get a bump in budget, but marketing could lean on Coppola’s name to get traction. Overall, the film grossed $115 million and received five Academy Award nominations.
Imagine if we told you about a film about a single actor buried alive inside a coffin for more than 90 minutes. With little more than a lighter and a cell phone, Paul Conroy fights for his life. Buried will not only hold your attention but will also floor you with tension and intrigue.
The film, starring Ryan Reynolds, was released in 2010 with a modest budget of only $2 million. However, it’s understandable given that most of the film takes place with the main character in a coffin. The film got high praise from critics, and was a box office triumph, bringing in $21.3 million, more than ten times its initial budget.
The Evil Dead
Yep, we have another horror movie. Slasher classic The Evil Dead had a buget of only $400,000, but you wouldn’t have guessed by the $29.4 million gross profit! The behind-the-scenes stories of this film are great examples of what it’s like to shoot a low-budget film.
Budgeting for a film needs to be done carefully, as everything in the movie-making process costs money — props, equipment, salaries, and more. The cast and crew were so strapped for money, the lead actor couldn’t even afford a pack of gum during filming!
Swingers follows the lives of unemployed performers during the swing’s rebirth in Hollywood in the 1990s. It was written by Jon Favreau, who co-starred with Vince Vaugh. It was a huge success! The picture was made on a limited budget of $200,000 and grossed $4.6 million at the box office.
Cameras are a necessity for films, but director Doug Liman found a clever way to save money with the camera. He used a cheaper model and muffled the sound it produced using a jacket and comforter. And, to save money on actors, they used real bar patrons for the extras.
28 Days Later
28 Days Later, directed by Danny Boyle, is set in a post-apocalyptic Britain devastated by an outbreak that turns its victims into mad cannibal killers within seconds of infection. There are no aliens or zombies here, according to Boyle’s press material. People are infected with a virus that causes them to experience something natural to them: fury.
28 Days Later went on to gross $85 million against a $6.6 million budget, which seems massive compared to some of the others on this list. But they put that money to good use. The hospital scenes were flimed in an actual hospital, so the rental fees went to the hospital, not some Hollywood lot.
The Hills Have Eyes
The Hills Have Eyes is a cult classic from 1977. It presented the story of a family trapped in the desert, only to be hunted down by another family of savages. It’s all about generational rivalry — not wanting to be ashamed in front of them, and not wanting to expose them to hidden secrets.
The film had a budget of only $230,000, which isn’t much by any means, but it was a huge hit, bringing in $25 million at the box office. Wes Craven, a horror director, released a similarly disturbing version in 2006, which grossed $69.6 million.
The film Nightcrawler is a dark and twisting sociological reflection on unethical journalism and consumer demand. For this part, Jake Gyllenhaal had to reduce weight and put on his creepiest expression. Certainly a far cry from his villainous role in Spiderman: Far From Home.
Jake plays a journalist who goes to great lengths to grab the scoops first. It also stars Riz Ahmed, who went on to star in the television drama The Night Of. Working off a $8.5 million budget, Nightcrawler ended with a box office profit of $50.3.
Snatch, directed by Guy Ritchie, was a British-American crime comedy. It starred Benicio del Toro, Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, and Lennie James. Snatch is one of the best-written films we have probably seen. It’s clever, witty, and humorous, with just the proper amount of dark humor.
Two plot threads ran through the film: one concerned the search for a stolen diamond, and the other concerned a boxing promoter whose life was threatened by a vicious criminal and his henchmen. The film, which had a budget of $10 million, not only produced $83.6 million in revenues, but also developed a cult following.
The Big Sick
Kumail Nanjiania, a Pakistani-American comedian and actor, is best known for his leading role in the HBO comedy Silicon Valley. However, in 2017, he co-wrote the romantic comedy The Big Sick with his wife Emily V. Gordon. It was based on their own life experiences.
Kumail is a Pakistani stand-up comedian who meets Emily, an American graduate student, after one of his gigs. As their romance grows, they face cultural incompatibilities and a slew of other challenges. On a $5 million budget, the film made $56.3 million in profit.
Lake Bell and Owen Wilson appeared in the 2015 thriller No Escape. The story follows an American couple and their two daughters who moved to a South-East Asian country. Their peaceful lives are shattered when armed rebels invade their hotel, forcing the couple to act quick to save their family.
Owen Wilson is known for his comedic roles and always offers a performance to remember. Even in his more serious roles, like Mobius in Loki, he’s a stellar actor. It may be one of the reasons for the film’s success as it grossed $54.4 million on a production budget of $5 million.
Run Lola Run
It’s not just English and British low-budget films that can break the box office. 1998 German thriller Run Lola Run was filmed on a budget of only $1.75 million, but it went on to gross $22.9 million at the box office.
It’s about a girl who has twenty minutes to get a significant sum of money in order to save her boyfriend’s life, with three alternate possibilities for how the plot will unfold. The film’s influence on pop culture continues to this day.
Don’t Breathe, a horror film released in 2016, stars Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette, Stephen Lang, and more. The film follows three people who attempt to rob a blind man’s home and discover they have messed with the wrong person when they become trapped inside.
The movie’s budget was $9.9 million, which isn’t among the lowest on this list. But it deserves a spot for having grossed an impressive $157.1 million. Its earnings were nearly 15 times greater than its production budget. We can’t help but notice that horror films seem to be dominating this list…
Kevin Smith’s film Clerks is nothing if not utterly surprising; Smith is the director, writer, producer and star of the movie. The 1994 comedy is a quirky slice of life film capturing the daily life of store clerks Dante Hicks and Randal Graves.
It is one of those small-scale American independent films that you either love or hate. In an uncommon move, the film was done in black-and-white. The starting budget of $27,575 turned a gross profit of up to $3.1 million at the box office.