A gigantic budget might help a film project get off the ground (and into theaters around the world) but it doesn’t guarantee its success.
Just as there are big-budget movies that have flopped, lots of films that were made on a shoestring have been runaway hits. These low-budget flicks might not be the highest-grossing movies of all time, but they definitely deserve a shout-out for grossing way more than anyone expected.
‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ (2002)
Adorable rom-com “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” starring Nia Vardalos as Toula Portokalos and John Corbett as Ian Miller, had a modest budget of $5 million but ended up taking in over $368 million worldwide.
In 2002, it surpassed “The Blair Witch Project” as the highest-grossing independent film of all time. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” began as a one-woman play, which Vardalos based on her marriage to then-husband Ian Gomez, who actually plays Miller’s best man, Mike, in the movie version.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999)
“The Blair Witch Project” made it into the Guinness Book of Records for “Top Budget: Box Office Ratio” for a mainstream feature film. It cost only $60,000 to make and earned $248 million — that’s $10,391 for every $1 spent.
The movie was so popular that it inspired amateur filmmakers all over the U.S. who ventured into the wilderness to shoot their own documentaries. The 1999-2000 hunting season suffered accordingly, as wildlife were scared away from hunting areas.
‘Mad Max’ (1979)
The dystopian tale of an Aussie cop (Mel Gibson) out for revenge on a violent motorcycle gang took movie theaters by storm in 1979.
Made on an estimated budget of $350,000, “Mad Max” took $100 million worldwide within three years. This was enough to get it into the Guinness Book of Records as the most profitable film (in terms of cost vs. gross) of all time, and it held this title for nearly 20 years until “The Blair Witch Project” came along.
‘Night Of The Living Dead’ (1968)
One of the most successful independent movies of all time, the zombie horror “Night of the Living Dead” grossed approximately $30 million (the equivalent of $210 million in 2017) — over 263 times its estimated $114,000 budget.
Unfortunately, writer/director George A. Romero didn’t make much money from the film — the deal he agreed to saw distributors pocket practically all of the profits. The impact of “Night of the Living Dead” on the horror genre was far-ranging; the British Film Institute describes the movie as “a transition in horror cinema: from the classic to the modern.”
‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (2004)
“Napoleon Dynamite,” shot over the course of only 23 days on an estimated budget of $400,000 (of which Jon Heder took only $1,000 to play the titular character), went on to be a huge commercial success.
It was a surprise hit at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight engaged in a bidding war with Warner Independent Pictures over the distribution rights. A last-minute bid of $3 million from Fox Searchlight won; the company later teamed up with Paramount Pictures and MTV Films to distribute the film, only 17 days before its release.
Less than a year later, it had grossed over $40 million in the United States alone.
David Lynch’s experimental horror movie “Eraserhead” — his first feature-length film — was made on a tiny budget of $10,000. It took a while to pick up steam but gained a strong following thanks to several long runs as a midnight movie, and in 2004 it was preserved in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
One notable fan was Stanley Kubrick, who made the cast of “The Shining” watch “Eraserhead” to get in the mood for filming a horror picture.
Kevin Smith’s low-budget black-and-white “Clerks,” presenting a day in the lives of titular store clerks Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), became a cult classic.
It was made with an initial estimated budget of $27,575 and made back more than that ($31,665) in its opening weekend. In total, it grossed over $3 million in the U.S. alone. That was more than enough for Smith, a keen comic book fan, to buy back the large chunk of his collection he’d sold to help fund the project (he also used his wages from working in the convenience store featured in the film).
‘The Evil Dead’ (1981)
Filmed in a real-life abandoned cabin, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell’s feature debut “The Evil Dead” was made on an estimated $350,000 budget.
Today, it’s considered to be one of the scariest horror movies of all time. By all accounts, the horror extended off-camera; the cabin was also used as lodging for the 13 crew members, many of whom had to sleep in the same room. With no plumbing, the cast and crew went days without bathing, and the freezing temperatures led to illness. By the end of the shoot, they were burning furniture just to keep warm.
The first installment of one of the most successful horror franchises ever, “Saw” (which has a plot twist that will give you goosebumps) had a budget of around $1,200,000. It took in over $18 million in its U.S. opening weekend and, to date, it’s grossed more than $103 million globally.
The movie was shot and cut at the same time, over only 18 days, with absolutely no rehearsal time. To date, the “Saw” series consists of eight movies; the ninth (working title “The Organ Donor”) is scheduled for release in 2020.
‘Open Water’ (2003)
Based on the true story of two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark-infested waters, the indie movie “Open Water” grossed over $1 million on its opening weekend in the U.S., despite a limited release. It had an estimated budget of $120,000, a figure dwarfed by its worldwide gross earnings of over $54 million.
To put things into perspective, the entire movie cost less than half of what a typical Hollywood movie spends on sound effects alone. During filming, actors Blanchard Ryan (Susan Watkins) and Daniel Travis (Daniel Kintner) spent over 120 hours in the water.
‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974)
Another horror movie made on a shoestring budget (estimates run between $60,000 and $300,000) that went on to become a classic is “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” It was also a huge financial success, raking in over $30 million in the U.S. alone.
No list of the scariest movies ever is complete without mentioning the horrors of Leatherface and his cannibalistic mob. Entertainment Weekly magazine voted it the second scariest film of all time, behind “The Exorcist” (1973).
The original “Halloween” remains one of the most profitable indie films ever — it cost $325,000 to make and grossed more than $70 million worldwide.
The movie stars Jamie Lee Curtis as one of the main characters (Laurie Strode), a casting call that director John Carpenter saw as the ultimate tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, who had given Curtis’s mother, Janet Leigh, her big break in 1960’s “Psycho.” The franchise is far from over; audiences will be treated to “Halloween Kills” in 2020 and “Halloween Ends” in 2021 — if they’re brave enough.
A modern-day romantic musical, “Once” was made on a budget of around $150,000 and grossed over $9 million in the U.S.
Aside from moviegoers all over the world, this low-budget hit won over some big names. Bob Dylan loved the movie so much that he arranged to have the two leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, open for him on part of his world tour, and Stephen Spielberg told USA Today, “A little movie called ‘Once’ gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”
Hansard and Irglová would eventually headline their own tour, and the film was turned into a successful Broadway musical. Among other accolades, the musical won 8 Tony Awards in 2012.
It was the movie that inspired Kevin Smith to make “Clerks” — another shoestring budget success story. British film magazine Empire included “Slacker” in its list of the 50 greatest American independent films.
‘Friday The 13th’ (1980)
Another franchise that’s been hugely influential on the slasher movie genre is “Friday the 13th.” The first installment, released in 1980, was made on a budget of around $550,000 but it grossed over $59.7 million worldwide.
Critics agree that the original is far superior to the later movies, which include “Freddy vs. Jason” and “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning.”
‘The Full Monty’ (1997)
The British movie about six unemployed steelworkers had a conservative $3.5 million budget (financed by Fox Searchlight after Film4 and Miramax passed) but has grossed almost $258 million worldwide.
It even spawned a Broadway musical, which ran for 770 performances and was nominated for Best Musical, Book and Score at the 2001 Tony Awards. Director Peter Cattaneo told The Guardian that he realized what a phenomenon “The Full Monty” was when, “Prince Charles was on the front of the Daily Mail doing the dole queue dance.”
“Rocky,” arguably the most famous sports movie of all time, was made with a budget of around $1 million.
Producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff offered the then-unknown Sylvester Stallone $350,000 for the rights to the screenplay, but despite only having $106 in the bank, Stallone played hardball, refusing to sell unless he got the starring role. It worked, and “Rocky” grossed $225 million worldwide.
‘Super Size Me’ (2004)
Morgan Spurlock made the documentary “Super Size Me” for around $65,000 — and within four months of its U.S. release, it had grossed $11.5 million.
Spurlock’s attempt to shame the fast-food industry — in particular, McDonald’s — seemed to work. Within two months of the film’s premiere at Sundance, the golden-arched chain announced that they would no longer “super size” any of their menu items.
‘Get Out’ (2017)
Jordan Peele’s race-conscious thriller “Get Out” grossed $255 million worldwide — more than 50 times its modest $5 million budget — and put Peele on the map as the first African-American writer, producer and director to earn more than $100 million for a debut film.
Chance the Rapper liked the movie so much, he rented out an entire movie theater in Chicago so people could watch it for free.
“Just pull up with an ID and enjoy the movie,” he tweeted, adding that “Get Out” was the “best film across any genre” he’d seen for a while.
Not to be confused with the big-budget “The Life of Pi,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Pi,” about a paranoid, reclusive mathematician searching for a key number to unlock nature’s universal patterns, had a budget of $60,000. Within five months of its limited release, it had grossed $3.2 million in the U.S.
“Pi” won numerous awards, including the Open Palm Award at the Gotham Awards and the Dramatic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
‘American Grafitti’ (1973)
From a budget of only $777,000, George Lucas’s coming-of-age comedy “American Grafitti” went on to gross $140 million at the box office worldwide.
Its huge success was a surprise, particularly to Universal bosses, who thought so little of the film that it sat on a shelf for six months before it was finally released. “American Grafitti” received widespread critical acclaim, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1995.
Shane Carruth’s sci-fi thriller “Primer” was made for only $7,000, with a skeleton cast of five. To keep costs down, Carruth acted as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor and music composer, and he cast his friends and family as many minor characters. It was worth the effort. “Primer” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, then grossed over $840,000 at the box office.
The Academy Award-winning drama “Moonlight” was made on a budget of between $1.5 and $4 million; within six months of its release, it had grossed $55.5 million worldwide.
It was the Oscars “Best Picture” winner with the lowest budget since 1976’s “Rocky.” However, if you adjust the “Rocky” film’s $960,000 budget for inflation, “Moonlight” is actually the “Best Picture” winner with the lowest budget in history.
‘El Mariachi’ (1992)
“El Mariachi,” the story of a traveling mariachi who is mistaken for a murderous criminal, written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, had a tiny $7,000 budget. Film student Rodriguez even rented his body for medical tests to scrape together the funds. The film had no crew and no professional actors, but it still went on to gross over $2 million worldwide.
‘Paranormal Activity’ (2007)
Oren Peli’s mystery thriller “Paranormal Activity” caused a buzz in the movie community, not least because it only cost $15,000 to make but went on to gross a staggering $193 million worldwide. Peli himself described the experience as “definitely surreal and amazing and crazy!” Four further installments later (and another one in development, as of 2019), the original is still considered one of the best horror movies of all time.