How does a budget movie make its way to our screens? Nowadays, cinema is dramatically expanding in every direction, and through every genre you could think of. With the Box Office raking in the millions and billions with massively over-the-top action franchises and sensory horrors slowly climbing up the cinematic ladder, cinema audience expectations are forever on the rise. This can be a lot of pressure for producers, directors and actors in the industry, not only making it incredibly difficult to create original content that is always better than the last, etc. It’s stressful just thinking about the direction the entertainment industry is heading towards, and I’m certainly glad that I’m part of the audience rather than the director.
With the huge empire that cinema has now created through high-thrill franchises and mega-block busters, it’s impossible to think that a successful movie in today’s world could be created with a small, independent budget. It may seem impossible, but the reality is much more positive than you might think. To shine a positive light on the possibilities of film-making on a low budget, I’ve created a list of 10 movies that were a huge hit with cinema audiences, and still didn’t have to break the bank to be successful!
1 – Napoleon Dynamite – Budget: $400,000
Napoleon Dynamite, was a huge success after it was released to cinemas in the summer of 2004. Although the producers initially thought that it would be a total flop, the movie skyrocketed into a success, with critics calling both Jon Heder and Efren Ramirez ‘comedy geniuses’. Nowadays, people all over the world know the name Napoleon Dynamite and you’re guaranteed to see a handful of people on Instagram wearing the iconic ‘Vote For Pedro’ t-shirt on Halloween (or just any given day really!).
Not only is the plot of Napoleon Dynamite an awesome story, but the real-life aftermath of the movie’s release is equally amazing. Within just the first 12 months of release, the movie had generated $44,940,956 at the Box Office. The movie was such an unexpected success that Jon Heder (who plays Napoleon Dynamite) had to renegotiate his contract as he was only paid $1,000 for the film initially (a totally understandable business move!).
Box Office: $46, 100,000
Profit Percentage: 11, 425%
2 – Paranormal Activity – Budget: $15,000
Paranormal Activity is the poster-child for low budget movies that have big impacts in cinema. The movie blew audiences away in 2007 with a new take on supernatural horror that had never been seen on the big screen before. This movie was so incredibly successful in cinema, that it made a profit margin of over 1 Million %. With a budget of only $15,000, the movie was filmed in an improv-style as there was apparently ‘no real script’ but rather the actors were given a general outline of the story, according to Oren Peli (the movie’s creator and director). This allowed the movie to seem more ‘real’ and allow audiences to feel that this could happen in their own home (just what you need, when you live alone!). The film sparked the beginning of a major supernatural horror franchise, with 6 successful movies and the 7th being released in 2021.
Box Office: $193, 400,000
Profit Percentage: 1,289,233%
3 – Once – Budget: $150,000
In my opinion, 2007 was the year for low budget movies to really make a big impact in cinema and overload the Box Office. Although Once, doesn’t have a profit margin of over 1 Million %, when it was first released it became an international success. The movie was such a hit, that the sound created for the plot won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and the soundtrack received a Grammy Award nomination in 2008. With all the success surrounding Once, it’s hard to believe that the movie almost was never made; as the creators and director were low in funds during its production. However, with great luck, about 75% of the budget was funded by Bord Scannán na hÉireann (The Irish Film Board) and the international film became an overnight success for cinema audiences in 2007.
Box Office: $23,300,000
Profit Percentage: 15, 433%
4 – Mad Max – Budget: $400,000
Mad Max is probably one of the most iconic movies of the 1980’s era (I know it was released in 1979 but it’s technically an 80’s movie!). This movie is proof that you don’t need a massive over-the-top budget to create an iconic story that smashes the Box Office! Mad Max was like nothing cinema audiences had ever seen before. Based in Australia, this dystopian action-thriller skyrocketed Mel Gibson to fame through the international success in the Box Office.
The budget for this movie wasn’t considered a huge cost at $400,000 (although that would be a huge cost in my eyes – just saying!) Mad Max became an overnight success, making it one of the 1970’s biggest movie’s along with Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977 and Dirty Harry in 1971. Mad Max was so successful that in 1979 it was thought to be the most profitable film ever made. To add to it’s awesomeness, it received the Guinness World Record for the highest Box Office-to-Budget ratio of any motion picture, ever!
Box Office: $100,000,000
Profit Percentage: 24, 900%
5 – The Blair Witch Project – Budget: $60,000
Eight years before Paranormal Activity was terrifying audiences across the world, The Blair Witch Project was making sure that people of all ages were having sleepless nights. This supernatural horror movie was based on the concept of ‘recovered footage’. The movie grabbed attention with the team’s marketing campaign featured on their website. The website included fake ‘missing person’ photos of the actors along with fake news-articles detailing the 3 people’s disappearances.
Along with an excellent marketing campaign, The Blair Witch Project has been a movie name that is well-remembered over the last 20 years. The movie was produced on a low budget of just $60,000 and became an overnight success in 1999, leaving audiences terrified of the Blair Witch legend. I know one thing for sure; there weren’t as many campers setting-off for their weekend trip in the woods for the entirety of 1999 after this movie was released!
Box Office: $248,600,000
Profit Percentage: 414, 233%
6 – Clerks – Budget: $27,500
Clerks is, by far, one of the best examples of an independent low-budget movie making it big-time with cinema audiences. With just a small budget of $27,500, Clerks raked in a sizable $3.2 Million at the Box Office in 1994. The movie plot and it’s incredible characters (a.k.a Jay and Silent Bob) were such a huge success that Clerks spiraled into a large franchise; including the launch of several comic books, an animated TV series and a pilot episode for a TV series (which never made it past 1995). The Clerks crew also saw their own sequels with Clerks 2 and Clerks 3 (Jay and Silent Bob had even more on-screen adventures outside of these sequels!)
Box Office: $3,200,000
Profit Percentage: 11, 536%
7 – Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Budget: $80,000
Terrifying. That is how the only word I used to explain 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when I first saw it. I may have only seen this movie for the first time in 2004, but I can imagine that the original 1974 audience were absolutely terrified too. The original 1974 audience were probably more scared than I was, as this movie was one of the first of its genre to evolve realistic gore and true horror to the industry.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have been scary, but the profit percentage for this movie is even more shocking. It seems as though the low-budget movies that thrive in cinema are often horror genres, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was certainly one of the first on this trend. The iconic horror has been scaring the life out of audiences for generations, and all for the initial cost of $80,000!
Box Office: $30,900,000
Profit Percentage: 38, 500%
8 – Slacker – Budget: $23,000
Richard Linklater is the ultimate comedy genius and Slacker is a true example of how creativity trumps financial support in the movie industry. Slacker is thought to be the catalyst for the independent film-making movement of the 1990’s. The independent comedy-drama was such a big hit that it received a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize during the Sundance Film Festival in 1991.
Richard Linklater is also well-known for being the writer, producer and director of the extremely popular Dazed And Confused (I told you he was a comedy genius!). Both movies share very strong themes of generational stereotypes, set in a truly hilarious way for the audience to genuinely connect with, and according to Richard Linklater, we all need to leave Generation-X alone, and let them just like ‘totally chill’!. A pretty good message to share, for a movie that generated almost $31 Million!
Box Office: $1,228,000
Profit Percentage: 5,240%
9 – Halloween – Budget: $300,000
It honestly seems as though the supernatural horror and gore genres were truly brought to life in the 1970’s. With The Last House On The Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Exorcist (1973) all overloading the Box Office, cinema audiences during this era were treated to awesome original plotlines while also being terrified simultaneously! According to Director John Carpenter, the script only took 10 days to write; that’s an incredibly short time for a movie that generated $70 Million at the Box Office (but I guess if you’re John Carpenter, time is literally money!).
With the release of 1978’s Halloween, cinema audiences were terrified beyond belief and decades after it’s release, the movie is still thought to be one of the best films of the late 1970’s and according to critics, it is without question, the best movie of 1978. Although the gruesome horror had some pretty poor endings for some characters, off-screen, it became the iconic role that skyrocketed Jamie-Lee Curtis into stardom.
Box Office: $70,000,000
Profit Percentage: 23,233%
10 – Super Size Me – Budget: $60,000
Super Size Me is wild. Although it’s not like the other movies on this list, it still earned its place as one of the biggest profit-to-budget ratios to make it onto the big-screen. With a budget of just $66,000, Morgan Spurlock and his team created the ultimate documentary turned independent-film focusing on a 30-day period of eating only McDonald’s food for every meal.
Although this may seem like a dream come true for some people, the film shows the crazy effects on both Spurlock’s mental health and physical health over the experimental month. The independent docu-film was such a huge success that it generated over $20 Million at the Box Office when it was released to cinemas around the world in 2004 (I guess you could say that the audiences were “lovin’ it”.
Box Office: $22,200,000
Profit Percentage: 33, 536%
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