10 hugely-successful movies that were made on staggeringly small budgets

  • 10 hugely-successful movies that were made on staggeringly small budgets

With advancements of CGI and actors' spiralling salaries, these days film budgets can often pass the $200 million mark.

But, some aspiring filmmakers can turn out a film on a tiny budget that is able to contend with blockbuster behemoths at the box office.

Films such as...

1. Mad Max - $200,000

George Miller's first adventure into the post-apocalyptic world of Max Rockatansky was funded in part out of his own pocket with the money he earned from providing emergency medical treatment in Sydney.

With a reported budget of A$350,000-400,000, Miller needed to get the most value for money, and as the plot called for an Australian policeman stopping a violent motorcycle gang, Miller hired actual Australian gang members to play extras.

The gangs had to ride their own bikes from Sydney to the shooting location in Melbourne because the producers didn't have the money to transport them, and paid the members in beer because that's all they could afford.

The shooting was done without permission, including stopping hundreds of vehicles on a highway so they could shoot a scene, and in the film's finale where a car explodes, the film was shot in a farmer's field, with no-one asking for permission from the farmer, who walked up to ask what was going on just as the car exploded.

Despite this approach to filmmaking, the finished product grossed over US$100 million worldwide, making it the most profitable film ever made at the time, and giving rise to three more movies in the series.

2. The Blair Witch Project - $60,000

Probably the most famous case of low budget to big return, the found footage horror flick earned $248 million from a paltry $60,000 budget.

Shot in a mere eight days, the budgetary limitations on the production forced the scariest aspects of the film to occur off screen, which helped the audience feel the same terror and despair that the film's main trio are suffering in the film.

Largely improvised, the actors stayed in character for most of the shoot and would be tricked by the director, who would shake their tent while they were sleeping, and given less food each day to cause arguments between the actors.

All of this served to make The Blair Witch Project a money-spinning phenomenon that earned $10,931 for every dollar spent in production - making it the most profitable film ever made based on return of investment.

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3. Clerks - $27,000

Writer and director Kevin Smith sold off his comic collection, borrowed money from his parents and maxed out 8-10 credit cards to fund the $27,575 he needed to fund the film.

Smith was working at the Quick Stop convenience store used in the film and was allowed to film at night, which prompted Smith to keep the shutters down, explained in the film by a vandal jamming gum into the locks.

Working at the Quick Stop during the day and shooting at night, Smith would get no more than an hour's sleep a night, which left him a mess by the end of the 21-day shoot.

Smith's scrimping and near-delirium was worth it in the end, as Clerks grossed over £3 million worldwide and he was able to pursue a career in directing, as well as being able to buy back the extensive comic book collection he was forced to sell.

4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail - $400,000

These days, the $400,000 that Monty Python had for their first feature film would be around $3 million, but the comedy group still had to cut corners and pinch every penny in order to make the film.

The funds earned by Pink Floyd's album The Dark Side of the Moon contributed to the budget, as the band were huge fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The production couldn't afford horses, so they used coconuts as the galloping, memorably incorporating this into the film as a joke, while the majority of the filming was shot using Doune Castle in Scotland, shot from different angles to make it seem like many different buildings.

The film's climactic battle sequence abruptly cuts to black and the film ends, this was done because they run out of money.

Despite the budget constraints, the film grossed $5 million - which would be over $38 million in today's money - and is now seen as one of the finest British comedy films of all time.

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5. Swingers - $200,000

Jon Favreau wrote the script based on his experiences when he first moved to Los Angeles, and director Doug Liman sent the script to studios, who were interested in financing it, but withdrew their offers when Liman said he wanted to cast the writer and his friends in the film.

Liman then managed to raise $200,000 to fund the film and cast Favreau and his real-life friends Vince Vaughn and Ron Livingston to play the onscreen versions of themselves.

The filming was done on a shoestring, with many shots filmed in bars and parties, while a scene filmed on the side of the road was shot without a permit, and when police showed up demanding to see a permit, the assistant director held them up while the scene was shot.

On the film's release, it was praised by critics and turned Favreau, Vaughn and director Liman into Hollywood heavyweights, and grossed $4.6 million worldwide.

6. Paranormal Activity - $15,000

Writer, director, producer and editor Oren Peli came up with the idea for Paranormal Activity when a box of detergent fell off a shelf waking him up, and set about working on the movie, using his own home as the setting for the haunted house.

Casting unknown actors Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat to add to the feel of a real occurrence rather than fiction, the pair were given guidelines rather than a script, and filming was completed in 10 days with both main actors reportedly being paid $500 each for their performances.

Despite being most noticeable for extended periods of very little action, the film terrified audiences and grossed a staggering $193 million (a 645,801.51% return on investment) - putting it alongside fellow 'found footage' horror The Blair Witch Project as the most profitable movie ever made.

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7. Napoleon Dynamite - $400,000

Eventual Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess and star Jon Heder put together a short film for a university project, which was then well received at a film festival specialising in low-budget and emerging independent films, and Hess was convinced to drop out of school to adapt it into a feature film.

Raising $400,000 to make the film, Hess cast many of his friends from school, including Heder as the lead - paying him $1,000 for his performance, and relied on local people for food and housing for the cast and crew for the 23-day shoot.

On its release Napoleon Dynamite was a success, the comedy was praised as charming and quirky, and grossed over $46 million, earning many awards and has gone on to become a cult classic.

8. El Mariachi - $7,000

Half of the $7,000 El Mariachi budget was raised by Robert Rodriguez taking part in a 30-day clinical drug test, which he then took to make the Mexican western which he wrote, directed, produced, edited and filmed - the only job he didn't do was act, because then there would be no-one else to operate the camera.

The story about the travelling musician who is mistaken for a murderous criminal by a bloodthirsty gang was filmed using single takes cutting every cost possible, he was pushed around in a wheelchair instead of a camera dolly, bloopers were kept in to save money and Rodriguez didn't even buy a slate, instead using his fingers to indicate the takes.

The initial plan was for the Spanish language film to be sold on the Latino video market to fund another of Rodriguez's planned projects, but it was scooped up by Columbia Pictures, who spent much more than the $7,000 budget to market and distribute the film.

Despite the low-budget look, El Mariachi was well received, and made $2 million worldwide, and has been immortalised by Guinness World Records as the lowest-budgeted film ever to gross $1 million at the box office.

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9. American Graffiti - $775,000

While American Graffiti's $775,000 budget is closer to £10 million when adjusted for inflation, the 1973 coming-of-age drama went up against the likes of The Exorcist, Live and Let Die and The Sting - which all had budgets upwards of $5 million.

George Lucas wrote the screenplay - based on his experiences driving around as a teenager in the '60s - after being challenged by THX 1138 producer Francis Ford Coppola to write a movie that would appeal to mainstream audiences.

Lucas' script was turned down by MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures for financing and distribution before Universal offered Lucas total artistic control in return for a strict low budget of $600,000, adding another $175,000 after Coppola signed on as producer.

Upon its release, it received widespread acclaim and grossed over $140 million - the third highest-grossing film of 1973 after The Sting and The Exorcist - and earned five Oscar nominations including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

10. Reservoir Dogs - $1.2 million

Quentin Tarantino had $30,000 and planned to shoot his crime thriller of a botched diamond heist in a 16 mm black-and-white format with producer Lawrence Bender, when he showed the script to his acting teacher, whose wife gave it to Harvey Keitel.

Keitel liked the script so much that he signed on to star and serve as co-producer to help Tarantino and Bender find further funding, and the pair managed to raise $1.5 million.

Despite the extra funding, the film was still pinched the pennies - the characters' famous suits were donated for free by a designer who loved American crime films, while Steve Buscemi wore his own black jeans instead of the suit trousers.

Reservoir Dogs was a huge success when it was released, Empire dubbed it "The Greatest Independent Film of all Time" as it grossed  $2.8 million on release, but has become a cult classic and iconic cinema as well as launching Tarantino's career.

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What about the original Halloween? Had a budget of $300,000 and grossed more than $60,000,000 worldwide.

Good shout! We'll have that in the next article on this subject.