Putting a very small amount of money into a project and then milking it for far more than you ever dreamed imaginable, if that isn’t the American dream, then I don’t know what is. For as much as Hollywood executives are bashed for being money grubbing sleazeballs, many of them really want to make quality movies. The problem is, if the movie is quality, but no one goes to see it, you won’t be in a position to make movies for too long.
The beauty of low budget films is they come with barely any risk. Sure, there’s a few hundred thousand that may be lost, but it’s not nearly as much of an investment as a summer blockbuster action flick. The majority of low budget films are not very good, I’d be lying if I tried to convince you otherwise, but occasionally, some small movie makes it big, proving that money doesn’t equal quality and the result is a whole lot of dollars for the people that fronted the original change.
For this article I worked with fellow writer Will Chadwick to compile a list 10 of the most profitable low budget films. On the following pages you’ll find the films’ budgets, box office profits, and a bit about why they work.
The producers behind these things are rolling in their minimal investment in ways they probably never even imagined when they started. Whether it be through luck or because the film is actually pretty dang good, a following was developed and tickets were sold.
What you may take from this article is that found footage horror films are the best get rich quick plan cinema has to offer, but there are some other genres and quality films represented here as well. So read on to learn where the best return on investment can be found.
(For the purposes of this list I’ve defined low budget as anything under $1 million. The budgets listed are production budgets).Next
Budget – $400,000
Worldwide Gross – $46,140,956
Return – 5,668%
An odd boy named Napoleon struggles his way through high school in Jared Hess’ feature debut, which stars Jon Heder as the painfully awkward lead. It’s a coming-of-age story that appealed to the 15-year-old in us all, though most of us never danced to Jamiroquai on stage in moon boots.
Indie films and quirky comedies have almost become synonymous, and Napoleon Dynamite is a great example. The film’s humor is in its subtleties, and its success in the abundance of heart. It’s not the kind of comedy that has you rolling on the ground, laughing out loud, but it does leave you smiling from start to finish, which is just as enjoyable.
Napoleon Dynamite debuted at Sundance in 2004, and then received a limited release in June before going wide in August. The off-beat charm film turned it into a cult classic of sorts, and the result was a whole lot of money coming in.Previous Next
Budget – $150,000
Worldwide Gross – $18,997,174
Return – 6,232%
The Irish musical film Once spent years in development with the Irish film board before it was given a green light, and even then, it was only permitted on the condition that the budget would be kept extremely low.
Once was wildly successful beyond just financial aspects. It won the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film, the magnificently beautiful Falling Slowly won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and the film’s soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy.
The film’s leads, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, come off so believably as musicians due to the fact they actually are musicians. Neither had any real acting experience or training before the film. That translates to cheap actors who are actually able to sing. The movie doesn’t suffer from it, but rather has such a real feel that it’s no wonder it did so well.Previous Next
Budget – $27,000
Worldwide Gross -$3,894,240
Return - 7,112%
The history around Clerks has passed into film folklore, the stories of its production are infamous and Kevin Smith’s effort to claw just over $27,000 for his production costs are legendary. The foul-mouthed comedy flick rode off the back of films such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker and achieved a cult status for its endlessly quotable dialogue and lovably dour characters.
Smith intelligently played with what he had: he worked at the Quick Stop where the film is set but could only shoot at night while the store was closed, requiring a plot point for the film where the shutters would be jammed so not to show the nighttime outside. It has all the hallmarks of a classic no-budget film.
Its success perhaps lies in the fact that even today Clerks is a hilariously funny, often the dialogue is so shocking that it is funny. The infantile, bitter, vitriolic dialogue is something every spurned no-hoper male can identify with and Clerks remains the high point of Smith’s varied and uneven career.Previous Next
Budget – $325,000
Worldwide Gross – $70,000,000
Return – 10,669%
Perhaps one of the most iconic, if not the most iconic horror film of the 70s, Carpenter’s effortless skill behind the camera works transformative powers to mould a film that looks 10 times what it actually cost. Halloween has since passed into the annals of horror history as the film which defines a whole new genre; the slasher.
Riding on the waves of contemporaries such as Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter had pioneered his career thus far on using low budgets to tackle genres usually requiring mega budgets. Halloween played it cheap but smart, tapping into the teen zeitgeist and preying on their fears.
Halloween is not gory, but instead relies on the excellent score (composed by Carpenter himself) and some incredibly deft camerawork and editing to crank up the tension and fear as Michael Myers preys on teenage babysitters. Critically adorned and marketed beautifully, Halloween was a hit that exceeded all expectations.Previous Next
Budget – $770,000
Worldwide Gross – $ 140,000,000
Return - 8,909%
Before swashbuckling lightsaber battles and loud space dogfights and $3.9 billion worth of success, George Lucas did understand human beings. Playing both to the disaffected youth of the 70s and the renegade, tarmac tearing teens of the 50s and 60s, American Graffiti reinvigorated and set precedent for the later teen pics and begun a wave of late-50s/early 60s nostalgia which would pervade television throughout the 70s.
Working alongside his business partner/producer/friend Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas’ goal was to create a story which felt personal to him, a semi autobiography of his days growing up in Modesto, California. What Lucas and Coppola weren’t expecting was how this personal film would chime with audiences, critics and, most impressively, The Academy. This was a timeless story that had a big heart, hence the modestly budgeted picture scoring big at the box office and having an enduring legacy beyond its opening weekend.Previous Next
Night Of The Living Dead
Budget – $114,000
Worldwide Gross -$ 30,000,000
Return – 13,058%
The crippling size of Night of the Living Dead‘s budget dictated every single aspect of production, relying on simplicity, cheap actors and working with the best options they had, almost accidentally resulting in one of the most influential and important horror films ever made.
Taking horror B-features beyond the carnal thrills of gore and into a more socially conscious headspace, Romero’s debut is a film which transcends its genre by framing its tale with strong political overtones. By the late 60s the themes of oppression of minorities, civil unrest and civil rights were hot on the public conscience. Making the lead Duane Jones, an African-American actor, in a role such as this was considered revolutionary and many critics often read the film as a socio-political tract about racism.
Night of the Living Dead spoke to people beyond the horror fans and gore hounds, it gained a reputation and sold tickets for being a zombie film that had brains amongst the offal.Previous Next
Budget – $7,000
Worldwide Gross – $2,041,928
Return - 14,485%
Robert Rodriguez’s directorial debut, El Mariachi, was originally intended to only be released on home video, but Columbia liked the film so much that they snatched up the US distribution rights.
Rodriguez rewrote the book on guerrilla filmmaking here. He gained more than half the money for the film by participating in various medical experiments in Southern America. He shot the entire movie on one camera and instead of a dolly he sat in a wheelchair in order to have smooth moving shots. Furthermore, instead of doing multiple takes and using up film, at some points Rodriguez would have the actors freeze so he could move and film in another location, providing the illusion of multiple cameras.
The gun fights had just as many money saving tactics as the actual filming techniques. Instead of using actual rounds in the machine guns, Rodriguez would have the actors drop shells as they pretended to shoot, allowing them to use the shells multiple times. Some scenes even have water guns as opposed to real guns.
El Mariachi was inducted into the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2011 and it went on to form the first (and best) part of Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy.Previous Next
The Blair Witch Project
Budget – 600,000
Worldwide Gross – $248,300,000
Return – 20,592%
The film that made found footage a viable option for horror directors, The Blair Witch Project is simply a couple of film students wandering through the woods while losing their map and getting attacked by twigs.
Okay the movie does have more to it than that, but the suspense is built without ever showing a monster, there’s no appearance by the witch, no blood, no guts, etc… Basically nothing at all that costs a significant amount of money. Don’t have the money for a high quality cinematographer and equipment? Embrace it and make it part of the film’s aesthetic. Don’t have the money to hire a ton of actors? Only have three for the majority of the film.
Blair Witch serves as a lesson in low budget horror film making, and for better or for worse, we have it to thank for the insane amounts of found footage movies that have permeated the industry since.Previous Next
Budget – $200,000
Worldwide Gross -$ 99,750,000
Return - 24,838%
George Miller’s dystopian action flick Mad Max made a mere $8.75 million in the United States, but in other countries, and especially its origin country of Australia, it made a killing. For a long time this film held the Guinness record for most profitable film, and it is still loved passionately by its dedicated fans.
It received three awards from the American Film Institute, and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. It’s also the film that jump started Mel Gibson’s illustrious career, and rightfully so. His character has become one of the most iconic action stars of all time thanks to some epic car stunts and a ton of bad-ass action.
The original film spawned two sequels and now a fourth installment to the series, Mad Max: Fury Road, is currently in production starring Tom Hardy.Previous Next
Budget - $15,000
Worldwide Gross – $196,681,656
Return - 655,506%
Found footage horror is indeed king when it comes to making an insane amount of money off no budget at all, and Paranormal Activity proved this dominance once and for all.
There’s almost nothing to the movie in terms of effects. We don’t see ghosts or demons, just footprints and a few blankets moving, but the result is terrifying nonetheless. Its opening weekend it didn’t make a ton of money, but as word spread about the film, audiences flocked to theaters to see just what all the hype was about, and the majority did not leave disappointed.
Just look at that return on investment. There’s hardly any other industry where you’re going to see a six-figure percentage like that, let alone one that was climbing towards seven. While it can be debated whether Paranormal Activity is scary, or even a quality horror film, it can’t be debated that audiences loved going to see it, and the result was a ridiculous box office figure in relation to the budget.
Paranormal Activity is king for now when it comes to the most profitable low-budget film, and it likely will be for a long time. Eventually something else may dethrone it, but it’s hard to imagine anything else making so much money on such a minuscule budget.
Moral of the story, if someone has $15,000 to invest, let’s get together and make a found footage flick. Play it right and we could be swimming in the cash.Previous