15 Great Low Budget Movies That Made a Relative Killing


Late last year, Paul brought you guys The 15 Worst Movies That Made The Most Money.  I liked a few of those movies, but that’s besides the point.  The movies on that list seem to have one thing in common: they were big-budget movies, many of which had incredible special effects and recognizable actors.  What’s more impressive, though, is when a movie is made for relatively very little money and through marketing, buzz, or just being a great movie, makes a killing at the box office.  When movies with budgets of nine figures bomb and cost studios money, it’s pretty cool to see low budget films make a return of literally over 1000%.  After the jump, take a look at 15 low budget movies that turned out to be – from a commercial standpoint – phenomenal investments.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Budget: $35,000

Worldwide Gross: $248,300,000

Lots of people hate this movie, but the film’s “found footage” concept captivated and horrified millions.  Word quickly spread about how scary this movie is, and the presentation of the material as amateur footage helped many overlook the minuscule budget.  It’s the perfect example of why “less is more” seems to work wonders in the genre of horror.

Mad Max (1979)

Budget: $200,000

Worldwide Gross: $99,750,000

This Australian film featured Mel Gibson back when he was relatively unknown and served as the template for subsequent post-apocalyptic movies.  Mad Max – which spawned two sequels – didn’t do so great in the American box office, but it cleaned up worldwide.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

Budget: $5,000,000

Worldwide Gross: $368,000,000

Five million dollars isn’t small change, but when you consider that this independent romantic comedy made $368 million, it’s pretty insane.  A true sleeper hit if there ever was one.

Super Size Me (2004)

Budget: $65,000

Worldwide Gross: $29,500,000

Morgan Spurlock made a pretty simple documentary about just how disgusting fast food actually is, and people lined up to see for themselves.  Everyone’s had McDonald’s or Burger King, so why wouldn’t they want to see just what they were putting into their bodies.  It’s tough to get through this movie without getting queasy.

Rocky (1976)

Budget: $1,000,000

Worldwide Gross: $225,000,000

Inspired by Chuck Wepner’s fight agianst Ali and made for a very modest amount, Rocky won Best Picture, gave audiences a memorable character and, of course, spawned five sequels.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Budget: $114,000

Worldwide Gross: $30,000,000

George Romero’s independent horror film is the zombie apocalypse that started it all.  Dawn of the Dead, Left 4 Dead, Dead Rising, and the rest of the zombie movies and video games owe their existence to Romero’s classic.

Halloween (1978)

Budget: $325,000

Worldwide Gross: $70,000,000

Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t yet a big star, but both she and the character of Michael Myers became horror icons thanks to John Carpenter’s Halloween.  Like so many horror movies, Halloween was followed by many sequels, which is where the real money for the studios comes from.

American Graffiti (1973)

Budget: $777,000

Worldwide Gross: $140,000,000

It’s amazing to think that George Lucas could actually make a movie without CGI-ing creatures and spaceships in the background 20 years after its release.  Critics ate this movie up, as it was nominated for Best Picture.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Budget: $400,000

Worldwide Gross: $46,000,000

Just how this movie got as big as it did I’ll never know – I don’t remember much marketing done on its behalf and I saw only a couple previews on television for it when it was in the theaters – but Napoleon Dynamite is a great example of a modern cult comedy.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Budget: $550,000

Worldwide Gross: $59,700,000

Like Halloween, the real strength of this movie is the numerous sequels that followed its release.  It was poorly received by critics, but Friday the 13th was the right type of slasher film that audiences showed up in droves to enjoy.

Open Water (2004)

Budget: $500,000

Worldwide Gross: $52,100,000

I saw this movie on a plane to London and noticed two things: 1) most of the budget must have been spend on safety personnel and equipment and 2) for some reason, Steve Lemme is in it for like three seconds.  Like for The Blair Witch Project, “less is more” worked wonders for Open Water.

Once (2007)

Budget: $150,000

Worldwide Gross: $19,000,000

This Irish musical set in Dublin benefited from overwhelming critical praise.  Once was directed by John Carney, who seems to have made a living doing small, low budget indie films.

Saw (2003)

Budget: $1,200,000

Worldwide Gross: $103,000,000

Saw came at a time when audiences were hungry for a new, fresh horror movie but still craved a memorable Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers-type villain.  Along came Jigsaw, crazy ways for people to die, and of course, many sequels.

Primer (2004)

Budget: $7,000

Worldwide Gross: $565,000

I finally saw Primer at the urging of several of our readers and I was blown away.  No, $565,000 isn’t necessarily “killing it” at the box office, but considering the movie was made for only $7,000 – an amount you and I could scrounge up if we had to – you could say that Shane Carruth knew exactly what he was doing.  Primer’s success is due to the fact that it’s simply a brilliant film.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Budget: $375,000

Worldwide Gross: $29,400,000

If anyone knows how to make a horror movie, it’s Sam Raimi.

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  1. El Mariachi – Robert Rodriguez’s $7,000 film – made $2,000,000+. Even with $200,000+ in additional post-production later, that’s still not too bad.

  2. I am not sure how much it cost to make, but what about “The Boondock Saints”? It has become one of the best low budget films ever made.

  3. Sam Raimi hasn’t directed a great movie since Quick and the Dead in 1995 (Please don’t consider any of the Spider Man movies as great. They’re not). Hopefully Drag Me to Hell will break a long streak of packaged,run-of-the-mill Hollywood products.

  4. What no mention of “Clerks”? That Movie was made for less than $27,000 and made well over $3,000,000 What is the deal? Also if you are going to be putting movies from the 70’s on here you should do the inflation adjustment. I mean really you might as well put “Star Wars: a new hope” on the list. Only cost 11 million to make it, and it raked in $785 Million. This list loses all credibility by not having “Clerks”.

  5. I don’t know the cost/earning ratio yet, but “The Man From Earth” will probably wind up in this category. It is an amazing piece of work.

  6. I can’t believe you didn’t mention Robert Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi (1992). It cost just $7000 of the time, and it did well, especially later on DVD sales. The IMDb forum about that movie always has the discussion going about it.

    In fact, it’s these two movies, Primer and El Mariachi, that are MOSTLY discussed among us, indie amateur filmmakers. They are the shining stars for our kind of budget.

  7. You forgot:

    A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – It had a budget of 1.8M and made 25.5M in theaters.

    Hellraiser (1987) – It has a budget of 1M and made 14.5M in theaters.

  8. I think Blair Witch Project killed it – not only did they make the most relative to their spending, they also made even more by selling the rights to a sequel that failed and merchandise rights that lead to a video game for the sequel and lots of printed shirts etc for the first movie.

  9. For the person who mentioned Boondock Saints, I would recommend the documentary “Overnight” for a look at how the writer/director Troy Duffy got his shot to make a movie, and got screwed/pissed away his chance. It is an interesting look at Boondock Saints, as well as some of the inner workings of Hollywood.

  10. Wow, I was shocked and appalled that Open Water made that much money. It’s a terrible film. The characters are paper-thin and annoying, and the fact I didn’t give two shakes about them ruined any dramatic suspense for me. The film *looked* cheap, had terrible dialog, and basically capitalized on some people’s fear of sharks. I got to see a free preview screening, and still don’t feel I got my money’s worth.

  11. I still recall the first time I saw the evil dead, I was so scared I shit my pants and saved my shorts as a sovenier and I still have them. Should I send them to you? I think I will.

  12. Primer was interesting but i wouldn’t call it “brilliant”. Clerks i agree should be here, regardless of how good or bad people think it is. I DEFINATELY agree on The Man From Earth. Everyone see that film, wierdly brilliant.

  13. As in Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth? if so, wow. one set, minimal actors, and one of the most interesting films i have ever seen. Highly recommended.

  14. The Last Broadcast, which was the original Blair Witch, was made for only $900, but is a much better film. It was released a year before Blair Witch was made and was viewed by the two directors of Blair Witch. It was the first feature film to be released digitally in theaters in the U.S. and was digitally screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France. It needed the marketing campaign of Blair Witch, but didn’t get it.

  15. Though it didn’t make nearly the “killing” that most of these other movies did, I think Blood Simple, the Coen brothers film debut, deserves honorable mention. I still think it’s one of their best. Cost 1.5 mil and made 4.2 mil and launched the careers of the Coen brothers, cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and actress Frances McDormand.
    Here’s some trivia I didn’t know – according to Wikipedia – In 1985, McDormand, the Coen brothers, Holly Hunter, and director Sam Raimi shared a house in the Bronx.

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  17. Guys! Donnie Darko, a fantastic example. Just about broke even in the box office making just over $4.5m but then received cult status and raked in over $10m in the US alone.

  18. Pi (π) Darren Aronofsky’s first movie had a $60,000 budget and made $3+ million.

    Paranormal Activity: $15,000 budget – $193,000,000 Gross

    Rumble in the Bronx $7.5M budget – $90M WW Gross

    Do The Right Thing $6.5 Budget – $37M Gross

  19. Stupid Mad Max. I hate that movie.

    And I know it’s been said, but: WHY NO CLERKS?!?! That movie is the epitome of this subject. “The EPITOME,” he emphasized through repetition.

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