The best low budget films become cult classics if not box office knock-outs. Contrary to whatever the guys who make all the Marvel movies believe, you don’t need to spend millions and millions of dollars to make a great film or even a commercially successful one.
So what do we mean by low budget? The general consensus is that this is a feature made with less than $2 million. However, with the average cost of a film running between $70-$90 million, that number may be somewhat flexible, and even films below the $20 million mark could be considered generally low.
Here are some of our top picks of low budget films that became audience favourites.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by: Eduardo Sánchez, Daniel Myrick
The Blair Witch Project is a cult classic found-footage horror about three students who camp out in the Maryland backwoods, along with their video camera, in the hopes of uncovering the mystery of the infamous Blair Witch incidents. When they lose their map and, eventually, their sanity, things take a terrifying turn.
This small film made a huge name for itself and is even in the Guinness Book of World Records for Top Budget: Box Office Ratio (for a mainstream feature film). The film cost just $60,000 to make and made a whopping $248 million. This gives it a ratio of $1 spent for every $10,931 made.
Super Size Me (2004)
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock's social experiment in the effects of fast food sees him attempting to eat nothing but McDonald's for an entire month. Alongside demonstrating the physical and unexpected impact this has on his body, the film also examines the corporate giant's growing role in the lives of American consumers. The eye-opening yet surprisingly charming film is still shown in health classes in schools the world over.
Spurlock shot 250 hours of footage, with only about 0.66% of this appearing in the final cut. When the film opened in Australia, achieved the highest opening gross ever for a documentary, making over AUS$1 million (around US$800,000) in the first two weeks of release.
City Of God (2002)
Budget: $3.3 Million
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund
The City of God or Cidade de Deus is a Portuguese language film about two boys growing up in a dangerous "favela" (slum neighbourhood) in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. We follow their lives as they adopt diverging life paths, with one becoming a photographer and the other making a living as a drug dealer.
Aside from the unexpected success (the film grossed $7.5 million in the U.S. and over US$30.5 million worldwide), there were unlikely beginnings for the movie, too. Leandro Firmino (Zé Pequeno) grew up in the real City of God and never had ambitions of becoming an actor. He only went to the audition to keep his friend company but made a huge impression on casting directors. All other amateur cast members were all scouted from favelas around Rio.
Budget: $1 Million
Directed by: John G. Avildsen
After producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff became interested in the script, they offered Sylvester Stallone (who wrote the script) $350,000 for the rights. At the time, Stalone only had $106 in the bank but refused to sell unless they agreed to let him star in the film. They agreed.
After Winkler and Chartoff purchased the film, they took it to United Artists, who wanted an established star like Robert Redford to play Rocky. When Winkler and Chartoff told United Artists that they could only get the screenplay if Stallone starred, United Artists cut the budget to $1 million, making Chartoff and Winkler sign agreements making them personally liable if the film went over budget. The final cost was $1.1 million, so Chartoff and Winkler mortgaged their houses for the last $100,000. The film's lifetime gross is over $117 million USD, with the combined gross of the Rocky and Creed films exceeding $674 million.
Mad Max (1979)
Directed by: George Miller
Another film with humble beginnings. Most of the extras used in Mad Max were paid in beer and George Miller raised the money himself by working as an emergency room doctor. It earned more than US$100 million worldwide in gross revenue and held the also held a Guinness record for the most profitable feature film.
The film tells the story of Max (Mel Gibson) a highway patrolman, who kills a gangster leader in a heated battle. The remaining gang members decide to seek revenge on Max and an intense game of cat and mouse ensues.
Budget: $1.5 Million
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
The beautifully told love story between Chiran, and young black boy, and his mentor Juan, a drug dealer who encourages find his own path. However, as Chiran matures, it’s not just Juan's advice that leaves a lasting impression on him.
There is some contention over the exact budget of Moonlight, as many sources put it at around $4 million. However, Director Barry Jenkins stated at a Q&A at the BFI in London, that the budget was in fact $1.5 million.
Moonlight had the lowest budget of any 'Best Picture' Academy Award-winner since Rocky (1976). If you adjust this to inflation, Moonlight’s is actually lower. The film had a worldwide gross of $65.3 million.
Directed by: John Carpenter
One of the most successful independent films of all time. The story of Halloween begins on one cold October night in 1963. Six-year-old Michael Myers brutally murdered his 17-year-old sister, Judith and was sentenced to 16 years in Smith’s Grove Correctional Facility. On October 30 1978, while being transferred for a court date, a 21-year-old Michael Myers escapes and returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, to look for his next victims.
From a budget of $300,000, the film went on to gross $47 million at the US box office alone. In 2008, takings that would be the equivalent of $150 million today. David Gonalez of Real Talk Magazine said of Halloween in 2018: ‘The film set the standard for horror and the slasher film genre and is one of the most influential, imitated, and commercially successful independent films in history.’
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Directed by: Jared Hess
An undeniable cult classic, Napoleon Dynamite became one of the most quoted films from the millennial MTV generation. It follows Napoleon, a socially awkward teenager, as he gets caught up in his dysfunctional family's misadventures while trying to help a friend win the class presidency. Jon Heder was paid just $1000 to play Napoleon and the film was shot in 22 days in Idaho. The film began as a short film called Peluca, which director Jared Hess made for a film class during his time as a student at Brigham Young University.
As well as a box office revenue of over $44 million, the film made a killing in merchandise. In the mid-noughties, it was hard to ignore the ‘Vote for Pedro’ that decorated fridge magnets and t-shirts of teenagers from the Midwest to Middlesbrough.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Budget: 4 million
Directed by: Sofia Coppola
Lost in Translation is famously Bill Murray’s favourite of the films he has worked on. Bob Harris (portrayed by Murray), is an ageing actor who befriends college graduate Charlotte (portrayed by Scarlett Johansson) in a Tokyo hotel. Both characters experience loneliness, insomnia, boredom and culture shock, finding solace in their new friendship. Visually, every frame is a delight, and for solo travellers, reminiscent of nights spent propped up at bars and restaurants around the world, staring into a sea of strangers.
Though the entire budget for the film was $4 million, it grossed $44.5 million in North America and $119.7 million worldwide. This makes it more successful in its year of release than many high budget films in 2003 including Jonny English which had a budget of $40 million - ten times Lost in Translation’s budget.