Many of the publicized movies in this day and age rely on big budgets and big effects to attract movie goers and make the money to recover from the investments made. With the granddaddy of all big budget movie franchises (or one of them) Star Warsonce again in production (coupled with its side stories about the rebel spies that gave their lives to get the secret plans to the Death Star and a Han Solo movie expected to come out in 2019) here is a list of 20 movies that had tight budgets but made millions at the box office. Many of them were creative and attention getting on their own right. Some movies you never thought were a tight budget to begin with.Even Star Wars had its humble beginnings with a $11 Million budget.
In no set order, here they are.
1. The Blair Witch Project (1999): This movie shot on a budget of $60,000 (maybe less). This movie was all done on hand held camera and one of the first movies to go “viral” in the age of the World Wide Web. While this movie spawned two sequels, this is the only movie in which the character was based on their real life counterparts. The fictional versions meet a terrible fatewhile their real-life counterparts were able to find work especially Joshua Leonard. Superstars they are not, but the first Blair Witch took in $248 Million.
2. Rocky (1976): Believe it or not Rocky started out as one of the Underdog movies that became not only abox office smash but it made Sylvester Stallone a superstar. It made the phrase “Yo, Adrian” a well-remembered movie line. It was nominated for 10 Academy awards and took three of them. Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It opened the door for five more Rocky films with bigger budgets and a spinoff movie of the Rocky series with the movie “Creed” which stars Michael B. Jordan (no relation to the basketball star) in the title role of the son of Rocky’s rival and eventual friend. Also well remembered is Bill Conti’s film score and Rocky’s icon theme “Gonna Fly Now” which would top the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1977. All this for an $1.1 Million investment and $225 Million pay off at the box office.
3. Napoleon Dynamite (2004): After making the short film “Pelua” about the day and life of a high school nerd in rural PrestonIdaho, WriterJared Hessand actor Jon Heder (who plays the title character); both film students at BYU wanted to expand on that film and make afull length picture.The plots in the movie show Napoleon making friends with Pedro Sanchez (Efren Ramirez)and building their friendship to get by in school, especially when it comes to the school dance and more importantly helping get Sanchez elected Class President. Meanwhile Napoleon must deal with his scheming Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) who’s attempts to sell certain products gets Napoleon humiliated and almost costs him his friendship with classmate Deb Bradshaw (Tina Majorino), but eventually Uncle Rico gets his. Along with Jared’s wife Jerusha (who co-wrote the film) and a budget of $400,000, Napoleon Dynamite grossed $46 Million. While the Hess family and Heder himself are members of the Church of Jesus Christian of Later Day Saints, Napoleon Dynamite was not intended to be part of the Mormon Cinema fold (ala “God’s Army”) they did shoot a few scenes at Preston’sDeseret Industries; a thrift store connected to the LDS church. Still anyone who was an outcast in high school regardless if you grew up in the city or a rural community can relate to this movie. An animated series was produced in 2012 but it quickly faded away in favor of the much edger “Bob’s Burgers.”
4. Mad Max (1979): Mel Gibson was born in America but by 12 years of age he would be raised in the land down under. The country of Australia would give Gibson his big break in the movie industry as the title character living in the near future of Australia that’s in disarray and near collapse after the events of a Nuclear disaster. Max Rockatansky is a law man fighting to keep the peace on the highways and byways of the dystopia Australia. In the first movie Max had a wife and child but lost both to Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his gang of thugs. It’s no wonder why Max would get mad. It cost around 350,000 in Australian dollars to make. It would gross to $99 Million with four big budget sequels to follow. Two would have Gibson reprise the famed role and one would have Tina Turner in a starring role and would contribute two songs for the movie…one of them was a smash hit (“We Don’t Need Another Hero” peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100), but “One Of The Living” fared well peaking at number 15.
5. Paranormal Activity (2007): Yet another low budget movie that spawned another series of movies and this one is the most recent series. With a budget of $150,000 the lead characters Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat as themselves in this fictional account of paranormal activity that haunts the two leads. Like The Blair Witch Project, the movie was shot on hand held cameras and word of mouth would allow this movie to make $193 Million is five sequels to follow.
6. Breaking Away (1979): Long before ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ Breaking Away was the high school outcast movie of the late 1970’s. Even though its characters just graduated. It was the launching pad for Dennis Christopher as well as Dennis Quaid. Like Napoleon Dynamite it is set a small town, but the focus is a college town with a frowned upon heritage instead of a primary farming town. The high school students did not know where they were going in their lives and they were targeted by the affluent students of the real lifeIndiana University Bloomington which is the largest campus in the IU system. Those affluent students called these misfits “cutters.” So named for the local limestone industry in Bloomington, Indiana. Christopher’s character Dave Stoller (the one who is “Breaking Away”) takes an interest in bicycle racing as well Italian bicyclists much to the dismay of his father who run a used car business and a former linestone cutter. Dave learns the truth about his idols and fails to impress the girl, but eventually he and his father come to an understanding and Dave takes the cutters label with pride and enters the local bicycle race to prove the college student elite how wrong they are about the younglocals. A $20 million dollar gross on a $2.3 budget.
7. The Outsiders (1983): Author S.E. Hinton grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and while still in high school at the age of 16 she was inspired to write a novel based on the local rebels in her school. She called the book “The Outsiders,” in which the rebels or greasers (low income students) were in a standoff with the wealthy kids called the ‘Socs’ or the socials. One of the greasers becomes star crossed with the beautiful soc by the name of Cherry and it plants the seeds of contention when one of the greasers stabs a soc to death. Later the same soc recuses children from a Church fire and pays the price with his life. He tells the lead character as well as the narrator of the story Pony Boy Curtis to “Stay Gold;” which was inspired by the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Frances Ford Coppola was not interested in doing a teen angst but an Elementary School librarian convinced him otherwise. He read the book and was moved to adapt and direct the move about the life of a greaser. The Frost poem and overall story inspired Stevie Wonder’s contribution to the movie along with Frances Ford’s father Carmine Coppola (who wrote the overall film score) with the song titled “Stay Gold,” and while it was never released as a single it would be featured on Stevie’s compilations “The Complete Stevie Wonder” and “Song Review.” The movie was made on a $10 million budget and grossed $33.7 million.
8. The Godfather (1972): Another Frances Ford Coppola project pre dating The Outsiders adaption. The original Godfather movie had a budget of $6 to $7 Million dollars and would gross $245 million and the story of the Italian crime empires into the minds of many Americas for better or worse. Marlon Brando would be associated with The Godfather as much Jor-El in the original Superman movies. Both characters getting killed off. The best flattery but still key to the legacy of the movie was the Godfather’s Pizza chain that began a year later with a Don Vito Corleone type spokesman originally played byJ. William Koll. Many of the catch phases from the movie itself were and are still used in the marketing of the pizza chain to this day.
9. Clerks (1994): This movie betters The Blair Witch Project budget wise with a $27,575 budget or not with the post budget of $230,000 but either way Clerks does qualify as a low budget movie that was gross to $3.2 Million and make Kevin Smith a household movie. The movie is basically a day in the life of a young convenience store clerkDante Hicks in New Jersey who was supposed to be off but was called in for a few hours only but is stuck working all day when his boss decides to travel to Vermont. The movie introduced to America to “Jay & Silent Bob” who would make appearances in most of the Smith directed movies (including Clerks 2) and would have their own movie “Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.” This not counting their animated movie in 2013. A planned “Jay & Silent Bob” reboot is in the works.
10. Night of The Living Dead (1968): With a budget of $114,000, this movie was bound for a $30 Million box office gross. While many argue about the inspiration of the zombie apocalypse stories (some say the Smurfs story “The Black/Purple Smurfs” inspired this); George A. Romero’s series of Zombie movies beginning with “Night of The Living Dead” really put such stories on the map. The Romero movies were downright cheese and this first movie went into public domain. Hey it allowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson) to show this movie when she briefly revived her B horror movie series (which was popular in the 1980’s) in 2010. It also would pave the way for more serious and darker Zombie stories. Best one to date was created by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard with it being a hit comic and later TV Series; “The Walking Dead.”On the other hand, DC Comics (via the Vertigo imprint) had iZombie which like The Walking Dead started out as a comic and later a TV series although the concepts and characters were altered.
11. The King’s Speech (2010): This critically acclaimed movie that grossed $414.2 Million was produced on a budget of $15 Million. The move dealt with King George VI (played by Colin Firth) and his speech impairment and Lionel Logue (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne Geoffrey Rush) who helped the rising King overcome it.“The King’s Speech” won four Academy awards including Best Picture, Best Actor In A Lead Role, Best Director (Tom Hooper), and best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). It would also win big at the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) Awards taking Best Picture and Best British Film. The movie was intended to be a Stage Play but it took success of the movie version to make that a reality. The stage version had its world premiere in February 2012 at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre inGuildford, Surrey, England.
12. Slumdog Millionaire (2008): This British film shot and taking place in India was loosely based on the novel “Q&A” written by one time diplomat of India,VikasSwarup. Slumdog tells the story of Jamal Malik and how his “street smarts” helped him answer the questions he had to answer on his version of the international hit game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” Who knows if this could really happen but it is a testimony to a man growing up with the gift of a photographic memory and in spite of his shortcomings proving he is not the slum dog that people make him out to be, and make us think twice before we look down on people like Jamal. Slumdog Millionaire had a $15 Million budget, and would gross over $377.9 Million. It won eight Academy Awards in 2009 including Best Picture, and before that it won a Golden Globe for Best Drama Film.
13. American Graffiti (1973): During George Lucas’s humble years and in between the initial box office failure of his sci fi dystopia film THX 1138 and the more successful Star Wars franchise, he looked to his teenage years in Modesto, California for inspiration of this coming of age period film. Lucas set the movie in the respected city on a night in early September 1962 and the final night of Summer Vacation for several freshly out of high school teens. The movie took $777,000 to produce and grossed $140 million at the Box Office. “American Graffiti” would be deemed a movie of preservation by the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Graffiti stared Ron Howard and Cindy Williams both of whom would star on “Happy Days” and many saw Graffiti as a precursor to the hit sitcom (don’t forget an episode of the sitcom anthology series “Love American Style”). A lesser known sequel “More American Graffiti” would be made and released in 1979.
14. Little Miss Sunshine (2006): Long before Honey Boo-Boo (real name Alana Thompson) became a household name, this movie which would gain more respect than the real-world Thompson. “Little Miss Sunshine” would gross over $100 million on a $8 Million budget. The movie won Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 2007.
15. Lost in Translation (2003): Frances Ford Coppola’s daughter Sofia follows in her father’s footsteps with this movie (after The Virgin Suicides a few years earlier). This movie stars Bill Murray as an aging movie star who come across a young woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a hotel in Tokyo, Japan. Both are currently dissatisfied with their marriages but in the end they go on their separate ways. This movie would be a breakthrough movie for Johansson. The movie grossed $119.7 Million on a $4 Million budget.
16. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Before Jason Voorhees wielded a chainsaw, we meet the Mother of the all in the form of the mysteries Leatherface who wore a mask made out of humanskin. The character and the movie itself were inspired by real life convicted murderer Ed Gein although his persona also inspired others like Norman Bates, and Buffalo Bill just a name a few. I leave it to you the reader to look up the movies those came from although the former is easy to figure out. The terror of Leatherface had work with a $300,000 budget but made a killing at the box office taking $30.8 Million.
17. Friday The 13th (1980): Even Jason Voohees had to start with budget less than a million. The original movie cost $550,000 to make but would gross to $59.8 Million. To date there has been 12 movies with Jason including one in which Jason beats Freddy Kruger…or does he? There was a TV Series called “Friday The 13th” but it was nothing but a marketing ploy (Antiques cursed by the Devil with no Jason to be found) and since the TV series was distributed by the old Paramount Television (now CBS Television Studios) coupled with the movie series owned by Paramount Pictures…why not? The series ran for three seasons…but just a side note to the overall franchise.
18. Enter The Dragon (1973): The movie that truly made Bruce Lee a star, but his lifeforce would soon be taken after production. In this move Lee is approached by a British agent to take on antagonist Han (Played on screen by Shih Kien, Voiced by Keye Luke) by attending a martial arts competition in order to gather evidence on the crime lord. Han does whatever he can to cover up his evil deeds but Lee is on him like a hawk and leads to a showdown in Han’s own mirror room in which Lee was not afraid to break all the mirrors in order to defeat Han and bring him to justice. Not bad for a $850,000 budget. Bruce Lee’s final movie would take in $22 Million in America alone.
19. The Purge (2013): For a $3 Million budget this movie got to ask yourself this question. ‘What if our Government or any Government passes a law that would make common crimes legal and no help from police, fire or medical protection possible…even for a single night once a year? While they try to make the New Founding Fathers of America sound like some right wing political party one of the goals of the Purge was a way to control the human population. Not even the best security system sold by protagonist JamesSandin (Ethan Hawke) can keep his family safe from the antagonists of the Purge.There were enough movie goers who wanted to see this kind of possibility of the future of America and it grossed $89.3 million. The sequels would do better than the original with three to date. The recent Purge movie had a $10 million budget.
20. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002): It had a $5 Million dollar budget but that did not include a marketing campaign, but Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson believed in Nia Vardalosand her one woman play about a Greek girl unlucky in love until she meets and upper-class Anglo man who gets caught up in her Big Fat Greek Life (pun intended and explained below) into an full length motion picture with an all star cast. It truly took word of mouth and an email campaign to take Wedding from the Art Movie cinemas to the major cinemas and it worked. The movie would gross $368.7 Million. However, that would not translate well when the movie became a multi-camera TV sitcom titled “My Big Fat Greek Life” which lasted for only seven episodes in early 2003. On the otherhand a long awaited sequel (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) that stars Nia’s on camera half Greek teen aged daughter college bound was released in theaters in 2016.
Their many other movies that have done well with low budgets and not just the start of other horror series like Elm Street, Saw, and Halloween, but even other Dramedy in the vain of Napoleon Dynamite. The most recent one was Juno which dealt with teen pregnancy in her decision whether to rise the child or give it up for adaption. Or “Open Water” a horror film based on the real events of two scuba divers stranded in shark invested waters. The movies that I picked in this piece for the most party have made certain impacts on our current culture. While Napoleon Dynamite might be considered a recent “Revenge of The Nerds” you can still find people supporting Perdo Sanchez with their own “Vote for Perdo” campaign buttons.