October 27, 2022

Low Budget Movies That Made Millions

Nathan Hilgartner
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As a producer of low budget indie films, you know how to save money making a great movie. But what are the ingredients to major success with the best low budget movies? Are there common features between low budget movie that made millions and found a wide audience? 

In this post, we’re going to list some low budget movies that made millions and discuss some of the takeaways we can learn from and use for our own projects. Since many of the best low budget films belong to the horror genre – and in honor of October 31st – we’ve gathered 31 of these classics, just in time for Halloween!

What is considered a low budget movie?

For our purposes, what is considered a low budget movie is:

  1. A film made after 1970;
  2. That has a budget of less than $5 million adjusted for inflation;
  3. That was financed largely or entirely in the US, UK, or Canada;
  4. That made over $1 million at the box office, together with other forms of distribution.

The reason we applied these constraints to our list is to make it as relevant as possible to indie producers right now. Older distribution models and foreign funding sources don’t help much when you’re trying to make a low budget American film in 2022.

Even though indie financing structures based on video and DVD sales have gone the way of the dodo, many of the films we’ll reference could still be made today using the somewhat analogous streaming model. 

This means we’ve excluded, for example, hugely influential foreign action films like The Way of the Dragon and the original Mad Max

We’ve had to neglect extraordinary foreign classics like Pather Panchali and The Lives of Others – which are not only some of the best low budget films of all time, but the best films of all time period. 

Even relatively recent movies made for less than $5 million are edged out if inflation has already pushed their present-day cost past our mark. Such films include Donnie Darko, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Boyhood, and Get Out – great low budget movies that made millions, but not quite low enough for our purposes. 

Still, while we acknowledge the importance of those films within the cannon, we also want to provide our audience with actionable learnings from these movies. That’s why every film comes with a Takeaway. What lesson can you apply to your low budget movie?

For the films we are including, we’re listing the original budget, not adjusted for inflation – but all of these films would cost less than $5 million to make today.

Eraserhead (1977) 

Dir. David Lynch 

Budget: ~$10,000 

Box Office: $7,000,000

David Lynch’s breakout film didn’t even have an official budget. Lynch scraped together money from selling newspapers, from his wife’s waitressing job, and from friends like Sissy Spacek, all while studying at AFI. 

The film was a sleeper hit: although only 25 people attended the premiere, Eraserhead developed a cult following through long midnight runs in theaters in LA, New York, and San Francisco. It is now regarded as a classic which cemented Lynch’s reputation and style.  

The Takeaway

With current distribution models, a years-long midnight theatrical run is unlikely, but a horror streaming hit is an analogous scenario. If you have a bold directorial vision with a strong, creepy imagistic style, and it finds its runaway streaming audience, you might just have an Eraserhead on your hands.

Paranormal Activity (2007) 

Dir. Oren Peli

Budget: $15,000

Box Office: $193,400,00

Paranormal Activity is legendary. It’s one of the highest grossing low budget movies of all time – some say the most profitable film ever made. It’s also one of the scariest. 

Like The Blair Witch Project before it (see below), the movie uses the “found footage” conceit to make the low budget look a part of the story: the characters are shooting a home video to try and capture paranormal activity on film. 

Director Oren Peli shot the whole film on video with just a few actors – who mostly improvised their lines – and no crew, since the camera is on a tripod most of the time.  The practical effects are far, far scarier than most expensive splatter you’ll find in big budget numbers. 

The film was screened at Screamfest, discovered by a CAA assistant, picked up by Paramount – and made almost $200 million, spawning a vast franchise, all against a microscopic budget of $15,000. It’s hard to do better than that. 

The Takeaway

This is the gold standard for low budget horror movies. It turns all of its cost-saving corner cuts into virtues, and generates sheer terror out of Ouija boards and slamming doors. Can’t afford lighting or decent cameras? Make the story about people filming a home video, and your aesthetic becomes integral to the plot (and also scarier!)

This is horror filmmaking at its purest, with the gigantic financial returns representing the power of story and atmosphere over stars and CGI glitz. Can it be done again? You decide.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) 

Dir. Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez

Budget: $60,000

Box Office: $248,600,000

Without The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity could never have been made. This first successful “found footage” low budget horror movie was absolutely groundbreaking. 

Like its successor, The Blair Witch Project was filmed on video with actors partially improvising their reactions to the horrors around them. The actors playing three kids searching the woods for the Blair Witch used their real names, and the filmmakers gave them lots to react to, pursuing them through the woods in what must have been a pretty terrifying film shoot. 

The movie was one of the first to be primarily marketed through the Internet, ingeniously using the story to generate buzz: materials about the three “missing students” – the characters in the film – were circulated, adding to the sense that this might just be a real documentary…

The Takeaway

Another tremendously influential and creative low budget horror film, which was followed by imitations such as Unfriended and Host. The question is: now that we live in an age of ubiquitous phone cameras, what new spins can be put on the “found footage” genre? 

What would a Blair Witch of TikTok look like? Is there a new kind of viral marketing like the “missing students” shtick which has yet to be invented? We’re excited for you to show us.

Open Water (2004) 

Dir. Chris Kentis

Budget: $120,000

Box Office: $55,500,000

Based on true events, Open Water has a simple story: two divers stuck in the middle of shark-infested waters. The goal is primal terror, and that’s just what the movie delivers. Watching it, you might not even notice that it was shot on digital video.

As with many of the best low budget movies, Open Water thrives on its filmmakers’ strengths. Husband/wife team Chris Kentis and Laura Lau are both avid scuba divers – thus, shooting in and out of the water came easily to them. They used real sharks for the film, which is both cheaper and arguably scarier than the CGI sharks in Deep Blue Sea, or even the mechanical shark in Jaws

The Takeaway

Play to your strengths. Are you an experienced scuba diver who knows the raw terror of the sea? Have you had a unique experience of swimming out there in the deep, and felt a pang of fear which hardly anyone else in the world knows about? Give it to us – real sharks and all. 

Halloween (1978) 

Dir. John Carpenter

Budget: $325,000 

Box Office: $70,000,000

Simple, brilliant, effective: Halloween is the ultimate haunted house movie. It heralded the golden age of slasher films and launched the careers of director John Carpenter and star Jamie Lee Curtis. Financed by a small-time independent producer and shot at just a few locations over 20 days, Halloween is one of the best low budget movies of all time and initiated a huge franchise. 

As with many of the best low budget movies in the horror genre, much of what is most recognizable in Halloween comes from its low cost. The iconic mask of the killer Michael Myers was modified from a Star Trek Captain Kirk mask bought at a Hollywood Boulevard costume shop for $1.98. Hard to believe, isn’t it?

John Carpenter also wrote the score to Halloween himself – perfectly marrying a terrifying soundtrack to his cinematic vision.

The Takeaway

Music is an oft-ignored aspect of indie flimmaking. But the right soundtrack can elevate your mood to such heights that you invent a brand new genre.  It doesn’t even have to be expensive, either.  Carpenter did all his work on a single synthesizer.  

If you don’t have the money or the talent to create the perfect visuals, can music fill in the gaps?

Monsters (2010) 

Dir. Gareth Edwards

Budget: $500,000

Box Office: $4,240,000

A sci-fi giant monster movie is not usually what is considered a low budget movie, but Gareth Edwards’ Monsters was made for just half a million dollars. How? Simply put, Edwards combined the guerilla techniques used on many low budget films with an effective use of relatively cheap CGI. 

The film was shot at unpermitted locations in Central America, with a minimal script and unknown actors, using high-end video equipment instead of film. Amazingly, the movie was edited on a laptop. 

Using Adobe software, Edwards painstakingly created each frame of the film’s 250 effects shots, filling empty spaces with giant tentacled space monsters. They look great – especially when compared with more expensive CGI from the time. 

The Takeaway

These days, killer special effects are as much a matter of sweat as one of budget. If you have the patience to sit at your laptop clicking frame by frame, you can make a space monster blockbuster for little more than the cost of a guerilla documentary. 

Friday the 13th (1980) 

Dir. Sean S. Cunningham

Budget: $550,000 

Box Office: $59,800,000

The success of Halloween made slasher films a big business, but they continued to be made for relatively little – the slasher genre boasts many low budget films that made millions. Like Halloween, Friday the 13th also resulted in a huge franchise with sequels continuing into the 21st century.

Part of the film’s aura is the recurring sound effect – “ki ki ki, ma ma ma” – which haunts the soundtrack. It’s actually the character Jason Vorhees saying “kill for Mommy” to his mother – very very creepy.

The Takeaway

Think about atmospheric and sound elements which are cheap to produce but which stick in viewers minds – and nightmares. A repeated haunting sound effect is way scarier than most special effects! If you don’t believe us, watch the movie and see…

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) 

Dir. Wes Craven

Budget: $1,100,000

Box Office: $57,000,000

Speaking of nightmares, our list couldn’t possibly be complete without the third great slasher franchise, which started with A Nightmare on Elm Street. New Line Cinema – then a relatively young distribution company – agreed to finance Wes Craven’s script as their first produced film – and the gamble paid off big time.

The idea of a killer who travels through dreams is terrifying, and audiences have continued to be captivated and horrified by the figure of Freddy Krueger ever since. 

His look is iconic – the face, the striped red and green sweater, the glove with steak knives attached – but it’s not expensive by any stretch of the imagination. 

The Takeaway

More even than Michael Myers or the Vorhees family, Freddy Krueger is an immortally iconic villain. Casting is essential: there would be no Freddy without Robert Englund playing him. Can you come up with something – and cast someone – who will chase us through our dreams?

Saw (2004) 

Dir. James Wan

Budget: $1,200,000

Box Office: $103,900,000

Last on our list of low budget horror movies that made millions is Saw, which also became a franchise. The original idea – inspired by low budget films such as The Blair Witch Project and Pi (see below) – was to confine the story to two characters in one room. 

The script eventually developed beyond those confines, so the filmmakers shot a demo short for about $5,000, and were able to secure further funding. Along with the bathroom location where most of the film takes place, the filmmakers shot on existing sets from other productions. 

The Takeaway

Many of the best low budget movies were conceived as low budget movies, using the constraint of limited locations and characters to power their story. Saw is no exception. Give yourself some limitations and see if you don’t come up with an idea for one of the best low budget films of all time.

Low Budget Documentaries

Most documentaries are low budget films by our definition, especially when compared to major studio productions. We’ll look at three which also did well commercially, and discuss what made them so successful. 

Tarnation (2003) 

Dir. Jonathan Caouette

Budget: $218.32 

Box Office: $1,200,000

By far the least expensive film on our list is Tarnation, a powerful documentary reputedly made for less than $220 and edited on Apple’s free iMovie software. Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette edited together home movies from his childhood and shot new footage to document his complicated, painful, but ultimately loving relationship with his mentally ill mother Renée.

The result is something deeply personal and unique. Caouette’s friends encouraged him to submit the film to a festival, where it deeply moved audiences and was picked up for international distribution. 

The Takeaway 

If you have a personal story, it really doesn’t take much to document it honestly. For audiences willing to go there, raw emotional truth is worth far, far more than big blockbuster budgets.

Catfish (2010) 

Dir. Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Budget: $30,000

Box Office: $3,500,000

One of the strangest and hardest to classify of our low budget films is Catfish, which follows a man in an online relationship with someone he met on Facebook who may or may not exist. The film coined the term “catfishing” and generated controversy over whether it is a “real” documentary.

The buzz obviously helped the movie, which has played a major role in an ongoing cultural conversation about the role of social media in modern lives and relationships. It’s also extremely suspenseful, which is a great thing in either a documentary or a fiction film!

The Takeaway

Controversy is good, and so are topical issues. If you can find a way to tread the line between fact and fiction – and hit the cultural moment in the bargain – you may just have a hit low budget documentary on your hands.

Super Size Me (2004) 

Dir. Morgan Spurlock

Budget: $65,000 

Box Office: $22,200,000

Another impactful “issue” movie, Super Size Me has an ingenious premise: filmmaker Morgan Spurlock experiments on himself, testing the health effects of eating three meals of McDonald’s every day for a month. After gaining almost 25 pounds in three weeks and experiencing symptoms including depression, lowered sex drive, and heart palpitations, Spurlock abandons the experiment at the urging of his doctors.

The film’s effect is powerful, and it did serious damage to the image of fast food corporations in America. McDonald’s discontinued their Super Size portions six months after the film premiered. With little more than a camera and his own body, Spurlock put his health on the line and brought a massive corporation to account. That’s the power of documentary filmmaking.

The Takeaway

If you take a risk – and document it – you can be the David who takes down Goliath. And there’s no better subject than yourself – after all you have all the rights to set and subject already. Just be sure not to give yourself a heart attack in the process!

Low Budget Comedies

Comedy is all about timing – and if you’ve got the right jokes and hit the right moment, you can make millions laugh for almost nothing. The following seven comedies are among the best low budget films of all time.

Slacker (1990) 

Dir. Richard Linklater

Budget: $23,000

Box Office: $1,200,000

Richard Linklater is responsible for some of the best low budget movies of all time. Slacker was his first, and along with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (see below), it helped launch the indie film movement of the 1990s.

Slacker was shot on a 16mm camera all around Austin, Texas, using mostly amateur actors playing quirky characters in short, passing vignettes. There’s not much of a story – just a careful attention to people and their foibles. It’s the beginning of Linklater’s effortlessly realist slice-of-life style, and it gives a funny and engaging portrait of a specific world.

The Takeaway

If you have a unique view on a social world, show it to us. There are so many unique experiences and worldviews out there, and with care and attention to detail they can be revealed to the world. Audiences don’t just want to watch movies about superheroes – sometimes, slackers are more interesting.

Clerks (1994)

Dir. Kevin Smith 

Budget: $27,000 

Box Office: $4,400,000

Slacker directly inspired Kevin Smith, a convenience store clerk, to make Clerks, a comedy about a day in the surprisingly funny life of guys who work in convenience and video stores and who like to argue about philosophy, sex, and Star Wars

Smith’s dedication was extraordinary: to finance the film, he sold most of his comic book collection, borrowed from his parents, and maxed out multiple credit cards. He cast his friends and shot the film in his workplace after hours, getting so little rest between shoots and shifts that he fell asleep on set during the shooting of a climactic fight scene. The result is a cult comedy classic.

The Takeaway

Like Slackers, Clerks is based in a real world its creator knew well. More to the point, Smith figured out that he could make a movie about his workplace in his workplace. He didn’t need to find a crazy or expensive location – he just needed to use what was right in front of him.

She’s Gotta Have It (1986) 

Dir. Spike Lee

Budget: $175,000 

Box Office: $7,100,000

She’s Gotta Have It, the movie that launched Spike Lee’s career, is a stylish comedy about a sexually independent young woman. It’s also a study in dedication. Lee scraped together funds from various grants and enlisted the help of his talented family: his sister acted, his brothers worked as PAs, and his musician father wrote and recorded the film score.

While the film is not without its controversial elements, it cemented Lee’s style and voice as the preeminent African American director of his generation.

The Takeaway

If you can bring your family onboard, bring them! Making low budget films is an all-hands-on-deck type operation, and you’ll need all the help you can get. Even luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola know the importance of filmmaking as a family business. Call yours up and put them to work!

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) 

Dir. Jared Hess

Budget: $400,000 

Box Office: $46,100,000

Another quirky slice-of-life film based closely on the filmmaker’s experience is Napoleon Dynamite, a weirdo coming-of-age story which must rank among the most unlikely low budget movies that made millions. Part of what made it successful was the word-of-mouth marketing afforded by the film’s many catch phrases – “your mom goes to college!”

Within weeks of the film’s release, “Vote for Pedro” badges and bumper stickers were everywhere. They helped make the movie’s sensibility and aesthetic come alive. It’s a very clever technique.

The Takeaway

If characters are speaking to you, maybe they’ll appeal to others as well. See if you can come up with a world and a sensibility that will go as viral as Napoleon’s dance moves. We think you can do it.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) 

Dir. Jim Sharman

Budget: $1,400,000 

Box Office: $226,000,000

A campy, hilarious tribute to old horror and sci-fi B movies (a whole other category of low budget films that made millions), the movie version of this stage musical was made for pennies compared to the lifetime box office gross of its endless midnight theatrical runs. Cross-dressing and glam rock extravagance give a new character to the “mad scientist” plot. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a unique film in many ways, including for creating a special kind of viewing experience: dedicated audiences dress up in costume (and sometimes get in free!), singing along with the musical numbers. Generations after its release, this movie is still a fixture in queer communities around the world. 

The Takeaway

A true “cult” movie taps into a genuine subculture, and Rocky Horror is one of the preeminent examples. Millions of people have been brought together “doing the time-warp” with Dr. Frank-N-Furter. If there’s a subculture that you feel a genuine part of, don’t be afraid to bring it into your work.

Up in Smoke (1978) 

Dir. Lou Adler

Budget: $2,000,000 

Box Office: $104,000,000

Speaking subcultures: many 1970s stoners were already fans of comedy duo Cheech and Chong when Up and Smoke was pitched to Paramount. Although drug use was considered a disreputable topic for a major studio at the time, the built-in audience turned up. 

This film singlehandedly launched the stoner comedy genre – yet another list of mostly low budget movies that made millions. 

The Takeaway

Cheech and Chong’s standup comedy routines already had a large following, so this film is a great example of a crossover hit. In the age of social media, it’s easy to imagine taking a well-known influencer and turning them into a movie star.

Garden State (2004) 

Dir. Zach Braff

Budget: $2.5m

Box Office: $35,800,000

Zach Braff’s ode to his New Jersey youth is a sweet and wistful rom-com. But as fans will invariably tell you, the standout element of Garden State is its soundtrack, which Braff carefully selected and set to the important moments of his movie. 

It can be expensive to license music for a film. Nevertheless, Braff felt strongly about his choices and even sent his script to the musical artists he wanted to persuade. Almost all of them agreed, and while a large chunk of the film’s budget went to securing these tracks, Braff’s conviction paid off: the soundtrack album sold more than 1.3 million copies – meaning that the soundtrack’s sales rivaled the movie’s substantial box office returns. 

The Takeaway

Music is important in film, and if you can tie significant songs or artists in with your movie, you may reach a wider audience and hit an essential beat. Braff knew he'd be putting a lot of his budget towards music, but he also knew that without the music, the film wouldn't work. Know what matters and direct your limited resources there."

Low Budget Dramas & Action Films

Action thrillers and Oscar-darling dramas don’t always have to be big budget affairs. Check out these award-winning films, some of the best low-budget movies ever to grace the screen.

El Mariachi (1992) 

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Budget: $7,000 

Box Office: $2,000,000

El Mariachi is one of the most extraordinary films on our list, which truly redefined what is considered a low budget movie. It seems impossible that a 23-year-old Robert Rodriguez could have shot a compelling action film for only $7,000 on a handheld camera with no crew, on location in a Mexican border town, with mostly local volunteers as actors. But it’s true. 

What began as an improbable shoestring action flick for the direct-to-video market in Mexico became a cult hit and spawned a theatrical trilogy. Rodriguez got to expand his vision with a real budget in the sequels Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003).

The Takeaway

The tricks Rodriguez used to stretch his negligible budget are too many to list in this article, but he explains many of them in this fascinating video. Check it out – learn from a true master. Above all, never forget Rodriguez’s central maxim: if you start spending, you can’t stop. So figure out a way to hold onto that money and get your film made anyway!

Another Earth (2011) 

Dir. Mike Cahill

Budget: $100,000 

Box Office: $1,900,000

A haunting sci-fi drama, Another Earth imagines a duplicate of our planet hovering in the atmosphere like a tantalizing glimpse of another possible life. 

Apart from that recurring special effect – affordable CGI at work yet again – the film is a textbook case of low-budget ingenuity. Director Mike Cahill shot in his home town of New Haven, Connecticut, using friends’ and families’ houses as locations. Some of the actors worked for little or no pay. 

The Takeaway

Spend on the stuff that matters – like, in this case, the CGI for the doppelgänger planet of the title, without which the movie wouldn’t work. Save on the stuff that you can save on – why pay to use a location when you can shoot the scene in your own childhood bedroom, as Cahill did for this film? There’s no reason you can’t make the movie you want to make, even on a tiny budget. 

Pi (1998) 

Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Budget: $135,000 

Box Office: $3,200,000

Darren Aronofsky’s career took off after he made Pi, an ingenious, intellectual thriller which follows a mathematician trying to make sense of the underlying order in the universe. Images illustrate mathematical concepts in a kaleidoscopic portrait of nature and New York City which somehow makes for a wild and suspenseful ride.

Aronofsky and his producers crowdsourced the funds for the movie by soliciting $100 donations – all in the age before GoFundMe and Patreon. They shot guerilla style on 16mm, giving the film a rough and raw look.

The Takeaway

If you make them visual, ideas can be as gripping as action sequences – it all depends on the quality of your storytelling. Good writing, directing, and editing can make a fantastic and gripping film out of almost anything.

Brick (2005) 

Dir. Rian Johnson

Budget: $450,000 

Box Office: $3,900,000

Rian Johnson’s debut is a slick neo-noir set in a suburban high school, following Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a star-making turn as a teenage sleuth. Johnson was inspired by the detective novels of Dashiell Hammett, and thought that transposing their conventions to the world of his own high school would change things up in an interesting way.

Johnson shot Brick on weekends using current students as extras and rehearsed his cast carefully before shooting. These are important techniques for saving time on a shoot.

The Takeaway

Genre meets unexpected world – a great idea for a spin on classic archetypes. What books or movies have inspired you? How can you take their traits and tropes to a new context and show us a world only you know, reflected through the kinds of stories you love?

Rocky (1976) 

Dir. John D. Avildsen

Budget: $960,000 

Box Office: $225,000,000

Sylvester Stallone became a movie star by writing a screenplay in less than four days. The script was for a boxing movie called Rocky, and while executives liked the idea of attaching Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds, Stallone refused to sell unless he himself were cast in the lead role.

The producers felt it was a risk, but they made the right decision: Rocky became the quintessential sports film and launched Stallone’s long career.

The Takeaway

A good script is essential, and so is believing in your vision of your project. Execs are a risk-averse bunch, but the only way they’ve ever made money is by taking gambles on extraordinary talent. Remind them!

Blue Valentine (2010) 

Dir. Derek Cianfrance

Budget: $1,000,000 

Box Office: $16,600,000

Sometimes budget problems are actually a blessing in disguise. Such was true for Blue Valentine, which follows a split timeline – years before and after a divorce – and which, because of lack of funds, saw its timelines shot actual years apart.

Director Derek Cianfrance also employed intense “method”-type acting exercises with his leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, having them rent a house and live together in character for a time. Cianfrance also gave up his director’s fee to finish financing the film.

The Takeaway

Passion and dedication go a long way, and difficulties can also be viewed as opportunities. Sometimes your budget problems are blessings in disguise! Be grateful for them and let them fuel your process.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) 

Dir. Steven Soderbergh

Budget: $1,200,000 

Box Office: $36,700,000

Steven Soderbergh wrote the screenplay for this intimate and ambiguous film on a legal pad. Along with a great script, Sex, Lies, and Videotape has all the hallmarks of many of the best low budget movies – a small cast and few locations. As we noted, the film helped launch the indie movement of the 90s.

The film’s treatment of its topic was groundbreaking in American film. Sex had been shown onscreen plenty by this point, but this film concerns itself more with people talking about sex – and a man who’s fixated on videotaping women describing their fantasies verbally. It makes for an intriguing, and unsettling, commentary on the voyeurism inherent in watching anything on film – including this movie itself.

The Takeaway

If you have a bold and provocative idea, you can be sure of interesting an audience. Movies about moviemaking – even the furtive and kinky kind which features in this drama – are a special place to say something. What can be said about these themes today, when we carry cameras around in our pockets all the time?

Moonlight (2016) 

Dir. Barry Jenkins

Budget: $1,500,000 

Box Office: $65,300,000

This poignant coming-of-age story based on a play follows a young Black gay man during three different chapters of his life. Director Barry Jenkins chose a different film stock look for each of the three parts and let the three actors each develop a distinct characterization of the character as he matures.

Jenkins shot Moonlight partly in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, where he grew up, which aided the low cost of the production process. The film was a great critical success, going on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017.

The Takeaway

A beautiful, well-written drama can captivate critics and audiences alike. As we’ve seen, shooting in places you know well and have friends, family, and other resources, can be a big money-saver. 

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino 

Budget: $1,500,000 

Box Office: $2,900,000

Tarantino’s first feature established his style – elaborate scenes of dialogue punctuated by absurd violence. The inscrutable title has inspired much speculation – some say the phrase Reservoir Dogs was written on the label over a stack of unsolicited screenplays at a production company Tarantino visited – mangy scripts like a bunch of mutts fighting to get out of a tank. Others claim the phrase results from his mishearing French when, at his video store job, customers kept coming in and asking to rent Louis Malle’s film Au Revoir les Enfants.

Regardless, the premise of the movie is a clever low budget trick: a robbery we never see. By focusing on scenes before and after, Tarantino avoids having to stage an expensive set piece and innovates on the “heist” genre. Instead, he relies on his writing and his excellent cast, including Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, and Steve Buscemi.

The Takeaway

This is another example of turning a low budget difficulty into a strength. There’s not enough money to actually show the heist, so we only hear about it – and it becomes much bigger in our imaginations. In addition, it plays into one of Tarantino’s legendary strengths – his dialogue. If you can write dialogue snappy enough, you can even get away with a lengthy discussion on tipping.

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Dir. Kimberly Peirce

Budget: $2,000,000

Box Office: $20,700,000

The horrific, true story of trans man Brandon Teena – who was brutally gang raped and murdered in 1993 – inspired Kimberly Peirce to make this tragic, lyrical bio-pic. Most of the movie follows his joyful experience of coming out and falling in love – but the end of Boys Don’t Cry is gut-wrenching.

Peirce dove deep into research about Brandon Teena’s life and carefully crafted a script which would honor his legacy. Actress Hilary Swank immersed herself in the role and later won the Oscar for Best Actress.

The Takeaway

True stories are powerful. If you’re inspired by a real person’s life, it’s important to be as honest and truthful as possible. If you do, you may create something as profound as anything in cinema.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Dir. Richard Linklater 

Budget: $2,500,000 

Box Office: $22,500,000

Another Linklater film, this one a lovely and subtle romantic drama which follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply as two strangers who meet on a train and decide to spend a day and night together walking around Vienna, Austria.

The film was inexpensive to shoot, as there are relatively few characters. But the spontaneity and freshness of Before Sunrise only work because of Hawke’s and Delpy’s performances, and the uncredited rewrites they did on the script. Linklater, his cowriter Kim Krizan, and the two main cast members, endlessly discussed and rewrote the characters’ unfolding conversation, resulting in something beautiful and true.

The Takeaway

Film is always a collaboration. Many of the greatest films result from true harmony between creative talents. Get great people on board with your vision and you may find that they show you truths about your story that you never even imagined.

Whiplash (2014) 

Dir. Damien Chazelle 

Budget: $3,300,000 

Box Office: $49,000,000

Damien Chazelle’s debut feature grew out of a short he made, also called Whiplash, about a jazz drummer struggling with a demanding teacher. 

The success of the short helped Chazelle secure funding to turn Whiplash into a feature, which launched Chazelle’s career and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for JK Simmons.

The Takeaway

A short film can be a great proof of concept for investors. Take a look at our guide to promoting your short film – you may just get the chance to turn it into a great feature.

Wrapping Up

Many, many different kinds of movie have turned into low budget movies that made millions.   If you’re ready to move forward with your great idea, we suggest you take a look at our Indie Producer’s Guide to Crewing Up. It’s also worth thinking about indie film distributors now.  

Take this list not only as inspiration, but as lessons. See far, because you stand on the shoulders of giants. After all, where would Tarantino be if he hadn’t learned so much from his favorite exploitation films? As Rocky Horror with old B movies, and Brick with Dashiell Hammett stories, hopefully your great film will grow out of the low budget movies that have inspired you.

Last Updated 
October 27, 2022


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Nathan Hilgartner

Nathan Hilgartner is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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