Low-Budget Films That Became Big Blockbusters

     May 11, 2019

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Look, making a good movie doesn’t mean you need a big budget to follow. Sure, incredible special effects and A-list actors are a plus, but having those things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve made a hit film. There are plenty of films made on a small budget that made broke records and made millions. It’s refreshing to see that quite a few independent films made it big-time and turned into memorable blockbusters. These films have found the perfect balance between a low budget and interesting content while racking up a huge return on investment. Who knows, you’re favorite movie may be on this list.

The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project introduced audiences to a new kind of horror movie and set the aesthetic for many that followed. Although not the first “found footage” horror movie, the independent film following a group of student filmmakers who attempt to hunt down an urban legend was the first film to rely on a viral internet marketing campaign purporting that the events of the film were real.

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Image by Haxan Films

Despite just a $60,000 budget, it went on to make $246.8 million worldwide at the box office, including $140.5 million domestic. This number will likely even more surprising when we inform you that the film was made in eight days, and there wasn’t a finished script when filming began. 

Juno

For a small indie film that was made on just a $7.5 million budget, Juno really made a significant impact. The film had such a low budget that Jennifer Garner had to take a pay cut to keep the costs down. Surprisingly, the movie, starring Ellen Page and Michael Cera, brought in $231.4 million worldwide, including $143.4 million domestic.

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Image by Fox Searchlight

The film also garnered a reputable amount of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Jason Reitman), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Page), and it took home an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The film was a huge hit, especially for young women, thanks to its hilarious and realistic take on a controversial topic.

Little Miss Sunshine

Like Juno, Little Miss Sunshine is an indie film that blew up big time. The movie earned four Oscar nominations and two wins after hitting the screen in 2006. The movie that was created for just $8 million, ended up earning $100.5 million worldwide, including $59.9 million domestic.

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Image by Fox Searchlight

 Even more impressive, the movie’s widest release only reached 1,602 theaters. When the first showing of the film received a standing ovation, Fox Searchlight jumped at the opportunity, paying for the film for the small price of $10.5 million. To this day, the film remains a fan favorite amongst audiences.

Annabelle

Annabelle was made on a $6.5 million budget and was an absolute hit in theaters, despite some negative reviews from critics. The long-awaited horror movie managed to rake in $37.1 million. Naturally, it helped that the film was a spin-off of the already successful Conjuring franchise. 

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Image by Warner Bros.

A prequel was released in 2017 after the popularity of Annabelle called Annabelle: Creation. Due to the success of Annabelle, the prequel was created with a budget of $15 million, and it went on to make a staggering $306.5 million worldwide, including $102 million domestic.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding spent almost a full year in theaters. This long run allowed the film to bring in the big bucks. A $5 million budget turned into $368.7 million worldwide ($241.4 million domestic). During opening weekend, the film was only released to 108 screens, but still raked in $597,000. 

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Image by Gold Circle Films

After 20 long weeks in theaters, My Big Fat Greek Wedding reached the No. 2 spot and spent 17 consecutive weeks in the Top 10. With impressive numbers came impressive award nominations. Nia Vardalos earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and the film was nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. 

Unfortunately, even with an $18 million budget, the sequel couldn’t live up to the original.

Rocky

If you thrive at Rocky trivia, then you may know that the first film isn’t even the top grossing film of the blockbuster franchise. That said, none of the other film’s came close to the ridiculously cheap $1 million budget of the original, which still brought in $117.2 million worldwide. 

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Image by Chartoff Winkler Productions

Rocky, which featured a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, won three Oscars, including Best Picture. The Rocky franchise has become so popular over the years that it holds the top four spots for highest grossing boxing films. Since the film’s 1976 release, the franchise has hauled in a mind-boggling $1.7 billion. 

Saw

Saw was and still is a massive hit in the horror genre. It dominated the box office, making $103.9 million worldwide on a $1.2 million budget. In addition to making big bucks in theaters, Saw has become one of the most recognizable horror franchises in film.

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Image by Lions Gate Films

The first Saw was the young James Wan‘s directing debut, and he came out hot, finishing the film in just 18 days! Wan would go on to be the mastermind behind The Conjuring franchise, which has also been a money machine. All eight of the Saw films have added up for a total that is just shy of cracking the coveted $1 billion landmark.

Moonlight

Moonlight was a pivotal film for its portrayal of black and queer culture. The movie follows the main character, Barry Jenkins, as he goes through significant transitions in his life. It discusses his struggles with his sexuality and identity while also exploring the emotional abuse he endured growing up. 

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Image by A24

A cast of unforgettable performances was followed up by a memorable moment at the 2017 Oscars when it won Best Picture… after it was mistakenly awarded to La La Land. The highly decorated movie only cost $4 million, but raked in $65.3 million worldwide!.

Friday the 13th

The Friday the 13th franchise has rendered an enormous following since the first film was made in 1980. The slasher film that was only made for $550,000 ended up capturing audiences and grossed $92.7 million worldwide. 

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Image by Paramount Pictures

The famous hockey-masked villain, Jason Voorhees, sparked a massive franchise with 12 films, comic books, video games, and merch galore.

The original movie was initially created to meet the success of Halloween. Friday the 13th did that and more as the highest-grossing horror franchise in the world until a new Halloween was released in 2018, putting that franchise at the number one spot.

Mad Max

Although Mad Max has received critical acclaim and a huge following, the dystopian movie, led by a young Mel Gibson, was made with a mere $300,000. The 1979 action film set in future Australia tells a tale of societal collapse, murder, and revenge. 

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Image by Kennedy Miller Productions

The film made $378.9 million worldwide, including $154.1 million domestic, which was once enough to set the Guinness World Record for Most Profitable Film. The film has also been credited with opening up the global market to Australian New Wave films. Mad Max birthed a franchise with three sequels, Mad Max 2 (also known as The Road Warrior), Beyond Thunderdome, and Fury Road.

Split

M. Night Shyamalan decided to make the 2017 horror film, Split, on a budget of only $9 million, which proved to be a fantastic decision. Shyamalan made Split as an indirect sequel to Unbreakable (2000). The story follows James McAvoy, a man with dissociative identity disorder, who kidnaps three teenage girls.

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Image by Universal Pictures

The film ended up making $278.5 million worldwide. The film received positive reviews with a 75 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a nomination for Best Thriller Film at the Saturn Awards. The movie became Shyamalan’s fifth film to pass $100 million at the domestic box office.

Star Wars

George Lucas’ magnum opus, Star Wars, hardly needs an introduction, as it was the highest grossing film of all time until Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Made with only $11 million, Star Wars brought in a staggering $775.4 million would grow to be a multi-billion dollar franchise.

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Image by LucasFilm

Star Wars was only the tip of the iceberg, considering the franchise has hit double digits with sequels and prequels, a handful of television series, made-for-TV movies, books, and merchandise… so much merch. Lucas had absolutely no idea how big his small indie film would actually be decades later.

Halloween

Halloween is a 1978 American independent film that made the slasher genre popular with audiences, which lead to John Carpenter’s success as a director. The movie was only the first in a franchise that still pumps out movies, novels, comic books, merchandise, and even a video game. 

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Image by Compass International Pictures

The cult classic, which was created on a $300,000 budget, raked in $255.5 million worldwide. Michael Myers’ famously scary mask was simply a $2 Captain Kirk mask that was spray-painted white, and Jamie Lee Curtis‘s entire wardrobe was purchased for $100 at J.C. Penney. The production was so frugal that the actors did many scenes in a single take for savings.

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation, which stars Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, won Sofia Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, along with three other nominations. The grim humored film was made with $4 million only to receive $119.7 million worldwide, including $44.6 million domestic. 

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Image by Focus Features

When the movie opened, it was released on only 23 screens with an average of just over $40,000 per theater; the highest per-theater average for such a small release in 2003. Despite the small release, it still managed to do well at the box office, seeing as it was in theaters for 196 days. The film received noteworthy buzz due to Sofia Coppola’s previous success with The Virgin Suicides and a critically acclaimed performance by Bill Murray.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood due to his cinematic hits during the ’90s. Pulp Fiction generated a considerable cult following and earned Tarantino a Pal d’Or Award at Cannes, an Academy Award, an Oscar, and seven Oscar nominations. 

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Image by Miramax

The iconic film that was created on an $8 million budget exceeded expectations, bringing in $213.9 million worldwide. With an impressive cast including John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis, Tim Roth, Ving Rhames, and Uma Thurman, it’s no surprise the film did so well in theaters. Since its 1994 release, Pulp Fiction has remained a cultural phenomenon. 


Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite was a famous 2004 comedy film created on a tight budget of $400,000. Jon Heder, who plays the title character in the movie, was only paid $1,000 for his work on the film! Not only that, the movie was edited in producer Jeremy Coon‘s apartment on a Mac. 

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Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures

When the film became a huge success, Heder re-negotiated his payment for the film and received a cut of the profits. Napoleon Dynamite made $46.1 million worldwide, including $44.5 million domestic. The film has developed quite a following over the years and was voted No. 14 on Bravo’s 100 Funniest Movies.

Get Out

Jordan Peele was already a well-known name in comedy before he made his directorial debut with this horror film. Get Out was made for just $4.5 million, and the film ended up being a huge success. It went on to make $255.4 million worldwide. 

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Image by Universal Pictures

Get Out was a film of a different caliber thanks to the creative marketing techniques that helped bring in $33.3 million opening weekend. The movie was so successful that it earned four Oscar nominations even though it was released almost a full year before the nominations were announced. 

Super Size Me

This documentary changed the way we eat and see McDonald’s and fast food restaurants. The 2004 documentary followed director Morgan Spurlock as he ate nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days to see the outcome. 

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Image by The Con

Spurlock would eat Mickey D’s three times a day, intending to try every item on the menu at least once. As a result, Spurlock gained 24 lbs, increased his cholesterol, experienced mood swings, and experienced fat accumulation in his liver. 

The shocking documentary was created on a $65,000 budget, but went on to make $20.6 million worldwide.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko has had an incredible journey since its debut in 2001. Many people still wonder how this low budget film starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Drew Barrymore managed to become the lasting cult classic everyone is familiar with today.

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Image by Newmarket Films

Director Richard Kelly said, “In the year 2000, when we shot the film, the budget was $4.5 million. That was a fair bit for a debut movie, but it did have Drew on board and she was one of the casting elements.”

The film was shot in 28 days, and while Gyllenhaal has Donnie Darko to thank for launching his career, he has admitted that he has never understood the film. The movie went on to make $7.5 million worldwide and received critical acclaim for the story, acting, and tone.

American Psycho

The controversial film starring Christian Bale was news before it even began filming due to the talent. There were rumors that Leonardo DiCaprio was set to play the role of Patrick Bateman with a $20 million check in the works.

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Image by Am Psycho Productions

Although Leo never followed through, the dark comedy that took place on New York’s Wall Street, was an absolute hit with audiences. The film was a controversial one, as some of the scenes are hard to watch due to gore and sexual content. However, even the darkest of scenes are laced with an obscure humor that fans fell in love with. The film that was made with just $8 million ended up grossing $34.3 million.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a 1984 slasher film written and directed by Wes Craven. Following suit with the Friday the 13th films, A Nightmare on Elm Street was a violent revenge film that introduced audiences to the character of Freddy Krueger; a re-incarnated, serial killer with sharp-fingered gloves and a burned face.

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Image by New Line Cinema

The original movie would go on to have nine sequels, and the horror film that was made with a budget of $1.8 million, went on to make $25.5 million domestic. The film is a horror classic, and it is known for putting Johnny Depp on Hollywood’s map.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine is the heartbreaking indie film that follows a young couple starting from how they fell in love and what led to their demise. Emotional and haunting, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams were a huge part of the film’s success due to their incredible performances. 

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Image by Incentive Filmed Entertainment

The pair not only acted in the film, but they also executive produced. The film was created on a $1 million budget, but it brought in $12.4 million worldwide. The movie was loved by critics, and Michelle Williams was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Actress, while Gosling received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor

The Terminator

The Terminator was a small film that was released with very little promotion during the early ’90s. The film’s writer and director, James Cameron, had been living in his car and had recently gotten caught breaking into the editing room of his previous film, Piranha II: The Spawning

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Image by MGM

Cameron didn’t have a clue that The Terminator would become a legendary franchise. With a production budget of just $6.4 million, no one could have predicted the amount of cash that would role in after its debut. The movie went on to make $78.4 million worldwide. 

We’ve all heard a reference to one of the film’s most famous quotes, “I’ll be back.” It is said hauntingly by Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s character who, just as he said, did come back… again and again.

Insidious

This horror film perfected the idea of turning a low-budget movie into a million dollar film. How was it possible to make such a frightening film on just $800,000? The small film baffled filmmakers and directors when its popularity skyrocketed. Many people referred to the film as the new Paranormal Activity, as it was the highest-grossing film in 2011. 

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Image by Alliance Films

Insidious revolves around a family who discover that dark spirits have possessed their home, causing their son to fall into a coma. When they leave their home and escape, they discover that it was not their home that was haunted. 

Critics loved the movie, and word-of-mouth certainly helped keep the movie afloat, eventually earning a cool $99.9 million.  

Slumdog Millionaire

Dev Patel has had a whirlwind career over the past few years, but Slumdog Millionaire was his first huge hit. Patel stars as Jamal Malik, who wins India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning eight. 

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Image by Warner Bros.

The film was critically acclaimed for its plot, soundtrack, direction, and performances. Although the film was loved in the states, it was the subject of controversy in India due to its portrayal of Indian society, exploitation of the younger actors, and the use of the word “slumdog” in the title. The budget for the film was $15 million, and made $377.9 million worldwide.

The King’s Speech

The historical drama, starring Colin Firth, was applauded by critics for its realistic portrayal of the life of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI, who suffered from a severe stammer. The movie amassed a slew of awards, including Best Picture of the Year. 

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Image by The Weinstein Company

This film was proof that you don’t have to have absurd special effects and a large budget to make an award-winning film. Sometimes, all you need is a beautiful storyline and incredible performances. The movie that was created on a budget of $15 million, earned $414.2 million worldwide. The film topped the U.K. box office for four consecutive weeks.

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion of the Christ was fully financed by director Mel Gibson, meaning he truly believed in this film from Day One. When the film was created, there weren’t any distributors willing to take it due to the controversial content. The film was given an R-rating due to violence, but the film became the highest-grossing R-rated movie in American history. 

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Image by Icon Productions

The biblical drama depicts the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, ending with a depiction of his resurrection. Critics were torn on the film, with some calling it a religious classic, while others found the violence distracting and claimed that there were undertones of antisemitism. The movie was made on a $30 million budget but brought in a whopping $611.9 million. 

Once

When Once was released in 2007, nobody could’ve prepared for how well it did. The musical follows a street musician and a Czech immigrant in Dublin who fall in love through unlikely circumstances while expressing their feelings to each other through beautiful musical numbers. 

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Image by Bórd Scannán na hÉireann

With a budget of just $150,000, Once blew everyone away when it brought in $20.7 million. The Irish drama received awards, including the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. The song “Falling Slowly,” won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song, and the soundtrack received a Grammy Award nomination.

Open Water

The terrifying horror film is based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who were left at sea during a scuba diving group in 1988. The shark flick revolves around a couple who are desperate to survive in the middle of the ocean. 

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Image by Lions Gate Entertainment

If you’re deathly afraid of sharks, what follows is probably your worst nightmare. The couple are soon surrounded by shark-infested waters, where they eventually perish. The film that was shot entirely on digital with a very minimal aesthetic was created with $500,000. It was a hit in theaters, making over $50 million worldwide. 

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity rode on the success of The Blair Witch Project, taking the concept of a found-footage style horror flick. First time director of the film, Oren Peli, shot the original version in a week. 

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Image by Solana Films

After seeing how successful it was at festivals, Paramount Pictures decided to buy the rights and then asked for a few changes, specifically the ending.

It was given a limited U.S. release on Sept. 25, 2009, and then a nationwide release on Oct. 16, 2009. Based on return on investment, this horror movie with a $15 million budget is the most profitable film ever made, earning $193,355,800 worldwide.

Night of the Living Dead

It’s certainly not the first zombie film that’s appeared in the film industry, but it was the one that inspired many other films. The 1968 American independent horror film was controversial for its casting as a black actor as the hero and the film’s extreme gore content. 

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Image by Image Ten

Night of the Living Dead is such a cult classic that, in 1999, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry, as a film that is “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film was made on a $114,000 budget and wound up earning over 250 times its budget, making $18 million internationally.

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