Despite their relatively small budgets, the films that follow defied their economic constraints, becoming critically acclaimed box office hits with nods from the likes of the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards. From American indie flicks like Napoleon Dynamite and The Blair Witch Project to hit British films including The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire, we take a look at some of the best successful low budget movies.
British director Danny Boyle’s 2008 feel-good movie Slumdog Millionaire starred Dev Patel as Jamal Malik – a young resident of Mumbai’s slums who after winning India’s version of the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire is arrested under suspicion of cheating and while being interrogated by police reveals the source of his prodigious knowledge through a series of flashbacks. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and went on to win eight of them, including the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Budget: $15 million
Box Office Takings: $377.9 million
Aging film star Bob Harris (Bill Murray), in the midst of a midlife crisis, and young college graduate and neglected wife Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) cross paths in Tokyo and form an unlikely friendship in director Sophia Coppola’s second feature film, Lost in Translation. Bittersweet and heartfelt, the film was a hit on both the mainstream and indie awards circuits, scooping three Golden Globes and four Independent Spirit Awards, and Murray’s cryptic whisper to Johansson at the film’s close has become the subject of much internet-based over-analysis and theorizing.
Budget: $4 million
Box Office Takings: $119.7 million
Not only did the indie horror film The Blair Witch Project go on to gross nearly $250 million in global box office sales on its micro-budget and charm the critics – late, great movie authority Roger Ebert hailed it ‘an extraordinarily effective horror film’ – it also helped pave the way for future found-footage horrors like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. Following three film students as they document a local Maryland legend, it’s the epitome of ‘less is more’ in horror with its emphasis on suggestion and suspense rather than gore. Its mock documentary style and clever viral marketing campaign had some audiences questioning whether it was, in fact, fictional.
Box Office Takings: $248.6 million
Directed by a pre-Star Wars George Lucas and starring a fresh-faced Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss (plus a bit part from Harrison Ford), American Graffiti is a nostalgic coming-of-age tale set in early 1960s small-town California following two recent high school graduates over the course of one evening. It was rejected by most major film studios before finally being picked up by Universal Pictures – a good choice on their part considering the film’s commercial and critical success.
Box Office Takings: $140 million
Despite it being director Jared Hess’s feature film debut and having a relatively minuscule budget, quirky comedy Napoleon Dynamite – centered around its geeky, socially awkward titular character and his oddball friends and family as he navigates through life at a rural Idaho high school – became the sleeper hit of 2004. Grossing more than 100 times its production budget and spawning a cult following of ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirt-wearing fans, it also gave cinema-goers one of the most legendary dance scenes in film history for which we have star Jon Heder to thank.
Box Office Takings: $46.1 million
A ragtag group of unemployed men, suffering in the aftermath of Sheffield’s declining steel-making industry, form an all-male striptease act in an effort to become gainfully employed once more in filmmaker Peter Cattaneo’s 1997 British comedy-drama The Full Monty. The heartwarming film went on to achieve universal acclaim, receiving a total of four Academy Award nominations and the BAFTA Award for Best Film.
Budget: $3.5 million
Box Office Takings: $257.9 million
Based on a one-woman play by its writer and star Nia Vardalos, Canadian-American romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding – telling the tale of single 30-year-old Toula Portokalos and her struggles with her overbearing Greek family after she falls in love with W.A.S.P. Ian Miller – was one of 2002’s biggest hits. A sequel, the aptly titled My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, picking up with the Portokalos-Miller clan 18 years later was released just this year.
Budget: $5 million
Box Office Takings: $368.7 million
It may not have been the first ever zombie film, but George A. Romero’s feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead, certainly set the standard for many more to come. Filmed on a tiny budget of just $114,000, Night of the Living Dead – then controversial for its casting of a black actor as its hero and the film’s only commonsensical character – went on to spawn five sequels, including the excellent suburban shopping mall set Dawn of the Dead in 1978, and a number of remakes.
Box Office Takings: $30 million
Penned in just three and a half days by a then largely unknown Sylvester Stallone, the rags-to-riches tale of Rocky Balboa – a working class Italian-American boxer living in Philadelphia who hits the big time – was made on a shoestring budget of just under $1 million but went on to gross an astounding $225 million after its 1976 release. Nominated for ten Academy Awards and the winner of three (Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing), Rocky has been succeeded by no less than six sequels to date.
Box Office Takings: $225 million
Following indie filmmaker Morgan Spurlock as he embarks on a 30-day McDonald’s-only diet in an effort to explore America’s obesity epidemic, Super Size Me – in which Spurlock ate at the ubiquitous fast-food chain for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week – saw him gain a total of 24.5 pounds over the course of the documentary (which subsequently took him over a year to shed). Engrossing viewing, with the emphasis on the ‘gross’, McDonald’s began phasing out its supersize portions after the documentary’s release in 2004.
Box Office Takings: $20.6 million
British biographical drama The King’s Speech charmed audiences with its depiction of the relationship between King George V (played by Colin Firth) and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the speech therapist who helped the royal overcome his debilitating stammer and fear of public speaking. Working with a mere budget of $15 million, the film raked in a massive $400+ million worldwide and scooped Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the 2011 Academy Awards.
Budget: $15 million
Box Office Takings: $414.2 million
Starring the wonderful Ellen Page as the titular teen who finds herself faced with an unplanned pregnancy following a brief, one-time encounter with longtime friend Paulie Bleeker, Juno grossed an incredible $230+ million on a relatively modest budget of $7.5 million. The witty coming-of-age tale was multi-talented writer, director and producer Diablo Cody’s screenwriting debut, which went on to win Best Original Screenplay at the 80th Academy Awards alongside three Independent Spirits Awards for Best Feature, Best First Screenplay, and Best Female Lead.
Budget: $7.5 million
Box Office Takings: $231.4 million
Following in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project, fellow successful indie horror Paranormal Activity had audiences scared out of their wits thanks to its subtle but creepy found-footage approach, with several cinema-goers walking out during test screenings out of sheer fright. Filmed inside director Oren Peli’s own house on a budget of just $15,000, Paranormal Activity went on to spawn five more commercially successful, if not quite as terrifying, sequels.
Box Office Takings: $193.3 million
Partly based on the real-life story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, an American couple accidentally left behind after a scuba diving excursion in shark-infested Australian waters, Open Water was an effectively minimalist undertaking. Indeed, it prompted revered film critic Roger Ebert to say of the psychological horror, ‘It gets under your defenses and sidesteps the ‘it’s only a movie’ reflex and creates a visceral feeling that might as well be real.’ Adding an even more terrifying aspect to the already frightening film, live sharks were actually used during the filming of Open Water.
Box Office Takings: $54.7 million
With comparatively modest box office sales of $3.2 million, Kevin Smith’s directorial debut Clerks might seem an outlier on this list, but considering its equally humble $27,000 budget – which Smith purportedly acquired through various means including maxing out credit cards, selling his comic collection and dipping into his college fund – and the fact it was shot in the convenience/video store where Smith himself worked, that’s quite a feat. Filmed in black and white and featuring Smith’s now trademark quick-witted, loquacious characters, Clerks was the first of his movies set in what fans have come to call the View Askewniverse.
Box Office Takings: $3.2 million