Success is relative in Hollywood. Some movies tank at the box office but cost so little to make that the studio still comes out ahead (especially when they use creative accounting), while others have to earn back their huge budgets just to break even. But the films here aren’t just low-budget compared with what they earned; they’re cheap, period. For instance, Juno gets cited as a low-budget movie because it grossed $230 million worldwide on a budget of $6.5 million, but the most expensive film on this list cost less than 5 percent of what it took to make Juno. That’s real low-budget filmmaking. When all is said and done, it’s still possible to make a good movie for a lot less than you might think. These films — with release dates and approximate budgets listed next to the titles — are testament to that.
10. Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Flat-out terrifying. There’s no other way to describe John Carpenter’s 1978 horror film Halloween, which cost only $320,000 but grossed so well around the world that for years it was the most successful independent film ever made. Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced the film, and he also composed the creepy and repetitive theme music. It was only Carpenter’s third film, and the low budget came with a month-long shooting schedule that added pressure to the mix. He and other producers looked for cost-cutting measures at every turn; the most infamous of these is the fact that Michael Myers’ white mask was a painted and altered version of a Captain Kirk mask they picked up for $2. A lot of the actors even wore their own clothes for the shoot. Another get was the casting of newcomer Jamie Lee Curtis, who was paid a mere $8,000. The result is a slasher classic that’s scary decades later. Like the best low-budget films, the emphasis is on the story, not the lack of money, and because of that, it’ll never get old.
9. Swingers (Liman, 1996)
A budget of $200,000 might sound like a lot to some of the other first-time filmmakers on this list, but for a legit comedy featuring up-and-comers and using plenty of music, that’s pretty tight. Director Doug Liman, who also served as cinematographer, makes the budget work by purposefully going for a down-home look. Not a ton of extras, not a ton of gimmicks, and certainly no flashy effects or animation. Just smart, economical filmmaking shot around Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Instead of looking like a high-profile movie done cheaply, it’s a low-profile one done with class and heart. The cast also cut a couple corners by handing out brief supporting roles to family. It’s one of the more authentic “L.A. story” movies in recent years, and definitely worth revisiting (especially now that the “You’re so money” thing has blessedly died down).
8. Hollywood Shuffle (Townsend, 1987)
Criminally overlooked these days, Hollywood Shuffle is a hilarious comedy, incisive race-relations movie, and a prime example of how to make a great film on a shoestring. Robert Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor struggling to get parts in a Hollywood that tells him he’s “not black enough.” Townsend covered $60,000 of the film’s budget on his own, spreading it over several credit cards, and he directed, produced, and co-wrote the film, too. Townsend never quite got back his swing after this one, though, which is a shame. Maybe he needs to get back to his indie-funded roots. Whatever happens, though, he’s got this amazing comedy to his name.
7. Super Size Me (Spurlock, 2004)
On one level, the premise of Super Size Me probably didn’t need a documentary to prove its dangers; no one was going around thinking you could actually survive on McDonald’s for three meals a day. But Morgan Spurlock’s film was a hilarious investigation into America’s obsessive consumer culture, and he used the obesity epidemic as a way to explore our own bad habits. Not all documentaries can be low-budget: once you get into effects, animation, and clearance costs for music, the price tag can jump to the feature level. But since Super Size Me was all about Spurlock’s life, and since he served as writer, director, producer, and star, he was able to keep the costs at a much more reasonable level. As with all films, though, the production budget is unrelated to the advertising budget, so that $65,000 doesn’t count the $1 million spent by the distributors to promote it. Still, it’s amazing to realize that a modest investment in a documentary like this one could bring such acclaim.
6. The Blair Witch Project (Myrick/Sanchez, 1999)
The modern heavyweight champ of low-budget flicks, The Blair Witch Project was shot for $60,000 but looks even cheaper thanks to its no-name cast and home-video aesthetic. Filming only lasted eight days in October 1997, and much of the dialogue was improvised. The largest increase in spending came when the 19 hours of footage were edited down into a 90-minute feature, a process that took eight months. Some filmmakers (like Primer’s Carruth) get around editing suite costs by doing it themselves on a laptop, but the Blair Witch crew fared just fine. The final product was relentlessly creepy, and though it gave a few viewers headaches, the overall effect was eerie, voyeuristic, and unlike anything else happening in cinema at the time.
5. Clerks (Smith, 1994)
Kevin Smith has never quite recaptured the magic (or the public momentum) that met his first film, 1994’s Clerks, which was shot for a ridiculously low $27,000. Smith bankrolled the film in true indie fashion by selling off a bunch of personal possessions, including comic books, and racking up the maximum allowed debt on a variety of credit cards. Like a lot of low-budget flicks, Clerks made the most out of its locations; aside from a brief intro, all the action takes place at the convenience store, the video store, or the areas outside. The movie went on to become a festival hit that grossed more than $3 million domestically (a nice return on $27k), and it launched Smith’s career. So yes, that makes it responsible for Cop Out, but don’t hold that against it.
4. Paranormal Activity (Peli, 2009)
There’s something about horror films that makes them more likely to have lower budgets, or to at least be able to survive on less. Creepy is creepy, no amount of special effects can make something more scary. With a good script and inexpensive actors, you can make something terrifying for a fraction of the cost of a major studio picture. Although Paranormal Activity started playing festivals in 2007, it didn’t see release until 2009, at which point quickly made back its $15,000 budget many, many times over. The budget’s so low because of the premise: a young couple, convinced their house is haunted, set up home video cameras throughout the home to try and capture evidence of the supernatural. As a result, the simple video set-ups were edited into a feature as a found footage story similar to The Blair Witch Project (another classic low-budget thriller). Intense and terrifying, the film is a solid entry in the haunted house genre that earns its scares the old-fashioned way: be being really, really scary.
3. Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)
Proof that David Lynch can give you nightmares no matter how much money he’s working with, his 1977 feature debut, Eraserhead, launched his career after being shot and produced for only $10,000. He covered the film’s expenses with a grant from the American Film Institute after he relocated to Los Angeles in the early ’70s to attend the AFI Conservatory. But like all labors of love, Lynch went above and beyond to pay for the rest of the film, including borrowing money from friends and even picking up a few part-time gigs to make ends meet. The finished product is admittedly not for everyone — the “baby” in question is pretty grotesque, and images will stick with you in ways that are not always good — but the film has an undeniable power and menace to it, demonstrating that Lynch was already a young master at his own voice when he was not yet 30. It’s on Netflix’s Watch Instantly, too, for those brave enough to fire it up at work.
2. Primer (Carruth, 2004)
Primer is another great example of how wearing multiple hats on a film can help a director shave costs from the budget. Shane Carruth served as director, writer, producer, editor, composer, and co-star of this intellectually dazzling sci-fi thriller from 2004. He shot the film over the course of a few weeks around Dallas, where he and his friends lived, and locations included the homes of friends and family. (At one point, Carruth’s mother acted as craft services.) The story revolves around a group of men who inadvertently figure out how to time travel, or rather, to go back a few hours and relive the day. This leads to some understandable problems, but Carruth’s film succeeds because it deals with heady, intensely technical stuff without having to resort to cheap effects. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 but is now a cult hit on DVD.
1. Following (Nolan, 1998)
A lot of people likely assume that Christopher Nolan’s first film was 2000’s Memento, since that’s the one that ignited his career, but it’s not. In 1998, he released Following, a fantastic neo-noir that jumps around in time in a style that would later make Nolan famous. What’s more, it only cost $6,000 to make. Nolan kept the cost down by being a one-man band: he wrote it, directed it, shot it, and helped edit it. He also shot in London over the course of a year, using cast and crew (who all had full-time jobs) whenever they were available. He also made brilliant use of his surroundings, using natural light as much as possible to avoid having to pay for lighting set-ups. Scenes also went through a fairly rigorous rehearsal process that allowed Nolan to reduce the number of takes each scene needed to get the job done. The film was essentially cobbled together from scraps of film and tons of blood, and it totally works. Nolan’s finished product is a thoroughly engaging thriller that constantly up-ends audience expectations. Just a few years later, he’d be working with astronomical numbers — the budget for 2008’s The Dark Knight was $185 million — but he started with nothing but a few pennies.
Written and compiled by Jena Ellis.
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