9 Low-Budget INDIE Film Successes

Following up on our indie filmmaking theme (you can read our advice for filmmakers with no money here) we wanted to share some examples from the past couple decades of successful feature films that were made with incredibly low budgets.

Anticipating some people’s reactions (“These films cost thousands of dollars! What are you talking about incredibly low budgets?!”) there are a couple ways to look at these budgets. First, these movies are almost all American, where the currency is in dollars and a lot of resources are more expensive than they are here. Second, several of these films could have been made for even less today. Films in the 90’s and early 2000’s were still primarily shot on film, which can make up the majority of production costs in purchasing and developing film stock. And finally, if one were to hazard a guess, the majority of the expenses these films had went towards paying the cast and crew as people are rarely able to work for free. But if you have a committed group of friends who are willing to help you for next to nothing, or if you can wear many hats and do a lot of jobs yourself, then you can cut those costs significantly.

All this is to say: don’t let the budget numbers on these films turn you off – they are merely an indicator of how little you can make a movie for and still have it be wildly successful.

So without further ado, here are 9 Low-Budget Indie Film Successes. Why 9? Because when it comes to indie filmmaking, you never have quite as much as you need:

Slacker (1991)
Estimated Budget: $23,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $1,228,108

From the innovative godfather of the American independent film movement in the 90’s, one could almost credit Richard Linklater as the influence behind countless low/no-budget films that were to follow in that decade. His second feature film, Slacker, is a freeform, meandering, seemingly plotless exploration of quirky characters in Linklater’s home state of Texas. Linklater’s looseness of style and low-fi production value would prove to be an inspiration to filmmakers everywhere that you could, in fact, make a feature film on your own if you only have the commitment. Ironic that such a determined movie would be about slackers.

El Mariachi (1992)
Estimated Budget: $7,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $2,040,920

For anyone interested in low-budget independent filmmaking, Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel Without A Crew is a must read. A diary of his time making his debut feature film, El Mariachi, what Rodriguez went through to make this film happen is absolutely extraordinary. From checking himself into a clinical drug trial to raise the money to pay for the film, to shooting the entire picture silently and adding sound in after the fact, Rodriguez innovated at every turn to make an action-packed adventure about a musician caught up in Mexican drug conflicts that ultimately spawned a trilogy starring Antonio Banderas (Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico were to follow). The acquisition of the film by Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures completes a true Cinderella story, and Rodriguez has been making big-budget films ever since.

Clerks (1994)
Estimated Budget: $27,575
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $3,151,130

The poster child for independent film in the 90’s, Clerks launched the career of ultimate fanboy filmmaker Kevin Smith. Smith famously took the ill-advised route of maxing out several credit cards to fund the film, as well as selling off his comic book collection and using insurance money paid out for his car. The film was a major hit, winning awards at the Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals, and has since become a comedy classic. From shooting at night in the store in which he worked during the day, and using friends and family as actors, Clerks is the ultimate DIY film and an inspiration to a generation of filmmakers (who hopefully haven’t permanently destroyed their credit!)

Following (1998)
Estimated Budget: $6,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $48,482

Given the scale of Christopher Nolan’s films since he burst onto the mainstream film scene with his Batman reimagining Batman Begins, it’s hard to image that he would come from such humble beginnings. But, in fact, Nolan made his debut feature with the smallest budget on this list. Shot exclusively on weekends over the course of a year, as Nolan and his cast worked full-time jobs during the week, Nolan’s primary expense was film stock which he paid for out of his salary. He otherwise used primarily available light for shooting and locations that were free, such as friends’ homes and rooftops. The film earned modestly in its initial release, but Nolan used Following to raise money for his second feature, Memento, which launched his career and may still be his best film to date. It’s a long interview below, but very much worth watching in its entirety as Nolan explains the process by which he was able to make Following so modestly.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Estimated Budget: $25,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $140,539,099

The Blair Witch Project is famous less for the quality of the film and more for the success of its marketing campaign (which suggested that this film, that was entirely intended to be fictional, might actually depict real events). With that said, the film is the highest grossing entry on this list, which speaks to the strength of the underlying concept and the gumption of the filmmakers who pioneered the found-footage style that has been replicated to this day. Say what you will about the quality of the film, it was innovative on every level to maximize what resources the filmmakers had available, and if you’re in the business of no-budget filmmaking that is exactly what you have to do.

Primer (2004)
Estimated Budget: $7,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $424,760

For better or worse, Shane Carruth has made a career of doing things his way, and that ethos is at the heart of independent darling Primer. For some, the film is completely impenetrable and needlessly complicated. For others, it is revelatory and brilliant. One thing that is undeniable is that Carruth was able to make an incredibly cinematic, compelling, and intelligent film with almost no money. Co-starring in the movie, as well as writing, editing, production designing, sound designing, and composing the music, Carruth made something that was entirely his own. If you’re a fan of sci-fi, and especially of time-travel, this movie remains a must-watch.

Paranormal Activity (2007)
Estimated Budget: $15,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $107,918,810
Franchise Box Office: $401,363,355

Almost a spiritual successor to The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity took the horror movie world by storm. Utilizing the, at this stage, widely-adopted found-footage technique, filmmaker Oren Peli crafted a film that would define horror movies for at least the next decade. From jump scares to trailers showing screening audience reactions, the film spawned a franchise that is at this point six movies strong, and counting. Even if you are not a fan of this kind of movie, you have to concede that with only a clever concept and the resources he had at hand, Peli was able to make a movie has been incredibly influential and financially successful.

Monsters (2010)
Estimated Budget: $15,000-$500,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $237,301

Now I know what you’re thinking – “$500,000!!! LOW BUDGET MY A$$” And yes, the actual cost of making Monsters, including flights to various South American countries, hotel rooms for the cast and crew, and salaries for everyone involved, totaled in the hundreds of thousands. BUT, around the time of release, American electronics retailer Best Buy released a featurette where they estimated that the total cost of the all of the equipment used on the movie was only $15,000. And that is significant because if you live in an exotic locale (such as South Africa) and have access to $15,000 worth of equipment, you could technically make a movie just like Monsters. And that is incredible, because if you watch Monsters it really puts a great many big-budget, Hollywood blockbuster science-fiction movies to shame. I would even rate it better than director Gareth Edwards’ follow-up film Godzilla (which cost over 300x more). And looking at the theatrical gross for the film it may look like it lost money, but that’s before counting all of the home video/VOD/TV revenue (which was surely significant) AND that Gareth Edwards is now directing the next Star Wars movie. So… win?

Tangerine (2015)
Estimated Budget: $50,000
Lifetime Theatrical Gross: $702,354

Other than Monsters, Tangerine has the highest budget on this list. So why is it here? Partly because it was released just last year, which goes to show this movement still persists today. But also because it was shot using only an iPhone 5s smartphone. The reason being: director Sean Baker wanted to use the limited budget he had for production value rather than a fancy camera (or even a DSLR camera). While director of photography Radium Cheung is an experienced cinematographer with many professional credits under his belt, the resources he used (included the FiLMIC Pro video app and widescreen lens adapters) are available to those with even the most moderate budgets. The film went on to be nominated, and win, at the Independent Spirit Awards this year, and should serve as proof that if you will it, you can make a great film with only what you have in your pocket.

Sam Besser enjoys writing about arts and entertainment because he likes pretending people care about his opinions. He is a great lover of film and a casual lover of 15th-century stained glass windows. These interests rarely intersect.

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