Last year, an independent horror film (Paranormal Activity) took the world by storm, becoming the most profitable movie, based on return of investment, in cinema history. With Paranormal Activity 2 now raking in the dough, too, we take a look at some notable movies that were made with small budgets, but earned mega profits.
By Derrick Deane
Cost to Make: $218
Total Box Office: $1.16 million
Taking the term "shooting a movie on a shoestring budget" to the extreme, this autobiographical documentary about filmmaker Jonathan Caouette's life growing up with a schizophrenic mother not only earned it the number two spot as far as most profitable return on investment (behind Paranormal Activity) but a ton of independent movie awards as well.
Cost to Make: $7,000
Total Box Office: $2 million
Loaning his body out to science to earn funding, Robert Rodriguez's 1992 action movie marks the debut of the prolific writer/director/producer/all-around movie maestro. Originally intended for the Mexican home video market, executives at Columbia Pictures liked the movie so much, they invested almost quadruple the original shooting budget to promote, market and distribute the movie.
The Last House on the Left (1972)
Cost to Make: $90,000
Total Box Office: $3.1 million
Written and directed by Wes Craven, The Last House on the Left is based on the 13th century Swedish ballad, "Tores dotter i Wange," which was also adapted into the 1960 Swedish film The Virgin Suicides, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Craven's original intentions were for House to be a hardcore graphic horror movie. However, once shooting began, the decision was made to edit down the tone of the movie. Still, it's quite a shocker.
Cost to Make: $27,000
Total Box Office: $3.2 million
Shot in the convenience store where writer, director, producer and co-star Kevin Smith worked, this 1994 indie comedy feature helped launch Smith's career, but at a price. To finanace the movie, Smith sold off a large portion of his extensive comic book collection, maxed out 8 of 10 credit cards with $2,000 limits, dipped into funds set aside for his college education and spent insurance money from a car he and Jason Mewes lost in a flood. Because he was working at the store during the day and shooting the movie at night, Smith was unable to stay awake while some of the climactic scenes were being filmed.
Cost to Make: $12,000
Total Box Office: $6 million
Featuring a series of shocking and perverse scenes, John Waters' debut film, shot on a $12,000 loan from his parents, became an instant cult favorite, thanks to the controversy it generated and the, "you're not gonna believe what she does with that dog poo" type word-of-mouth. A re-release of the movie in 1997 earned an NC-17 rating from the MPAA.
Cost to Make: $100,000
Total Box Office: $7 million
The surrealist film from writer, director and producer David Lynch follows a short period in the life of Henry Spencer, a printer on vacation. Henry discovers that his estranged girlfriend Mary has given birth to a strangely deformed baby. The film features a bizarre sequence of events that have little or no explanation as to how or why they are happening including a woman in Henry's radiator dancing and stomping on small tadpole-like creatures and a dream sequence where Henry's head is used to make pencil erasers.
The Brothers McMullen
Cost to Make: $23,800
Total Box Office: $10 million
Written, directed, produced and starring Edward Burns, The Brothers McMullen deals with the lives of three Irish Catholic McMullen brothers from Long Island, New york over three months as they grapple with their values on love, sex, marriage, religion and family in the 90s. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by 20th Century Fox and became the first release ever by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Facing the Giants
Cost to Make: $100,000
Total Box Office: $10.2 million
An American Christian drama about an underdog football team told from an evangelical Christian point of view, Facing the Giants featured a mostly volunteer supporting cast. The movie follows a high school football coach with a mediocre coaching record. After several losing seasons, his back is against the wall and he learns that he is the reason that his wife cannot become pregnant. He decides to turn to God, creating a new coaching philosophy that praises God after each game, regardless of the result. You can probably figure out the rest from there.
Cost to Make: $150,000
Total Box Office: $19 million
This 2006 Irish musical film written and directed by John Carney featured songs written and performed by its stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The movie earned the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song and the 2007 Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film.
Cost to Make: $200,000
Total Box Office: $25 million
One of the most profitable 3-D movies ever, based on return on investment, The Stewardesses was originally a 3-D softcore "skin-flick" with minimal production value and was making a lot of money in specialty "adult theaters." Producer Louis Sher and director Allan Silliphant decided to re-package their 3D hit into a regular R-rated feature with a more complex, conventional storyline and less nudity.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Cost to Make: $140,000
Total Box Office: $30.8 million
Directed by Tobe Hooper, the 1974 horror film was presented as a true story involving the ambush and murder of a group of friends on a road trip in rural Texas by a family of cannibals. The film, however, is completely fictional. It's inclusion in this gallery is made all the more impressive since it was banned in eleven countries and had difficulty finding a distributor domestically.
Night of the Living Dead
Cost to Make: $115,000
Total Box Office: $40 million
George A. Romero's 1968 black-and-white independent zombie film focuses on a group of people trapped in a farmhouse trying to ward off a hoard of bloodthirsty zombies. Night of the Living Dead is the origin of six other Living Dead films directed by Romero and the inspiration behind two remakes.
Cost to Make: $806,947
Total Box Office: $32 million
Featuring the most famous shower murder scene in movie history, Psycho stars Janet Leigh as a secretary hiding out at a motel after embezzling her employer. She encounters the motel's owner, Norman Bates, and as they say, the rest is history. Initially, the movie received mixed reviews, but healthy box office numbers prompted a re-review which led to overwhelmingly positive critiques and four Oscar nominations.
Cost to Make: $65,000
Total Box Office: $29.5 million
Using his body as a month-long test analog, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate three meals from McDonalds (and Supersized them if he was offered the option) in the 2004 indie hit. When the experiment had concluded, Spurlock had gained 24.5 pounds, a 13% body mass increase, a cholesterol level of 230 and experienced mood swings, sexual dysfunction along with fat accumulation in the liver and a swollen bank account.
Cost to Make: $400,000
Total Box Office: $46.1 million
In the summer of 2004, the world was introduced to Jon Heder as he urged us all to Vote for Pedro. Playing a gawky teenager from an odd-ball family, Dynamite became a hit thanks to its slew of one-liners, off-beat dialogue and Heder's distinctive tone of voice. While the movie took in $44.5 million domestically, the foreign market contributed just $1.5 million to the cash pot.
Friday the 13th
Cost to Make: $550,000
Total Box Office: $59.8 million
This 1980 slasher film not only features Kevin Bacon in one of his earliest roles, but due to its box office success, led to a long series of sequels and a crossover with Freddy Krueger.
Cost to Make: $500,000
Total Box Office: $52.1 million
Playing on the fear of isolation and entrapment (and sharks), Open Water grossed double what it cost to make in its limited-release opening weekend. From there, word-of-mouth and favorable critical reviews took over and helped Water earn a boat-load of money...pardon the pun.
Cost to Make: $47,500
Total Box Office: $45 million
Perhaps the most famous pornographic movie ever made, Deep Throat was one of the first adults-only films to feature a plot, character development and high production standards. The hour-long movie featured playful dialogue and songs along with fireworks and bells ringing during orgasm. The movie ends with the line, “The End. And Deep Throat to you all,” although it could be said that the subsequent sequel suffered from performance anxiety.
Cost to Make: $325,000
Total Box Office: $47 million
An independent horror movie produced/directed/scored and co-written by John Carpenter, Halloween features Jamie Lee Curtis in her film debut. It also spawned seven sequels, a 2007 remake by Rob Zombie and a 2009 sequel unrelated to the original sequel.
Cost to Make: $200,000
Total Box Office: $99.75 million
George Miller's dystopian action movie features a then unknown Mel Gibson in the title role of a story about the breakdown of society and the murder and vengeance that follows. Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell credit the final scene in Max - in which Johnny is given the option of cutting off his own foot to escape - for inspiring the first Saw movie.
Cost to Make: $1.2 million
Total Box Office: $103 million
The film that started a half-decade-long series of sequels, Saw opened to mixed reviews with some critics calling it "a glorified, sadistic snuff film," while others praised it for it's "stylish" and "no-holds-barred visual effects." Despite the mixed reviews, the movie went on to earn $18.3 million its opening weekend to rank third behind The Grudge and Ray.
Cost to Make: $3 million
Total Box Office: $104 million
Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft star in Mike Nichols' 1967 dramedy about a recent college graduate who has no goals in life and is seduced by an older woman. Both Hoffman and Bancroft earned Oscar nominations for their acting while Nichols won the Best Director award.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Cost to Make: $363,000 est.
Total Box Office: $127 million est.
Conceived during a gap between the third and fourth seasons of the popular BBC TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus, the comedy group spoofs the legend of King Arthur and his quest to find the Holy Grail.
Cost to Make: $750,000
Total Box Office: $115 million
George Lucas' coming-of-age comedy-drama features an all-star cast including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford. The nostalgic portrait of teenage life in the early 60's is told in a series of vignettes and focuses on the adventures of a group of teens and their adventures on one night in August 1962.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Cost to Make: $1.2 million
Total Box Office: $140 million (and counting)
The 1975 film adaptation of the British musical stageplay is a combination parody of science fiction and B-movie horror films. Still in limited release 35 years after its premiere, it has the longest-running theatrical release in film history and has gained notoriety as a "midnight movie." The Library of Congress has also selected Rocky Horror as one of the movies it seeks to preserve, saying that it is "culturally, historically and aesthetically significant."
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Cost to Make: $1.48 million
Total Box Office: $188 million
It may seem odd to see a Disney animated feature on here. While recent Disney animated features have featured budgets north of $100 million, in 1937, Walt Disney commissioned the adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. It would be the first full-length cell-animated feature in motion picture history.
Cost to Make: $15,000
Total Box Office: $193.3 million
The most profitable movie of all-time, based on return on investment. Similar to Blair Witch in that this movie featured the premise of "found footage" - a supernatural presence haunts the home of a young couple. Paranormal opened in thirteen college towns in September 2009 and featured director Oren Peli urging people to "demand" where the movie would be shown next. With screenings selling out regularly, Paramount eventually decided to give the movie a wide-release in November.
Cost to Make: $8.5 million
Total Box Office: $212.9 million
The 1994 Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival co-written by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery, Pulp Fiction is known for its rich dialogue and references to pop culture, ironic sense of humor and violence and nonlinear storyline. Ficton became the first "indie" film to surpass $100 million.
Cost to Make: $1 million
Total Box Office: $225 million
The movie that made the iconic Italian Stallion into a major movie star, Rocky was not only the highest grossing movie in 1976, but also won three Oscars, including Best Picture. The movie spawned five sequels, an iconic soundtrack and a series of famous one-liners. A statue was placed at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, replicating a famous scene from the movie.
The Blair Witch Project
Cost to Make: $35,000
Total Box Office: $248.6 million
The second highest grossing horror movie of all-time behindThe Exorcist, Blair Witch boasts a lifetime gross that's 7,101% of its original budget.Witch helped mainstream the shaky camcorder shooting method of moviemaking that would be replicated by movies like Paranormal Activity, Quarantine, the [Rec] series and Cloverfield to name a few.
The Full Monty
Cost to Make: $3.5 million
Total Box Office: $257.8 million
Who would have thought a movie about a bunch of unemployed, blue-collar workers who decide to make some money by putting on a strip show would make so much money?! Yet, a quarter of a billion dollars (and several musicals) later, The Full Monty, with its cast of relative unknowns (aside from Robert Carlyle and Tom Wilkinson) remains a British comedy classic.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Cost to Make: $5 million
Total Box Office: $368.7 million
The movie that took 2002 by storm, My Big Fat Greek Wedding benefited from tremendous word-of-mouth and a wacky cast of characters that helped make it the most profitable romantic comedy to date. Its domestic gross alone is almost more than the next two highest movies; What Women Want and Hitch. Keep in mind, too, that it took $70 million each to make those movies.
Cost to Make: $12 million
Total Box Office: $513 million
Dubbed by many as the scariest movie ever made, The Exorcist is the costliest movie in this gallery. It also has the distinct honor of being the highest grossing horror movie of all-time, grossing $233 million domestically and almost an equal amount from foreign markets.
Gone With the Wind
Cost to Make: $3.9 million ($59.6 million, adjusted for inflation)
Total Box Office: $400 million ($1.6 billion adjusted for inflation)
Based on the novel written by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Margaret Mitchell, Gone With The Wind, when adjusted for inflation, has grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Directed by the legendary Victor Fleming, Wind went on to receive ten Academy Awards, including the 1940 Best Actress Award for Vivien Leigh.