These days, when people think of amazing, box office success films, they usually picture a movie with a big budget and a lot of special effects, right? While blockbuster franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe undeniably are some of the biggest movies ever made, there are also a bunch of fantastic films made with very little money that end up breaking box office records and earning critical acclaim.
Sure, CGI, extravagant sets, and big-name actors are a definite plus for any movie, but sometimes even all the money in the world can’t save a film project from being a failure. In fact, many moviegoers will be surprised to learn how much can be accomplished without breaking the bank. Even with $5 million or less in the production budget, filmmakers are able to create compelling characters and stories through innovation, planning, and true talent. So which movies made with such a small budget are the best?
Made over the course of 12 years, you’d think that the budget of Richard Linklater‘s BAFTA and Golden Globe-winning film Boyhood would add up quickly. But surprisingly, the director managed to keep costs down to $4 million. The movie follows a boy named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane as his first role, from his childhood all the way through to college. The rest of the cast includes Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mother, Olivia, Ethan Hawke as his father, Mason Sr., and Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as Mason’s older sister, Samantha.
The 12 years of hard work definitely paid off. While the moviemaking process of Boyhood is a monumental accomplishment in and of itself, the movie is also a very emotional and relatable story of growing up in America, which largely has to do with the fantastic performances of the cast and the more relaxed and natural filming, as Linklater and the cast didn’t even really have a script.
With a $4.5 million production budget, Donnie Darko manages to be a fascinating science-fiction drama without any real special effects required. The movie stars a young Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character, an antisocial teenager who meets a person in a creepy rabbit suit named Frank who tells him the world is going to end in 28 days. Over the next month, Donnie’s life and behavior just get stranger, even as he begins a romance with Jena Malone‘s Gretchen Ross.
Released in 2001, the movie is stuffed with well-known actors, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary McDonnell, Patrick Swayze, Seth Rogen, Noah Wyle, and Drew Barrymore. Along with that, the film presents an engaging and complex story and over time it has become a cult classic, and it’s highly respected as one of the best sci-fi films ever made.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
An adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, the 1971 musical film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory stars the one and only Gene Wilder as the title character, an eccentric chocolatier who invites a bunch of kids to visit his factory after they find a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar wrappers. One of the lucky children visiting is Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a poor boy who brings along his closest family member, Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson).
Another cult classic, most people probably know of the crazy trouble these children face in the Wonka factory, along with the brilliant visuals and music in the movie. With only around $3 million in the budget, it’s amazing that director Mel Stuart was able to create this lush world with so little funding, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is arguably one of the best films out there – period.
Also seen by many as one of the best films ever made, Taxi Driver is directed by Martin Scorsese and tells the story of a veteran named Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, working as a taxi driver in New York City who spirals into violent psychopathy. Released in 1976, the movie was made with just under $2 million, leading Scorsese and cast members to take pay cuts in order to finish the project. Luckily, it was worth it, as Taxi Driver went on to win many awards and critical acclaim. In this case, it’s possible that being forced to make the film with such a low budget actually added to the feel of the movie, which presents NYC as a gritty, dark city, a Hell of sorts for Travis.
In 1978, the horror classic Halloween was born. The movie tells the story of a group of teenagers, led by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), who are tormented by Michael Myers (Nick Castle). Well, most people are familiar with the movie, written and composed by John Carpenter — with the iconic theme music being particularly memorable — many viewers will be surprised to learn that Halloween had a budget of around only $325,000. It’s hard to imagine any film being made with such little money, but everyone worked together to keep costs down, and the movie definitely has very simplistic sets and sequences. Despite the lack of special effects or fancy production design, Halloween went on to become one of the best horror movies ever made, with a franchise still going strong over 40 years later.
As George Lucas‘s second film ever, American Graffiti is an amazing accomplishment simply because of that. But even more amazing is how the movie was able to be completed with a budget of about $777,000. Reportedly, Lucas pitched the movie to every major studio and finally found a home at Universal Pictures, but even then, it was a risk for the studio, leading to the limited budget.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss as Curt Henderson, Ron Howard as Steve Bolander, and many other recognizable names, including a young Harrison Ford before Han Solo, the film focuses on a group of friends in 1962 California enjoying their last night of summer vacation before they head off to college. The movie is hilarious and touching, and both critics and audiences loved it. It also got many awards and nominations, including a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, making American Graffiti a real example of all the can be accomplished with a little budget.
In general, the horror genre is known for films that are extremely scary despite being low budget, and in a lot of cases, the low budget feel helps to set the tone. In the case of 2007’s Paranormal Activity, the movie was originally made as an independent flick for $15,000, that’s it. Director Oren Peli took the movie on the festival circuit, leading Paramount Pictures to scoop it up for wide release. Paranormal Activity is filmed in a sort of found-footage style, with a lot of the story taking place through video cameras set up by the main characters to document haunting events occurring in their home. The movie uses simple tricks to create frightening imagery, making the audience feel like the events could easily happen in their own house.
When Paramount Pictures acquired the film, they wanted to change the ending a little with an added $200,000 to the budget, but even then, Paranormal Activity is easily one of the lowest budget success stories ever. The movie made a huge profit at the box office, before growing into a major horror franchise that still has new films coming out in 2021, though none have been as successful or as scary as the first.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
My Big Fat Greek Wedding just makes this list with a budget of $5 million. The movie stars Nia Vardalos as Fortoula “Toula” Portokalos, a Greek-American woman with an intensely traditional family who wants a major change in her life. Enter John Corbett as Ian Miller, a white, Protestant school teacher who she falls in love with before even introducing him to her family. Now fully in love and wanting to get married, Toula and Ian have to contend with Toula’s family’s strong opinions about the couple.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a huge hit when it was released, surprising everyone. The movie is now seen as one of the best classic romcoms out there, with a uniquely charming and relatable love story. Directed by Joel Zwick and written by Vardalos, the 2002 film made hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, leading to a long-lasting legacy that eventually spawned a sequel movie in 2016.
Another horror film on this list (there are quite a few), Get Out is the Academy Award-winning horror movie directed by Jordan Peele and starring Daniel Kaluuya, which was completed with a budget of $4.5 million. The film focuses on Kaluuya’s character, Chris Washington, who is nervous about meeting the upper-class family of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. While he is initially expecting some of the normal tension when meeting a partner’s family, Chris instead finds himself trapped in his worst nightmare, as the Armitage family and their community reveal a dark conspiracy in which they kidnap mainly Black people for a twisted form of immortality. The movie won many awards and critical acclaim, and it definitely helped bring attention to the horror genre and its ability to use terrifying, unbelievable stories to explore social issues.
To be honest, I didn’t even know that Moonlight had such a low budget until I began researching for this list. While it’s definitely an indie-style film, the movie looks high budget, with amazing acting performances to match. The 2016 film, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, had a small budget of $1.5 million and was filmed in Miami, Florida.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, the film follows a boy named Chiron through three periods of his life. The first period, titled “Little,” features Alex Hibbert as a young Chiron dealing with an addict mother and a father figure in Mahershala Ali‘s Juan. The second part, “Chiron,” stars Ashton Sanders as a teenaged Chiron discovering himself and developing feelings for his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), while the third period, “Black,” showcases Trevante Rhodes as an adult Chiron, who is now a drug dealer called “Black.” Putting on a front while around others, the real Chiron shows through when he reconnects with an older Kevin (André Holland). A truly moving story of Chiron’s life, Moonlight is a successfully affecting film without relying on a lot of money.
She’s Gotta Have It
Directed by auteur filmmaker Spike Lee, She’s Gotta Have It came out in 1986 and is shot in black and white. Along with directing, Lee also wrote, edited, produced, and starred in it, and it was his first feature-length movie ever. Considering its lasting legacy, She’s Gotta Have It is an astonishing film for a young filmmaker. The movie was filmed with a budget of $175,000, and it was reportedly shot in only 12 days in Brooklyn. The story centers around an artist named Nola Darling, played by Tracy Camilla Johns, who contends with three different men vying for her romantic attention, including Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks), Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell), and Mars Blackmon (Lee). The drama film is extremely individualistic, and even after so many years, there has still been nothing like it produced.
Rocky Horror Picture Show
One of the most popular cult classic films out there, developing a whole cultural experience after its release with the interactive public screenings, there’s really not much that needs to be said about what makes Rocky Horror Picture Show such a monumental film. The dark comedy musical, released in 1975, features a cast that includes Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Richard O’Brien, and many more talented actors.
Rocky Horror Picture Show had a budget of around $1.4 million, which went into the colorful sets, iconic costuming, and everything else that makes up the classic movie. The movie has the longest-running theatrical release in history, as it is still screened frequently in limited release, and while Rocky Horror Picture Show has a particularly stark legacy relating to the LGBTQ+ community, it’s much more far-reaching than that, with the movie even preserved in the National Film Registry in 2005.
Yes, The Witch is technically another horror movie, but as a tale about a young woman from a Puritan family accused of being a witch in the 1630s, the story arguably transcends beyond the boundaries of the horror genre. Directed by Robert Eggers and starring Anya Taylor-Joy in her first film, The Witch is a dark family drama that explores history and religion through the perspective of Taylor-Joy’s character, Thomasin, who fights the patriarchal, backward beliefs of her family in order to stay with them, while the more freeing — albeit murderous — ideals of witchcraft become increasingly desirable. There are so many thematic layers to The Witch to analyze, and with a period setting requiring particular sets and costumes, it’s amazing that it was made with a budget of only $4 million.
24 Hour Party People
With a production that only cost $2.8 million, 24 Hour Party People puts a spotlight on the music scene in Manchester, England, throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The film has a biographical element, with actors playing real figures of the time, but it certainly reads like a comedy-drama. Steve Coogan stars as Tony Wilson, a British manager, record label owner, and much more, while other well-known figures in music history, like Joy Division manager Rob Gretton (Paddy Considine), Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sean Harris), lead singer of the Sex Pistols Johnny Rotten (Mark Windows), and music producer Martin Hannett (Andy Serkis) are featured in the supporting cast. 24 Hour Party People was a critical success, and it was praised for being both an entertaining and compelling movie, while also fully encapsulating the feel of this period in punk music history.
People who know the name Gareth Edwards probably associate him with either the 2014 film Godzilla or Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, two great movies within the sci-fi genre. But the director actually burst onto the scene with his directorial debut Monsters in 2010. An independent British film, the movie stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able as Andrew and Samantha, two strangers brought together on a journey to return from Mexico to the U.S. in a world overtaken by extraterrestrial life. While that may sound exciting and action-packed, the movie is much more subtle, focusing on the relationship between the two protagonists as they interact with the strange world outside. Filmed with a $500,000 budget, Edwards wrote, directed, and did the cinematography for Monsters, successfully creating an atmospheric science fiction masterpiece similar to indie hits like Under the Skin and High Life.
Moon is basically a one-man show for Sam Rockwell. The movie, which was the directorial debut of Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, came out in 2009 to an amazing critical response. Made with only $5 million, Moon is about Rockwell’s Sam Bell as he deals with the psychological and emotional fallout of spending three years alone in space on a mission. While it’s mainly Rockwell performing on screen, the movie has a winding story that is frequently surprising.
Moon is basically a character study set in space, but at the same time, Jones and his team put a lot of effort into making it as scientifically accurate as possible. With other genres like horror and drama, lower budgets can be manageable, but with science fiction, a genre generally dependent on the realism of special effects, it’s much harder to make a compelling, believable movie without the budget to back it up. Despite this, Jones succeeded, producing a complex sci-fi drama for the ages.
A lot of Alfred Hitchcock‘s movies were made with low budgets and therefore could be on this list, but out of all of them, Rear Window is possibly his best work (although I know this is a highly debated topic). The movie is one of a handful of Hitchcock films that stars James Stewart, with Grace Kelly playing the female lead.
Stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment after an accident, Stewart’s character Jeff just can’t keep himself out of his neighbors’ business, watching all of the surrounding apartments from his window. While Kelly’s Lisa warns him away from the habit, Jeff continues, eventually noticing some strange activity across the way. Proclaiming that he believes the man who lives there killed his wife, Jeff seems to others like the boy who cried wolf. He must convince them of what he believes to be true before it’s too late, while at the same time, questioning the morality of what led him into the situation in the first place. With only $1 million for a budget, Hitchcock does what he does best and creates an enclosed, tense thriller exploring voyeurism through Jeff’s experience.
Released in 2014, the drama film Whiplash, about a jazz drummer pushing himself to the limit for the craft, is director Damien Chazelle‘s first major movie success story. Starring Miles Teller as talented drummer Andrew Neiman and J. K. Simmons as Andrew’s abusive conductor, Terence Fletcher, Whiplash is an intense story focusing on the trials Andrew goes through at the behest of Fletcher, and questioning whether the psychological abuse is justifiable if it gets results.
The performance won Simmons pretty much all of the major awards, which were well deserved, and even though Chazelle’s follow-up La La Land is more well-known, Whiplash still stands as his best movie so far, and he did it with just a $3.3 million budget. La La Land was produced with a budget of about 10 times that, totaling around $30 million. Simply put, if you like tense character dramas and haven’t seen Whiplash yet, it better zoom to the top of your list right now. It’s that good.
All About Eve
The oldest movie on this list, coming out in 1950, All About Eve stars Bette Davis as Margo Channing, a Broadway star who is now 40 years old and feeling the ageism of the business. Then enters a woman named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) into her life, a rising actress who appears to adore Margo, but instead is shoving herself into her business in an attempt to take her place. The movie was made with a $1.4 million budget and was a major success, earning much praise and winning many awards, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It also features icon Marilyn Monroe in an early role. All About Eve has been so influential on the moviemaking business and pop culture that you can see the same story present in many later movies, books, television shows, and more. With such little money, writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was able to make one of the best movies ever created, a real piece of history, all the way back in 1950.
City of God
A 2002 Brazilian film co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, City of God (Cidade de Deus in Portuguese) is a crime drama that focuses on the Cidade de Deus neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as one boy nicknamed “Lil Zé” (Douglas Silva/Leandro Firmino da Hora) builds a violent, all-encompassing drug empire that only collects more and more casualties. The story is told through a protagonist called Buscapé, a.k.a. “Firecracker” (Luis Otávio/Alexandre Rodrigues) – or “Rocket” in the English subtitles – who grows up in the area and eventually becomes a photographer documenting the chaos happening around him, losing a few people along the way. City of God was produced with a $3.3 million budget, presenting a powerful and grim look at gangs in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.