It seems like every time you turn on the television you see an ad for some new, big-budget film that costs hundreds of millions of dollars to make and which, in all likelihood, will be absolutely horrendous. We’re looking at you, Battleship. It seems amazing that so much money can be poured into a product that will ultimately be a tremendous disappointment which, in turn, makes it hard to believe some people can pull off high-quality films for a sliver of those budgets. However, sometimes it would seem that, in terms of production budgets, less is more. Here are the top ten examples of good movies made for under $100,000.
10. Assault on Precinct 13 (original)
The most expensive film on this list, the original Assault on Precinct 13 was directed by the great John Carpenter, shot for under $100,000, simply because that was the self-imposed budget Carpenter gave himself. He went into the production with an idea to make an exploitation film that mirrored the plot of the Howard Hawks classic Rio Bravo, but wanted total creative control while doing so.
The film began shooting in November of 1975, and the entire shoot lasted 20 days; the budget was so limited that, the first time the art director sat down to watch the dailies, he did so with the footage projected on a bed sheet in the producer’s apartment. The film has since been remade though, for that one, they decided to use a much larger budget, and ended up with a much crappier end product.
There are a lot of successful, well-known filmmakers who began their careers with low-budget pictures and, when you think about it, that makes sense. Who better to squeeze everything they can out of each and every penny, than someone who will go on to tremendous success? In the case of the movie Pi, the fledgling future success story was Darren Aronofsky.
Pi, as you might have guessed, is a movie about math. What you might not have guessed is that it’s a psychological thriller, and it was shot for $60,000 before being released in 1998. Some of the ways Aronofsky was able to complete the film for such a shoestring budget include hiring his mom as the caterer, as well as avoiding picking up those pesky little things called “permits.” Not a single shooting permit was procured; instead, a single person was set to the task of roaming the perimeter of the shoot, to signal if any police happened to stop by. Additionally, in an effort to raise the funds, Aronofsky’s friends and family members chipped in $100 apiece. When the film was sold for $1,000,000, Aronofsky gave $150 back to anyone who contributed.
8. Little Shop of Horrors (original)
A lot of our readers might be too young to remember that, before the version of Little Shop of Horrors featuring the likes of Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, there was a black-and-white version that came out in 1960, and was directed by the now-legendary Roger Corman. The film was shot for just $30,000 in, and this is even more incredible, two days. Think about that for a second. There are films these days that spend a full week on one or two scenes, and Corman managed to squeeze an entire film production into 48 hours.
The film was shot using glorified extras from some of Corman’s earlier films, as well as a few family members of the crew, and the director literally pulled winos off the street, and paid them 10 cents apiece to appear as extras. Having such a shoestring budget, and limited time, you can see why he used nothing but unknown actors, like the guy he cast as a dental patient who was making only his third film appearance. Some guy named Jack Nicholson.
7. The Brothers McMullen
Long before he ever showed up in movies like Saving Private Ryan, and then threw his career away in movies like A Sound of Thunder, Edward Burns made low-budget, well-regarded, independent character features, most notably The Brothers McMullen. Burns wrote the screenplay while he was working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight, and eventually shot the film for $28,000, primarily in his family home on Long Island.
The film was shot primarily on weekends over the course of eight months, which is just a ridiculous amount of dedication put in by everyone involved; consider that everyone had to maintain their weight, hair, and so-forth through the entire period. The cameraman Burns worked for on ET, Dick Fisher, ultimately edited and produced the film, and Burns’ profile skyrocketed when the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995.
This is one of the most famous low-budget films ever produced. Clerks was the debut film from Kevin Smith, and a movie so foul that it probably taught the writers of Deadwood new and inventive ways to swear. Written and directed by Smith, the film was produced with a budget of $27,575 and shot in black and white because, as Smith has said, color film is just more expensive.
Smith, perhaps the most famous comic book geek in the world, helped finance the film by selling a large portion of his comic book collection in 1993, and maxed out several credit cards. The movie was shot in 21 consecutive days, and was filmed in the actual Quick Stop convenience store where Smith worked. The crew was only permitted to shoot when the store was closed, and Smith could hardly afford good enough lighting to work around that. So what did he do? He wrote in a bit about how the shutters on the front of the store were stuck and therefore always down, which is one of the funniest little gags in the film. Now that’s innovative film making.
You may have heard of Slacker for a few reasons, none more so than the fact that this was the film that launched the career of writer and director Richard Linklater, who also starred in and produced the movie. He later went on to make films like Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and School of Rock. It was filmed for just $23,000 in and around Austin, Texas.
Along with being famous for launching the career of Linklater, the film is also considered a taking-off point for the independent film movement of the 1990’s. Kevin Smith has said, on numerous occasions, that the film served as a particular inspiration to him, and the title helped popularize the term “slacker” early in the decade.
4. The Blair Witch Project
The Blair Witch Project was the film that kicked off the found-footage phenomenon in the horror genre, and we’re not sure if we should thank the filmmakers for that, or give them a hearty slap upside the head. The actual budget of the film has been debated a bit over the years but, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it cost $22,000. So that’s what we’re going with.
Oh, why was it in the Guinness Book of World Records, if it’s not the cheapest film ever made? Simple; because it earned $240.5 million, giving it a ratio of $1 spent for every $10,931 earned.
There was no real script for this film. Instead, the three principle actors were given 35-page outlines of the mythology behind the plot, and then sent into the woods to film themselves. Meanwhile, the directors followed them around in secret, terrorizing them and freaking them out to make their reactions more real. Amazingly, some people still believe the footage is real, despite the fact that, you know, the three actors aren’t actually dead.
3. Paranormal Activity
When it was first released, Paranormal Activity was a legitimate phenomenon. First you had the people insisting it was real, and then you had the people scoffing at those idiots but forking over money for a movie ticket anyway. The found-footage movie was produced on a budget of $15,000, and went on to make over $193 million, and launch one of the biggest horror franchises in film history.
Stars Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were paid just $500 each, and the entire film was shot with virtually no script. Instead, director Oren Peli basically just gave people a general idea about what was happening and then let them talk. So basically, it was a really unsettling episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Well, a more unsettling episode, we should say.
2. El Mariachi
Released in 1992, El Mariachi has become an absolute cult classic and spawned a pair of sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Written and directed by first-timer Robert Rodriguez, the film was shot for just $7,000, and was originally intended to be a straight-to-video release in Mexico. Instead, it earned an international release and, in 2011, was inducted into the Library of Congress as part of the National Film Registry.
So how did Rodriguez make such an impactful film for so little money? For starters, he cut costs at every tiny opportunity. For example, rather than using a dolly, he would sit in a wheelchair and be pushed around while filming. He also didn’t hire a film crew, instead using the actors who weren’t in the scene being shot helping out as needed. He also kept in any goofs and bloopers to save film. And perhaps the biggest cost-cutting measure was the fact that he waited until Desperado came out to cast Antonio Banderas, despite a common misconception that he was in all three parts of the Mexico Trilogy.
Released in 2004, Primer is, quite frankly, one of the most complex and confusing science fiction films you’ll likely ever see. It’s about a pair of guys who accidentally discover time travel and, quite frankly, to try to explain anything more is futile. Just see the damned thing.
The film was shot for a measly $7,000, and had a crew of five people. Five. That’s IT. Star Shane Carruth, for example, served as a writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor, and music composer.
The movie was filmed in five weeks outside of Dallas, and most of the characters are played by Carruth’s friends and family. They managed to get everything under budget by carefully storyboarding every scene to avoid multiple takes, and shot in and around industrial parks. As for their time machine: it was a simple gray box, and the sound effects were generated by a car engine and a mechanical grinder.