The Pope of Trash was so broke when he made his 1972 exploitation comedy Pink Flamingos that he spent his weekdays struggling to raise money for the movie while shooting it on the fly during weekends. There was no cash for multiple reels, and the art department’s budget consisted of a whopping 200 bucks. “After that (running out of money), we would just steal things,” production designer Vincent Peranio admitted. Initially the raunchy underground flick played the college circuit, quickly gathering a cult following. The film was eventually picked up for distribution despite its trashy tale about two families vying for the title of “Filthiest Person Alive” and went on to gross in the millions. A 1997 re-release saw Waters raking in more money, but Pink Flamingos’ cult status as the trashiest film around makes it truly valuable.
Armed with a standard home video camera, $15,000 dollars, two actors, and no script, Oren Peli created a supernatural sensation in 2007. The first-time filmmaker shot Paranormal Activity in his own home over a seven-day period and screened it at a horror film festival where it gained industry attention. Before he knew it, his little movie about ghosts haunting a young couple in their home was picked up by Paramount. It became the first major motion picture to utilize viral marketing and has since replaced the Saw franchise as the theatrically featured Halloween series (still running strong). To date, Paranormal Activity has grossed over $190 million worldwide.
Up-and-coming filmmaker David Lynch conceived of his surreal, industrial masterpiece Eraserhead while on scholarship at the American Film Institute’s Centre for Advanced Film Studies. Production was delayed due to budget issues (at one point director Terrence Malick screened the film for a potential financial backer who called it bullsh*t), even though Lynch wore the hats of writer, producer, designer, and effects guru to save some dough. Several troubled years later, Lynch finally made his feature debut to an audience of 25 people. Eraserhead continued its theatrical run, bringing in a total of $7 million and putting the eccentric director on the map.
The average moviegoer probably hasn’t heard of a porn flick like Anal Chiropractor or Jurassic Pork (hey, we had to look them up, too), but they’ve definitely heard of Deep Throat. The 1972 film boasted better production value than most skin flicks for the time, launching the adult film career of Linda Lovelace — who later became an anti-porn crusader. Deep Throat was screened at conventional movie theaters and ushered in an era of “porno chic,” making adult films feel like an exciting event for the masses rather than a dirty secret. It only cost around $20,000 to make the movie, but it grossed far more. Numbers have varied due to Deep Throat’s shady history of mob connections involved in production — ranging from $100 to $600 million — but its legacy outnumbers every figure.
Slacker may not have a lot of money to its name, but its iconic reputation precedes it. The idle 1990’s tale about a group of twenty-somethings in Austin, Texas was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, inspired an indie film movement that gave sluggards like Kevin Smith a film career, and managed to make over a million gross (domestic) — mainly by word of mouth.
John Carpenter’s slasher film classic started life on a modest budget of $325,000 (most of it spent on Panavison cameras), and it became the highest-grossing independent movie ever made at that time. Famed final girl Jamie Lee Curtis was only paid $8,000 for her role as the babysitter stalked by a madman, and the mask Michael Myers wore was just a cheap Captain Kirk disguise that the prop department doctored for creepier effect. We think grossing $70 million from all that sounds pretty amazing.
Young filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess created the 2004 film about the king of awkward Napoleon Dynamite — based on Jared’s previous short film, Peluca. The $400,000-budgeted project could only afford its titular actor for a mere $1,000. The filmmakers shot the movie’s memorable title sequence in the cinematographer’s basement, edited Napoleon Dynamite on a MacBook, and completed production in only 22 days. At the film’s Sundance premiere, a bidding war broke out, Fox won rights (and the worldwide gross of over $46 million that later ensued), and a new era of lovable losers began.
The Blair Witch Project
First-time feature filmmakers Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez laid the groundwork for their shaky cam classic The Blair Witch Project with a creepy, early viral marketing campaign online. Their eerily true-to-life reports and interviews posted online sparked a theatrical sensation that left audiences wondering if the film they had just watched was really about missing teenagers, or just a piece of well-crafted fiction. The improvised performances added to the unsettling realism and also saved money in the duo’s estimated $25,000 budget. Sánchez and Myrick were aiming for a cable movie at most and after grossing a surprising $248,639,099 million worldwide, they had brought found footage-style films to the mainstream.
Kevin Smith has Richard Linklater to thank in part for Clerks success — another low-budget film on our list that became a huge hit. The comic nerd director sold his collection to help gather part of his $27,575 budget. The doggedly determined moviemaker cast family and friends in his low-budget movie and shot the film at a convenience store in New Jersey where he worked (nights only). Despite the movie’s limited release, Clerks earned an impressive $3 million, which catapulted the slacker to stardom.
Shooting the action-packed, apocalyptic cult film Mad Max was a dangerous venture — and not only because the actors risked their lives during the movie’s many stunt and chase sequences. Director George Miller — who made his feature debut with the Australian genre movie — worked with a meager budget considering the movie’s thrilling sequences (many reports indicate around $350,000/$400,000), and the project could have been a bomb. Before Blair Witch came along, Mad Max was the Guinness titleholder for a movie with the highest profit-to-cost ratio of a motion picture (grossing $100 million worldwide). With the film’s final dollars and cents in mind, it seems funny that Miller could only afford real leather clothing for star Mel Gibson. Also, we’d like to think that Miller would have kept the real-life biker gang in the movie had he worked with a bigger budget at the time.