A film’s brilliance should never be reliant on its budget. Of course, certain ideas aren’t possible to execute without the proper funding, but a great idea will always shine through the humble production lighting. In fact, on many occasions a lack of budget can work to a film’s advantage; found footage horror films benefit from their thrifty productions, and some go on to gross millions at the box office despite being independently financed and filmed using rental equipment (Blair Witch Project 1999 is the obvious example).
While a million dollars sounds like a lot of money, in film production it really isn’t. To some studios, $30,000,000 is still considered a “low” budget. This is partially due to high price-tag actors “selling” a movie to otherwise skeptic audiences; partially to the prevalence and necessity of VFX today, and partially due to the investment value of popular franchises, or opening the door for a new series or franchise with the potential for marketing value much higher than that “low” $30, 000, 000 initial cost.
However, direction is often the difference with independent or low-budget productions; several of the listed films are career-launching projects for some of Hollywood’s current directorial elite. These pictures serve as inspiration for all those with dreams of directing, writing, producing, and acting in film.
Often, when a film is in trouble, studios will just throw money at it and hope it turns out well; usually, this produces unoriginal or plotless drivel. On the other side of the coin, the films below all demonstrate vision, sublime execution and a fantastic final product, all on a shoestring allowance with no backup funds or money-throwing.
20. Evil Dead (1981) – $350,000 estimated
Sam Raimi’s first feature put himself and childhood friend Bruce Campbell into the horror history books. The slightly campy tone of this movie melds so well with the flamboyant gore, that audiences were unsure when they should have been laughing, and when they should have been screaming.
20-year-old Raimi was able to create a genre staple that has been referenced repeatedly in pop culture, and a subject of pastiche ever since its early 80’s release. However, beneath the surface, a wealth of talent was in hiding on Evil Dead; the Coen brothers helped edit the film and, with Stephen King citing it as one of his favourite movies, it was picked up by New Line Cinema.
The young and inexperienced crew that supposedly “bumbled around in the woods trying to shoot a splatter picture” were, in the end, able to create one the genre’s finest cult masterpieces.
19. The Breakfast Club (1985) – $1,000,000 estimated
A decade-defining film, The Breakfast Club took the teenage social paradigm and turned it on its head. With a contained story that was largely reliant on dialogue, The Breakfast Club featured some career-defining performances from Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez and Judd Nelson.
It recouped its budget 38 times over and became an instant classic. It is considered by many who grew up during the 80’s to be a profound and youth-defining experience; the type of movie you hold onto for a lifetime.
18. El Mariachi (1992) – $7,000 estimated
The first of Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy was made for a meagre 7,000 dollars. That’s about the catering budget at some weddings- and less than one for most film sets! Rodriguez was able to raise roughly half the budget of the film by volunteering as a “patient” in various medical student tests.
Despite the obvious constraints, El Mariachi is incredibly watchable; the humour, the violence and tone all play off of each other wonderfully, and the audience is treated to a gangland tale fit for the big screens.
For a film that no one initially believed in, except the faithful creator, El Mariachi became a surprise success, going on to earn a respectable 2 million. Rodriguez’s passion and obvious dedication courses through every vein of this picture, giving it a crucial sense of edge.
17. Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – $960,000 estimated
This film not only smashed its budget 28 times over, it also introduced the world to Guy Ritchie (this is probably his best effort though, even after his long career).
It features a plethora of great performances and provides a visceral, sharp and funny perspective on the East London criminal underworld. The pacing, direction, script, and soundtrack all deliver, and create a classic portrayal of Cockney culture. It is a serious contender for the coolest film of the 90’s.
16. Cube (1997) – $365,000 estimated
This Canadian sci-fi/horror is often overlooked. A brilliant premise and a chilling tone that is maintained throughout make Cube a must-see for any serious film fan. Shot entirely on one single soundstage, the band of kidnapped victims navigate a complex cubic prison that has been rigged with grizzly traps.
The film expertly builds tension whilst revealing the true nature of the victims. In a stylish Kafkaesque setting, Cube delivers piles of the grisly terror that horror fans delight in, and enough thematic content that non-genre fans will appreciate it, too.
15. Enter the Dragon (1973) – $850,000 estimated
Robert Clouse’s martial arts classic features the last ever performance from Bruce Lee. The film kicked off the martial arts craze in the 70’s and 80’s and touched on blaxploitation and decolonisation.
Enter the Dragon demonstrates stunning visuals and thrilling cinematography on a very tight budget (the entire picture was filmed without sound; everything was dubbed in during post-production, which is a taxing, trying feat as anyone who’s ever done it will know). It is brutal, and manages that with no firearms- and if you pay attention, you can spot a then-unknown Jackie Chan getting his neck snapped by Bruce Lee.
14. Bronson (2008) – $230,000 estimated
One of the most perplexing humans in history, Michael “Mickey” Gordon, later named Charles Bronson and now named Charles Salvador, made a gripping character to explore through the metaphorical mind of Nicolas Winding-Refn.
Tom Hardy’s performance is stunningly accurate, thanks to numerous meetings with the man himself in prison- Charles even shaved off his moustache so Hardy could use it as a prop. Bronson is a journey into the mind of an insane person.
The audience is left to decipher their own thoughts on the man and are, thankfully, not spoon-fed an opinion. Often viewed accidently by those looking for work-out inspiration, Bronson is a profoundly artistic film. The budget is negligible and the final product is mesmerising.
13. Swingers (1996) – $200,000 estimated
Another candidate for coolest film of the 90’s, Swingers tapped into the social scene of Hollywood like nothing else. Jon Favreau’s stylish film benefits from some supreme performances- particularly from Vince Vaughn- and a clinical eye on the pacing and direction.
The film went on to spawn modern day terminologies like ‘wingman’ and launched the careers of both Favreau and Vaughn. Once again, the talent from the director allowed this project to shine through its tight budget.
12. Duel (1971) – $450,000 estimated
The greatest TV-movie ever made, directed by Steven Spielberg, shares a clear similarity with his 1975 classic Jaws. Duel follows a mechanical leviathan in the form of an 18-wheeler truck and its relentless driver as he torments and chases down an ordinary man.
The small budget lends itself to the wonderfully simple plot and exhibits Spielberg’s early abilities in visually stunning scene construction. The film has been referenced numerous times in other works and still causes chills when viewed today.
11. Brick (2005) – $475,000 estimated
Brick is an expertly shot neo-noir detective story surrounding a group of high school kids. Rian Johnson achieved some absolutely breathtaking shots and built a hardboiled mystery that holds up against even some of legendary craftsman David Fincher’s work.
The use of “problem solving” special effects allowed audiences to believe they were partaking in a pricier feature, while practical and in-camera effects were utilised as much as possible and helped keep the budget under half a million. The film achieved universal acclaim and allowed Rian Johnson to become one of Hollywood’s directorial bright stars.