Filmmaking can be an expensive affair, especially for those who aim to deliver loud and lavish spectacles designed to bring fans out in droves. From the use of cutting-edge special effects to the massive sums allocated to A-list stars and marketing campaigns, the costs of rolling out a summer blockbuster can surpass the GDP of a small country.
But the beauty of the craft is that anyone with a camera and a story to tell can make a film. While it takes a little more than the average savings account to create a quality product, history shows that audiences will respond to a compelling premise and a well-executed production, regardless of cost. Here are eight famous feature films that overcame budget restrictions to wow audiences and dazzle at the box office.
“Enter the Dragon”
Although Bruce Lee was a bona fide martial-arts movie star in Hong Kong in the early 1970s, Hollywood studios were reluctant to throw their weight behind an Asian leading man. As such, Warner Bros. gave producer Fred Weintraub just $600,000 (a figure that eventually went up to about $850,000) when it came time to give Lee his shot. The joint American-Hong Kong production moved forward with first-time screenwriter Michael Allin and out-of-date equipment, its deficiencies overcome by the creativity of director Robert Clouse and the jaw-dropping skills of its headlining talent. The gamble paid off: Enter the Dragon earned a reported $90 million in 1973, though Lee died just before the release of the film that made him a global icon.
With visions of lightsaber battles still just a flicker in his mind, George Lucas was viewed as something of a noncommercial director when Universal — with a push from Francis Ford Coppola — reluctantly agreed to back his second feature film. Given a budget of about $780,000, Lucas rushed through the shooting of American Graffiti — a film comprised of recollections of his teenage years in Modesto, California — in just 28 days. Resources were conserved as needed — the 300 teenagers in the sock hop scene were lured on board through the raffling of radios, for example — but Lucas saved his largest expenditures for the rights to the 40-plus oldies that populated the movie’s soundtrack. It was a savvy move for a film built on nostalgia, and the 1973 movie paved the director’s way to the top of the industry with a nifty $115 million domestic intake.
Inspired by a 1975 fight in which a seemingly overmatched Chuck Wepner went toe-to-toe with the great Muhammad Ali, a broke Sylvester Stallone banged out the screenplay for his 1976 boxing movie and then held firm to the demand that he star as its protagonist. He eventually got his wish but only about $1 million for Rocky’s budget, which was carefully rationed out — actors wore their own clothes, non-union extras were paid in chicken dinners, and an ice-skating rink was rented during off-hours. The money was also wisely used to invest in the then-still-nascent Steadicam technology, which allowed for scenes like Rocky's run up the museum steps to be filmed smoothly. The result was a Best Picture Oscar winner that took in $117 million at the box office and officially launched Stallone’s career as one of the biggest stars of his era.
By the late 1970s, producer Irwin Yablans had conceived the story of a murderous madman who targets babysitters, but he lacked the proper finances to bring the idea to the screen. He convinced a colleague to split the $300,000 budget and hired eager director John Carpenter, who wrote the screenplay with his girlfriend and composed the score himself to keep costs down. Shooting quickly in May 1978 to have Halloween finished by, well, Halloween, the team efficiently reused the minimal fall foliage available and made the most of the $1.98 William Shatner mask worn by Nick Castle as killer Michael Myers. Yablans had initially hoped just to recoup his investment by selling the project to a major studio, but he was instead rewarded with a horror classic that grossed $47 million domestically in its opening run and spawned a franchise that had raked in $750 million globally by early 2022.
After initially studying to become a doctor, George Miller wasn't well-positioned to develop his dystopian movie spawned from childhood memories of cars racing through the Australian outback. But he found like-minded producer Byron Kennedy, and together they embarked on a DIY project of "guerilla filmmaking" that included hiring a then-unknown Mel Gibson. Miller and Kennedy paid the actors with beer, used recycled camera lenses, and crashed at a friend's house to edit their work. The final product, 1979's Mad Max, was banned in New Zealand and Sweden for being too violent, and fared poorly in the U.S. due to the ridiculous overdubbing of the Australian accents, but captivated audiences enough — primarily in Australia — to set what was then a Guinness World Record for film profitability by grossing $100 million against a $350,000 budget.
“The Blair Witch Project”
The film that eventually surpassed Mad Max for profitability was The Blair Witch Project, which showed what could be accomplished with an adventurous spirit and a smart marketing campaign. After sifting through candidates willing to camp and improvise in the woods, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez largely left the three primary actors — Heather Donahue (aka Rei Hance), Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard — to film themselves over the eight-day shoot. The filmmakers provided notes instead of a script to guide their characters. Then, before the movie's debut at Sundance in January 1999, Myrick and Sánchez launched a website that portrayed the fictional characters as real, missing people. The resulting confusion, combined with the film's old-fashioned use of suspense, generated a phenomenon that garnered $248 million at the global box office against initial production costs of just $60,000.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”
Nia Vardalos generated plenty of buzz with her one-woman stage play but, like Stallone, refused to sell the big-screen rights unless she could also play the lead. It took the backing of heavyweight Tom Hanks to get production into gear, but even then, the 2002 romantic comedy with an unknown cast was assigned a modest $5 million budget and marketing expenses of $1 million spread over six weeks. What happened from there is an anomaly in the business, as the film’s audience slowly built up to the point where its weekend box-office haul peaked a full four months after the movie hit theaters. My Big Fat Greek Wedding eventually pulled in nearly $370 million, thereby ensuring the release of a sequel that came with a bigger budget but less-than-stellar reviews.
When it comes to bare-bones filmmaking, it doesn't get much cheaper than this modern-day horror favorite. Written, filmed, and edited by Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity followed the Blair Witch model by relying on a minimal cast, the "found footage" of its characters hunting a malevolent spirit, and a grassroots marketing angle. More than just a Blair Witch knockoff, though, this 2009 movie was frightening enough to generate a whopping $193 million from an original budget of $15,000. It also easily outdid its predecessor in terms of sequel success, as the five Paranormal Activity films that followed went on to accumulate an additional $700 million across the globe. (A sixth installment was limited to streaming in 2021.)
Featured image credit: Album/ Alamy Stock Photo