A Camcorder, Duct Tape and Friends with Free Time: The Cheapest (and Most Successful) Hollywood Flicks of All Time

A Camcorder, Duct Tape and Friends with Free Time: The Cheapest (and Most Successful) Hollywood Flicks of All Time

Oct 18, 2010

Last year Paranormal Activity became the second most successful independently financed movie of all time. As such, Paramount is hoping lightning strikes twice by pairing the original cast with a new director and rushing a sequel into production for release October 22nd. Hopefully it doesn’t suffer the same pitfalls as the ill-fated Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows, which retained little of the original’s shaky-cam charm in favor of big budget effects and standard slasher tactics. From what we’ve seen of Paranormal 2 in the trailer, it looks to be more in line with the feel of the very creepy first movie. But we’re betting they got a little more than the meager $15,000 shooting budget director Oren Peli and co. had on the original.

So what are the other most successful el cheapo releases of all time? We’ve assembled a list of the most successful movies ever based on the the following criteria -- a maximum budget of $500,000; a minimum box office take of $1 million and a release in at least 50 theaters. Here are nine movies that turned pocket change to stacks of Benjamins.

9. El Mariachi (1992)
Robert Rodriguez redefined determination in the early ‘90s when he underwent medical experimentation to save up money for his action-packed tale of a mariachi mistaken for a killer and forced to defend himself with a guitar case full of automatic weaponry. Besides launching the career of Rodriguez and his notorious penny-pinching tactics, El Mariachi holds the distinction of the cheapest movie to ever top the million dollar box office mark.
Production Budget: $7,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $2 million
Profit: $1,993,000
Creative Money Saver: Rodriguez used so many tricks to pull this one in for couch change, like subbing a wheelchair for a dolly, that he wrote the book Rebel Without a Crew about the production.
Legacy: Rodriguez would make two sequels to Mariachi, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico. He also went on to co-direct Sin City and work with Quentin Tarantino on From Dusk Till Dawn and Grindhouse, in addition to directing and producing the popular Spy Kids kiddie trilogy. He also launched his own Troublemaker Studios in Austin, TX.

8. The Evil Dead (1981)
Who would have ever imagined the guy who directed this spastic, blood-spattered monster movie about students spending a weekend at a haunted cabin would go on to become one of the biggest directors in Hollywood? Along with buddies Rob Tapert and Bruce Campbell, Sam Raimi cobbled together all the time and money he could muster to shoot his inventive horror movie over the course of a year and a half.
Cost: $375,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $2.4 million
Profit: $2,025,000
Creative Money Saver: Due to the lengthy production term, some actors weren’t able to finish the production, so Raimi subbed stand-ins and avoided close-ups to hide the replacements.
Legacy: Raimi would go on to direct a few movies you might have heard of and Tapert remains his producer to this day. Campbell has had a very successful B-movie career and continues to pop up in cameos in just about every Raimi movie. And Joel Coen, well, he and his brother didn’t do too shabby either.

7. Clerks (1994)
“Just because they serve you doesn’t mean they like you” was the tagline for Clerks, a concept so simplistically brilliant it’s hard to imagine no one thought of it first. And considering just about everyone has worked in the customer service industry at some point in their life, the identifiable concept created a cult classic.
Cost: $27,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $3,100,000
Profit: $3,073,000
Creative Money Saver: Kevin Smith eschewed the worry of a hefty location fee by shooting at the very place where he worked as a, you guessed it, clerk. They shot at night when the store was closed, explaining the lack of daylight with a plot point that the “bunch of savages in this town” put gum in the padlock, forcing them to keep the shutters closed during the day.
Legacy: It would be some time before Kevin Smith would let his alter ego Silent Bob and hetero life-mate Jay go, following with Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and, finally, Clerks 2.

6. Swingers (1996)
Jon Favreau polished off the original script in a brisk two weeks with plans to cast buddies in the partially autobiographical tale of struggling actors in Los Angeles.
Cost: $200,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $4,500,000
Profit: $4,300,000
Creative Money Saver: Besides casting Favreau and Vince Vaughn’s family members as extras, director Doug Liman filmed some of the casino interiors sans permit, Ed Wood style. That’s a “Cut! Now Run!”
Legacy: Liman would go on to direct Go, Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Vaughn and Favreau would have great success as actors and, in Fav’s case, blockbuster director.

5. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Based loosely on infamous American serial killer Ed Gein, this idea was dreamt up by director Tobe Hooper while he was a professor at the University of Austin. Controversial for its graphic content and banned in the U.K., Australia and a host of other countries, it was originally falsely claimed to be based on true events.
Cost: $140,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $30,800,000
Profit: $30,660,000
Creative Money Saver: The production used a real human skeleton from India in the end house sequence because it was cheaper. Also, when Leatherface cuts the girl’s finger during the dinner sequence, the cut and the blood are real. They opted for the cinéma vérité approach when the blood tube wasn’t working.
Legacy: One of the most influential horror films of all time, Chainsaw would go on to single-handedly create the forthcoming slasher genre of the late ‘70s and ‘80s as well as to provide a continuing influence on the evolution of the genre all the way through the torture porn wave of the past decade.

4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Dynamite came from humble beginnings, originally filmed in Franklin County, Idaho by Mormon director Jared Hess who based many of the film’s bizarre moments on events he’d witnessed during his upbringing, such as the cow getting shot in front of the school bus.
Cost: $400,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $44,500,000
Profit: $44,100,000
Creative Money Saver: The production’s editing “suite” was producer Jeremy Coon’s apartment. The editing machine was a beefed-up home Mac computer and Final Cut Pro.
Legacy: It became one of the most successful independently financed productions of all time and a hipster cult classic (See the “Vote for Pedro” t-shirt selection at your local Hot Topic) and the cast is supposedly reprising their roles for a TV show.

3. Halloween (1978)
If Texas Chainsaw gave birth to the slasher genre, Halloween defined it, from its boogeyman stalker and murders of promiscuous teens to that creepy symphonic score composed by director John Carpenter himself.
Cost: $325,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $47,000,000
Profit: $46,675,000
Creative Money Saver: California in April had to double for an Illinois fall, so the crew painted paper leaves to double for the autumn color scheme. Perceptive watchers may still spot the stray palm tree and Cali license plate.
Legacy: If it’s a horror movie produced after 1978, it’s hard not to spot some level of Carpenter’s influence. The horror king would follow with classics like The Thing and The Fog while Jamie Lee Curtis would graduate from scream queen to Hollywood A-lister.

2. Paranormal Activity (2009)
Director Oren Peli first developed the story idea as a way to get over his fear of ghosts. He spent over a year preparing his house and researching the paranormal to create a finished product that would be truthful in addition to scary as hell.
Cost: $15,000
Domestic Box Office Gross:$107,900,000
Profit: $106,985,000
Creative Money Saver: Besides shooting the movie in his own house and using only a home video camera, Peli also had the cheapest casting director in town, Craigslist, where he found leads Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat.
Legacy: The biggest phenomenon since Blair Witch, Activity raked in the dough. Its legacy remains to be seen, starting with this month’s sequel.

1. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Godmother of indie success stories, Blair Witch was shot in eight days and largely improvised, although the concept was first dreamt up by filmmakers Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick a decade prior.
Cost: $60,000
Domestic Box Office Gross: $148,000,000
Profit: $147,940,000
Creative Money Saver: How do you get a realistic reaction from inexperienced actors? Scare them silly and don’t tell them what the heck’s happening, that’s how. The cast of Blair Witch often had little idea what they were getting into. They were given only an outline of mythology while their next filming locations were retrieved via GPS devices placed in milk crates.
Legacy: The handheld look would influence hundreds of releases over the past decade, and sometimes not in such a good way. The brilliant marketing campaign also arguably gave birth to internet viral marketing.

What was your favorite low-budget blockbuster? Tell us below.

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