With the American economy stuck in the doldrums, Hollywood may want to reminisce about budget movies that cost under a million dollars to make but scored a sizeable box office return. Although special effects-laden projects like “Avatar” can enjoy a reported production budget of $1 billion, most films squeeze by with a $30 to $50 million outlay. Sometimes resourcefulness and creativity trump special effects and these small budget wonders explode a the box office. Here are a few gems that surprised the bean counters.
Paranormal Activity“ Writer/director Oren Peli took this very simple horror concept and spent a miniscule $15,000 creating it. Suburban couple Katie and Micah move into a tract house, contend with a nightly invasion by an evil presence and rake in almost $200 million at the box office. The production made imaginative use of “found footage” and the actors improved their lines for a spooky and long-lasting hit. Meanwhile, the producers also thought outside the box for distribution. They opened the film in a dozen college towns and tapped into the Internet for one of the first and most successful viral media campaigns to date.
“The Blair Witch Project“ Another low-budget horror movie that gained a huge, worldwide audience began with a standard plot: Three overconfident college students decide to go camping (shudder). With only eight days of shooting and a measly $25,000 budget, filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez created a spooky phenomenon that relied more on the suggestion of gore than the expense of creating it on camera. This successful formula eventually pulled in almost $250 million in worldwide receipts.
“Napoleon Dynamite“ The biggest horror of all is, of course, being a teenager. As imaginative as he is awkward, 15-year old Napoleon Dynamite managed to shuffle along $45 million at the box office after only a $400,000 production budget. Although the bare bones of the plot sounds like many a teen drama, a perpetual loser with a kooky family helps his best friend win (something). Writer and director Jared Hess makes his coming-of-age comedy unique with unusual lingo and genuine humanity underneath the clichés.
“American Graffiti” A long time ago George Lucas once made a movie for under $1 million. In 1973, he made his own coming-of-age flick about the smalltown drag racers he remembered from his Modesto childhood. The film follows a group of teens on one summer night with much of the $775,000 budget going towards musical rights for the catchy ’50s soundtrack. The teens are played by an enviable ensemble of Hollywood future success stories: Ron Howard (before “Happy Days” and his Oscar-winning director years), Harrison Ford (pre-Han Solo), Richard Dreyfus (before “Jaws”), Cindy Williams (“Laverne & Shirley”) Paul LeMat and 12-year-old Mackenzie Phillips. The film eventually pulled in $140 million and spawned a retro interest in Oldies But Goodies and gave Lucas the needed Hollywood cache to develop a little science fiction film that became “Star Wars.”
“Mad Max“ Back in the 1970s, Mel Gibson was just another Aussie actor with pretty blue eyes. Then, director George Miller cast him as his post-apocalyptic anti-hero Mad Max Rockatansky. Shot in the deserts of the Australian Outback, the film follows the vengeful Max as he hunts down a biker gang for killing his family and friends. Non-stop chase sequences, Gibson’s relentless anger, and a colorful cast of leather clad weirdos made for an international hit. The production reportedly cost in the neighborhood of $300,000, but brought in $100 million worldwide. The film also spawned two very successful sequels: “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”