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The 15 Cheapest Movies That Went On To Become Cult Classics32

By Steven Novak

The 15 Cheapest Movies That Went On To Become Cult Classics

In historic Hollywood, nepotism and cronyism are as common as a cold, and because of that it can be difficult for the little guy to break in, also meaning that some movies are made with very small budgets, as is the case in KoldCast TV’s aptly-titled comedy series, Low Budget. That said, there are more than a handful of talented, relentless filmmakers that took what little resources they had and turned their idea into something memorable and profitable despite the obstacles. Although some of these movies did go on to gain “blockbuster” status, most of these movies remained fairly humble in their reach, but they created a tremendously passionate fan base. So, for the next few minutes, forget your $200 million summer blockbusters while taking a look at 15 movies which were made for less than $500,000 and went on to make movie history – these became cult classics.

Low Budget, Episode 1: Creative Financing

1. Halloween – 1978
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $320,000

Often credited with starting the “slasher” genre, John Carpenter’s Halloween is one of the most financially successful films ever made. Produced on a shoe-string budget, this babysitting job gone wrong went on to gross $60 million worldwide (which is the equivalent of $203 million today). In 2006, it was selected for preservation by the United States Film Registry and the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Not too shabby for a horror film with a spray painted Captain Kirk Halloween mask.

2. Primer – 2004
ESTIMATED BUDGET $7,000

Written, directed, and produced by a mathematician and former engineer named Shane Carruth (who also played a leading role), 2004’s Primer went on to win the Grand Jury prize at Sundance and has since become the favorite time travel film for movie nerds everywhere – and rightfully so. Heck, after its initial release The Village Voice called it “the freshest thing the genre has seen since Kubrick’s 2001.”

3. The Blair Witch Project – 1999
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $22,000

If you were alive at any point during the year of 1999, you no doubt heard a thing or two about The Blair Witch Project. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez came up with the idea in 1988, but had no financing and didn’t begin filming until nearly ten years later. Shot with barely any budget, and presented as a documentary about a local legend pieced together from amateur footage, the film and its mythology became an instant worldwide sensation. No matter how you might feel about the film personally, sometimes the numbers speak for themselves, and it’s difficult to deny sales numbers as high as $250 million.

4. Cube – 1997
ESTIMATED BUDGET: CAD $365,000

Directed by Vincenzo Natali, Cube is a Canadian-produced science fiction thriller about a group of strangers that wake up alone in a windowless cube. One cube leads to another cube and another after that. Oh, and guess what? They’re booby-trapped. Though the box office receipts are nowhere near some of the other additions to our list, Cube’s cult status is undeniable. The film has managed over the years to find an immense and dedicated audience on DVD.

5. Napoleon Dynamite – 2004
ESTIMATED BUDGET $400,000

Co-written and directed by the husband and wife team of Jared and Jerusha Hess, and adapted from an earlier short, the offbeat comedy called Napoleon Dynamite struck a chord with audiences in 2004, became a sleeper hit, and managed to rake in nearly $50 million dollars domestically. It also led to a heck of a lot more work for its star, Jon Heder. In early 2010, it was revealed that an animated series was in the works. Pretty impressive for a weird little flick about a guy with big hair and a pet llama.

6. Clerks – 1994
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $27,000

Though officially Clerks only pulled in $3 million or so at the box office, its legacy is undeniable. In order to make the film in the first place, Kevin Smith sold most of his comic book collection, maxed out his credit cards, dipped into college funds, and spent the insurance money he’d been awarded when he lost his car in a flood. Long story short, if it had flopped, he would have been in a whole lot of trouble. The film eventually found an audience, spawned sequels, an animated series, and most importantly, launched the nearly fifteen-year career of Kevin Smith. Empire magazine even named it “one of the 500 greatest movies of all time” in 2008.

7. Following – 1998
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $6,000

With the releases of The Dark Knight and Inception, Christopher Nolan has become one of the biggest names in the business and an almost guaranteed hit at the box office. Long before he became Hollywood’s darling, however, he managed to piece together the well respected, cult favorite Following. With little money, limited equipment, and a cast and crew who were all in full-time employment on the weekdays, this little bit of Nolan-esque non-linear goodness about a struggling young writer that finds inspiration by following people around took nearly a year to complete. Now that’s time well spent.

8. Badlands – 1973
ESTIMATED BUDGET $500,000

Written and directed by master filmmaker and notorious recluse Terrance Malick, Badlands stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a couple of kids on a cross-country killing spree. The script was loosely based on the lives of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. Malick began work on it during his second year of film school. When the film debuted at the New York Film Festival, it reportedly “overshadowed even Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.” Like Halloween earlier, the Library of Congress selected Badlands for preservation. Terrance Malick has since made three more films – all of which have solidified his spot as the darling director of critics everywhere.

9. El Mariachi – 1992
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $7,000

It’s no wonder that the film that made audiences first take note of director Robert Rodriguez was a low budget action flick, because that’s exactly what he’s been doing ever since. It’s been claimed that Robert raised the brunt of the money to make El Mariachi on his own by agreeing to volunteer for experimental drug testing in Texas. If that’s not dedication, well – I don’t know what the hell is. During filming he used a wheelchair for a dolly, 200-watt clip on desk lamps for lighting, and most importantly, didn’t bother to hire a crew. This film, about a musician who is mistaken for a notorious gangster, has spawned two sequels, and a career for Rodriguez that’s going strong to this day. This is a low budget success story of the highest order.

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – 1974
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $83,000

Director Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t always considered a cult classic. In fact, critics initially hated it. This movie about a family of cannibals even ended up getting banned in a number of countries including Australia and the United Kingdom. The banning backfired though, and succeeded only in building the hype. Eventually the film would go on to generate $30 million domestically despite every critic on the planet saying it was reprehensible trash. Tobe Hooper’s little scarefest has since gone on to be seen as one of the most influential films in the slasher genre, resulted in a number of sequels, and made each and every one of those critics eat their words.

11. Paranormal Activity – 2009
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $15,000

It would be difficult to write a story on cheaply made movies that pulled in big bucks without at least mentioning Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity, the faux documentation of a couple terrorized by ghosts. Having earned nearly $195 million worldwide, it is among the most profitable movies ever made. Though the film originally only opened in thirteen college towns across the United States on September 25th, Peli invited Internet users to “demand” where the film went next by voting online. The Internet had never really been used in this way, and believe it or not the viral movement worked. More showings followed and by November of 2009, Paranormal Activity was showing worldwide and raking in loads of cash.

12. Slacker – 1991
ESTIMATED BUDGET $23,000

Richard Linklater’s Slacker is a uniquely-structured, seemingly plotless film about a single day in the life of an ensemble of mostly twenty-something misfits in Austin, Texas. Though it only raked in $1 million at the box office, the film has garnered more critical praise than most, and deserves the term “cult classic” possibly more than any. Undeniably hilarious, Slacker was nominated for a grand-jury prize at Sundance, and has been credited for beginning the “independent movement” of the 90’s which opened up previously locked doors for filmmakers like Kevin Smith and a host of others.

13. The Evil Dead – 1981
ESTIMATED BUDGET $375,000

Long before he was rolling around in a bed of money from the Spiderman films, Sam Raimi was making low-budget horror with a style and panache all his own – namely the Evil Dead series, a collection of movies about a cursed cabin in the woods. Though only a moderate success at the box office (having pulled in about $2.5 million), the film spawned two sequels and has been a favorite of genre fans for years. Shot over a period of a year and a half, the production lost more than half its actors at one point or another – and those that chose to leave had to be replaced with extras. Several decades later, even Raimi himself longed for more Evil Dead and directed the similar Drag Me To Hell in 2009 to appease fans of his earlier work.

14. Swingers – 1996
ESTIMATED BUDGET: $250,000

Written by Jon Favreau and directed by Doug Liman, 1996’s Swingers, a movie about a group of friends that just hang out, ended up producing an awful lot of future talent for such a low-budget flick. Favreau (who later struck Hollywood gold with the Iron Man series) reportedly wrote the script in two weeks, and cast his friends in the key roles – including Vince Vaughn. It pulled in nearly $7 million at the box office, launched a number of careers, has since become an undeniable cult hit, was ranked #57 on Bravo’s “100 Funniest Movies,” and was even honored at the 2007 Spike TV Guys’ Choice Awards.

15. Mad Max – 1979
ESTIMATED BUDGET: AUS $350,000

George Miller’s Australian-produced dystopian action flick not only introduced a relatively unknown Mel Gibson to a larger audience, it spawned a pair of sequels, opened up the Australian New Wave movement to a global market, earned nearly $100 million worldwide, and is considered by many to be one of the best films of 1979. In 2004, The New York Times placed Mad Max on its “Best 1000 Movies Ever” list. There are few directors that know how to smash cars better than George Miller, and that alone is good enough for me.

Low Budget, Episode 2: Pre-Production

Low Budget, Episode 3: Action!

Watch more episodes of Low Budget.

Mike Betette is an improviser/writer/actor in Los Angeles. He has performed improv across the country with Mission IMPROVable and on a cruise ship around the world with The Second City. In Los Angeles, he currently performs at iOwest and Mi’s Westside Comedy Theater. Mike has written for Manswers on Spike and CurrentTV’s Supernews.

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  • Penn Lighting

    Rice went on to write several sequels, and they become collectively known as The Vampire Chronicles.

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  • Mike

    Animal House?? excluding that movie makes this list null and void

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  • http://www.freebie-link.com/ Freebies

    Office Space? I’m pretty sure that one was cheap.

  • http://www.kingsalemno.com king

    What? No Big Trouble and Little China? I’m kinda upset…

  • http://... JuanTon

    This article is on CHEAP movies that became cult classics. Animal House – $2.7 Million budget, Office Space – $10 million budget, Big Trouble in Little China – $25 Million Budget. None of those are cheap in comparison to the films mentioned.

  • Taylor

    Surprised I didn’t see The Rocky Horror Picture Show on this list, seeing as it grossed about 190 million and is still playing in a lot of theaters every week, national and international.

  • http://www.hghtruth.org/ Jackson

    I still force new friends to watch the Clerks DVD! I know I’m not the only one who’s done this, because by the time Clerks 2 came out, there was a massive following, though it is true, some people went to see the “It movie” of the day, most of the people there had seen the first one.

    I love it when a cult classic becomes so popular that it eventually becomes mainstream!

  • Janika

    El Mariachi is one of the best movies of the low budget, raw footage genre I’ve ever seen. It just reeks “Mexico” with all the grit and heat and “you’re not in Los Estados Unidos” kind of feeling to it. I’ve watched it five or six times.

    I’ve seen most of these films on this list and would rather watch this type of stuff than some special effects block buster anytime.

    Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead. Not on the list. Maybe not low budget, but good film.

  • Munger2k

    No “Saw” that film cost them peanuts and was definately cult status (although spawning lots of naff sequels)

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  • Jack

    you missed out “collin” british horror film with a £40 budget

  • http://www.2mara.com 2mara

    There is a special place in my heart for Evil Dead and Bruce Campbell.

    Great post!
    ~2

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  • Jeff

    You’ve missed the Queen Mother of all cheap cult blockbusters…..Pink Flamingos.

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  • B

    Probably the best example is Deep Throat. See also: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song.

  • http://www.Fairelightstudio.com Martha B~

    I would really like to see some of these movies. I wish a source for them had been provided. Any tips?

  • Colin

    Great list, I like hearing success stories about filmmakers trying something different then being rewarded. Do films like Napoleon Dynamite and Paranormal Activity really fall under the genre of “cult classic” though if they made so much money at the box office? I think there’s a difference between offbeat and cult classic. Regardless, thanks for bringing up Primer. I spent hours on the web geeking out about that one!

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  • That Guy

    I DEMAND TO KNOW WHERE TOMMY WISEAU’S THE ROOM IS! You cannot have a list of cult films without it.
    Unless you’re just a cheecken Peter, CHEEPCHEEPCHEEPCHEEP

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  • hgh

    may be that movies were cheapest but the posters looks great. nice post.

  • backbaconnbeer

    Night Of The Living Dead(1968) should be included.

  • backbaconnbeer

    Psycho (1960) was filmed on a budget slightly biggethan a tv series episode. It was filmed in black and white to keep costs down. No major studio would touch this film! Now it has earned millions and is considered a classic.

  • Manash

    12 angry men is definitely the cheapest movie of all time

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