By: Sarah Chaisson-Warner
We’re always hearing how big-budget movies can rake in lots of money for studios, but low-budget films can also take the industry by storm, hurtle their cast into the spotlight, and bring in staggering profits.
Here at Shore Scripts, we love short films. So, we set about creating a list of some of the best low-budget features in recent memory. For the purposes of this article, a “low-budget” feature is a film that cost less than one hundred thousand dollars to make. For reference, the average budget for a drama film is between one hundred and two hundred million dollars. Whilst, some of the costlier action films including the Pirates of the Caribbean films and several of the Avengers movies had budgets of over 300 million each.
So, while one hundred thousand dollars might sound like a lot of money, in the entertainment industry, it’s actually a very small budget to work with for producing a high-quality film. Here are five of the best budget feature films (in no particular order) from the past twenty-five years:
1. The Puffy Chair (2005)
The Puffy Chair was written and directed by Jay and Mark Duplass and was made for $15,000. Largely financed by the Duplass’ parents, The Puffy Chair follows two brothers who bring an old recliner from Brooklyn to Atlanta with their girlfriends.
Starring Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, and Rhett Wilkins, the actors were paid $100 per day. Many of the cast members were the friends and girlfriends of the Duplass brothers themselves! Most of the scenes were filmed in Milbridge, Maine, which is Aselton’s hometown, and many of the crew members were housed by Aselton’s parents during production to save money. The production team made use of digital production equipment that was still relatively new and inexpensive at the time of shooting.
The film premiered at Sundance Film Festival and was released the following year by Netflix and Roadside Attractions.
2. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was the first “Iranian vampire western” feature film and centers around a lonely vampire in the Iranian ghost town of Bad City. Originally a short film, it cost a mere $57,000 to make and the funds were largely raised through a crowdfunding campaign by 290 backers on IndieGoGo.
“We decided to go out and make a film; to make something with what we had and not have to rely on others to make a film. We didn’t want to wait…And crowdfunding is part of that.” – Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily made full use of everything she already had within her reach. “We wanted full control, to use the resources we already had; use stuff within reach – we knew the locations, we knew all the actors, we had the T-bird, and the car,” she said. They shot the film in twenty-four days.
Starring Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marnò, and Marshall Manesh, it was chosen to show in the “Next” program at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Shane Carruth wrote, produced, directed, and starred in this flick about two friends who accidentally discover time travel. With a project budget of just $7,000 and largely filmed in Carruth’s own garage, Primer won the award for Best Drama at Sundance in 2004. Filming took place over nearly six weeks, utilized a very limited number of takes, and was created by a tiny crew of just five.
Most of the actors were friends and family of Carruth. The film’s star, David Sullivan, told Forbes in an interview –
“Every inch of film we shot was in that movie with the exception of maybe 30 feet. We used expired stock, we used short ends, we used any kind of stock that Kodak would donate to us. We were a crew of five guys who trusted each other, you had to trust each other on that kind of budget, and we made this special little film.” – David Sullivan
Primer received a distribution deal after its appearance at Sundance and went on to take in over half a million dollars at the box office.
4. The Brothers McMullen (1995)
Edward Burns wrote, produced, and directed this dramedy about the lives of three Irish-Catholic brothers in the 1990s. With themes of love, marriage, family, and religion pulsing throughout, the film was a major breakthrough in the world of low-budget entertainment.
The film cost a total of $28,000 (which was mostly financed by Burns’ family and friends), and Burns saved money by advertising in Backstage Magazine for Irish-American actors who would work for free. Salaries for paid actors and the crew were deferred.
Burns cast himself to save money – “I thought it would be one less mouth to feed, and I knew I’d show up every day,” he remarked.
Meals were provided by Molly Burns’ home cooking, and the family home was used for shooting on the weekends. (His mother’s cooking is in the credits as “fancy Irish cooking!”)
While Burns was working on the production crew at Entertainment Tonight, he gave a copy of the film to Robert Redford, who had been on set for an interview. Redford liked it and invited Burns to show his film at Sundance. It won the Grand Jury Prize, which led to a distribution deal with 20th Century Fox and another $200,000 for post-production.
This low-budget film actually grossed over $10 million in US and Canadian box office sales, and with $13.4 million worldwide, it was the most profitable film of the year.
5. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The Blair Witch Project, written by Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, & Heather Donahue, terrified audiences in the late 90s, and raked in significant ticket sales, grossing over $248.6 million worldwide. The film, which cost approximately $60,000 to make, has long been an example of how a low-budget horror film can have a big impact on audiences.
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, and its unique approach to marketing – listing its actors as “missing” or “deceased” helped to create significant buzz. The film also redefined the low-budget horror genre by relying more on suspense and fear, and less on lots of special effects and gory scenes.
The Blair Witch Project was shot in the woods of Maryland, and the actors also served as cinematographers, due to the film’s documentary-like approach. The actors slept in tents and were fed very little throughout the shoot, although this, according to the film’s director, was less about saving money and more about impacting the actors’ state of mind. The actors – a limited cast – were also paid just $1,000 a day and the shoot lasted eight days. The crew set up base at the director’s house – ten to fifteen crew members slept on couches and the floor to save money.
After 15 years of working in state and national politics, Sarah Chaisson-Warner is moving into the entertainment industry. As the former Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Athena Magazine for Girls, Sarah is now focusing her passion for creative arts through screenwriting. Many of her feature-length scripts focus on the often unseen experiences of gay women throughout American History, and she is also currently writing a sci-fi and a family Christmas script. Her script, Serafina Stavinovna, was placed in “The Next 100” in the 2021 Nicholl Fellowship Competition.
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