Shooting the action-packed, apocalyptic cult film Mad Max was a risky venture — and not only because the actors risked their lives during the movie’s many stunts and chase sequences. Director George Miller worked with a meagre budget considering the movie’s thrilling sequences (many reports indicate around $350,000/$400,000). Before The Blair Witch Project came along, Mad Max was the Guinness titleholder for a movie with the highest profit-to-cost ratio of a motion picture. To celebrate the release of the Mad Max Collection on Blu-ray we’ve decided to take a look at other small budget films that made a big impact….
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The ultimate lo-fi horror film, considered to be the popular trailblazer of the found-footage genre, micro-budgeted films being widely distributed, and viral film marketing. Filmed in just eight days in Seneca Creek State Park, pretty much the entire film is improvised, the only guidance being notes left for the actors around the park by the directors. At night the actors would be harassed and tormented by the directors, which serves to lend the found footage gimmick a hideous reality, and make the audience uncertain about what’s fact and what’s fiction in this ‘documentary’. The improvised performances added to the unsettling realism and also saved money in the duo’s estimated $25,000 budget. Sánchez and Myrick were aiming for a cable movie at most and after grossing a surprising $248,639,099 million worldwide, they had brought found footage-style films to the mainstream.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
The genre-defying odd-ball comedy which defeated the odds and became a cultural touchstone. Young filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess created the film about the king of awkwardness Napoleon Dynamite. The $400,000-budgeted project could only afford its titular actor for a mere $1,000. The filmmakers shot the movie’s memorable title sequence in the cinematographer’s basement, edited Napoleon Dynamite on a MacBook, and completed production in only 22 days. At the film’s Sundance premiere, a bidding war broke out, Fox won rights (and the worldwide gross of over $46 million that later ensued), and a new era of lovable losers began. Never stooping to the obvious, but always quotable and often laugh out loud funny, Napoleon Dynamite is proof that the obvious and straightforward isn’t always the way to go.
Despite the movie’s limited release and small budget, Clerks earned an impressive $3 million and catapulted its way to stardom. The comic nerd director Kevin Smith sold his collection, maxed out credit cards and dipped into his college education fund to help gather his $27,575 budget. The doggedly determined moviemaker cast family and friends in his low-budget movie and shot the film at a convenience store in New Jersey which he worked in and was only allowed to film in out-of-hours. The majority of this budget movie is just two guys talking, but it is incredibly engaging and written to perfection.
Made on a shoestring budget of $100,000, Eraserhead had absolutely zero outside influence from studio heads, which meant that David Lynch could freely bring to life such an untouched, sublime and unique vision. Production was delayed due to budget issues (at one point director Terrence Malick screened the film for a potential financial backer who called it “bullsh*t”), even though Lynch wore the hats of writer, producer, designer, and effects guru to save some dough. Several troubled years later, Lynch finally made his feature debut to an audience of 25 people. Eraserhead promptly continued its theatrical run, bringing in a total of $7 million.
Made on a budget of approximately $300,000, Badlands was a film filled with brilliant writing, daring performances, and a visual beauty that requires repeat viewings to soak in all its magical imagery. It was originally screened at festivals in 1973, and released to the public in early 1974. Badlands was not a success on its first release. Reviews were mixed and the public didn’t go see it. Pressman also had to fight for Malick to have his own artistic vision, despite complaints and pressure from the backers. The film was properly ‘discovered’ when it started playing on cable television some years later and has certainly become a cult classic since.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity is the most profitable film of all time in relation to its budget. Armed with a standard home video camera, a meagre $15,000 dollars, two actors, and no script, Oren Peli created a supernatural sensation. The first-time filmmaker shot Paranormal Activity in his own home over a seven-day period and screened it at a horror film festival where it gained industry attention. Before he knew it, his little movie about ghosts haunting a young couple in their home was picked up by Paramount. It became the first major motion picture to utilize viral marketing and to date it has grossed over $190 million worldwide. The idea and execution is basic, reminding us of the power of simplicity.
John Carpenter’s slasher film classic started life on a modest budget of $325,000 (most of it spent on Panavison cameras), and it became the highest-grossing independent movie ever made at that time. Famed final girl Jamie Lee Curtis was only paid $8,000 for her role as the babysitter stalked by a madman, and the mask Michael Myers wore was just a cheap Captain Kirk disguise that the prop department doctored for creepier effect. Filmed in just 21 days and employing various camera angels, effective music, and a lack of actual graphic violence capture the attention of audiences for years to come. The film relied on word-of-mouth to gain a following, and to grow into a cultural phenomenon grossing $70 million.
Slacker may not have a lot of money to its name, but its iconic reputation precedes it. The idle 1990′s tale follows a group of young adult’s day around a town in Texas. The modest budget of $23,000 was used to such impressive effect, that Kevin Smith has cited this film as inspiration for his own low-budget movie, Clerks. This misfit and unexpected comedy managed to make over a million gross (domestic) — mainly by word of mouth. Here we have proof that bigger does not necessarily mean better, and a little really can go a long, long way.
The Limited Edition Fuel-Can Max Max Collection Box set is out on Blu-Ray now.
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