A low-budget film or low-budget movie is a motion picture shot with little to no funding from a major film studio or private investor. Many independent films are made on low budgets, but films made on the mainstream circuit with inexperienced or unknown filmmakers can also have low budgets. Many young or first time filmmakers shoot low-budget films to prove their talent before doing bigger productions. Many low-budget films that do not gain some form of attention or acclaim are never released in theatres and are often sent straight to retail because of its lack of marketability, look, story, or premise. There is no precise number to define a low budget production, and it is relative to both genre and country. What might be a low-budget film in one country may be a big budget in another. Modern-day young filmmakers rely on film festivals for pre promotion. They use this to gain acclaim and attention for their films, which often leads to a limited release in theatres. Films that acquire a cult following may be given a wide release. Low-budget films can be either professional productions or amateur. They are either shot using professional or consumer equipment.
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Some genres are more conducive to low-budget filmmaking than others. Horror films are a very popular genre for low-budget directorial debuts. Jeremy Gardner, director of The Battery says that horror fans are more attracted to how the films affect them than seeing movie stars. This allows horror films to focus more on provoking a reaction than on expensive casting choices. Thriller films are also a popular choice for low-budget films, as they focus on narrative. Science fiction films, which were once the domain of B movies, frequently require a big budget to accommodate their special effects, but low-cost do-it-yourself computer-generated imagery can make them affordable, especially when they focus on story and characterization. Plot devices like shooting as found footage can lower production costs, and scripts that rely on extended dialogue, such as Reservoir Dogs or Sex, Lies, and Videotape, can entertain audiences without many sets.
The money flow in filmmaking is a unique system because of the uncertainty of demand. The makers of the film do not know how well the film they release will be received. They may predict a film will do very well and pay back the cost of production, but only get a portion back. Or the opposite may happen where a project that few think will go far can bring in more profit than imaginable. A big gambling variable that is also involved is the use of stars. Frequently stars are brought on to a project to gain the film publicity and fame. This process can be profitable, but it is not a foolproof mechanism to successful funding. Well-known actors may join a low-budget film for a portion of the gross.
Notable low-budget films
One of the most successful low-budget films was 1999's The Blair Witch Project. It had a budget of around US$60,000 but grossed almost $249 million worldwide. It spawned books, a trilogy of video games, and a less-popular sequel. Another successful low-budget film was 2007's Paranormal Activity, with a budget of only $15,000, the film went on to gross more than $190 million. Possibly an even more successful low-budget film was the 1972 film Deep Throat which cost only $22,500 to produce, yet was rumored to have grossed over $600 million, though this figure is often disputed.
Another early example of a very successful low-budget film was the 1975 Bollywood Dacoit Western film Sholay, which cost ₹20 million ($400,000) to produce and grossed ₹3 billion ($67 million), making it one of the highest-grossing films of all time in Indian cinema. Other examples of successful low-budget Asian films include the Chinese films Enter the Dragon (1973) starring Bruce Lee, which had a budget of $850,000 and grossed $90 million worldwide. Wayne Wang's film Chan Is Missing, set on the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown, was made for $20,000 in 1982. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote that the budget would not have paid for the shoe laces in the film, "Annie".
Rocky was shot on a budget of $1 million and eventually grossed $225 million worldwide, making Sylvester Stallone a star. Halloween was produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossed $70 million worldwide. Napoleon Dynamite cost less than $400,000 to make but its gross revenue was $46 million. Divisions of major film studios that specialize in such films, such as Fox Searchlight Pictures, Miramax, and New Line Cinema, have made the distribution of low budget films competitive.
The UK film Monsters is a recent successful example of bringing what was once considered the exclusive preserve of the big studios—the expensive, special effects blockbuster—to independent, low-budget cinema. The film's budget was reported to be approximately $500,000, but it grossed $4,188,738 at the box office.
A considerable number of low- and modest-budget films have been forgotten by their makers and fallen into the public domain. This has been especially true of low-budget films made in the United States from 1923 to 1978 (films and other works made in the US during this period fell into public domain if their copyrights weren't renewed 28 years after the original production). Examples include a number of films made by Ed Wood or Roger Corman.
Some low-budget films have failed miserably at the box office and been quickly forgotten, only to increase in popularity decades later. A number of cheaply made movies have attained cult-film status after being considered some of the worst features ever made for many years. The most famous examples of this later-day popularity of low-budget box-office failures include Plan 9 from Outer Space and Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Additionally, some low-cost films that have had little (or modest) success upon their initial release have later been considered classics. The Last Man on Earth was the first adaptation of the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson. Due to budgetary constraints, the vampires in the film were zombie-like creatures instead of fast and agile monsters portrayed in the novel. This approach (and film) was not considered a success at the time, but it inspired George A. Romero's work in his film Night of the Living Dead. Thus The Last Man on Earth became a precursor to numerous zombie films, and fans of those films later re-discovered the original, making it a cult classic.
The 2015 fantasy Western film Western Religion by writer-director James O'Brien, produced for $250,000, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was subsequently bought by Screen Media Films and given a national theatrical release. The 2017 Indian film Secret Superstar became one of the most profitable films of all time, grossing ₹9.65 billion ($154 million) worldwide on a limited budget of ₹15 crore (US$2.2 million), with over 6,000% return on investment (ROI).
A micro budget film is that which is made on an extremely low budget, sometimes as little as a few thousand dollars. An example of such would be the popular 1992 film El Mariachi, in which the director Robert Rodriguez was unable to afford second takes due to the $7000 budget. Despite this, it was a success both critically and commercially, and started the young director's career.
Some of the most critically acclaimed micro-budget films were by the Bengali film director Satyajit Ray, his most famous being The Apu Trilogy (1955–1959). The first film in the trilogy, Pather Panchali (1955), was produced on a shoestring budget of Rs. 200,000 ($3000) using an amateur cast and crew. The three films are now frequently listed among the greatest films of all time. All his other films that followed also had micro-budgets or low-budgets, with his most expensive films being The Adventures Of Goopy And Bagha (1968) at Rs. 600,000 ($12,000) and Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) at Rs. 2 million ($40,000).
Another example would be the 1977 cult film Eraserhead, which cost only $10,000 to produce. Director David Lynch had so much trouble securing funds that the film had to be made over a six-year period, whenever Lynch could afford to shoot scenes. In 2014, journalist Kyle Smith estimated the film has grossed over $7 million.
Slacker, a 1991 comedy-drama film written and directed by Richard Linklater, was produced for $23,000. The film was inducted into the National Film Registry in 2012. Influenced by the success of Slacker, Clerks was written and directed by Kevin Smith for $27,575 in 1994 which he paid for on his credit card and grossed $3.2 million in theatres. Clerks launched Smith's career as a director and he has made several considerable higher budget films.
In Russia, the 1997 crime film Brother was made with a budget of around $10,000, and was extremely successful when it was first released.
Primer is a 2004 American science fiction film about the accidental invention of time travel. The film was written, directed and produced by Shane Carruth, a former mathematician and engineer, and was completed on a budget of only $7,000.
Paranormal Activity, a 2007 horror film written and directed by Oren Peli, was made for $15,000 and grossing about $193,355,800 (adjusted by inflation: $225,806,704). Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman gave Paranormal Activity an A− rating (A being the highest mark) and called it "frightening...freaky and terrifying" and said that "Paranormal Activity scrapes away 30 years of encrusted nightmare clichés." One Cut of the Dead (2017), a low-budget Japanese zombie comedy film, was produced on a budget of ¥3 million ($25,000) and went on to gross over ¥3.12 billion ($28 million) at the Japanese box office, where it made history by earning over a thousand times its budget.
Economic research on low-budget film production
Only a small amount of academic research has been conducted on the economic impact of low-budget feature-film production. Two studies conducted from a British perspective includes Steve Chibnall's Quota Quickies The Birth of the British 'B' Film and JC Crissey's doctoral thesis 'The UK low-budget film sector during the 'digital revolution' between 2000 and 2012: a quantitative assessment of its technological, economic and cultural characteristics'.
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- McNary, Dave (April 11, 2013). "Hit Microbudget Pics Offer Healthy Backend for Name Actors". Variety. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
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- Kohn, Eric (October 13, 2010). "Making Movies With Laptops and Ingenuity". The New York Times. Retrieved August 18, 2015.
- "Monsters (2010)". Box Office Mojo. 2010-11-21. Retrieved 2010-11-27.
- "Western Religion (2015)". The Numbers. Retrieved 2016-02-16.
- McNary, Dave. Variety. https://variety.com/2015/film/news/western-religion-screen-media-1201558808/
- Cain, Robert (21 January 2018). "'Secret Superstar' Is Hot On 'Tiger's Tail With Explosive ₹173 Crore/$27M China Debut Weekend". Medium.
- Ren, Shuli (26 February 2018). "China's New Year Box-Office Boom Hides a Twist". Bloomberg. Retrieved 26 February 2018.
- "Analysis: There's a Plot Twist to the Chinese New Year Movie Boom". The Washington Post. 22 February 2018.
- "You Asked It - Padmaavat Is Bigger Than Mughal E Azam?". Box Office India. 8 March 2018.
- "Deepika Padukone's Padmaavat beats Aamir Khan's Dhoom 3 and Salman Khan's Tiger Zinda Hai at the box office". Times Now. 27 February 2018.
- "All time box office revenue of the highest grossing Bollywood movies worldwide as of June 2018 (in million U.S. dollars)". Statista. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
- Aaglave, Ganesh (15 February 2018). "Aamir Khan and Zaira Wasim's Secret Superstar crosses the Rs 750 crore mark in China". Bollywood Life.
- Robinson, A (2003), Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, I. B. Tauris, p. 77, ISBN 1-86064-965-3
- Pradip Biswas (September 16, 2005). "50 years of Pather Panchali". Screen Weekly. Archived from the original on June 2, 2009. Retrieved 2009-04-23.
- Robinson, A (2003), Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye: The Biography of a Master Film-Maker, I. B. Tauris, pp. 78–9, ISBN 1-86064-965-3
- "The Sight & Sound Top Ten Poll: 1992". Sight & Sound. British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 2012-03-09. Retrieved 2008-05-20.
- "Take One: The First Annual Village Voice Film Critics' Poll". The Village Voice. 1999. Archived from the original on 2007-08-26. Retrieved 2006-07-27.
- The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made By the film critics of the New York Times, The New York Times, 2002.
- "All-time 100 Movies". Time. Time Inc. 2005-02-12. Retrieved 2008-05-19.
- Mohammed Wajihuddin (September 7, 2004). "The university called Satyajit Ray". Express India. Retrieved 2009-05-01.
- "Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players)". Satyajit Ray official site. Retrieved 2009-04-24.
- Smith, Kyle (September 15, 2014). "How David Lynch's low-budget 'Eraserhead' created a genre". The New York Post. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
- "Low-budget 'Slacker' attracting cult following". The Baltimore Sun. August 8, 1991. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
- Truitt, Brian (December 19, 2012). "'Dirty Harry,' 'Matrix' added to National Film Registry". USA Today. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
- Lowe, Alexander (July 2, 2013). "Clerks". We Got This Covered. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
- "Brother (Brat)". Russia's biggest box office hit in 1997, Aleksei Balabanov's (Dead Man's Bluff) "Brother" is an American-style gangster flick mixed with a pointed social consciousness.
- "Christopher Nolan". metro.co.uk. 29 July 2003. Retrieved 18 March 2018.
- Caro, Mark (January 26, 2004). "$7,000 movie wins top Sundance prize". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
- Ian Youngs (18 May 2004). "Micro-budget film wows Cannes". BBC News. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
- CNET staff (21 January 2004). "New and Noteworthy: iPod industry standard?: Wired's Vaporware 2003; iMovie movie at Sundance". CNET. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
- "Paranormal Activity". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2011-11-23.
- Owen Gleiberman (October 23, 2009). "Paranormal Activity". ew.com. Retrieved 30 October 2010.
- Nguyen, Hanh (31 December 2018). "'One Cut of the Dead': A Bootleg of the Japanese Zombie Comedy Mysteriously Appeared on Amazon". IndieWire. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
- "2018". Eiren. Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan. Retrieved 2 March 2019.
- Quota Quickies The Birth of the British 'B' Film | http://www.screeningthepast.com/2015/01/quota-quickies-the-birth-of-the-british-‘b’-film/
- The UK low-budget film sector during the 'digital revolution' between 2000 and 2012: a quantitative assessment of its technological, economic and cultural characteristics | https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/en/persons/jc-crissey-iii(e5809218-9f37-492e-90d8-b1c7c1b3ac58).html