In the movie world you don’t necessarily need big budgets to get big returns, as this list proves beyond all doubt. Big budget flicks might seem like a sure thing, but audiences decide with their feet. Avatar might have pulled in $2.7 billion, but with a budget in the hundreds of millions and a marketing push to match it could hardly not have been a Hollywood heavyweight contender. More exciting by half are micro budget movies that made it big – pulling in hundreds or thousands of times their budget and becoming the most successful movies of all time, based on return on investment.
The most expensive of our top 10 most profitable movies of all time had a budget of a piddling $1 million, and in Hollywood that’s less than you’d find under the cushions of a casting couch. The percentage returns here assume that only 50% of receipts at the box office made their way back to the studio and don’t include DVD, TV and merchandising earnings, so the numbers are likely to be considerably higher by some way. To add to that we haven’t included any documentary or pornographic films that might have made the cut with an unfair advantage; by movies we mean good old fashioned fictional entertainment.
10. Napoleon Dynamite
This surreal coming-of-age comedy quickly gained a cult following, and deservedly so! It would be difficult to find a more painfully awkward character than the perpetually out of place fantasist Napoleon Dynamite. His teenage troubles struck a chord with the awkward fifteen-year-old inside us all, and the movie took a worldwide gross of over $46 million, giving it a healthy 5,667% return on its budget of $400,000. Director Jared Hess’ next project, Nacho Libre, didn’t do quite so well (and perhaps was never likely to with its somewhat larger budget of $32 million), taking in a merely respectable $99 million worldwide – but was panned by critics.
Once, an Irish indie movie, was shot for only $150,000 after a low-level executive gave it the green light on the condition that it could stick to the small budget. The gamble paid off, with the movie receiving the 2008 Independent Spirit Award for best foreign film, an Oscar for Best Original Song and two Grammy nominations for its soundtrack. And the movie wasn’t just a critics’ darling; the mix of street music and star-crossed love was a hit with the public as well. Once made a worldwide gross of almost $19 million – that’s a percentage return of over 6,000%.
This independent comedy, which Kevin Smith directed, acted in as the character Silent Bob and shot on location in the convenience store where he was employed, launched him on his rise to serious success. Shot on a budget of only $27,000, the movie spoke to a generation of disaffected slackers and managed to rake in an incredible $3,894,240 worldwide gross, for a percentage return of over 7,000%. This is even more impressive when you realize that the movie was never shown in more than 100 US theaters at any one time. The project sparked an animated series, comics and a sequel.
7. American Graffiti
George Lucas isn’t only capable of shooting big budget action movies like the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. This 1973 offering was based on his own childhood and was shot on a budget of $777,000. Considered one of the pioneering “teen films,” American Graffiti opened to critical acclaim and took in a worldwide gross of $140 million. An almost 9,000% return on investment must have made Universal Pictures extremely pleased, especially since they only took on the project after it was turned down by 20th Century Fox, United Artists, MGM, Columbia Pictures, and Paramount Pictures.
It was 1978, the year when one of the legends of the horror genre was released into the world. Michael Myers was arguably the foundational figure in the canon of “slasher” icons of Hollywood, but the movie received mixed reviews when first launched, with some critics arguing that his character was far too one-dimensional. Nevertheless, in proof that character depth is not necessarily the key to success, cinema-goers loved the film. Halloween grossed $70m from a modest budget of $325,000, providing a return of almost 11,000% and leaving in its wake a tradition of over-the-top gore that survives to this day.
“Why do you wanna fight?” says Adrian. “Cause I can’t sing or dance,” replies Rocky. Perhaps this exchange epitomizes the reason for the classic boxing movie’s success and overwhelming cult status. It provided a cinematic classic for a largely male audience who needed a hero; one that wasn’t heroic because of his moon walk or falsetto, but for his fighting spirit. With a budget of $1 million, Rocky notched up an impressive worldwide gross of $225 million, giving a percentage return of over 11,000%. Knockout.
4. Night of the Living Dead
Described by one reviewer as “one of the most gruesomely terrifying movies ever made,” Night of the Living Dead now has pride of place on the mantle of the cult horror genre. A true classic, the movie has been analyzed as a reaction to the Cold War, a diatribe against consumer culture and a warning about the horrors of disease, alongside many other interpretations. The film was groundbreaking in its horrifying content, unleashed upon an audience unused to such things on their cinema screens. With a budget of $114,000, the film managed a worldwide gross of £30 million, notching up a return of over 13,000%.
3. The Blair Witch Project
So, three students go into a wood…. Sound pretty clichéd? Well, The Blair Witch Project was different, leading to a worldwide gross of over $248.3 million. Using first person camerawork and only a semi-structured outline for shooting, the picture was filmed in just eight days. Post-production took eight months, at which stage the nineteen hours of usable footage was edited into the unique movie that the project became. With groundbreaking viral marketing and online buzz and a budget of just $600,000, the percentage return stacked up to be more than 20,000%.
2. Mad Max
Australian films don’t come around often, but when they do they’re often good. Mad Max, the futuristic, dystopian motorbike action movie, brought in $99.75 million worldwide, with the revenue lost due to the fact that it was banned in Sweden and New Zealand possibly compensated for elsewhere by the notoriety such a measure generated. The budget was a mere $200,000, giving a percentage return of almost 25,000%, and leading the way for the penetration of Australian new wave cinema into the wider world film market.
1. Paranormal Activity
The most profitable movie of all time is a true outlier. With just $15,000, the visionaries behind this project created a movie that took in a worldwide gross of almost $197 million, a staggering percentage return of over 655,000%. The tense, terrifying movie originally opened in just 13 college towns, with a viral online media campaign encouraging people to vote for the film to be shown in their area. Presented as “found footage” with most of the lines improvised by the cast, the movie has a disturbing realism that only adds to the creeping feeling of horror. The writer and director, Oren Peli, is currently engaged in filming Area 51. We’re sure he doesn’t feel any pressure…