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Low-Budget Movies That Actually Made A Ton Of Money

If you look at the list of the top grossing films of all time, you'll find mostly big budget blockbusters, movies that cost $100 or $200 million but managed to make somewhere around $1 billion. These huge films are risky bets for studios, with the potential to bring in big bucks — but also the potential to lose a massive chunk of change.

This means that studios are even more lucky when they find a low budget unicorn, a movie that becomes a surprise hit. If you go further down the list of those top grossing films, you'll find some of these movies, which were made for less than $10 million but still managed to gross more than $100 million thanks to positive critical reception, awards season buzz, and innovative marketing and release strategies. Here are some low-budget movies that actually wound up making a ton of money at the box office.

American Graffiti

George Lucas went on to make big box office bucks with the Star Wars franchise, but before he went to a galaxy far, far away, he went to Modesto, California for his coming-of-age drama American Graffiti. At the time, Lucas was a fairly unknown director and he had a hard time getting financing for the project. 

Universal eventually agreed to make the movie with just a $750,000 budget. However, they still conflicted with Lucas' vision, asking him to hire a new editor and recut the film after he turned in the finished product. The studio was worried about releasing the film in theaters, but building buzz from employees who had seen and loved the film eventually convinced them.

Despite the movie's troubles making it to the big screen, it wound up being remarkably well received, earning five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director for Lucas. The film was immensely popular at the box office as well, pulling in $115 million, making it the 15th highest-grossing PG-rated film of all time when adjusted for inflation. 

Annabelle

Annabelle didn't buck the negative reviews many horror movies face, but the $6.5 million creepy doll film made a killing at the box office. The movie very, very narrowly lost to David Fincher's Gone Girl in its opening weekend, but still managed to pull in an impressive $37.1 million. (Gone Girl, which went on to earn an Oscar nomination for its star Rosamund Pike, made just $378,854 more in its opener.) 

Annabelle's strong opening bucked initial $20 million expectations, at least in part thanks to the movie's popularity on social media. The movie also had the benefit of being spawned from another popular, low budget horror franchise: the Conjuring franchise, which came from horror maven James Wan. The movie went on to make an impressive $257 million worldwide, including $84.2 million domestic. 

A prequel for the movie, titled Annabelle: Creation, was released in the summer of 2017 and was met with a much more positive response from critics. That film got a slightly higher $15 million budget and still proved to be an impressive box office force, making $306.5 million worldwide including $102 million domestic. The movie wound up being one of the few bright spots in a dismal summer box office, proving the power of well-done horror.

The Blair Witch Project

The found-footage horror film The Blair Witch Project wasn't just a cultural phenomenon — it was also a box office hit. The 1999 film about a group of student filmmakers who hunt down a local urban legend was made for just $60,000 but went on to make $246.8 million at the worldwide box office, including $140.5 million domestic. This is even more impressive when considering that the film was shot in just eight days, with a partially improvised script. 

Like many of the movies on this list, The Blair Witch Project benefitted from an innovative release schedule, rolling out slowly to build buzz. The movie was screened at the Sundance Film Festival without much fanfare, and audiences were left wondering if they'd just seen a horror movie or an actual documentary. Building on this excitement, filmmakers used a viral marketing campaign — one of the first to be located mainly on the Internet — to build buzz while still keeping the film mysterious. 

While many horror movies have tried to copy The Blair Witch Project's innovative formula, they have met varying degrees of success. The movie still holds the title for the highest-grossing found footage horror film of all time, and it is also the fourth highest grossing R-rated horror movie of all time. 

The Full Monty

Fox Searchlight knew they had a potential hit on their hands with the $3.5 million British dramedy The Full Monty, about a group of unemployed steel workers who decide to build their wallets (and their self-esteem) by launching their own striptease show. The movie went on to earn the love of critics and awards voters and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. 

The film, which also earned nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and won for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, apparently caught the eye of the studio when they saw the dailies. Audiences seemed to agree, flocking to the film, which brought in $257.9 million worldwide. Most of that money came from international markets, but it still made $45.9 million in the United States.

Some rival distributors said that the movie could have had a quicker release schedule in the U.S., which they believe would have helped the movie's box office chances. (The movie first opened in six theaters and spent four weeks in very limited release before expanding to 387 theaters.) Still, while the movie's box office chances could have been kicked up a notch, it was clearly a huge success for the studio. 

Get Out

Jordan Peele was already an established comedy actor when he made his feature film directorial debut with Get Out, a horror film which he made for just $4.5 million. The movie wound up being a massive success, earning $255 million worldwide, thanks to near perfect critical reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth.

Get Out used its innovative premise and some smart marketing techniques to blow audiences away with a $33.3 million opening weekend, the 25th biggest February opening weekend of all time. The movie managed to hold on to huge portions of its audience throughout its run, dropping just 15.4 percent in its second week and just 26.5 percent in its third. The movie was buoyed by the conversation surrounding the movie, which pushed people to see it in theaters rather than waiting for it to come out on streaming or DVD.

Buzz for Get Out was so strong that the movie managed to earn four Oscar nominations, despite the fact that it was released almost a full year before nominations were announced and the fact that the Academy has traditionally overlooked horror movies. Get Out wound up being the most profitable film of 2017, featuring a 630 percent return on investment for Blumhouse.

Juno

Juno earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director for Jason Reitman, and Best Actress in a Leading Role for its star Ellen Page, and a win for Best Original Screenplay after it hit theaters in 2007. The film featured Page as Juno MacGuff, a high schooler who debates her options during a surprise pregnancy.

The indie comedy was made for just a $7.5 million budget, with star Jennifer Garner even taking a pay cut to help the movie keep costs down. Although the film was made on a restricted financing, it ended up being a surprise box office success, bringing in $231.4 million worldwide, including $143.4 million domestic.

Juno's success was due at least in part to its appeal to young teens, specifically women. The movie became a cultural touchstone for many, and continued to build positive buzz throughout its run, adding in more viewers as it expanded to theaters across the country. The movie also continued to get good buzz by being in theaters when awards nominations were announced.

Little Miss Sunshine

The indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, which translated to two wins when it hit theaters in 2006, with the movie earning the love of critics and fans alike as it told the story of a young girl (Abigail Breslin) who ropes her family into a cross-country road trip so she can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.   

Little Miss Sunshine wasn't just critically acclaimed. The movie, which was made for just $8 million, ended up becoming a box office behemoth, earning $100.5 million worldwide, including $59.9 million domestic. The movie managed to achieve those box office heights even though its widest release was in just 1,602 theaters.

Fox Searchlight, the studio that distributed the film, clearly saw the box office potential in Little Miss Sunshine right off the bat, buying the film for $10.5 million after a standing ovation at the first screening caused a bidding war. Having that much buzz around the film right off the bat got film enthusiasts excited, while the quality of the movie led to a long and successful box office run.

Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation won Sofia Coppola an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and earned three other nominations, including Best Picture, but the movie wasn't just an awards season favorite. The $4 million dark comedy earned $119.7 million at the worldwide box office, including $44.6 million domestic. 

Lost in Translation, which followed the budding relationship between Scarlett Johansson's college student Charlotte and Bill Murray's movie star Bob Harris, first opened on just 23 screens, earning a total of $925,087 for an average of $40,221 per theater, the highest per theater average for a limited release in 2003. 

Although the film never achieved a very wide release, opening in a maximum of 882 theaters, it still held on well at the box office, sitting in theaters for a total of 196 days. The movie's success was thanks to the buzzy performance by Bill Murray, as well as Coppola's established history with The Virgin Suicides and rave reviews from critics.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding was just a few days shy of spending a whole year in theaters, and during that time, the $5 million romantic comedy went from a low budget film with few big names to a massive grosser, bringing in $368.7 million worldwide including $241.4 million domestic.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding's box office success was very unique. The movie opened to just $597,362 from 108 theaters, but it continued to build up impressive box office totals throughout its run, eventually hitting the number two spot after 20 weeks in theaters. The movie spent 17 consecutive weeks in the top 10. All of this was in spite of having just a $1 million marketing budget.

The movie's success was unprecedented, as most movies usually see a downward trend after their opening weekends. In fact, the movie showed such strong legs that FiveThirtyEight named it the leggiest major movie of the last 20 years, topping films like Titanic and Bend It Like Beckham.

Star Nia Vardalos even ended up earning an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for the movie, which was also nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. As it turns out, though, magic only strikes once, as the sequel received bad reviews and only made $88.9 million when it hit theaters in 2016, despite upping its budget to $18 million

Paranormal Activity

Low-budget horror flicks are a dime a dozen, and most don't make much of an impact at the box office. However, if you do manage to make a winner, you could be staring down the barrel of a massive box office behemoth, a la Paranormal Activity, the $15,000 found-footage ghost movie that went on to make $193.5 million at the worldwide box office.

Paranormal Activity was shot in just seven days on a handheld video camera by Israeli director Oren Peli, a video game designer with no past film experience. After the movie terrified legendary director Steven Spielberg, studio execs began to take notice, and Paramount ultimately bought the film, with the intention to reshoot it with a higher budget. However, when a test screening blew audiences away, they decided to release Peli's version of the film after crafting an alternate ending. 

Paranormal Activity was partly buoyed by positive reviews, sitting at an 83 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Paramount also used innovative marketing and a smart roll-out strategy for the movie, putting it in limited release and letting it build buzz before setting it into wide release the weekend before Halloween. In its first weekend in wide release (its fifth weekend in theaters), the movie earned the number one spot with $21.1 million. The movie was said at the time to be the most profitable film ever thanks to its miniscule budget.   

The studio upped the budget for the film's inevitable sequels, using $3 million to make the second film, which brought in $177.5 million worldwide, and $5 million to make the third and fourth films, which brought in $207 million worldwide and $142.8 million worldwide, respectively. Although those numbers aren't quite as impressive as what the first film was able to achieve on its shoestring budget, Paranormal Activity has still proven to be an unusually impressive horror franchise.

Rocky

Rocky may not be the top grossing film in the long-running franchise at the box office, but it's $117.2 million worldwide was extra impressive when you realize that the film, starring a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, had just a $1 million budget. In addition to its impressive box office haul, the film won three Oscars, including Best Picture.

Stallone also earned an Oscar nomination for writing the script for the movie, but despite its astronomical success, he actually had a hard time getting it made. Stallone said that he went through "about 20 different incarnations" of the film before he landed on the finished project, but even then it wasn't easy. Producers Irwin Winkler and Bob Chartoff had to mortgage their homes and use their personal savings to finance the film.

Stallone called making the movie "a big leap of faith," but clearly it was one that paid off. The Rocky franchise holds the top four spots for highest grossing boxing films, most recently taking over the box office with 2015's Creed, which also was an awards season favorite, earning Stallone an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Saw

2004's torture flick Saw didn't just make $103.9 million against a miniscule $1.2 million budget — the movie also managed to launch a lucrative horror franchise, which has continued to pump out low budget box office hits throughout the years. Saw was able to achieve its initial box office heights by using strong word-of-mouth to hold on to viewers throughout its October and November box office run. 

The initial Saw was popular with young viewers, with 60 percent of the opening weekend audience under 25 years old. The movie that managed to capture the minds of young horror fans came from a young filmmaker: James Wan, who was also responsible for the low budget box office hit Conjuring franchise. Wan made the movie, his feature film directing debut, in just 18 days, keeping the budget low and allowing for big profits.

The franchise has continued to build on its strong start, and although it has stumbled at points, the eight films together have still brought in a total of $976.3 million worldwide. The most recent release, 2017's Jigsaw, pulled in $102.9 million worldwide against a $10 million budget, proving just how impressive Saw's initial feat was.

Split

M. Night Shyamalan went low-budget for his 2017 horror flick Split, making the James McAvoy-starring thriller for only $9 million. This decision wound up working out well for the twisty director, with the film pulling in $278.5 million worldwide and holding on to the number one spot for its first three weekends at the domestic box office.

Split, an indirect sequel to Shyamalan's 2000 film Unbreakable, featured McAvoy as a man with dissociative identity who kidnaps three teenage girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula). The movie received positive reviews from critics, earning a 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for Best Thriller Film at the Saturn Awards. 

Split became Shyamalan's fifth film to pass $100 million at the domestic box office, proving that the director has the power to bring in large audiences. However, Split's low budget made that figure even more impressive, with the movie able to pull in extra viewers thanks to McAvoy's buzzy performance.

The movie's appeal was shown during its opening weekend, where it defied expectations by seeing a 13 percent bump from Friday to Saturday, which is unusual for a genre film.  It continued to leg out throughout its run in the normally slow months of January and February, allowing it to build on its impressive opening for a huge total haul.