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For all aspiring filmmakers, ultra-low budget films are a way in — the one sliver of light that cuts though the dark of big-budget
10. Primer (2004)
If you think of your budget only in terms of film stock, there is nothing you can’t achieve. Ok, there is a lot you can’t achieve, but for the 2004 mind-bender Primer that was the extent of spending. Vision was bigger than the need for flashy CGI and director Shane Carruth showed audiences that there are still intriguing concepts that could be siphoned from the sci-fi well. Carruth took on the job as actor, writer, director, producer, cinematographer, editor and music composer working with a bare-bones crew of five. The tragic tale of how visionary technological success can shred even the closest friendships, Primer mesmerized as many as it utterly confused. Primer took home the coveted Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and to say it has since gained a cult following would be quite the understatement.
9. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Hated and adored by equal parts of the movie-going public, Napoleon Dynamite immediately launched the career of actor Jon Heder and director Jared Hess while bringing to light for many a new style of drole, quirky comedy. Heder was paid a whopping $1,000 dollars for his now iconic role (the movie grossed $44 million) and the final cut was edited in, well, Final Cut with a producer’s laptop. The crew were working with such limited finances in fact, that even the dishes of food used in the opening credits were eaten. Fittingly, Napoleon Dynamite debuted alongside our number ten film, Primer at Sundance 2004, which shows the importance of festivals celebrating independent filmmaking. Arguably all those involved have not matched this debut success, but if this film is your legacy, you could certainly do worse.
8. El Mariachi (1993)
Practice makes perfect and that’s precisely what Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi was. Never intended for theatrical release, like a number of the films on this list, the budget was spent on the camera and film. This Mexican action film eventually spawned two sequels (Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico) and made Rodriguez the next “it” filmmaker. The thrifty auteur raised most of the money by participating in medical testing and still managed to bring this shoestring-budget film in under-budget. Rodriguez would only shoot one take of every scene and edit out any mistakes in post-production. He used random people on the street for a number of scenes, filmed without permission (he warned people with a sign but purposely wrote it in English so nobody would understand) and used water pistols for weapons. Through weeks of limited release in 1993, El Mariachi would gross over $2 million and gain raves from critics for the incredible results of a film shot for basically nothing. Poetry was also at play as his future collaborator and acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino released his first film Reservoir Dogs the very same year.
7. Paranormal Activity (2009)
Now the most profitable film of all time having accumulated an eye-popping $193 million, Paranormal Activity became 2009’s surprise blockbuster, scaring audiences and pleasing critics with its revitalization of the handheld camera gimmick.
6. Once (2006)
A musical in only the loosest sense, Once features music, yes, but thankfully does not have a bunch of high schoolers break out into choreographed song and dance on a whim. The wonderful musical interludes are nestled realistically into the context of the simple love story and audiences evidently loved that tactic. The applauded Oscar winner of Best Original Song in 2008 for “Falling Slowly” also received a Grammy nomination for its soundtrack. Musicals typically only find box office success in the form of Disney movies or adaptations of formerly renowned stage plays but this Irish tale used its charming cast and setting to create something unique. It’s leads Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová wrote the original music for Once rounding out the ensemble of talented individuals involved. Even for those who strongly dislike many traditional musicals (myself included) there is a lot to love in this delightfully low-key fable.
5. Clerks (1994)
When asked what one of the key’s to financing an independent film, filmmaker Kevin Smith’s advice was to apply to as many credit cards as possible. While not the safest approach, it worked well enough for Clerks, Smith’s profanely hilarious debut. Even though not the liveliest of productions artistically, Clerks showed Smith’s chops as a screenwriter, blending insight with vulgarity to surprisingly effective results. Like many working with a non-budget, cost-cutting techniques are what would eventually become a trademark aspect of the production. The film was shot in black and white not for dramatic intensity, but because it was cheaper and required no changes to the ambient lighting. Even though never playing in more than 100 theatres, Clerks grossed over $3 million and is yet another example of how quality and innovation always trumps budget.
4. Mad Max (1979)
By far the most action-intensive film on this list, Mad Max made incredible use of its minute budget, giving us explosions, gunfights and gripping car chases and most importantly, a fresh-faced Mel Gibson. His first credited role, Mad Max would give
3. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
When gauging the films on this list, solely on genre influence, George A. Romeo’s Night of the Living Dead is by far the most important; after all it spawned an entirely new genre: zombie films. It also had a significant impact on the birth of slasher films throughout the ’70s and ’80s, not to mention independent filmmaking in general. Unlike its equally beloved follow-up Dawn of the Dead, “Night” boasted far less cultural subtext and more of a straight-forward tale of survival. Shot in beautiful black and white, Romero literally embraced the former by casting African-American actor Duane Jones in the lead and decided against alerting the script to make the character “kinder” despite racial tensions at the time. To this day, Night of the Living Dead remains one of the quintessential zombie films and a superb tale of horror in its own regards.
2. Halloween (1978)
Like its indirect inspiration, Night of the Living Dead, John Carpenter’s Halloween set off an entirely new sub-genre of horror and terrified audiences with the masked killer Michael Meyers for the first time. Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street would follow and would both ultimately give rise to the genre as it stands today, but Halloween set the template for a slow, tense build-up and an explosive bloody climax. This slasher forerunner would also make Carpenter into a horror icon and eventually turn “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis into a movie star. Halloween was the most successful independent production of its time, ultimately grossing $47 million, or an extremely impressive $150 million when adjusted for inflation. Spawning a long string of sequels for better or worse, this groundbreaking effort retains all of the thrills it did back in 1978.
1. The Blair Witch Project
Much akin to Paranormal Activity, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project became an overnight phenomenon, garnering critical acclaim as audiences salivated and screamed at what was then dubbed “the scariest movie of all time.” Since then, the haters have wandered in and this found footage flick has a devout follower for every hissing critic. Though widely considered to be the most important of its found-footage sub-genre, The Blair Witch Project is far from pioneering (just look at the controversial Cannibal Holocaust). What it did achieve was mammoth financial success, finding its total global tally at just shy of $250 million. The never-seen threat angle proved to be more compelling than the ugliest of drooling beasties and the cast does a wonderful job infusing the narrative with an unbearable sense of dread. Scriptless and without a director during the filming process, the simple act of people wandering around a forest has never been so terrifying (and likely never will be again), which makes The Blair Witch Project the best micro-budget film of all time.