Any indie filmmaker glancing down a list of cinema screenings at any given point would be forgiven if they felt dismayed. It’s increasingly rare to see mainstream movies that don’t have a staggeringly high budget – in fact, even when adjusted for inflation, nearly all of the most expensive movies ever made were released in the last 5-10 years.
But don’t be disheartened. Not every success in cinematography is contingent on having a budget greater than the GDPs of entire nations, and nor does having to work on a shoestring budget render your MFA degree in filmmaking null and void. If anything, it just means you have to focus harder on what really matters in filmmaking: using innovation to get around obstacles.
And plenty of filmmakers before you have done just that. In the spirit of standing on the shoulders of giants, here we present:
7 Best Indie Movies Shot on a Small Budget
For the purposes of reference, we’ve also listed how much the movie went on to make at the box office (but at the same time recognize that the commercial response is no way indicative of the movie’s quality.)
The Castle (1997)
Box Office Gross: $8.97 million
Taking just five weeks to create – from conception to final cut – by a small Australian team, The Castle is one of the most endearingly brilliant (and utterly eccentric) comedy features ever shot on a low budget. Although it’s looking a little dated from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s take on working class life in Australia is still relevant today and the comedy transcends all borders. Bonus points for being Eric Bana’s first ever movie appearance.
Garden State (2004)
Budget: $2.5 million
Box Office Gross: $35.8 millions
Featuring a remarkably famous cast (Zach Braff, Natalie Portman and Ian Holm to name a few), Garden State looks like it should have had a budget ten times what it actually did. It also could have ended up as a saccharine, self-indulgent vanity project given that the semi-autobiographical plot covers Zach Braff’s ‘woe-is-me’ days as a table waiter, but instead the finished result is a poignant, sweet and heartfelt journey filled with very likeable performances.
Open Water (2003)
Box Office Gross: $55 million
Although Open Water is one of the more polarizing movies in this list, it’s worth a mention regardless due to the incredible innovation husband and wife team Chris Kentis and his wife Laura Lau had to bring to the table to create it. Faced with a minuscule budget, the technical challenges of shooting in real open waters and the insistence on using live sharks displaying realistic behaviors (which greatly benefits the film), Open Water is a triumph.
It did get picked up by Lion’s Gate in the end, hence the huge disparity between budget at eventual takings, but only after the indie scuba diving filmmakers had done all the work.
Budget: $5 million
Box Office Gross: $9.7 million
Although a budget of $5 million might sound like a lot, it really isn’t when you consider the scope of the production: a feature film set on a fully-realized lunar landscape, complete with a gigantic moon base and gigantic terraforming vehicles.
The movie was every bit as mesmerizing and engaging as the trailer made it out to be, primarily driven by superb performances by both Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey.
Box Office Gross: $3.2 million
Displaying all of the hallmarks of an Aronofsky movie, Pi is a carefully crafted psychological thriller which combined an all-in performance from Sean Gullette with clinically perfect cinematography. It also happens to be deeply unsettling, and serves as an amazing example of what can be achieved with such a modest budget.
Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)
Budget: $1.1 million
Box Office Gross: $158,000
Despite not even coming close to making back its small budget, Dead Man’s Shoes is a cult classic that has been listed as one of the finest British independent movies of all time by numerous publications (including Empire, Time Out and Total Film). Primarily a story of revenge set in a rural English community, it’s a movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat as the devastation plays out and features countless lines of incredible dialogue along the way.
Box Office Gross: $424,760
The lowest budget of any film to win the Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize – and possibly the least costly movie to gain such a level of cult acclaim – Primer is a science fiction movie that is as bold in its premise as it is mind-blowing in its execution. Although not an easy watch by any means thanks to its heavy technical dialogue and experimental nature, it’s a good testament to how low-budget doesn’t need to mean low quality, with Roger Ebert stating “the movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look.”