11 Small Budget Movie Successes And 11 Big Budget Flops



Small Budget Success: Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite began its life as a nine-minute short film by BYU student Jared Hess called Peluca. Hess cast his classmate, Jon Heder, in the title role and started planning out an eventual feature-length version of the movie.

After Peluca was shown at Slamdance Film Festival, the feature-length version secured a producer and investors, but the budget they pulled together was only $400,000. Heder joked that half of that was spent on getting the rights to use “Canned Heat” by Jamiroquai for the final dance. They shot the movie in Hess’s Idaho hometown in just 23 days.

The film ended up being accepted into Sundance, where its premiere was so well-received that the movie quickly earned a distribution deal. It went on to earn $46 million globally.


Big Budget Flop: John Carter (2012)

A big-budget adaptation of the book, A Princess of Mars, was long overdue when Disney took on the project. But thanks to a massive budget and some marketing missteps, it became one of the biggest box office flops of all time.

In total, the movie cost $306.6 million to make. But the marketing campaign failed to give audiences enough information on the key selling points of the movie. It didn’t emphasize the action of the movie, the famous director, or how influential A Princess of Mars and the rest of the Barsoom series have been to the sci-fi genre.

Because of the vague marketing campaign (and not enough A-listers to compensate for it), the movie only made $184 million in its first two weekends, making it a major loss for Disney. The two planned sequels were canceled.


Small Budget Success: Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity originally cost first-time director, Oren Peli, just $15,000 and seven days to shoot on a single handheld video camera. Peli also served as the film’s writer, editor, and producer, and it took him a year to prepare to shoot the found-footage-style film, much of that time spent dressing his own house as a set, and then another 10 months to edit.

Eventually, the buzz around the movie at festivals was enough to draw a distribution deal from DreamWorks, who actually wanted to remake the movie entirely. But as the movie continued to be screened around the country while the deal stalled, audiences seemed to like the original, low-budget version.

In the end, the original movie just underwent some recutting and reshooting, especially the ending, which added significantly to the budget. However, the cost still remained small in comparison to the $100+ million the movie went on to earn at the US box office.


Big Budget Flop: Waterworld (1995)

Waterworld earned $21.6 million in its first weekend at the box office, which is a decent performance for most movies. That would even be a pretty impressive showing if it cost $40 million to make.

The problem is that at the time it was released, Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever made, costing the studio $235 million in total. A decent performance at the box office wasn’t enough to break even with such a massive budget.


Small Budget Success: Juno (2007)

Though it seems like a lot of money, Juno‘s $7.5 million production budget was incredibly low for Hollywood standards. Some of the movie’s famous stars, like Jennifer Garner, even took pay cuts to help stay under budget.

After doing the festival circuit, the film got wider distribution, eventually earning $100 million and winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar.


Big Budget Flop: Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland had a budget of $280 million, with just $190 million of the cost going to production. But the large marketing budget is a little confusing considering…no one really knew what it was about before its release.

Apparently, some of this was intentional because director Brad Bird didn’t want to give too much away in the trailers. But some blame its vague, confusing trailers for Tomorrowland‘s disappointing $40.7 million opening weekend.

Brad Bird speculated that “a certain segment of the audience might have been disappointed with us” when they realized that the movie was about traveling to Tomorrowland rather than being set mainly in Tomorrowland.


Small Budget Success: My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding began its life as a popular one-woman show from Nia Vardalos about her experience as someone from a big Greek family marrying a non-Greek.

The story eventually gained the interest of film executives, many of whom suggested significant changes to the story to be more marketable. Vardalos eventually secured a deal to make a movie with a $5 million budget, with her playing the lead role and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson as producers.

Despite a slow start at the box office, the movie exploded in popularity and became one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time. It earned $240 million at the domestic box office.


Big Budget Flop: The Lone Ranger (2013)

Before filming could even start, Disney paused pre-production on The Lone Ranger until its budget could be reduced from $260 million to $215 million. When shooting finally started, there were so many problems and delays that the movie reportedly ended up going over its reduced budget and star Armie Hammer later joked on The Tonight Show that the movie was cursed.

Likely due to the lackluster trailers, poor reviews, and controversy around Johnny Depp playing the already controversial Native American character, Tonto, Disney’s investment did not pay off. The movie only managed to earn $29.3 million from its opening weekend, devastatingly overshadowed by the release of Despicable Me 2.


Small Budget Success: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, continued tweaking and editing the movie as it made the rounds at festivals. They never even expected the movie to be released in theaters, but not only did it reach theaters, it also ended up grossing $248 million globally.


Big Budget Flop: Battleship (2012)

Battleship was a confusing film from the beginning. An action movie with a budget of over $200 million, based on a board game, and featuring a lot of marketing centered around the acting debut of…Rihanna?

Executives tried to generate interest by debuting internationally before the US premiere, but its box office performance couldn’t measure up to its massive budget. In the end, it reportedly lost $115 million.


Small Budget Success: Rocky (1976)

Rocky cost under $1 million to make and changes had to be made throughout filming to accommodate the small budget. For example, the ice skating scene was set after the rink had closed because filmmakers couldn’t afford to pay extras to fill the scene.

Not only did the movie go on to gross $117 million just in the US, but it also won three Oscars.


Big Budget Flop: The 13th Warrior (1999)

The 13th Warrior initially had a somewhat smaller budget, back when it was still called Eaters of the Dead, based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name. However, after some poor test screenings, the movie’s release was pushed back a year to reconfigure.

John McTiernan was eventually replaced as director by author Michael Crichton, who made significant changes (including the film’s title). Between recutting, reshooting, and a new score, the movie’s budget grew to at least $100 million, with some estimates going as high as $160 million.

Unfortunately, the new direction didn’t pay off, and the movie reportedly grossed just $61 million worldwide.


Small Budget Success: Moonlight (2016)

Based on the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight was written and directed by Barry Jenkins, who wanted to make a low-budget film in order to maintain creative control and create something personal.

The movie was made with a $4 million budget, and though its theatrical distribution was fairly small, it still grossed $37 million globally at the box office. It also won an Oscar for Best Picture.


Big Budget Flop: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Dark Phoenix would turn out to be the last of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies, and unfortunately, it ended things with a fizzle. The movie had a $200 million budget, but was largely neglected after Disney purchased 20th Century Fox.

Some speculate that the eventual poor reviews from critics were a result of a lack of directional oversight. On top of that, the film’s release date was changed multiple times, and the Fox marketing department was in disarray during its merge with Disney.

In the end, Dark Phoenix had a $55 million opening, only barely beating The Wolverine to avoid the title of Worst X-Men Movie Opening. But that was likely only a small consolation considering the movie still lost $133 million.


Small Budget Success: Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut had only a $4.5 million budget and was shot in less than a month. He originally jokingly pitched the idea for the film as “one you’ll never want to make” to producer Sean McKittrick, who immediately offered to buy the pitch.

Not only did the movie receive critical acclaim, but it also grossed $255 million at the global box office.


Big Budget Flop: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

In the post-Avatar era of movies, a heavily CGI adaptation of Jack and the Beanstalk seemed like a good investment, so at least $190 million was spent on production alone.

The investment didn’t pay off, though, and after the movie’s release, it was already tracking to lose $125 million. Likely factors for the flop were the last-minute change of release date and title, plus the fact that marketing never managed to appeal to families, which should have made up a significant part of the movie’s audience. It grossed just $197 million at the box office.


Small Budget Success: Pulp Fiction (1994)

After his first small-budget hit, Reservoir Dogs, director Quentin Tarantino wrote Pulp Fiction. He secured a bigger budget than his last film, but it was still only $8.5 million.

Despite a cast full of stars, many of the actors’ salaries were small in exchange for a share of the film’s profits. And that risk paid off when the film took over $200 million at the box office.


Big Budget Flop: Evan Almighty (2007)

Evan Almighty was originally a screenplay titled The Passion of the Ark, but after the rights were purchased, the script was entirely rewritten as a sequel to the hit movie Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey declined to reprise his role from the first movie, but Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman returned.

Between the visual effects, the large number of animals on set, and the hefty salaries of the stars, the budget of the film grew during filming to a reported $250 million including marketing costs.

Executives expected to recoup these unexpected costs at the box office, but to everyone’s surprise, the film only earned $32 million during its opening weekend, less than half of what Bruce Almighty earned.

Poor reviews only continued to drag down sales, some blaming the poor performance on a marketing campaign strongly aimed at church-goers and the film prioritizing heartwarming over comedy.


Small Budget Success: Once (2007)

Once only ended up earning $20 million at the box office, but even that modest performance far exceeded expectations for such a small indie film. It was developed with the Irish Film Board and had a budget of just $150,000.

The Irish film struggled to get accepted to European film festivals until it was selected for Sundance, where it went on to win the World Cinema Audience Award. It later also won an Oscar for Best Original Song.


Big Budget Flop: Mars Needs Moms (2011)

The motion-capture animated movie Mars Needs Moms cost $150 million to produce, and Disney realized the film would struggle to recoup that cost during early screenings. However, too much money had already been spent, so it was released anyway.


Small Budget Success: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Former Monty Python member, Eric Idle, recently tweeted a full breakdown of Holy Grail‘s budget and where it came from. The budget was roughly $400,000, with investors including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

The Holy Grail film was financed thusly
Michael White Limited £78,750.00
Led Zeppelin £31,500.00
Island Records £21,000.00
Pink Floyd Music £21,000.00
Charisma Records £5,250.00
Heartaches (Tim Rice) £5,250.00
Chrysalis Records £6,300.00
Ian Anderson £6,300.00
Total £175,350.00

Twitter: @ericidle

The small budget actually influenced some of the movie’s most famous bits, including banging coconuts together to make up for the fact that they couldn’t afford horses. The movie ended up earning over $5 million at the box office.


And finally, Big Budget Flop: Pan (2015)

Pan had a $150 million production budget and a cast full of stars, so when it only earned $81.9 million in its first 10 days in theaters, it became a clear flop. Poor reviews were probably a large factor, but the movie also dealt with controversy.

Like The Lone Ranger, Pan struggled with controversy around casting a non-Native American actor to play a historically controversial and stereotypical Native American role (for Pan, it was Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily).

Did we miss your favorite small-budget successes? Your favorite pricey flops? Let us know in the comments below!

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