There is no doubt about it – film is a highly expensive business. Not only do films have production costs and everything that is associated with them, films must also allow money for promotion and marketing costs. And this adds up quickly, meaning that most film budgets go into the millions.
Lower budget films make use of much smaller budgets than the kinds of budgets that we might expect to see in relation to blockbusters for example. However, a low budget film can be just as effective and watchable as a film with a high budget. And in fact, in many cases with lower budget films, the reason that the film works so well is due to the financial restraints that it had.
A lower budget film does not always mean a lower impact and reception, and some of our favourite, most memorable films were made out of lower budgets.
1. The Florida Project (2017) Budget – $2 million
Following six-year-old Moonee and her mother Halley over the course of one summer, The Florida Project is set on a stretch of highway located just outside the wonders of Disney World.
Moonee and her mother live in one of the budget hotels, a place named ‘The Magic Castle,’ which is managed by Bobby – a long suffering but deeply kind man. Living week to week, Moonee and her mother have wildly different lives. Whilst Moonee runs free, getting into mischief with her friends, her mother is forced to explore increasingly dangerous ways to make a living.
The Florida Project, from director Sean Baker, premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival before going on to be released where it made $11.3 million at the box office. It was well received by critics, who particularly noted the performances. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in the film, and Brooklynn Price who plays Moonee and Bria Vinaite who plays her mother, were highly praised for their breakout performances.
Throughout the film, Moonee and her mother are faced with impending homelessness and poverty – as are many of the other families who live in the hotel. There are several scenes where Moonee manages to acquire free food, including ice cream cones that her and friends greedily slurp whilst sat on the edge of the sidewalk.
The Florida Project does a fantastic job of putting its audience right there in the heat of Kissimmee – we can so vividly imagine the long, hot days and the squalor and misery feel potent. With a higher budget, these brilliant elements would most likely be lost to the audience.
2. Moonlight (2016) Budget – $1.5 million
Looking at three defining chapters in the life of a young man named Chiron, Moonlight follows him as a child nicknamed ‘Little,’ as a teenager and as an adult nicknamed ‘Black.’ Each chapter shows the events that defined him, the people that made the biggest impact on his life and the community that helped raise him on his journey to manhood.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards, Moonlight was critically acclaimed. It won a number of accolades and has been hailed as one of the best films of the twentieth first century so far. Moonlight has also been highly praised for being the first film with an all-black cast and for its LGBTQ themes. Moonlight earnt $65.2 million at the box office – a massive return against its budget.
This coming of age tale from director Barry Jenkins may follow a tender and thoughtful young man but make no mistake – Chiron comes from a tough and hardscrabble neighbourhood. And life is not easy for Chiron. His single mother is a drug addict and money is scarce. In one scene we watch Little boil a bucket of water to take a shallow bath in. He pours dish soap into to it to wash with.
In another scene his mother violently demands money from him, aggressively searching his pockets. With Moonlight’s modest budget, these scenes play out in startling reality. The audience really feels absorbed into Chiron’s world, both the tender moments and the difficult ones. A higher budget would take away the realism of the world that Chiron inhabits, and the film would not have nearly the same impact.
3. Rocky (1976) Budget – $1 million
Rocky Balboa, a small-time boxer from working class Philadelphia, is surprisingly chosen as the opponent to take on the reigning heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. Rocky begins training with former contender Mickey Goldmill to prepare himself to take on Creed who is undefeated. At the same time Rocky meets Adrian, a shy, reclusive girl and falls in love.
Now considered a cult classic, Rocky was a sleeper hit at the time of its release. Rocky was well received critically and solidified Sylvester Stallone as an actor that could be a serious lead star.
Rocky was nominated for ten Academy Awards at the 49th Academy Awards and went on to win Best Editing, Best Director and Best Picture. The film earnt $225 million at the box office against its budget of $1 million and is considered to be one of the greatest sports films of all time. It has since spawned seven sequels.
Rocky is one of film’s best-known rags to riches stories. Rocky is a down on his luck, normal guy just trying hard to make ends meet and getting through life as best as he can. Suddenly and unexpectedly, he is given a chance at the big time, a once in a lifetime chance and he has to really put himself out there to make the most of it. He has to train hard and fight harder.
Because of all of this and the underlying message of the film, Rocky works much more effectively on a lower budget. The sense of achievement at the end of the film and the underdog element work much more effectively on a lower budget.
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Budget – $140,000
When a sister and brother hear that their grandfather’s grave may have been vandalised, they decide to take a trip with their group of friends to investigate. Whilst visiting the old farmhouse of their grandfather, they discover that a group of crazed, psycho murderers live next door. Soon they find themselves being attacked one by one by the group’s leader Leatherface – a killer who wields a chainsaw and wears a mask made out of human skin.
Written and directed by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was not overly well received critically at its time of release. It was also banned in several countries due to its violent content. However, it was well received at the box office and went on to gross over $30 million.
In the years since, the film has been reappraised positively and has gone on to amass a cult following and has been called one of the best and most influential horror films of all time. It has led on to a remake, franchise and numerous merchandise.
Wanting to present a brutal film that audiences would perceive as having really happened, Hooper misinformed audiences that the film was based on a true story when in fact the events portrayed were all entirely fictitious.
The brutality and real-life element are enhanced by the low budget, giving an almost documentarian look to the film. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would almost certainly not have gone on to achieve the cult status and legacy it has today if it had been a high budget film.
5. Pi (1998) Budget – $61,000
Mathematician Max suffers from paranoia, headaches and delusions but is determined to find complete order in the world. When he encounters a mysterious number, he tells his mentor and a religious friend about his discovery. However, he soon finds himself a target of Wall Street agents intent on using the number to their advantage.
The directorial debut of Darren Aronofsky, who also wrote the screenplay, Pi was received well critically. It won a number of accolades including the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. At the box office, Pi earnt over $3 million which was seen as very successful considering its limited theatrical release. Pi was also the first ever film to be available to download legally on the internet.
A secretive recluse who is obsessed with numbers and order, Pi is a study in the torture of mental obsession and madness. Filmed in the stark contrast of black and white, Pi’s low budget enhances all these aspects.
The feeling of being trapped in you own mind mirrors the small, messy apartment where Max lives, the paranoia enhanced by the simplicity of the sets and costumes. And because the low budget look matches the character’s mindset so perfectly, a higher budget would just feel out of place and misguided.