25 Low Budget Films That Launched Careers of Filmmakers

With the credit crunch destroying lives – don’t let it destroy your career!
See these films that launched careers. Learn how those who have trod before dealt with minimal budgets and launched hugely rewarding careers.

Remember, Raindance Film Festival is open for submissions. Get the low down on how to submit here:

Monsters 2010 UK

Writer/Director: Gareth Edwards
Budget: £ 15.000 est

Writer and director Gareth Edwards said he wanted to make a monster movie “set years after most monster movies end”. Monsters follows the journey of a journalist and an American tourist trying to make it safely through alien infested Mexico to the American border. Even just by watching the trailer, you would not believe that this film was shot on such a miniscule budget. Edwards shows what you can achieve by driving your crew around different locations in a van, learning to use your laptop for editing and to create special effects, and being resourceful. There is a rumour on the internet about the budget being just $15000, slammed by some who say that that is way too little for a movie of this kind, even if low-budget. The debate is still open…). And of course Gareth’s latest features is Rogue One

Buy from Amazon here:

Buried 2010 Spain/USA/France

Writer: Chris Sparling
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Budget: $3.000.000

Buried is the story of an American truck driver (played by Ryan Reynolds) who is attacked by a group of Iraqi insurgents and wakes up buried alive in a coffin in the company of only a lighter and a mobile phone. Shot in 17 days, the whole film revolves around the protagonist and his struggle to save his own life, and utilises the age-old human fear of being buried alive to set in motion a story which works on an emotional and psychological level more than through special effects and visual action.

Cortes had very few tools and very limited space with which to create this film – but he managed it very powerfully.

Buy Buried on Amazon here

Paranormal Activity 2009 USA

Writer/Director: Oren Peli
Budget: $11.000

Marketed as “one of the scariest movies of all times”, Paranormal Activity utilises two classic indie movie expedients – one location plus handheld camera – to tell the story of a couple who move into a new home only to start acknowledging a presence who manifests itself at night and seems to be following them. Writer and director Oren Peli used his own house for the shooting, and eliminated the need for a camera crew by leaving the camera sitting on the tripod for most of the filming – something which increased the story’s believability and thus worked two ways.

The film focuses on the raw ‘scare factor’ rather than on gore and action, and this also works in containing the budget, showing that establishing empathy and a sense of “familiarity” with the audience doesn’t cost much but works very well when you want to scare them senseless.

Buy Paranormal Activity on Amazon here:

Aguirre: Wrath of God 1972 Germany

Writer/Director: Werner Herzog
Budget: $370,000

While traveling on a bus with his football team, Werner Herzog wrote the scrip for Aguirre in only two and a half days. The film depicts the insane Aguirre as he travels through South America. It quickly became a masterpiece, which justified the intense shooting. Not only was the use of stunt men and special effects out of the budget, but also the crew had to deal with moving about in the extreme heat of the jungle, as well as with temperamental actor Klaus Kinski, who shot off the finger of an extra. When you have a low budget, you take what you can get; and in this case, it worked out perfectly.

Buy Aguirre: Wrath of God on Amazon here:

Bad Taste New Zealand

Writers: Ken Hammon, Tony Hiles, Peter Jackson
Director: Peter Jackson
Budget: $255,000

It is always interesting to see where big name, blockbuster directors got their start. Peter Jackson, director of the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” and “King Kong,” got his start making a cheap film filled with blood and guts, all about bad taste. His first film was an over-the-top story about aliens searching for human flesh for their fast food chain. The film was made on the weekends over the period of four years, with friends and family helping out; all of the alien masks we made in Peter Jackson’s mother’s oven.
Buy Bad Taste Amazon here

The Blair Witch Project 1999 USA

Writer/Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Budget: $22,000

While most low budgets build on word of mouth, this film created a viral campaign, making many people believe the events in the film to be true, portraying it as a true documentary. While the hand-held cameras made some theatre goers sick, it didn’t stop too many from coming, as the film grossed $248 million, making it one of the few films in American history to have one of the highest ratio of box office sales to production costs. Not only did it manage to make a large some of money, it also managed to create nightmares in the minds of the audience. My 30 year old sister still cannot go into basements because of this film.
Buy The Blair Witch Project on Amazon here

Brick 2005 USA

Writer/Director: Rian Johnson
Budget: $475,000

Writer/Director, Rain Johnson, spent seven long years to get Hollywood to produce his script, but constantly failed as most producers found the material too unusual for a first time director. The apprehension was perfectly understandable, as the film was written in the style of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective stories, but set in a modern day high school. Rian Johnson was finally able to bring his film noir style thriller to life independently, as friends and family of Johnson helped to fund his project. He then also managed to use his creative abilities to figure out difficult ways to film his demanding script.

For instance, in some circumstances, he would shoot some scenes backwards and play it forwards. To save money, the film was even edited on a home computer, and the score was recorded over iChat. All this hard work paid off, as “Brick” was awarded a special Jury prize for originality of vision at the Sundance Film Festival. A large cult following has developed for this hugely engaging and smart thriller.
Buy Brick on Amazon here

Clerks 1994 USA

Writer/Director: Kevin Smith
Budget: $27,000

The most revered independent filmmaker in the United States, Kevin Smith has an unadulterated cult following. His groundbreaking film, Clerks, tells the story of a group of friends set mostly at a convenience store. Crafting a script chocked full of humour and scintillating dialogue. Smith chose to shoot his film in black and white, to emphasize the writing rather than the visuals. College students and young adults alike latched onto this simple comedy. Smith pulled out all the stops while trying to finance his film. He maxed out all of his credit cards and sold most of his extensive and expensive comic book collection.

Smith also had to put up with the pressures of an inconvenient schedule, forcing him to make creative decisions. Most of the film had to be shot at night, during after hours at the convenience store. Smith had to figure out a way to sell the idea of a shop looking closed, but was still open for business. So Smith wrote in a scene where a character places a sign on the outside of store with the words, “I assure you, we’re open.” This proves that any unfortunate situation can be turned into an asset. The risk was worth it in the end. Since its debut in 1994, Clerks is still thought of as one of the best independent films, let alone comedies, of the 20th century.
Buy Clerks on Amazon here

Cube 1997 Canada

Writer: Andre Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, Graeme Manson
Director: Vicenzo Natali
Budget: CAD $365,000

Made before the “Saw” franchise, “Cube” was original and frugal in a way that it was set in a limited space. The space appeared to be several different cube rooms, which adds variety to the limited set. The story is well known: a group of strangers are picked off one by one by booby-trapped rooms. One room was built for the entire productions, and in order to create the illusion of different rooms, sliding panels were added to change the colour or the room, and different traps were used to add a little spice of variety.
Buy Cube on Amazon here

Night of the Living Dead 1968 USA

Writers: George A. Romero and John A. Russo
Director: George A. Romero
Budget: $114,000

Dawn of the Dead 1978 USA

Writer/Director: George A. Romero
Budget: $650,000

Both of Romero’s first Dead films completely changed not only the way people viewed zombies, but also the way they viewed horror films. Each film is a well-crafted thrill ride, full of blood and guts, but also provides plenty of social commentary about modern life. These films also brought new life to the zombie idea, as before this, no one knew why they were supposed to be afraid of zombies. Thanks to Romero and his horror ways, zombies now plague the dreams of millions. All these nightmares started on a very low budget film. In order to create the gruesome effects of zombies feasting on flesh, chocolate syrup was used as blood and roasted ham was flesh, a wonderfully delicious combination, as most extras threw up after takes.
Buy Night of the Living Dead on Amazon here

Buy Dawn of the Dead on Amazon here

El Mariachi 1992 Mexico/USA

Writer/Director: Robert Roderiguez
Budget: $7,000

Robert Roderiguez’s pinnacle of independent film, El Mariachi, is famed for its ultra-low budget of only $7,000, was funded by drug trials Roderiguez went through. Roderiguez was able to create a very compelling story about a mariachi band player who is mistaken for a notorious Mexican criminal. In Roderiguez’s book, “Rebel Without A Crew,” he details how he was able to produce a film without hiring a film crew.

Along with Roderiguez, the other actors in the film would operate the film equipment when they were off camera, thus solving the problem of a film crew. Roderiguez used his ingenuity and creativity in order to make up for the lack of props, lighting and camera equipment. El Mariachi stunned audiences and has become the paramount of independent filmmaking. Roderiguez’s story continues to be an inspiration for independent filmmakers.
Buy El Mariachi on Amazon here

Eraserhead 1977 USA

Writer/Director: David Lynch
Budget: $100,000

From the enigmatic and perplexing mind of filmmaker, David Lynch, comes perhaps his most erratic, bizarre, and simply disturbing tale in his oeuvre. It is so twisted, no matter how many times it is viewed, it will never completely be understood. It is pretty much a nightmare someone would have on acid. It is remarkable that the film was actually made, because of shoddy funding, the film took about 5 years to complete filming. Friends, like actress Sissy Spacek, and family helped to finance the remaining money not covered by a grant from the American Film Institute.

The long delay was worth the wait as the film captures the attention and imaginations of the audience, not to mention, making them become vegetarian and putting them off from having kids. It is always worth a chance to experience truly different film, and on that point, Eraserhead will not disappoint; and for you Pixies fans, you can finally understand and see where their song “Lady in the Radiator” comes from.
Buy Eraserhead on Amazon here

The Evil Dead 1981 USA

Writer/Director: Sam Raimi
Budget: $375,000

Long before his was bringing everyone’s favorite webslinger to life, and producing wretched horror films, Sam Raimi was king of campy horror films. Raimi started by writing and directing the cult classic, “The Evil Dead.” Raimi’s outrageous gore fest was shot over a one and a half year period with problems following every turn. Cast members left the production halfway through the shoot, which required Raimi to hire stand-ins for important shots. Bruce Campbell, the star and hero of the film, endured harsh shooting conditions which often included going home in the back of pick up trucks covered in synthetic blood and guts. However, Campbell did stay true to the project, following Raimi until the end, and even acted as a stand-in for missing actors. For his loyalty, Raimi has since given Campbell cameos in all of his “Spider-Man” films. Amid the various problems during filming, the movie has since become a gold standard for independent horror flicks.
Buy The Evil Dead on Amazon here 

Following 1998 UK

Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan
Budget: $6,000

Christopher Nolan, the man behind such films as The Prestige, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and Memento, debuted as a filmmaker with a little film called Following. The film tells the story of a struggling writer who tried to find stories by following random people who eventually becomes the mentor of a masterly thief. Using the same sort of techniques as Robert Roderiguez with such a tight budget, Nolan chose to film in his friend’s and family’s homes for locations, used natural light instead of expensive lighting equipment and rehearsed the scenes extensively before filming on expensive stock.
Buy Following on Amazon here 

Halloween 1978 USA

Writers: John Carpenter and Debra Hill
Director: John Carpenter
Budget: $320,000

Much like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” four years earlier, this low budget film help to bring about a surge of slasher films, whether you like it or not. The film relied on word-of-mouth to gain a following, and to grow into a cultural phenomenon. The film employed a various use of camera angels, effective music, and a lack of actual graphic violence capture the attention of audiences for years to come; unlike its forgettable and unneccessary sequals. Its classic status was gained on a very low budget. Money was so tight that all of the actors used their own clothes, as there was no money for wardrobe, and a cheap Captain Kirk mask was repainted and refurbished in order to create Michael Myers iconic mask.
Buy Halloween on Amazon here

Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer 1986 USA

Writer: John McNaughton and Richard Fire Director: John McNaughton
Budget: $110,000

The film was shot only over the course of 28 days. In order to film that fast and with a small budget, friends and families of the cast and crew were used, as well as the filmmakers own possessions. The film takes an interesting path, as it focuses on the main characters sick fantasies rather than the actual crimes committed.

Buy Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on Amazon here 

Living in Oblivion 1995 USA

Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo
Budget: $500,000

This film shows independent filmmakers that there trials and tribulations of making a film could be a lot worse. “Living In Oblivion” follows a director’s attempts at making a film, having to deal with narcotic actors, script changes, and nothing going quite right. The film was only shot in 16 days, and completely financed by the friends and family of the filmmaker. The actors of the film felt so strongly about the project they worked for free, and in fact contributed money to help produce the film. When you have an idea that is strong, anyone is willing to help out.
Buy Living in Oblivion on Amazon here 

Lord of the Flies 1963 UK

Writer/Director: Peter Brook
Budget: $250,000

Few films can be considered respectable adaptations of classic novels, but Lord of the Flies manages to do so, but only loosely following the story. Brook let the children run wild, encouraging improvisation, creating a natural and primitive feel to the film, matching the tone of the book.

Buy Lord of the Flies on Amazon here

Mad Max 1979 Australia

Writer: George Miller and James McCausland
Director: George Miller
Budget: Australian $350,000

To think that a film can be made for not even half a million dollars, and go on to earn $100 million world wide, and spawn two sequels, is beyond mad. This film about a post-apocalyptic Australia, focusing on the break down of society helped to launch the careers of star Mel Gibson and director George Miller. The film was also significant in that it helped to open up the global market to Australian films.
Buy Mad Max on Amazon here

Napoleon Dynamite 2004 USA

Writer: Jared and Jerusha Hess
Director: Jared Hess
Budget: $400,000

Love it or hate it (hopefully hate it), there is no denying the power this low-budget film has. Despite being filled with an assortment of strange characters, offbeat choices, and relatively plot less nature, it quickly found an audience in theaters, becoming a sleeper hit, grossing over $40,000,000 domestically.

Who would have thought that a film made for less than half a million dollars, centering on a pathetic nerd, would go on to become a pop culture phenomenon.
Buy Napoleon Dynomite

Once 2006 Ireland

Writer/Director: John Carney
Budget: €130,000 (approx. $160,000 at the time)

While the storyline and structure of “Once” is fairly simple and a tad clichéd, it is completely earnest and raw, strong enough to overcome its shortcomings and tug at your heart. The strong performances, fairytale setting, and all of the great bittersweet showcase the power and greatness of the film.

The film caught the attention of the Academy Awards, as they honored it with an Oscar for best originally song. A film may not have the most money, and many may not have seen it, but if a film has some great qualities, ones that are not necessarily affected by money, people will take notice.
Buy Once on Amazon here 

Open Water 2003 USA

Writer/Director: Chris Kentis
Budget: $130,000

Much like “The Blair Witch Project” before it, “Open Water” uses a minimalist approach, as it was shot on cheap digital video, not necessarily to save money, but to increase the terror. One gets a sense of real and urgent terror due to the low budget look of the film, as if they are watching actual events unfold right before them in real time, a couple lost at sea is made even more terrifying, it slowly creeps under your skin. Just because one has a low budget, does not mean they cannot take advantage and embrace it.
Buy Open Water on Amazon here 

Pi 1998 USA

Writer/Director: Darron Aronofsky
Budget: $60,000

Trying to figure out a mathematical equation to why you might like PI might be as impossible as the main character’s quest to find the meaning of God through numbers. However confusing the film is, it is masterly crafted and wonderfully imagined by today’s leading art house director, Darron Aronofsky.

As the paranoia and obsession takes hold on the main character, the film swings into full action through mind-bending metaphors and sequences. Aronofsky, determinated to fund the project, sold shares to his family and friends, who managed to fund a majority of the project.
Buy Pi on Amazon here 

Primer 2004 USA

Writer/Director: Shane Carruth
Budget: $7,000

“Primer,” tries to defy all the time travel science fiction flicks that have come before it. Shane Carruth, who starred, wrote, composed, produced, edited, photographed, and directed certainly had his hands full with this unconventional film. This probably accounts for the extreme lack of funds, as to save from hiring extras hands. Although many would feel the pressure of manufacturing a film single-handedly,

Carruth is confident enough to pull off an excellent story. Carruth’s trust in the audience to think intelligently about his movie is one of the most endearing aspects of this film. The script does not allow for dumb, plot filler sequences, but meticulously converses about time travel in a lucid and unforgettable dialogue. It was a hard task to accomplish for a first time filmmaker, who never went to film school, nor had any previous film experience.It all paid off in the end when it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance FIlm Festival.
Buy Primer on Amazon here 

Slacker 1991 USA

Writer/Director: Richard Linklater
Budget: $23,000

Serving as a direct inspiration for Kevin Smith to become a director, and his film “Clerks.” “Slacker” follows a band of young adult bohemians in a day around Texas. From the filmmaker who gave us “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater produced this misfit and unexpected comedy which had given Linklater the chance at fame.

Buy Slacker on Amazon here 

Swingers 1996 USA

Writer: Jon Favreau
Director: Doug Liman
Budget: $250,000

Long before helming such projects as “Elf” and “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau penned this indie masterpiece. Long regarded as one of the top comedies of its generation, “Swingers” managed to catapult many up and coming artists to the big business. Vince Vaughn was quickly hired after “Swingers” debuted to star in Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World,” Jon Favreau was acknowledged as a well-respected artist, and Doug Liman went on to direct such films as “The Bourne Identity” and “Go”.

The real gem of this movie is Favreau’s script. It is intensely funny and uses character interaction for comedy more than plot, which makes the entire film very quote-able. The film follows a couple of actors who dream of making it to the big leagues, but manage to become regulars at the classy neo-lounge scene.
Buy Swingers on Amazon here

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 USA

Writer: Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Director: Tobe Hooper
Budget: $83,532

Having been banned for a long period of time in the United Kingdom, it is not exactly clear why. While the title suggests a blood bath, of victims being sliced and diced, the film actually shows very little, leaving all the gore and torture to your imagination, making it all the more terrifying.

The film creates a unnerving and tense atmosphere, that never lets up. Even with its small budget, it has become a corner stone of not only the horror and thriller genre, as it has become one of the most referenced and imitated horror films, but it also of exhibits the art of low budget filmmaking, as it is an intelligent and absorbing film. Forget about all the pathetic, half-assed, sequals and remakes, the original is still the best.
Buy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Amazon here 

Welcome to the Dollhouse 1995 USA

Writer/Director: Todd Solondz
Budget: $800,000

While films like “Napoleon Dynamite” use young social outcasts to create completely unrealistic humorous and feel good moments, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” cuts to the bone, creating a painfully realistic look at adolescence.

The film poignantly explores the horrors of an unattractive and unpopular girl trying to survive middle school, never letting up with the cringe worthy, and all too uncomfortably familiar moments, and pitch black humor, even up to the very downbeat end. Its hard not see yourself in, the unfortunately named, Dawn Weiner.

While the film may not have grossed nearly as much as most films about adolescence, it has developed a deservingly huge cult following, and serves as a reminder that although your childhood might have sucked, nothing compares to what this girl went through. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.
Buy Welcome to the Dollhouse on Amazon here 

Fade Out

Theare are the films that launched careers both big and small. See if you can find a common denominator that you can use for guidance in your own career.



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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