Thrifty Treasures: 15 Low Budget Movies That Are Actually Good

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Producing a theater-worthy movie is expensive, but a small budget can go also lead to a great film. There are many examples of films that don't need a six-figure, Avengers-sized budget to make a fantastic movie. 

1. Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max Mel Gibson
Image Credit: Roadshow Film Distributors.

The gulf between the budgets of the original Mad Max and its decades-later progeny, Mad Max: Fury Road, is astounding. While the latter had a nine-figure budget (and made full use of it), the original Mad Max grossed roughly $100 million on a measly budget of only $350,000.

That's mad, Max.

2. Rocky (1976)

Image Credit: MGM.

With a budget of just over $1 million, Rocky was more expensive to advertise than to make. Next time you're wondering why the punches in this American sports classic are less than convincing, you now know. 

3. American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti, Charles Martin Smith
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

$777,000 is worth much more today than in the early 1970s, but American Graffiti would be considered a low-budget film in any era. Director George Lucas and producer Francis Ford Coppola made this revered movie about the early 1960s on a shoestring budget. As it turns out, scenes shot in the back of hot rods and at Mel's Diner don't cost much.

4. Clerks (1994)

Clerks Jeff Anderson, Brian O'Halloran
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Reportedly shot for less than $28,000 (in early 1990s dollars), Clerks proceeded to gross over $4 million at the box office and launch Kevin Smith into the star director echelon. A movie that makes the minutiae of working in a convenience store into compelling cinema, Clerks is far better than its modest budget suggests.

5. Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Quentin Tarantino's second cinematic hit, Pulp Fiction, received a budget of $8.5 million. Circumstances have changed drastically for the director, who has become one of the strongest draws in Hollywood. The production budget for Tarantino's 2019 smash hit Once Upon a Hollywood had a reported budget of about $100 million.

6. City of God (2002)

City of God (2002)
Image Credit: Miramax Films.

Brazilian gem City of God had flashy camerawork for its era and a chunky two-hour, ten-minute runtime. Yet, directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund were able to craft an epic, coming-of-age tale of the Brazilian favelas from a budget of only $3.3 million.

7. Juno (2007)

Image Credit: Searchlight Pictures.

While $6.5 million is a lot of money to most people, it is pennies for a Hollywood film budget. Yet, the coming-of-age dramedy Juno grossed more than $232 million worldwide, becoming an unlikely hit highlighting unplanned motherhood's perils and joys.

8. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory Gene Wilder
Image Credit: Paramount Pictures.

What does it cost to bring a chocolate factory to life? Apparently, chocolate rivers, a stable of Oompa Loompas, and a massive candy-making empire cost no more than $3 million (in 1970s bucks). 

It took years for fans to appreciate how far the directors and producers stretched their modest budget, as Willy Wonka was not a commercial success at the time of its release. It's a good thing director Mel Stuart had a Golden Ticket because he sure didn't have a blank check.

9. Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine Ryan Gosling
Image Credit: The Weinstein Company.

Director Derek Cianfrance snagged leads Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams for this decades-spanning romantic drama about the ups and downs of marriage. Even more impressively, he made this critically acclaimed film on a budget of $1 million.

10. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) Movie
Image Credit: Lucasfilm.

The Star Wars franchise was not always known for high-budget special effects. While visually impressive for its era, the first film got the most out of its $11 million budget. Long-time Star Wars fans still prefer the modest special effects to the greenscreen-heavy approach of modern spin-offs.

11. Taxi Driver (1976) 

Taxi Driver Robert De Niro
Image Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Martin Scorsese was still a relatively unproven director when he made Taxi Driver in 1976, which helps explain the tight $1.9 million budget for this acclaimed drama. Scorsese made New York City feel like a present-day dystopia, making the very most of the money the studio provided him.

12. Get Out (2017)

Get Out
Image Credit: Universal Pictures.

Had major studios foreseen that Get Out would be the critically acclaimed psychological thriller it became, they likely would have written director Jordan Peele a blank check. Instead, horror-centric studio Blumhouse threw a cool $4.5 million for Peele to make his directorial debut and received a handsome payoff when the film grossed $255 million worldwide.

13. Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation Bill Murray
Image Credit: Focus Features.

Despite director Sofia Coppola's last name, her Oscar-winning romantic comedy Lost in Translation commanded a budget of only $4 million. That did not stop leads Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson from putting forth captivating performances amidst a Tokyo backdrop. Nor did the modest budget stop Coppola from winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. 

14. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire Dev Patel
Image Credit: Pathé Distribution.

The $15 million budget for Slumdog Millionaire is far from the smallest on this list. However, this budget is notable because Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture with less money than it would take to buy a midsize luxury yacht.

15. Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash J. K. Simmons
Image Credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Whiplash isn't a movie you'd expect to have a Lord of the Rings-level budget, but it is nevertheless a polished film. It is impressive that director Damien Chazelle made such a slick, visually riveting movie on a budget of only $3.3 million.

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Experience: Sam Mire is a freelance writer with over seven years' experience writing about entertainment, global events, American law, and sports. He got his start as a journalism major at the University of South Florida, and has since spent weeks in the Alaskan wildlands, immersed himself in the world of Florida's homeless population, covered live sporting events, and served as a linchpin for media outlets in the legal, tech, and entertainment spaces. Sam has written news stories and Op-Eds featured in Fast Company, Forbes, Entrepreneur, AP News, Fox News, and, most notably, Wealth of Geeks.

Sam focuses on popular culture, film and television, and general life advice in his role for Wealth of Geeks. He strives to turn readers onto the directors, actors, and other creatives who deliver compelling content outside of the box-office top-ten. In his free time, he enjoys boxing, woodwork, engaging in battles of strength and wit with his dog, and spending time with good company.

Sam Mire

Author: Sam Mire

Title: Popular Culture and Film Writer

Expertise: Film and Television, Life Advice, Comedic Writing, Movies, DIY Handiwork, Books, Current Events and Popular Culture


Sam Mire is a freelance writer with over seven years' experience writing about entertainment, global events, American law, and sports. With a Journalism degree from the University of South Florida, Sam focuses on popular culture, film and television, and general life advice in his role for Wealth of Geeks.