8 Great Films Made for Under One Million Dollars

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2011

Since we all have a million dollars, our minds are almost always tuned to the day dream of what kind of movie we’d make with all that loose cash just lying around (since banks do nothing but lose things). Would it be a romantic horror film? Would it be a silent action film? Would we blow of all of it on lighting and forget the other elements of production design?


Fortunately, we’ve all had a few filmmakers tread before us in using their million bucks with efficiency and artistry. In a world where Michael Bay needs 200 suitcases full of $1m, these directors made it happen with only one of those suitcases (or no suitcases at all), and they created a lasting legacy despite their lack of foldin’ money.

If they can do it, why not us? Here are 8 great films made for under a million dollars that we can all learn from. (And if you enter our contest sponsored by Doritos, you might actually win that $1m you need for all those lights.)

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch, in making his first film, got a $10,000 grant from the AFI Conservatory for his surreal vision, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make it happen, so he put a lot of his own money into the production. The final tab was $100,000, but the result was a confusingly beautiful enigma of loneliness and industrialism.

It’s disturbing and wondrous, and you could probably spend a million scratching through DVD copies to figure out what the hell it means. Lynch has called it his most spiritual film, but even at its most intractable, the Library of Congress still felt it worthy of preserving (and with good reason).

El Mariachi (1992)

The Rebel Without a Budget knocked out this criminal tale with just $7,000. It launched a full trilogy and Robert Rodriguez’s career, and the sharp director created a How To video as a companion that’s invaluable for filmmakers still learning how to save a dollar.

It’s nothing short of a low-budget legend.

Clerks (1994)

Speaking of which, the (for the most part) single location success of Kevin Smith’s first film also launched his career and became the icon for an indie revolution in the 90s. It was as much the film that Miramax built as Miramax was the young studio that it built.

Of course, the $27,575 in credit card debt acquired by the film school drop out is famous (as is the $200,000+ that Miramax added on for post work), but it still came in well under $1m.

Evil Dead (1981)

It’s funny how so many of these launched the careers of their filmmakers.

This horror classic is the launchpad for a series that made us all want to cut our hand off and replace the useless thing with a sweet ass chainsaw. Years later, Sam Raimi would spend a ton of money making Spider-Man and its follow-ups, but once upon a time, he was an indie filmmaker using most of his $400,000 budget on fake blood and the best make-up effects the money of the time could buy.

Primer (2004)

As it turns out, you can make a stellar sci-fi movie about time travel using only your personal knowledge and $7,000. That is, if you’re Shane Carruth. The movie was an all-out triumph, selling science in plain terms and exploring the concept that our major advances as a species have come often by accident.

After years of waiting for Carruth’s follow-up A Topiary, he’s recently announced that he’s working on a new project and will hopefully start filming soon. Maybe he’ll even have $7,001 this time.

Swingers (1996)

Part of that 90s indie movement, and another career launcher, Jon Favreau began a climb toward massive-budget filmmaking as the writer and co-star alongside Vince Vaughn and newcomer, director Doug Liman. Favreau himself wouldn’t direct his first film until 8 years later, but Made has similar DNA to the film which inspired it. Liman’s career trajectory certainly took off as well.

It has since become a flag to wave for guys and martini lovers of all kinds, and proof that cool doesn’t cost a million bucks.

Brick (2005)

Rian Johnson’s neo-noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt would have cost more than half a million if they’d really had to buy all the ten-dollar words. Shifting the hard-boiled world to a high school was a stroke of genius, getting a strong cast of up-and-comers was a sharper stroke, and the result is one of the best indie films of the past decade.

Mad Max (1979)

It took $400,000 and a lot of time in the Australian wastelands to create a towering wonder of revenge filmmaking. George Miller’s first film created a symbol out of a man on a mission and built a universe’s aesthetic which gets copied every year at Burning Man. It, too, gave birth to a franchise and several careers, including one man who would go on to star with a beaver puppet on his hand.

Honorable Mentions: Creating this list was almost impossible considering the sheer amount of incredible low-budget films, including (but not nearly limited to) Pink Flamingos, The Brothers McMullen, Paranormal Activity, In the Company of Men, and Slacker.

And now, a word from our sponsor:

Think you can make your own great Super Bowl commercial? Well, Doritos wants to give you a shot to do it. All you have to do is make and submit a killer Super Bowl spot, be funnier than some of Hollywood’s best and brightest, and all the fame and fortune of filmmaking could be yours. Well, for the most part. Check out the details of the contest below or head over to www.crashthesuperbowl.com:

Doritos’ Crash The Super Bowl program is back and this year we’re taking on Hollywood, by partnering with some of the funniest dudes in Hollywood. The basic premise of Crash The Super Bowl remains the same – Doritos challenges consumers to step up and create an Ad Meter-topping Super Bowl spot. Then, America votes on their pick of which spot makes it into the big game. The twist is that this yes – the lucky finalist will go head to head with a team of Hollywood’s funniest. If the consumer takes the top spot on the USA Today Ad Meter, they win not only $1 million but also the career opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to collaborate with some of the funniest dudes in Hollywood. If team Hollywood takes the top spot, Doritos will donate $1 million to the charity of their choice. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to get their spot in the most-watched TV event in the country, win tons of cash and get their Hollywood break!

Submissions will be accepted between 10/3/2011 and 11/21/2011.

Out of the thousands of submissions, there will be five finalists determined in the month of January. America will then be invited to vote amongst those five finalists and decide who gets to go head-to-head with some of Hollywood’s funniest people.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.