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3 Surprisingly Low-Budget Films

Updated on January 1, 2015

1. Dallas Buyers Club

Budget: $5 Million

Gross: $55 Million (Sept 2014)

Awards: Academy Awards for Best Actor (Matthew McConaughey), Best Supporting Actor (Jared Leto), Best Makeup and Hair; nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Editing.


Dallas Buyers Club is a biographical film about a homophobic Dallas cowboy who contracts aids, finds relief from a non-FDA approved drug, and begins smuggling it into the United States. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a transvestite and, dressing up like a priest, smuggles the drugs over the border. His initial 30 day prognosis turns into a capitalistic endeavor that changes the way he views the LBGT community.


Working on a budget of 5 million, the film is considered extremely low budget for the star power and wide-release of the film. Most 5 million dollar films hope to be picked up by Netflix, major independent film festivals, and television networks, but Dallas Buyers Club gained the coveted wide-release and more awards than the film makers know what to do with.

The 5 million hardly pays Matthew McConaughey's usual salary, let alone an entire production. So how did they do it?

A $250 Oscar winning makeup budget and heavy star power with very low paychecks.

The McConaissance

Matt McConaughey took a serious pay cut and did the film for $200,000—and it turned out to be the smartest move of his career. For two decades, the man has been known as the, "Dude, can I take my shirt off" guy, capitalizing on his washboard abs and not necessarily his acting chops—but chops he has. McConaughey, with Oscar in hand, has had a huge come-back and is soaring to the top of his career.

For an actor in their forties, Hollywood can be a difficult minefield to navigate. Many of Hollywood's former it-boys struggle to make a name for themselves in their forties and quickly turn into a "has been." For McConaughey, after a pretty dry decade of doing films like Surfer Dude, Ghost of Girlfriends Past, and Failure to Launch—along with a bunch of films no one has heard of—McConaughey is reaching a new height in his career.

With an Oscar in hand, that $200,000 paycheck is opening doors to much larger productions. Within the last two years, the man has won an Oscar, starred in the critically acclaimed crime drama Mud, acted in the Wolf of Wall Street, and starred in the box office smash Interstellar. The world has just begun to see what Matthew can do.

Dallas Buyers Club Trailer

2. Memento

Budget: $5 Million

Box-Office Gross: $39 Million

Awards: Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing.

The Film that Launched a Genius

It is impossible to talk about the film Memento, without talking about its director, Christopher Nolan. While in college, Nolan and a group of filmmaking buddies made a $6000 black and white film that instantly gained success in the independent film festival circuit. The acclaim and awards he received opened the doors he needed to get Memento green-lit.

Memento's non-linear way of story telling was groundbreaking and started a trend towards very intensely intellectual films—and ones that can only be enjoyed with multiple viewings. It took the thriller genre to a whole new level of trusting the audience's ability to understand complex story lines. Choosing a non-linear story structure was a gutsy choice for a director's wide-release debut but Nolan pulled it off flawlessly—and in the process, launched an incredible career.

To me, one of the interesting things about the film, and what we were trying to do, is essentially present an idea of the tension between our subjective view of the world—the subjective way in which we have to experience life—and then our faith in an object of reality beyond that—and most movies present a quite comfortable universe where we are given an objective truth that we don't get in everyday life—that’s one of the reason we go to the movies.

— Christopher Nolan, Eyes on Cinema Presentation

Christopher Nolan Explains Memento

3. Good Will Hunting

Budget: $10 Million

Box-Office: $138 Million

Awards: Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Robin Williams); nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best supporting Actress (Minnie Driver), Best Director, Best Original Song, and Best Original Score.

Matt and Ben

Good Will Hunting started out as a short for one of Matt's University classes. Ben and Matt grew up as Boston best buds and both decided to pursue filmmaking as their life calling. 12 units shy of a from Harvard, Matt dropped out and moved to Hollywood with Ben. In the early years, they each struggled to find work on projects that interested them, so what do two struggling actors do to set themselves apart, in a world where everyone you meet on the street is an actor? You write your own film!

Ben and Matt were so adamant that they star in their own film, that they turned down an offer with Castle Rock and moved studios. Castle Rock wanted Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio to star, and they wanted those roles for themselves. It's a good thing they did because can you imagine Matt and Ben not doing that movie? It launched both of their careers and they won roles that they never would have gotten as unknowns.

So how was the film made for $10 million? For starters, Matt and Ben were each paid about $600,000 to write and act in the film. Adding the Star power of Robin Williams made this low budget film pop.

Good Will Hunting looks like a

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© 2015 Jennifer Arnett


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    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 3 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i had watched good will hunting, worth the budget

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Yeah, Nolan has come a long way. They keep giving him really big budgets to play with. Learning to shoot on a small budget, I believe, makes you a better filmmaker.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Thanks Jodah, I also love Matthew McConaughey. He's turned out to be a fantastic actor. Good Will Hunting is a very inspirational film; it's one of the reasons I wanted to study screenwriting. If a couple of kids from Boston can win an Oscar on their first try, anything is possible!

    • Loreva13 profile image

      Lorenzo M Vasquez III 3 years ago from El Paso, TX

      Cool hub! As a Nolan Christopher fan myself, I knew Memento was on the low end of the budget spectrum; but, had no idea the other films belonged in the same category.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 3 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      Very interesting. I loved Good Will Hunting.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      great reviews Jen, I hadn't heard of "Dallas Buyers Club," but I do like Matthew McConaughy (despite some of his lessor roles). Haven't yet seem "Memento"either, but "Good Will Hunting" is one of my favourites. I can't imagine anyone else doing justice to the roles like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck did, and Robin Williams was great. It just shows that you don't need a huge budget if you have an exceptional story and the acting is good.

    • Availiasvision profile image

      Jennifer Arnett 3 years ago from California

      Thanks Bill. Yes, a very good return on investment for all involved. Getting a pay cut, but then coming out of it with an Oscar is a great personal investment for the talent involved. It's just amazing to me that there are so many quality low-budget films. I wish more of them were made because I feel like they can have better stories. Take away all of the CGI and fluff and you're left with a very pure and raw form of storytelling. Don't get me wrong, I love spics like Batman and Lord of the Rings, but I also love very human stories like the Canadian low-budget "Still Mine."

      A very Happy New Year to you and your family. 3 year, only 2 more to go until you are expert! I hope this year creates so writing milestones for you.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Pretty good returns on investments, don't you think? Great hub, Jen. Very interesting.

      Happy New Year!