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Profitable Films
Top Ten Most Profitable Independent Films of All Time

 By Will Wright, published Feb 06, 2007
The allure of independent filmmaking. You never quite know when that one movie made on a credit card budget will become phenomenally successful.
This list represents those films that made it. They aren't the highest grossing films in terms of overall box office, but rather, they're the ones that cost the least and made the most. The list was calculated by comparing production budget to gross domestic box office. This ratio reveals just how a little investment can yield enormous profits. This list does not include monies generated by video or DVD sales or merchandising. Nor does it include pornographic films. It also only considers the initial production budgets of the films. No marketing expenses or finishing costs are included.
The Top Ten
1. The Blair Witch Project - Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Released in 1999, Blair Witch became the must-see movie of a generation. With a production budget of $35,000 and box office receipts of $140 million, Blair Witch grossed 4000 times its budget, making it the most profitable movie in motion picture history.
2. Road to Ruin - Directed by Norton S. Parker
This film was released in 1928 follows the life of a teenage girl that goes bad. Controversy fueled the box office for this film. Made for $2,500, it went on to gross approximately $2.5 million, a return of over 1000 times its budget.
3. Birth of a Nation - Directed by D. W. Griffith
Griffith's silent masterpiece is hardly an independent by today's standards, but was still made outside the studio system of its time. Released in 1915, Birth of a Nation was a phenomenon of epic proportions. It had a huge budget for its day, $105,000, but went on to make $60 million dollars in a day when bread was 5 cents a loaf. Controversial, then and now, the film that wrote history with lightning made back 570 times its production budget.
4. Pink Flamingos - Directed by John Waters
Made for a paltry $12,000 (a loan from Waters' parents), this 1973 ode to bad taste shows what a mountain of shock value and a 300-pound transvestite can do to box office numbers. The film became an underground hit, grossing more than $6 million dollars. This gives it a cost to gross ratio of 500. Just for comparison, Titanic's cost to gross ratio is 3.

5. The Brothers McMullen - Directed by Edward Burns
This film was shot on weekends for eight months and cost $24,000 to make. Initially snubbed by distributors, the film was eventually picked up by Fox Searchlight after scoring a big win at Sundance. Released in 1995, it went on to gross $10 million and made Edward Burns' career.

6. Night of the Living Dead - Directed by George Romero
Flesh eating zombies and grainy black and white come together on a Pennsylvania farm to create one of the classic independent films of all time. Made on a modest budget of $115,000, Living Dead went on to gross $40 million domestically, giving it a cost to gross ratio of 348. It was released in 1968 (the same year Edward Burns was born).

7. El Mariachi - Directed by Robert Rodriguez
The story behind this 1993 film is perhaps more interesting than the film itself. Made for a microscopic $7,000 that Rodriquez partially raised by selling himself to science, El Mariachi was originally intended as a straight to video Spanish language action movie. A funny thing happened on the way to video release. Columbia Pictures bought the film and distributed it theatrically. Although only making a modest $2 million at the box office, it's unbelievably low cost, still puts it in the top ten, with a cost to gross ratio of 286. In all fairness though, the final film released in theaters cost much more than the original budget with sound work and blow up costs calculated in.

8. Damaged Lives - Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Making the Legion of Decency's "Condemned List" may have actually helped this film make the top ten list. It certainly didn't hurt it. The film is a rather bland story of a man who has an affair and contracts VD, which he in turn gives to his wife. The story was racy enough to make $2 million for Columbia when it was released in 1933. When compared to its $10,000 budget, the film garnered a cost to gross ration of 200.
9. The Legend of Boggy Creek - Directed by Charles B. Pierce
Made by Arkansas ad-man Charles Pierce, this pseudo-documentary about a monster that supposedly inhabits a local swamp went on to become a huge draw in the southern drive-ins and small theaters. It is a direct precursor to Blair Witch in that both took a documentary approach to a local "legend." Released in 1972, Boggy Creek went on to gross more than $20 million and spawned two sequels.

10. Halloween - Directed by John Carpenter
This film virtually invented the slasher genre. Relying on suspense, and its relentless score, Halloween exploded into theaters in 1978. Carpenter's use of subjective camera and crisp direction made this film more artistic than the scores of sequels and imitators that followed. With a production budget of $325,000, the film went on to gross more than $50 million domestically and ushered in a wave of slasher films attempting to emulate its success. Its cost to gross ratio is 156.

Each of these movies represents the enormous possibilities to be found in independent film. While the quality of many of these films is debatable, each movie succeeded in capturing an audience and generating enormous profits on relatively tiny investments - the exception to this would be Birth of a Nation. Its budget was enormous by 1915 standards, but then so were its profits.
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