Movies are an inherently risky business. Investors put forth millions of dollars to create a movie. Once it’s released in theaters, it’s up to the audience to decide whether the film will be a financial hit or an epic flop. The rise of the streaming age has only increased the riskiness.

But sometimes, a movie becomes such a monumental hit that investors and studios enjoy a huge ROI. Great low-budget movies often reap the most benefits. Certain films are renowned for their massive gap between cost and profit, proving that the largest budgets don’t always yield the most fruitful returns.

Updated on September 1st, 2021 by Derek Draven: This list has been updated to feature five more movies that cost very little yet made mountains of cash when they were released into the world. The heavy hitters span every kind of genre, from comedies to romance, and (of course) sci-fi/fantasy hits. Each one managed to captivate audiences in a way that even the filmmakers themselves could never have predicted. Some were one-shot wonders while others built entire franchises upon their own success. Relying on data from the-numbers.com, each movie has been broken down to showcase budget vs. the worldwide run.

Updated on March 14th, 2022 by Alex Gentile: Some box office numbers seem less impressive with age and inflation, but legendary profits from movies like these continue to raise eyebrows. New entries refresh this list with some of the biggest returns on investments ever to be seen in the world of movies. Using the same source as the last update (the-numbers.com), these films showcase massive profits from unlikely projects. Grossed entries refer to budget vs. worldwide run, while profits refer to worldwide run and video sales after expenses.

15 Pretty Woman (1990) – Grossed $432M On A $14M Budget

The unbelievable success of Pretty Woman proves how different the movie landscape was in 1990. A romantic comedy would have an extremely hard time captivating today’s audiences in the same way. Made for just $14 million, Pretty Woman was released to middling reviews in March of 1990.

Yet, Julia Roberts’ star power and likability proved enormous, and the movie stayed in the top ten for four months. It ended up grossing $432 million worldwide, making 31 times its budget, which just goes to show how a unique and charming story can win over audiences.

14 Home Alone (1990) – Grossed $476M On A $15M Budget

Home Alone is another movie that likely wouldn’t hit big in today’s superhero and extravaganza-dominated movie landscape. Made for $15 million, Home Alone spent twelve straight weeks at number one and stayed in the top ten until Easter, which is ironic given its Christmas holiday theme.

It became the third-highest-grossing movie ever made at the time (behind Star Wars and E.T.), making $476 million at the worldwide box office. Home Alone ended up making 32 times its budget and paved the way for an equally funny sequel that capitalized on the original’s roaring success.

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13 The Exorcist (1973) – Grossed $428M On A $12M Budget

Thanks to TheExorcist‘s nail-biting tension and scary moments, the movie became an instant horror classic to many. It paid off in box office dividends when it was released in 1973, and forever changed the genre as a result.

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Made for $12 million, The Exorcist proved an unbelievable hit, grossing a total of $112 million worldwide (about $650 million today). It has since grossed $428 million worldwide, making nearly 36 times its budget. When adjusted for inflation, The Exorcist remains the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.

12 Jaws (1975) – Grossed $470M On A $12M Budget

Before Star Wars, there was Jaws, the original Hollywood summer blockbuster. It cost just $12 million to make and was released in the summer of 1975 to huge acclaim and popularity. It was the first movie to gross $100 million in North America, eventually finishing with $123 million.

The movie has since grossed $470 million worldwide, making 40 times its original budget. When adjusted for inflation, Jaws has made over $2 billion worldwide, proving that it’s still an icon in the annals of big-budget Hollywood tentpole films.

11 Star Wars (1977) – Grossed $775M On An $11M Budget

Star Wars was a truly monumental film when it was released in the summer of 1977. Made for an estimated $11 million, it quickly dethroned Jaws as the highest-grossing movie in North American history, making $220 million in its original domestic run (about $930 million today).

It has since made $775 million worldwide thanks to numerous re-releases, totaling about 70 times its budget. When adjusted for inflation, Star Wars has made over $2.5 billion, which is quite a haul for a film that relied heavily on guerrilla-style run and gun filmmaking while fending off studio interference.

10 E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – Grossed $792M On A $10.5M Budget

When people think of Steven Spielberg, their minds wander to popular 1980s films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., the latter of which was made on a measly budget of $10.5 million ($30 million today). It was originally conceptualized as a dark horror/sci-fi comedy, but Spielberg reworked it into a family film.

The director was able to craft pure movie magic, and E.T. spent a record sixteen weeks at number one as a result. By 1983, it surpassed Star Wars as the highest-grossing movie ever, finishing its initial theatrical run with a worldwide gross of $792 million — around 75 times its budget.

9 Friday The 13th(1980) – Profited $27M On A $550K Budget

Fans of Friday the 13th might say the film’s legacy speaks for itself as one of the most famous horror titles of all time. The franchise that followed became a cultural phenomenon, but it all started with the low-budget original movie.

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The movie helped launch the career of Kevin Bacon in his fourth theatrical role with a budget of just over half a million dollars. The public responded to the film, making a profit of nearly 30 million.

 

8 The Evil Dead (1983) – Profited $14M On A $375K Budget

Another unlikely cult classic came in 1983 with The Evil Dead. The movie kicked off a franchise of films, TV series, and video games. However, during production, the people behind the film might have only seen it as a low-budget horror flick.

The Evil Dead was made for well under half a million dollars, but managed to take in over $14 million. The now iconic-film made its investment back even moreso since, considering the wave of content following the first installment of the film series.

 

7 Super Size Me (2004) – Profited $6.5M On A 65K Budget

Super Size Me is perhaps one of the only documentaries ever made with such a wide profit margin. The movie revealing the nefarious health risks of eating fast food became viral before the days of Twitter back in the early 2000s.

Made for a measly $65,000, the Morgan Spurlock creation raked in over $6 million. It might not surprise fans who lived through the film’s release, when it seemed like everyone was talking about the eye-opening documentary.

6 Halloween (1978) – Grossed $70M On A $325K Budget

Slasher films were just picking up steam by the end of the 1970s, led by hits like Halloween. Though the premise was simple, the blood and gore surprisingly non-existent, and the performances semi-admirable, it did kick off an entire franchise that seems just as stubborn in the face of death as Michael Myers is.

It made $70 million at the worldwide box office, which was no small feat for a relatively modest little horror film. Halloween cost around $325,000 to make, which meant it made about 216 times more than it cost. Suffice it to say, this surprise hit slashed expectations.

5 Rocky (1976) – Grossed $225M On A $1M Budget

Sylvester Stallone hit pay dirt when he wrote and directed the first Rocky film, but it was a gamble from the start. Though the 1970s were big on boxing, there was no guarantee that an underdog story of this kind would resonate with audiences. Thankfully, it did — and made a boat-load of money in the process.

The film earned $225 million worldwide, which was 225 times more than its modest $1 million budget. This is nothing to sneeze at, considering Rocky spawned several sequels, a spinoff franchise, and of course, Sylvester Stallone’s movie career as a whole.

4 Eraserhead (1977) – Profited $4.9M On A $100K Budget

David Lynch came to audiences with his first feature film, Eraserhead. The surreal black and white film garned a large response and laid the foundation for the career of the celebrated director.

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Eraserhead was put together for $100,000 but made a profit of $4.9 million. It perhaps isn’t Lynch’s most famous movie, but the film presents one of the largest returns of investment of all time in the movie world.

3 The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Grossed $248M On A $600K Budget

Budgets became less important to box office success after the release of The Blair Witch Project. The movie itself was shot for about $60,000, while post-production costs elevated the budget to roughly $600,000. It was essentially recorded as a bare-bones operation, relying entirely on tension to sell the narrative.

Regardless, the movie ended up grossing an astounding $248 million at the worldwide box office — 414 times its budget. The Blair Witch Project was a genuine money maker that prompted an entire wave of films to replicate the found footage formula.

2 El Mariachi (2007) – Profited $1M On A $7K Budget

El Mariachi is Robert Rodriguez’s first feature film. The movie had a jaw-droppingly small $7 thousand production budget. However, after all costs were taken into account, the film profited over a million dollars.

El Mariachi spawned two sequels with Desperado and Once Upon A Time In Mexico, making up Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy. The movie put the director on the map with the hit which would lead to many more like Sin City and Spy Kids.

1 Mad Max (1979) – Grossed $100M On A $200K Budget

Mel Gibson’s post-apocalyptic take on the lawless highway motif was a profitable venture when it was released in 1979. Director George Miller pulled out all the stops (and broke more than a few laws) to achieve his cinematic vision, full of over-the-top characters and crazy, cool road vehicles with Mad Max.

With a budget of just $200,000, Mad Max went on to rack up an amazing $100 million worldwide, which is approximately 499 times more than it cost to make. It also put Gibson on the map and paved the way for Miller to carve out a healthy career for himself in Hollywood.

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