Independent films — or “indies” — are films produced outside the major studio system. They often differ from studio films in content and style. They are typically aimed at narrower audiences, and they don’t feature superheroes or spawn numerous sequels. They’re also usually (though not always) produced with lower budgets than major studio films. That means that if they become hits, they can be very, very profitable.
To determine the highest grossing independent films of all time, 24/7 Tempo reviewed worldwide ticket sales data for nearly 200 of the most popular independent films based on rankings on IMDb, an online movie database owned by Amazon; Rotten Tomatoes, an online movie and TV review aggregator; and Ranker, a digital opinion database. Ticket sales data and production budgets came from The Numbers, an online movie database owned by Nash Information Services. Information on cast and director came from IMDb.
“Cult classic” may be something of a cliché, but many of the films on our list deserve that accolade. For example 1967’s “The Graduate” and 1969’s “Easy Rider” were part of the 1960s counterculture. They helped launch the New Hollywood film era, when the major studios saw that big money could be made from low-budget films by avant-garde directors. Those films also made stars of Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson, respectively. (These are the biggest ticket sales hits of the 1960s.)
Some of the films on our list had tiny budgets. “Night of the Living Dead” was made for $114,000 and grossed more than $200 million. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was made for $140,000 and grossed almost $130 million. “The Blair Witch Project” had a budget of $600,000 — tiny when adjusted for inflation — and made a whopping $450 million. (Here are the best horror movies ever made.)
There are also films with big budgets and big stars that qualify as independent. For example, after the success of “Pulp Fiction” Quentin Tarantino went on to make “Inglourious Basterds” and the two “Kill Bill” films (all four are on our list). And showing just how broad the category is, the highest grossing independent film of all time is “The Passion of the Christ,” with a gross of almost $1 billion.