What are the highest grossing UK low-budget films?

10 November '14 12 Comments on What are the highest grossing UK low-budget films?

I spent the weekend at the first of twelve sessions for the Micro-Budget Mentor scheme that I’m running with producer James Cotton.  We had a lecture theatre full of keen micro-budget filmmakers and I spoke about at the current state of low and micro-budget filmmaking in the UK.  In order to prepare, I looked in detail at all the data I could find on UK low-budget films (i.e budgeted under £1 million).

The core of today’s blog article is the combination of data I purchased from Rentrak, new data the BFI gave to me and a series of public online sources (such as IMDb, Box Office Mojo, Opus, Rotten Tomatoes, Metacrtic and Wikipedia).  Consequently, I can’t share all of the figures as freely as I normally would.  Rentrak won’t let me republish their raw data and the BFI have provided some data for background research only. Nonetheless, I feel that the key outcomes I am publishing today are new and noteworthy.  I have never before seen a box office chart for low-budget films. In summary…

  • The UK film with highest global gross (under £1m, Jan 2008 to Aug 2014) was Searching For Sugarman.
  • Between January 2008 and August 2014, there were 1,419 films made in the UK budgeted under £1 million
  • Only 7 of these grossed over £1 million in cinemas worldwide
  • 0.17% of the 1,190 UK films made on under £500k grossed over £1 million worldwide.
  • 20% of UK films budgeted under £1 million grossed at least £1 in any cinema around the world.
  • That figure drops to 16% for films under £500k and 10% for films budgeted under £150k.
  • Rotten Tomatoes provides data on just 24% of UK films budgeted under £500k and Metacritic only rated 4% of the same group.

Highest grossing UK low-budget films (i.e. budgeted under £1m)

The UK film with highest global box office gross released between January 2008 and August 2014 was Searching For Sugarman.  This film alone accounts for almost 24% of the combined gross of the top 50 films.

1Searching for Sugar Man2012Documentary Music Biopic
2Marley2012Documentary Music
3Locke2013Thriller Drama
4Anuvahood2011Comedy Spoof
5Still Life2013Comedy Drama
6Redirected2014Action Comedy
7Weekend2011Drama Gay interest Romance
8The Disappearance of Alice Creed2009Thriller Crime Drama
9The Act of Killing2012Documentary Socio-political Drama
12Shank2010Crime Action Drama
13Ill Manors2012Crime Drama
14The Spirit of '452013Documentary Socio-political
15Of Time and the City2008Documentary
16Kill List2011Horror Thriller Drama
17Papadopoulos & Sons2012Comedy Family
18The Caller2011Horror Crime
19Exam2009Thriller Horror
21Fire in Babylon2010Documentary Sport
22Metro Manila2013Thriller Drama
23Jig2011Documentary Music/Dance Comedy
24Dreams of a Life2011Documentary Drama
25The Summit2012Documentary Sport
26In Fear2013Thriller Horror
27How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?2010Documentary
28Cheerful Weather for the Wedding2012Drama Period drama Comedy
29The Pervert's Guide to Ideology2012Documentary
30Sket2011Thriller Crime
31Wild Bill2011Drama
32Leviathan2012Documentary Horror
33Wagner & Me2010Documentary Music Biopic
34No Greater Love2009Documentary
35Offender2012Thriller Drama Crime
36Pusher2012Crime Action Thriller
37McCullin2012Documentary War
38The Shock Doctrine2009Documentary
39DeadTime2012Horror Thriller Music
40The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)2011Horror Drama
41She, a Chinese2009Drama
42Letters to Sofija2013Biopic Drama Music
43Tortoise in Love2012Comedy Romance
44Tonight You're Mine2011Romance Music
45My Brother the Devil2012Drama Gay interest
46The Arbor2010Biopic Documentary Biopic
47Payback Season2012Thriller Drama
481 Day2009Drama
49A Field in England2013Horror Drama Historical
50Afghan Star2009Documentary

Highest grossing UK films budgeted under £500k

If we reduce the focus to just low-budget films costing under £500k then we see a whole new set of films rise to the top of the chart of global box office gross.

1Marley2012Documentary Music
2Weekend2011Drama Gay interest Romance
3Shank2010Crime Action Drama
4Ill Manors2012Crime Drama
5The Spirit of '452013Documentary Socio-political
6Of Time and the City2008Documentary
8Jig2011Documentary Music/Dance Comedy
9How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?2010Documentary
10Leviathan2012Documentary Horror
11Wagner & Me2010Documentary Music Biopic
12No Greater Love2009Documentary
13McCullin2012Documentary War
14DeadTime2012Horror Thriller Music
15The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)2011Horror Drama
16Letters to Sofija2013Biopic Drama Music
17Tortoise in Love2012Comedy Romance
18Payback Season2012Thriller Drama
19A Field in England2013Horror Drama Historical
20Afghan Star2009Documentary
21Ping Pong2012Documentary Sport
22Next Goal Wins2014Documentary Sport
23Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee2009Comedy Mockumentary Music
24For No Good Reason2012Documentary Biopic Music
25Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer2013Documentary Socio-political Music
26Demons Never Die2011Horror
27Who is Dayani Cristal?2013Drama Documentary
28Skeletons2010Drama Comedy
29The Stuart Hall Project2013Documentary Biopic History
30The Be All and End All2009Drama Comedy
31Lilting2014Romance Gay interest
32You've Been Trumped2011Documentary
33The Mirror Boy2011Adventure Drama Fantasy
34A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman2012Animation Comedy
35Patience (After Sebald)2012Documentary Biopic
36Helen2008Crime Mystery Thriller
37The Sea2013Drama
38Hell and Back Again2011Documentary
39Kiss the Water2013Documentary Animation Biopic
40In Search of Haydn2012Documentary Biopic Music
41Everyone's Going to Die2013Drama
42Town of Runners2012Documentary Sport
43Not the Messiah: He's a Very Naughty Boy2010Comedy Music Drama
44The Gospel of Us2012Drama Period drama
45A Story of Children and Film2013Documentary
467 Welcome to London2012Romance
47Village at the End of the World2012Documentary Family
48Downhill2014Comedy Road movie Drama
49Two Years at Sea2011Documentary
50Mission to Lars2012Documentary Music Biopic

Grossing over £1 million

Between January 2008 and August 2014, there were 1,419 low-budget films made in the UK budgeted under £1 million and yet just seven of them grossed over £1 million in cinemas worldwide. They were (in order)…

  • Searching for Sugar Man
  • Marley
  • Locke
  • Anuvahood
  • Still Life
  • Redirected
  • Weekend

Two of those low-budget films (Marley and Weekend) cost under £500k, while the other five cost between £500k and £1 million. During this period there were 1,190 films made on under £500k in the UK, meaning that only 0.17% grossed over £1 million worldwide.

Grossing over £1

Only one in five of the films made in the UK between January 2008 and August 2014 on under £1 million grossed at least £1 in any cinema around the world. That figure drops to just 16% for films budgeted under £500k and 10% for films budgeted under £150k. Percentage of UK low-budget films which have grossed at least £1 million in cinemas worldwide

Bigger is better

The top 50 grossing sub-£1 million films list is dominated by films in the largest of the three budget brackets, namely ‘£500k – £1 million’. Budget ranges of low-bduegt films

Do high quality films gross more money than low quality films?

I took a look at the ratings given by critics and audiences via both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes of low and micro-budget films. The Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer measures the number of critics who gave a film a positive review and the Metacritic score is the average of the film critics’ ratings. As you might expect, on average the critics’ and audiences’ ratings for films in the Top 50 grossing films within the low and micro-budget film category are higher than the average for other films within the category. However, I don’t feel that the difference is large enough to claim ‘proof’ that quality films rule at the box office. Average critics ratings for UK films 2008-14 It should be noted that not many low budget films receive attention from Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes provides data on just 24% of UK films budgeted under £500k and Metacritic only rated 4% of the same group. Normally I use IMDb’s audience ratings but I found that many of the films had such a small number of votes that the views of the filmmakers’ friends and family were polluting the true measure of a film’s quality.

So which low-budget films made a profit?

That, sadly, is a difficult question.  The numbers here are just the grosses, meaning literally the total amount of money collected from cinema tickets.  Out of this money a number of things need to be deducted, including tax (inc VAT), the cinemas’ share, marketing costs, the distributors’ share, sales costs, the sales agent’s fee and then the investors.  On the plus side, there are a number of other revenue streams (such as television, DVD, VOD, etc), many of which generate a higher return than cinema. The BFI use a rough rule of thumb to estimate profitability: if a film has made twice its budget at the global cinema box office then they regard it as likely to have made a profit. By this measure, only 7% of micro- and low-budget British films make a profit.  However my personal opinion is that this rule falls apart for cheaper films because cinema is a much smaller part of the distribution plan and because most films benefit from healthy tax schemes, such as SEIS, which can provide investors with over half of their money back even before the shoot.

Caveats and Notes

Due to the nature of film data, especially at this low budget range, it is hard to be complete and 100% precise. Therefore, please consider the following points when reading and applying today’s findings…

  • Still on release – Some of the low-budget films in my Top 50 were still on release when I bought data from Rentrak (end of August 2004).
  • Tracking films made – It may be the case that there have been more films made over the period stated and they are yet to appear on our radar. This is especially the case with low budget productions as many will not become known to official bodies until their British certification or tax credit applications are submitted. This typically happens within six months of a film’s completion, meaning that there could have been films shot at the start of 2014 that are not yet being tracked.
  • Inflation – I have not adjusted for inflation.
  • Genres – I have assigned up to three genres per film.
  • Gross – Unless otherwise stated, all grosses are the total amount of revenue generated by that film in all the cinemas around the world, for which we have data.
  • Non-reporting territories – Rentrak does not track data for every territory in which a film is released. For example, in my ‘Top 50’ for low-budget films under £1 million, the films were released in a combined total of 350 territories (and average of 7 per film) and yet Rentrak only have box office gross data for a combined total of 246 territories (4.9 per film). That said, the missing territories are much smaller territories , the grosses of which are unlikely to massively affect the trends.
  • Arbitrary nature of budget ranges – The only official data I have about a film’s budget is the ‘budget range’ given to me by the BFI. These are arbitrary cut-offs and so are somewhat crude grouping. For example, a film costing £1,000,001 will not appear on my charts whereas a film costing £999,999 will. Without the actually budget figures I cannot drill deeper.
  • Data sources – Today’s data came from a variety of sources. I purchased box office data on all UK films from Rentrak. The BFI have provided vital tracking data, and budget ranges based on HMRC data. The critics and audience scores came from Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, I used IMDb and Box Office Mojo for verification and clarification.

If you notice something within these figures which you know to be false then please do let me know.  I don’t have the resources of organisations like the BFI (it’s just me!) and studying low and micro budget films feels a little like stepping into the unknown. Consequently, I welcome any feedback or new information that can strengthen this data.


This topic is a frustrating one as I would love to get access to more and better data.  The BFI keep back some of the numbers they have as it comes from a very private source (HMRC). This means that we only get budget ranges, not actual figures. The Rentrak data is useful but not complete as the task of tracking every penny spent in every cinema every day all over the world is nigh on impossible. Box office tracking services are designed mainly for tracking larger films, which make more of splash than micro and low-budget films (and therefore are easier to track) and for which there is a stronger commercial value (not many people offer money to buy micro-budget film data). Finally, the key pieces of the puzzle that everybody wants, i.e. profitability data, are hidden behind a wall of privacy and complex distribution/ recoupment chains.



      1. Still Life, I believe achieved most of its success in Japan. It was distributed here by Artificial eye and had a very small run at Curzon cinemas.
        I saw it in the cinema, but was also in it and I know from a conversation with the director about the Japan thing…

  1. Stephen, very interesting article, thanks.

    One correction: EXAM cost £360k to make so it should also be at No. 7 in your ‘under £500k’ chart, but it isn’t featured.

    The film is also in profit, as of last month. I know, because I paid for it.

    I’d be interested to know its worldwide theatrical gross, though: i can’t even get this info from the sales agent because they have trouble getting it from some of the less-than-transparent distributors. So how anyone else has gathered that information is beyond me…

    Stuart Hazeldine

    1. Stuart, glad you found it useful.

      The BFI data (from HMRC) has Exam listed as ‘£500k – £1m’. You obviously know infinitely more about the film than I do, and it may well be that in this instance the BFI have made an error. However, across all films I need to anchor the research to external verified data sources rather than change info as and when. As you may have seen last week, filmmakers as a bred tend to play fast and loose with budgets (stephenfollows.com/do-filmmakers-lie-about-their-budgets).

      On a side note, I think this is even more evidence that more research is needed into low and micro budget films profitability. Using the data I have and the BFI’s rule of thumb, ‘Exam’ looks like it made a loss (and not even a small loss). This is a project I’m keen to do in the future so I may be in touch!

      Thanks again for chipping in 🙂

  2. Hi thanks for putting this research up …its truly an insight and a really useful tool. Im the director of number 30 in the under 500k section. Our actual budget was £168,000 if you ever do an under £250k budget section. The film was under a lot of people’s radar as it was so small, but this list goes some way to prove all the effort from everyone on it was worth it. cheers, Bruce

  3. Why the obsession with cinema gross. I know of many sub 500k films that have made a profit or got most of their finance back by avoiding the vanity of an expensive cinema release and by focusing on DVD, VOD and TV. Smart producers working in genre that sells. A far better return than over costed films top heavy with expensive cast that get wiped out. When it comes to raising finance the return on investment is key.

    1. 100% agree. The problem is that profit is an elusive thing to measure from afar as the only semi-public data we have to look at is box office gross. The BFI rule of thumb for profitability doesn’t work for low/micro budget films so we need a new system.

  4. Thank you for your very helpful blog. I’ve also signed up to your newsletter. I’m producing my first film. Do you have any idea on producers royalty (average %) for the following? (Low-budget film scenario)

    1) Video on Demand – GP & USD markets?
    Producers Royalty (%)
    Average Unit Sale Price

    2) Sales to Broadcasters – GP & USD markets
    Producers Royalty (%)
    Percentage of Box Office (%)

    3) DVD – GP & USD markets
    Producers Royalty (%)
    Average Unit Sale Price

    Thank you for any advice.

    1. Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      Those are good questions but currently I don’t have enough data to be able to give you any kind of a straight answer. I have previously studied the fees charged by sales agents and distributors (stephenfollows.com/what-are-the-average-film-distribution-fees-2014-survey) and you can see a breakdown of a Hollywood film here (stephenfollows.com/valkyrie-numbers-tom-cruises-54m-payday). But overall it’s still a very private, secret part of the process and I’ve not yet found enough ways of collecting the data.

  5. Hi Stephen,
    Thank you for great work.
    I have a question, for you why Letters to Sofija, is categorise as British Production.

    Many thanks


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