From maxed-out to minted – 5 cinema successes paid for on credit cards

Want a job in Hollywood? Of course you do. But do you really want one? If so, then maybe you too can join the ranks of the credit junkies who’ve risked bankruptcy to see their dream come to life. Because sometimes, just sometimes credit card creativity comes good in a big way. So here they are, Hollywood’s A list of credit-fuelled creatives who risked it all but ended up hitting the big time.

She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee

She's Gotta Have It

Budget: $185,000
Box-office: $7,137,502
ROI: 3,858%

By commanding one of the largest budgets on this list Spike Lee placed himself at the top end of what might be called an ‘underdog’, but then again, filming on a budget of $185,000 is still no mean feat. Especially in 1986.

After his initial round of fundraising did well enough, Lee’s shoot soon ran out of gas and he was forced to dig deep into those pockets. He then returned to filming and realised something – he was going to need bigger pockets.

So Lee maxed his cards out and, eventually, got the job done. But with his creditors and investors to please you’d guess that Lee was worried. He needn’t have been though.

When the film hit theaters the amount of money it was raking in was soon burning holes in pockets all of its own. Skip ahead three years and Lee is nominated for an Academy Award and is well on his way to an up-and-down three-decade career in the movie business.

Time hasn’t stifled his creative funding efforts however. Last year his strangely named new one Da Sweet Blood of Jesus was successfully funded through a $1,418,910 Kickstarter push.

Hollywood Shuffle, Robert Townsend

Hollywood Shuffle

Budget: $100,000
Box-office: $5,228,617
ROI: 5,229%

It’s a commonly told joke that all black men leading in films in the ’80s looked suspiciously like Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover or Richard Pryor. And that was it for black actors it seemed. Unless of course you wanted to sideline in assorted stereotypical roles, usually as a gang member.

This is how struggling actor Robert Townsend was feeling when he ditched the daily audition circuit and decided to make a satirical film about his plight. A decision which is much, much, much easier said than done.

It started out with begging cinematographers for leftover film and ended with him taking on the Herculean task of persuading people to work for nothing, with the shaky promise of future payment. He also had to fundraise with no promise of return as well, which, as any investment manager would tell you, is a pat your head and rub your tummy tricky. Therefore, when no one just flat out gave him the whole $100,000 he needed, he maxed out that credit of his. All of it.

But as you can guess, it all turned out well, with the film recouping a 5,000%+ return on investment, which, as any investment manager would tell you, sure as hell beats an ISA.

Clerks, Kevin Smith

Clerks

Budget: $27,575
Box-office: $3,151,130
ROI: 11,427%

On release back in 1994 the film Clerks taught us all a lot. It taught us about the slacker lifestyle, about the importance of personal politics to the humble roofer, and it ably showed us why we should always turn the lights on in a bathroom.

It also made back over 100-times its budget which, as we’re sure you’ll agree, is pretty good going.

Now, twenty years down the line, with Clerks II in the bag, Smith is still making films. Nowadays though he has a lot more money with which to make them. Yet that wasn’t always the case.

While working at the video store that would end up as the primary setting of the movie, Smith had a script, no money with which to shoot it and ten credit cards. Sure, he sold his comic book collection and received a small donation from his family, but when he still didn’t have enough he took a look at his wallet, and those credit cards, and threw them around a little.

Once filming closed down though Smith found himself in massive debt, with nothing to save him but a film ironically about no-hopers with no ambition. Fortunate then, that Clerks eventually went on to gross over $3 million in box-office receipts meaning that Smith, now a star, could pay back those bills with cash to spare.

El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez

El Mariachi

Budget: $7,225
Box-office: $2,040,920
ROI: 28,248%

In 1992, Sin City  director Robert Rodriguez took low budget to new, unexplored lows with his first feature film. As low as $7,000 in fact, not that this means the money was easy to come by.

Rodriguez put his body on the line participating in experimental drug trials to raise half of his budget. But once he realised he hadn’t grown a third ear and the risk had paid off, it was time to take another. He made up the rest of his budget by maxing out his credit cards. He then made damn sure to make the most of the money he’d got his hands on by cutting costs wherever possible.

  • A dolly to push the camera around on for smooth tracking shots? – Just get a wheelchair to sit in while you hold the camera and someone pushes you around.
  • On set sound? – Nah. Just dub it in afterwards – including all the voices.
  • A slate, to signal which scene you are shooting? – No need. Just get the actors to use their fingers before each take.

Rodriguez was so frugal in fact, that he brought his first project in $1,775 under budget. A small saving, when you consider the film went on to gross over $2,000,000.

The Blair Witch Project, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez

Blair Witch

Budget: $22,000
Box-office: $248,639,099
ROI: 1,130,178%

When two film students are looking to smash their way through the glass ceiling they’re usually going to have to improvise. For Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, that went well past setting your film in a ‘forest’ and casting the enemies as basically invisible.

As any wise man will tell you though, in order to make a return on investment in the millions of percent you need to first invest. The two needed to invest in a camera, and they needed to pay three unknown actors to improvise their way through a weeks worth of scary camping. The forest though, that came free.

To fund these expenses loans seemed out of the question since betting on a first-time indie film is about as wise as betting on the sun not rising tomorrow. Their credit card providers, however, had no such qualms about those odds.

So the directors and their intrepid actors ventured out into the woods massively in debt, with only a vague idea of where things were going, for only eight days, hoping to come back with the next big thing.

Skip forward two years and their $22,000 budget has ballooned into takings of $248 million at the box-office. And just think, if they’d stuck a similar amount of money into a savings account they’d have had to wait more than 350 years for a similar return.