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Did ‘Moonlight’ Break Oscar Record for Lowest-Budgeted Best Picture Winner?

Barry Jenkins’ semiautobiographical coming-of-age story was produced for just $1.5 million

Newly crowned Best Picture winner “Moonlight” turned a relative pittance into Oscar gold, as the film became the smallest budget production — accounting for inflation — to ever receive that honor to cap a wild 89th Academy Awards.

After an envelope error resulted in presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway mistakenly naming Lionsgate’s musical “La La Land” as Best Picture winner, “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was the one who actually handed over the trophy to the “Moonlight” team. That made it a three-Oscar night for the coming-of-age drama out of A24, which also won for Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney).

Perhaps even more impressive, “Moonlight” claimed the highest honor in film despite being produced for a paltry $1.5 million.

United Artists’ 1955 romantic drama “Marty,” starring Ernest Borgnine as an Italian-American butcher from the Bronx, won four Academy Awards including Best Picture on a budget estimated at $350,000, the lowest-ever in nominal terms. However, that’s a healthy $3.2 million in current dollars — or more than two “Moonlights.”

“Moonlight,” however, is not the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner: “The Hurt Locker” picked up just $17 million at the domestic box office in 2009, compared with “Moonlight’s” $22 million — which is likely to jump as casual movie fans who first heard about the film at the Oscars decide to see what it’s all about.

While big-budget blockbusters (which lately, seem to involve Disney properties and superheroes) dominate the box office, a handful of other films have taken a beer budget all the way to a Best Picture champagne toast. “The King’s Speech,” which won in 2010, was produced for a modest $15 million, and went on to earn $139 million domestically and $414 million worldwide.