Columbia Pictures announced theatrical release plans Thursday for the feature film “El Mariachi,” which will almost certainly stand as the lowest-budgeted film to be released by a major studio this year, or any year in recent history, for that matter.

Made for just $ 7,000, “El Mariachi,” is the debut film of 24-year-old writer-director Robert Rodriguez.

The original action/adventure/romance, set in a futuristic border town near Mexico, is about a lone mariachi musician who enters a small town at the same time as a hit man. They both wear black and carry similar guitar cases, with different contents. The mariachi falls in love with a beautiful bar owner, who confuses him with the hit man and takes him in, drawing him into a violent underworld.

The film’s production values belie its low budget, and Columbia is clearly counting on good word-of-mouth from the Toronto and Telluride film festivals to fuel pic’s planned platform launch, beginning Feb. 26 in six markets.

It will be released initially in Los Angeles, New York, San Diego, San Antonio, Sacramento and Albuquerque.

Insiders say Rodriguez’s cushy two-year, first-look deal with Columbia will likely land him a budget between $ 6 million and $ 15 million on his next feature.

Rodriguez’s rags-to-riches story began in 1991, when he chose to become a hospital research subject.

“I checked myself into a research hospital in the summer of ’91 to write the script and earn some money,” Rodriguez said in a news release. “And it’s a good job. I went in for a whole month, and I couldn’t leave. You’re a lab rat, basically.

“But I had a lot of free time to watch movies and write my script. It’s filmmaker heaven. A month later, I walked out of there with a finished script and $ 3,000 cash.” Rodriguez and partner Carlos Gallardo used the cash for the film.

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