By David Mimran
TV Tropes defines “sleeper hit” as “a work that becomes an unexpected success upon its release, usually through word of mouth.” You’ve surely seen a few in your time; perhaps you’re fond of quoting lines from your favorite.
Many sleeper hits aren’t just unexpectedly successful. They’re also wildly profitable, grossing many multiples of their original budgets. Countless sleeper hits have launched behind- and before-camera careers, including those of some of the most recognizable names in Hollywood today.
Let’s take a look at six low-budget films that earned a (relative) fortune at the box office — and left indelible marks on the film industry.
1. Night of the Living Dead
$110,000 to launch an entire horror subgenre? Talk about a good investment.
George Romero’s 1968 cult classic, Night of the Living Dead, did just that. Believe it or not, zombie flicks weren’t really a thing before Night of the Living Dead hit theaters (and spawned countless imitations). The film ended up grossing $12 million at the domestic box office alone, an unheard-of sum in those days for a picture with zero star power and questionable production values.
2. Paranormal Activity
Paranormal Activity wasn’t quite as revolutionary as Night of the Living Dead. At least, it didn’t spawn a subgenre all its own. But it was astoundingly cheap to make: $15,000 in 2007 dollars.
Its final domestic gross? More than $108 million. Worldwide, Paranormal Activity approached the $200 million mark. Unsurprisingly, the film spawned a successful franchise, though none of the sequels or spinoffs achieved the same cultural visibility.
3. The Blair Witch Project
There’s something about horror films, apparently.
“The Blair Witch Project was the indie film community’s first real viral marketing success — all that more impressive for occurring in 1999, before anything resembling the social media networks crucial to buzz-building today.” — David Mimran
The Blair Witch Project cost about $60,000 to make, all-in, and grossed $250 million worldwide. Yikes. Plus, it’s widely regarded as the first true example of found footage filmmaking, a technique that’s now common in the horror genre.
Clerks isn’t scary, unless you have a phobia of awkward social situations. With a combination of snappy dialogue and in-jokes, this low-stakes comedy launched filmmaker Kevin Smith’s career and spawned a self-contained film universe populated by witty, underachieving New Jerseyans. On a sub-$30,000 budget, Clerks grossed over $3 million in its first domestic run.
5. Napoleon Dynamite
Napoleon Dynamite is a polarizing, love-it-or-hate-it picture. But even its detractors can’t deny its success: the film grossed more than $46 million worldwide on a minuscule budget. Rumor has it that Jon Heder, who played the title character, was paid just $1,000 for his work — though he later negotiated a cut of the profits.
Oh, yes. Even after adjusting its $1 million-ish budget for inflation, this 1976 classic is one of the most successful low-budget films of all time, with a $225 million box-office haul (and counting, thanks to periodic re-releases). Add in the receipts from subsequent Rocky franchise films and you’ve got one serious return on investment.
Oh, and Rocky happened to jumpstart Sylvester Stallone’s career. Stallone would go on to rank among the late 20th century’s top action stars.
Not bad for a down-on-his-luck fighter from Philly.
What’s your favorite sleeper hit of all time?
David Mimran is co-founder and co-chairman of Mimran Schur Pictures