Everyone can spot a big-budget movie a mile away. There are billboards, fast-food chain tie-ins and themed parties thrown around the country. (We’re looking at you, Sex and the City 2). But sleeper hits come out of nowhere and blow away their competition. Typically they start off with a limited release and thanks to word of mouth, their audience grows and they end up wildly successful. Many of these films go on to be nominated for and win major awards from the Golden Globes to the Oscars. So here’s a look back at the ten biggest sleeper hits from the last decade.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Not only was this film a surprise international hit, but also it completely changed how people thought about martial arts. Karate Kid this is not! If Johnny tried to “sweep the leg” against Li Mu Bai, his leg would’ve been deftly removed by a sword wielding warrior. This film became the highest grossing foreign language film in U.S. history, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film and introduced the world to super star Zhang Ziyi.
Sony Pictures Classics
Despite the countless “Humans Only” billboards and posters on every street corner and bus stop leading up to this sleeper hit’s release, it was still hard to tell what this sci-fi thriller was about. However, as soon as you met young South African Wikus Van De Merwe and the segregated alien Prawns in living in District 9, it was hard not to fall in love with the outcasts that had landed on Earth and were desperate to return home. Despite its low budget, unknown cast and the black fluid that shot out of Wikus’ nose, this film made over $200 million and was nominated for four Academy awards.
Bring It On
Cheerleader movies tend to come and go, so it was huge surprise when this film about competing high school cheer squads took the top spot at the box office two weeks in a row. With clever cheers like: “Hate us 'cause we're beautiful, well we don't like you either, we’re cheerleaders,” it’s no wonder that this surprise summer hit of 2000 pulled in over $90 million worldwide. It was followed up with four sequels and a stage musical being released later this year.
Superbad was 2007’s biggest surprise hit. Written by Seth Rogen when he was 13, it was produced for only $20 million dollars. Its crude humor was expected only to appeal to those teenage boys who could sneak into rated R films. Turns it appealed to teenage boys and everyone else because gross-out humor and the adventures of two underage nerds on a mission to get booze for the coolest high school party of the year is something we all can relate to! It went on to earn over $170 million worldwide.
Little Miss Sunshine
This independent movie gem was initially released in only seven theaters, yet made a half a million dollars its first week. Thanks to almost universal positive critical reviews and word of mouth it ended up grossing over $100 million and gave us a whole new perspective of family road trips and creepy kids in beauty pageants.
The weekend Memento opened, it was released in only 11 theaters. Three months later, thanks to word of mouth on the film festival circuit, it was playing on more than 500 screens. Memento went on to gross nearly $40 million and was nominated for two Academy Awards.
Roger Ebert gave this film only 1 ½ stars! Imagine his embarrassment when it grossed over $44 million, “Vote For Pedro,” T-shirts sold out in stores and schoolchildren started carrying Napoleon Dynamite lunch boxes. Pretty impressive for a film that only made $100,000 opening weekend.
Paranormal Activity is considered one of the most profitable films ever made, if not THE most. Sure $100 million doesn’t seem like a lot of box office money compared to Avatar; then again it only cost $15 thousand to make! That sure was a surprise to Paramount executives who thought the movie would bomb when people were walking out of the theater during screenings. Turns out they were leaving because the movie was just too scary!
Originally slated for a limited North American release, this sleeper hit went on to be nominated for ten Academy Awards and took home eight. When it started to gain critical acclaim, the film was granted a wide release and pulled in over $377 million worldwide for a profit of $362 million. That’s a nice chunk of change!
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
If a class is ever taught about sleeper movie hits, the professor would have to spend the entire time discussing 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This “little independent film that could” only cost $5 million to make but pulled in over $368 million worldwide. Thanks to its word of mouth and the fact that Tom Hanks’ wife produced it, it defied the odds and stayed in theaters for almost a year, an unheard-of length of time.