A “sleeper” is a movie that wasn’t quite on people’s radar or expected to do well at the box office, but then the movie was released and not only made a lot of money (most sleepers have smaller budgets), but became a pop culture phenomenon. Most of the films on this list cater to women. Sometimes Hollywood forgets that during a crowded summer blockbuster season of superheroes and things blowing up, women like to sit in the theater and be whisked off their feet by a ghost or Tom Hanks. Comedies are typically the type of films that become sleeper hits. In the recent years, indie comedies are the ones critics usually sometimes successfully predict to be breakout hits. Predicting a hit still can be unpredictable—you just never know what people are going to be attracted to anymore, which is the whole point of a sleeper.
10. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
“Vote for Pedro!” became a popular catchphrase (and T-shirt) after this quirky indie was released in theaters in June 2004. Jon Heder, who played the titular character, was only paid $1,000 for his performance. The entire budget was just $400,000 but with a gross of $46 million, it raked in a huge return. The film that follows a group of teenage misfits in Idaho got picked up at Sundance earlier in the year, but there was no guarantee how the rest of the public would respond to it. Luckily for the filmmakers, people loved it.
9. Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
In the second of three films together, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks portrayed a couple brought together by destiny. With a budget of $21 million, the film grossed over $200 million worldwide and solidified Ryan as America’s Sweetheart. Ironically, America’s other sweetheart at the time, Julia Roberts, turned down the role of Ryan’s Annie Reed. The soundtrack of classic songs was a factor in the film’s success, too. The film opened with $17 million and stayed in the top ten box office for several weeks, despite a competitive summer season. The film also demonstrated how much women adore Tom Hanks and sappy, yet, smart love stories.
8. Superbad (2007)
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the script, which was the first of several other collaborations between the pair. The Judd Apatow-produced movie focuses on two vulgar high school losers, trying to finally have sex. Superbad introduced Jonah Hill to the world, along with Emma Stone (her film debut) and the character of McLovin. The low-budget film made its entire budget back and more, on opening weekend (over $30 million). It also went on to become the highest domestic grossing high school comedy of all time ($171 million) until 21 Jump Street surpassed it a few years later.
7. My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
Julia Roberts has never not been star, but in the mid-90s, she hit a roadblock when she starred in back-to-back earnest costume dramas that bombed at the box office. Roberts was in need of a comeback, so she returned to the rom-com genre, which is what made her famous in the first place. The wacky premise sees Roberts chasing after Dermot Mulroney, who’s engaged to a perky Cameron Diaz. Akin to Sleepless in Seattle, the film opened strong with $21 million and stayed in the top ten for six weeks in a row. It eventually earned $299 million worldwide on a budget of approximately $46 million. It finished as the fourth highest grossing film of the summer, behind action flicks like Air Force One and Men in Black. Since Wedding, Roberts star power has remained bright.
6. There’s Something About Mary (1998)
The Farrelly brothers ribald comedy practically made Cameron Diaz a household name, if only for her creative use of hair gel. With only a budget of $23 million, the film grossed around $369 million worldwide, making it the fourth highest grossing film of 1998. Mary received good reviews, but it was its word-of-mouth appeal and slow and steady climb up the box office charts that kept it relevant through the fall. The movie ranked third in summer grosses, right behind testosterone action-drama flicks, Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon.
5. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
The 2006 comedy debuted at Sundance and was purchased for an unprecedented $10 million. Whereas most indies bought at Sundance remain in the red, Sunshine was a huge hit, grossing over $100 worldwide with a $8 million budget. The story is about a cute little girl and her family taking a road trip to a beauty pageant. This story apparently resonated with viewers because they gave it the highest per theater average gross of all the films shown in the U.S. every day, for the first 21 days of release. The film was also a success during award season: Alan Arkin and screenwriter, Michael Arndt both won Oscars.
4. My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
When actress-writer, Nia Vardalos put on a play in L.A., she had no idea that it would change her life. Tom Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson loved the play so much they decided to produce a movie version of it. The rom-com was made for approximately $5 million but grossed over $241 million in North America in 2002, making it the highest grossing rom-com of all time. It became the fifth highest grossing film of 2002—behind blockbusters like Spiderman and Harry Potter. Because it had such a low-budget, it had a 6150-percent return. Vardalos received a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination, and spun the film into a TV show that was cancelled after seven episodes. Recently, Vardalos announced she’d be making a sequel to the film.
3. Juno (2007)
In 2008, Diablo Cody won an Oscar for writing the controversial screenplay about a witty pregnant teen named Juno (Ellen Page), who gives up her child for adoption. With a budget of only $6.5 million, the Zeitgeist film earned it back within 20 days, and grossed $231 million worldwide. It set another record: It was Fox Searchlight’s first film to pass the $100 million mark. Part romantic comedy and part social commentary, the film appealed to a wide swath of moviegoers.
2. Easy Rider (1969)
Dennis Hopper directed Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, in a film that would redefine film-making in the 60s. Easy Rider, which was a counterculture and socially aware road trip film, ushered in the New Hollywood phase of movies. The new movement saw directors becoming auteurs and Hollywood wanting to capitalize on them. The film only cost $360,000 to make but grossed $41 million, and received an Oscar nomination for Nicholson. It became the third highest grossing film of 1969, behind Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. When the inflation is adjusted, the film actually grossed over $257 million.
1. Ghost (1990)
In the summer of 1990, no one expected a film about a guy who’s murdered and comes back to life in spectral form to warn his girlfriend, would become the highest grossing film of the year, let alone the 91st highest grossing film of all time. The budget was only $22 million—fairly standard for romantic dramas—but when it opened in July, it stayed in the top five weekend box office for 19 weeks straight. When all was said and done, Ghost grossed $505.7 million at the worldwide box office, and resurrected Patrick Swayze’s and Demi Moore’s flat-lining careers. It was nominated for five Oscars, including Whoopi Goldberg, who won Best Supporting Actress that year. Besides the huge box office gross, the film’s best known for the erotic pottery scene, that’s been parodied endlessly over the past 20 years.
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