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13 Surprise Box Office Smash Hit Movies

Updated on August 19, 2019
Kenna McHugh profile image

I've written, contributed to several books on film, and worked in the film industry. I like to share the insights of the movie business.

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Sleeper Hit

Let’s take a look at some movies that are worth mentioning, renting, or streaming because they are sleeper hits. A "sleeper hit" is a surprisingly smash hit movie that the film industry didn’t expect to be successful at the box office.

Best Movie You've Ever Seen

Why would you want to see in a sleeper hit movie? The same reason you'd want to see a movie that is the best movie you have ever seen. We're not talking tentpole movies with large marketing schemes. These are movies made on a low budget without special effects. The story is believable and the acting top-notch. Usually, the director is relatively new to the industry. Go down my list of sleeper hits, and discern whether or not they deserve the "sleeper hit" nod.

Happy Death Day

When I heard about Happy Death Day and saw the trailer, I predicted that horror fans would flock to the movie theaters and see this movie because watching the trailer, it looks like a super entertaining but horrific movie.

Apparently, the producers didn't expect the movie to be a real success, but it was, and now they are releasing a sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, with the same director and cast.

Don't Breathe

Don't Breathe was never considered to be the best new horror movie and was projected to gross under $14 million dollars. The minuscule amount was fine with the producers because it cost $9 million to produce. Since the movie was as a low-budget horror movie and grossed over $89 million in North America alone, it became a sleeper hit. In other markets around the world, it brought in $67.9 million – end of the summer box office hit.

Produced by Sam Raimi, known for directing the earlier Spider-Man movies starring Toby Maguire, the movie’s director Fede Alvarez is now working on a sequel.

The horror movie follows a blind man who is at first mugged by three teenagers but turns the tables on them in a hurry. The rest of the story is how the blind man terrorizes the teenagers. Stephen Lang plays the blind man, and he will look familiar because he’s had a long and fruit career as a strong character actor.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird is about my hometown. Greta Gerwig's film happens in Sacramento, where she grew up and went to High School. Yes, it is very cool to see the landmarks of my city in such a poignant film. The story itself is as endearing no matter where you live, be it Los Angeles or Scottsdale because the story hits home which makes it a sleeper hit.

The teenage girl trying to become who she truly is while contending with the craziness of life in High School and a mother and daughter relationship of push and pull.

Though the movie first received accolades at festivals, the industry and public were mowed down by the realistic, heart-pounding, drama of a typical high school girl played brilliantly by Saoirse Ronan.

Lady Bird

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee and earned one million with 44 screens in eight days focuses on two women, both competent fighters, follow different paths toward a violent and blistering showdown with a dynamic ending.

Nobody expected a martial arts movie with strong heroines to succeed at the box office using hardly any marketing efforts and, let alone, win four Oscars.

District 9

Peter Jackson produced District 9, and its budget was 30 Million. The science-fiction movie made its money back and 7 million in the first weekend of its release.

The story takes place in South Africa, where extraterrestrial refugees remain stuck for 28 years. One man figures out how to tap into their technology, and the government is not too happy about it.

Kirsten Dunst starred in Bring It On when she was a teenager. The cheerleading movie earned $70 million. It is about a very upbeat cheerleader dealing with the politics of cheering her best. The sleeper hit movie has several sequels that never match the original, which is now a Broadway musical.

If you've never seen the movie, I recommend it because cheerleading as the backdrop brings light to how competitive it can be.

Superbad

Emma Stone starred in this movie with Michael Cera, Ed Helms, and Jonah Hill. Superbad is a teenager movie about getting alcohol as an underage boy and scoring with chicks.

Produced by Judd Apatow, he was virtually unknown, but it didn't last for long. Over a summer weekend in 2007, Superbad became a household word and a must-see movie.

Little Miss Sunshine

Released in seven theaters, Little Miss Sunshine became a sleeper hit movie. It took off and generated half a million dollars in its first week, making a total of 200 million with plenty of Academy Award nominations and wins.

Which Movie is Your Favorite Sleeper Hit?

See results

Memento

Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece of keeping track of Leonard, played by Guy Pearce, he writes generous notes throughout the movie as an aid for his short term memory loss at every nanosecond.

The low-budget movie catapulted into a sleeper hit movie with more than $25 million box office earnings and two Academy Award nominations. Memento even scored big time in DVD release, selling over a million copies.

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite is a cult movie with a huge fan base of followers who quote the movie’s snarky dialogue.

The story is quirky with small-town characters adding to the funning banter. The movie brought in $44.5 million during the summer from a limited release.

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is a filmmaker’s fairytale. The movie only cost $15, 000 to make and grossed 100 million. Quickly, it became a super hit with sequels to follow. People do walk out of the movie theater before it is over, not because it was a bad movie because the movie was too scary.

The Blair Witch Project

In 1999, another crazy and low-grade sleeper hit was The Blair Witch Project. The beginning of the movie is good, but it got worse and worse. Still, the public came out in droves, and the cheesy but scary movie made millions.

I mentally hit myself for paying to see this movie because it was so bad. It just got worse and worse. I am still amazed it made so much money at the box office.

47 Meters Down

Stranger Things season 1 and 2 star Matthew Modine, is one of the locals in 47 Meters Down. He represents the force behind the two woman's horror.

The director, Johannes Roberts, mentioned in the production notes of his sequel, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged, his surprise when he heard how well it did at the box office.

The low-budget underwater thriller follows Lisa and Kate in a protective cage come face-to-face with the Great Whites. The cage snaps apart from the boat, and they find themselves diving to the bottom depths of the ocean floor.

Out of radio range, and getting themselves exposed to the ferocious sharks, their oxygen stores quickly diminishing.

Low-budget Movies

Sleeper hit movies prove any filmmaker can make a low-budget movie that is a hit at the box office. Tentpole or high-budget movies are not always a shoo-in because they are, for the most part, rehashed stories that producers feel they don't have to gamble or question the outcome. Circling back to sleeper hits is a treasure when public flock to the movie houses and celebrate a surprising success.

© 2016 Kenna McHugh

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    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      19 months ago from Northern California

      Lady Bird is a great movie. Memento is a skillful movie, so like its director. I know, I was surprised by Bring It On as well. I mean, cheerleading?

    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      19 months ago from Ohio

      I have seen all of these movies except for Lady Bird and Memento. I guess I'll have to watch them also. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed, Bring it On. Cheerleader movies are not my thing, but I watched it with my daughter.

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