10 of Hollywood’s Most Surprising and Heartening Success Stories

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Examining the weekly box office reports can be a depressing business, watching every week as terrible movies top the charts and great ones disappear into the wind. But this summer, as we’ve discussed, things have been a little different. Turkeys like The Lone Ranger and R.I.P.D. have taken deserved belly flops; low-budget efforts like The Purge and The Conjuring were surprise hits. And the news got better this weekend: Woody Allen’s wonderful Blue Jasmine expanded to 50 screens and landed in the top 15 with a robust $40K per-screen average — second only to The Spectacular Now , which earned a healthy $50K on each of its four screens. In this money-driven business, it’s always a relief when the bad movies tank, and the good movies make money. Here’s ten more examples of small movies that earned both the acclaim and the box office they deserved:

District 9

Budget: $30 million Gross: $210 million worldwide

Thirty mil ain’t exactly chump change, but that’s a pretty low budget for an effects-heavy sci-fi/action flick in the year 2009. Yet co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp (with the help of producer Peter Jackson) managed to make a late-summer popcorn flick on a budget that not only delivered the slam-bang goods, but was loaded with political subtext and food for thought. So in spite of its low-profile marketing and lack of name actors, it became a sleeper hit whose audience went well beyond the typical summer fanboy demo.

Bridesmaids

Budget: $32.5 million Gross:$288 million worldwide

Credit where due to Judd Apatow: when critics complained that his comedies lacked juicy, funny roles for women, he decided to do what he’d done for actors-turned-writers Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, and asked Knocked Up co-star Kristen Wiig if she had any ideas for scripts. The result was Bridesmaids, a rare example of a bawdy, full-on comedy for women, by (mostly) women. The stakes were high when it was released in summer of 2011, with first weekend attendance nothing less than an act of movie-going activism. But it worked, and Bridesmaids was a giant summer smash, confirming that there’s a giant, untapped audience for movies about women. (Too bad Hollywood still isn’t listening.)

Midnight in Paris

Budget: $17 million Gross: $151 million worldwide

In today’s test-screened, focused-grouped, hyped-up movie marketplace, Woody Allen remains an anomaly: ever year, he makes exactly the movie he wants, for just about the same budget (he’s been working in the $10-$20 million range since the 1980s). Some do well, some do not; by the time they come out, he’s already on to the next one. As a result of this indifference to the commercial back end, Allen has spent much of the past decade making pictures overseas (where his films have always done better anyway), for international financiers who want him to come work in their countries. The new environments and storytelling possibilities of his “European period” have all but reinvented him as a filmmaker, leading to not only minor hits like Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point, but his biggest box-office hit to date (unadjusted for inflation, anyway), the lovely Midnight in Paris. With $58 million in the States (and nearly double that overseas), Woody’s not exactly entering Michael Bay territory. But occasional big returns-on-investment like this one mean he can keep working in his customary fashion, and that’s good for everybody.

Night of the Living Dead

Budget: $114,000 Gross: Approx. $42 million worldwide

George A. Romero’s inaugural zombie outing wasn’t intended as a work of art; he and his industrial movie-making buddies merely wanted to try their hand at making a “real movie” rather than industrial safety shorts. The film’s flat, pseudo-documentary style and socio-political overtones made it a cut above the standard monster-movie fare — but it was the grisly violence that made it a must-see for horror audiences, the howls of censors, parents’ groups, and newspaper columnists rendering the picture all the more tempting. It would ultimately gross over $40 million worldwide, though Romero and his investors have seen little in the way of residuals due to a copyright error that placed the film in the public domain.

Halloween

Budget: $325,000 Gross: $70 million worldwide

Producer Irwin Yablans and money man Moustapha Akkad were just looking to make a little horror movie cash, á la The Exorcist, when they hired director John Carpenter, fresh off his sleeper hit Assault on Precinct 13, to make a slasher movie. Carpenter and co-writer/co-producer Debra Hill came up with the babysitters angle; Yablans suggested the Halloween night setting and title. Others might have treated it like a cheapo exploitation movie for hire, but Carpenter and Hill devised a simple yet clever script, and Carpenter shot the film with an accent on suspense and composition, taking a page from his hero Alfred Hitchcock. As a result, the picture was a cut above its contemporaries, earning rave reviews from critics like Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and grossing $47 million domestically (in a release that didn’t even hit most major markets until after the title holiday). Carpenter came out looking smartest — he took only $10,000 for his duties as director, co-writer, and composer, but kept ten percent of the back end.

Once

Budget: $160,000 Gross: $20 million worldwide

Musician-turned-director John Carney originally wrote this story of an Irish street busker and his romance with a flower girl as a vehicle for Cillian Murphy. But when he dropped out at the 11th hour, Carney’s financing fell through as well. In desperation, he turned to his former Frames bandmate Glen Hansard, who’d only written music for the film, and asked him to play the lead instead. The budget was scraped together from Carney’s own money and a grant from the Irish Film Board; the films was shot in 17 days on digital cameras with a skeleton crew. It became the Cinderella story of 2007, grossing $9 million in American art houses, $11 million abroad, and winning stars Hansard and Markéta Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song. The subsequent Broadway musical adaptation won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical.

Mad Max

Budget: $400,000 Gross: $100 million worldwide

George Miller was working as an emergency room doctor in Melbourne when he met amateur filmmaker Byron Kennedy and decided to try his hand at moviemaking. He drew inspiration for the story of a gas-starved dystopian future from the 1973 oil crisis (and from auto injuries he’d viewed during his hospital tours), but it took him several years to work up the meager budget. However, when the film was finally released in 1979, it was a giant hit around the world (and even a modest success in the US, where the Australian cast — including Mel Gibson — was redubbed entirely by American actors). The rough, stylish, and hyper-violent picture begat two sequels and kick-started the careers of both Miller and Gibson.

American Graffiti

Budget: $775,000 Gross: $140 million worldwide

Yes, believe it or not, even George Lucas was once a struggling young filmmaker making movies on the cheap. His second film, released in the summer of 1973, was based on his own experiences dragging the strip in his hometown of Modesto, California. Its loose, episodic structure (and the high cost of licensing the 75 songs Lucas envisioned as the constant soundtrack) caused every studio in town to turn it down; the film finally landed at Universal, less on the strength of Lucas’ script than on the participation of producer Francis Ford Coppola, hot off The Godfather. When it was over, Universal’s execs didn’t get it at all; despite a rapturous response at a test screening, Coppola was informed that it would be extensively recut. Legend has it that Coppola took out his checkbook and offered to buy it back from them on the spot. The studio backed off slightly, but still considered making it a TV movie until world of mouth started getting around. So in spite of their best efforts, they still ended up with a hit, with domestic grosses from its initial release and a 1978 re-release totaling $118 million (plus another $22 million worldwide).

Slumdog Millionaire

Budget: $15 million Gross: $377 million worldwide

Danny Boyle’s story of an 18-year-old who wins big on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was far from a sure thing: part English, part Hindi, it was a feel-good story, but one with no bankable stars and a Bollywood influence that had yet to cross over into mainstream American film. But it was also a feel-good underdog story, and those are always a safe bet (see next entry). It did an amazing $141 million in America — and another $236 million overseas — helped in no small part by its Best Picture win at the Oscars.

Rocky

Budget: $1 million Gross: $225 million worldwide

Sure, it begat five sequels, billions of dollars in box office, and the entire career of Sylvester Stallone, but don’t forget — Rocky was, initially, just a scrappy little low-budget movie about a Philly hard luck case. Stallone wrote his script (loosely based on the true story of underdog Chuck Wepner’s bout with Muhammad Ali) in an attempt to jump-start his floundering acting career, and could have collected a big payday were he willing to let United Artists cast an established star in the role. But he wouldn’t let go of his script unless he was attached to it, so director John Avildsen and producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler kept the budget low, filled the supporting roles with character actors, and hoped for the best. To say the least, it worked out: the film did $117 million domestically and another $108 worldwide, and won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Editing.