What Makes a Movie a Sleeper Hit?

The Greatest Showman

20th Century Fox

The term "sleeper hit" refers to a film that has weak or average initial box office numbers but goes on to become a major hit. Sleeper hits are unusual because most movies make the bulk of their box office grosses during the first week of release, when promotional efforts are at their peak. In fact, most box office analysts are willing to call a movie a "box office bomb" if it has a weak opening weekend, simply because it is so uncommon for movies to outperform their first weekend at the box office.

Sleeper hits are movies that defy that trend. They build audiences through organic word-of-mouth promotion (including social media) and perform better over time. Some sleeper hits are so successful that studios must release them to more theaters than planned in order to meet demand.

Notable Sleeper Hits

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
  • Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
  • The Greatest Showman (2017)
  • Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

How Movies Become Sleeper Hits

Sleeper hits commonly arise out of one or more of the following scenarios: neutral or negative critical reviews, poor marketing, or fierce box office competition. What typically turns these initially under-performing movies into hits is word-of-mouth endorsements. People organically share positive feedback about the film with friends, and as a result, the film's audience grows over time.

Movies can also become sleeper hits after they've left theaters. For example, Office Space grossed just $10.8 million in theater, but made millions more in DVD sales. The original Blade Runner had a middling showing at the box office, but grew so much in popularity over time that a sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was produced 35 years later.

Movies with built-in audiences—e.g. sequels, superhero franchises, or popular novel adaptations—are unlikely candidates to become sleeper hits because audiences are likely to anticipate their release.

Examples of Sleeper Hits

The following films are some of the best-known sleeper hits in film history. Despite having weak initial showings at the box office, they are now widely considered major successes.

Rocky Horror Picture Show
20th Century Fox

Perhaps the most successful sleeper hit of all time is The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In August 1975, the film opened in eight cities to an almost complete lack of interest from audiences. Then, in 1976, 20th Century Fox re-released the musical comedy as a "midnight movie" on April Fools' Day in New York City. The film's reputation as a midnight movie grew, and it soon expanded to dozens of cities nationwide, becoming a cultural phenomenon. Over forty years after its release, The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to attract audiences to movie theaters across the U.S., and has recouped far more than its original $1.4 million budget.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
IFC Films

In April 2002, the indie romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding opened in 108 theaters and grossed just $597,362. However, positive reviews and overwhelmingly strong word of mouth led My Big Fat Greek Wedding to expand to an increasing number of theaters, eventually playing in over 2,000 in October 2002. When the film finally left U.S. theaters in April 2003, it had grossed $241.4 million in the U.S. and $368.7 million worldwide.

Napoleon Dynamite
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The indie comedy Napoleon Dynamite premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and was released in just six theaters in June 2004. The film grossed just $116,000 during its opening weekend, but continued expanding to an increasing number of theaters until it peaked at 1,024 theaters in September 2004. Napoleon Dynamite ultimately grossed $44.5 million in U.S. theaters.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman
20th Century Fox

Hugh Jackman's musical about the life of P.T. Barnum was declared a box office bomb by analysts when it grossed just $8.8 million in its opening weekend. However, defying the norm, The Greatest Showman nearly doubled its box office numbers the follow weekend, grossing $14.4 million. Word of mouth about the film, especially related to the film's soundtrack composed by Tony Award-winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, helped the film grow in popularity. The Greatest Showman played in theaters for seven months and grossed $435 million worldwide.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

Jumanji
Columbia Pictures

Although this film is a sequel to the 1995 film Jumanji, it was initially met by a largely-skeptical audience when it was released the same weekend as The Greatest Showman. The comedy grossed $36.2 million in its first weekend, which was considered a major loss when compared to its $90 million production budget. However, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle grossed $50.1 million in its second weekend and $37.2 million in its third weekend. The film ultimately grossed $962 million worldwide.