These days the route to box office success seems pretty simple – adapt a comic, make a Star Wars, chuck together a sequel to a Steven Spielberg dinosaur movie, or ask Jason Statham to punch a shark.
But not all blockbuster follow the rules – with the following films paving their own way to massive profits.
On a budget of $325k, John Carpenter’s Halloween made an astonishing $47 million at the box office, and it did it by redefining cinema. Before Halloween, slasher flicks didn’t really exist outside of Psycho – and steadicam shots were even rarer.
“This was a new technology that we, by the seat of our pants, learned to use,” says cinematographer Dean Cundey. “There was nowhere to learn yet. John wanted to do something for the opening shot that took advantage of it and that would be completely new and innovative that you couldn’t do with conventional camera shots.”
That intense opening sequence that put the audiences into the action has been credited as a major factor in the film’s success, with people going back multiple times and bringing friends with them.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
George Romero’s horror classic broke several major rules – it didn’t use a traditional monster – choosing to create zombies instead – it didn’t have a happy ending, and it cast a black actor as the lead.
It’s that last one that many have credited for the film’s success – including Get Out director Jordan Peele.
“Theoretically, their racial perspective is the very skill that helps them,” Peele said. “You could write an interesting essay about how the lead in “Night of the Living Dead” is a man living in fear every day, so this is a challenge he is more equipped to take on than the white women living in the house. Chris, in his racial paranoia, is onto something that he wouldn’t be if he was a white guy and there was a similar thing going on.”
Whatever the reason, Night Of The Living Dead made $42 million from a $114k budget. Which is more shocking than finding the undead on your front lawn.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
With an unknown actress in the lead, and minimal advertising spend, no-one expected My Big Fat Greek Wedding to be a hit. In fact, the marketing spend covered just six weeks of costs, which is pretty much unheard of in Hollywood. The producers were hoping that word of mouth might earn them their investment back – which it did, in spades.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding defied expectations by doing the one thing films almost never do; it made the same amount of money the weekend after release. And it kept making money – and so cinema chains kept playing it, keeping it on cinema screens longer than even Titanic.
It lasted a year in cinemas, making a mind-boggling $360 million from a $5 million investment.
The Conjuring (2013)
The golden rule of independent filmmaking seems to be that if you make a horror film on a low-budget, you’ll make a profit. While it’s not as easy as all that (we only hear about the success stories, not the failures), there is a certain amount of truth to it – over half the films on this list are horror movies, after all. But The Conjuring made its money in a unique way.
For one thing, the studio-funded $20 million budget was astronomical compared to the traditional indie horrors that go on to become record-breakers.
But the major rule The Conjuring broke was its release date – where previously horror films came out in October, around Halloween when the days are getting darker, Warner Brothers treated the release like a summer blockbuster – bringing it out in July.
The result? James Wan’s movie made blockbuster profits, speeding past Disney’s Lone Ranger to top the box office, ending its run on $318 million.
Sylvester Stallone was an unknown actor who wrote the Rocky script out of desperation, so producers were surprised when he turned down their big money offer to buy the script, insisting that he’ll only sell it if they cast him as the lead.
“I thought, ‘You know what? You’ve got this poverty thing down. You really don’t need much to live on.’ I sort of figured it out. I was in no way used to the good life. So I knew in the back of my mind that if I sell this script. and it does very very well, I’m going to jump off a building if I’m not in it. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’m going to be very, very upset. Laughs. So this is one of those things, when you just roll the dice and fly by the proverbial seat of your pants and you just say, ‘I’ve got to try it. I’ve just got to do it. I may be totally wrong, and I’m going to take a lot of people down with me, but I just believe in it.’”
The gamble paid off, and Stallone’s unique approach to negotiating led to him being given not just the lead, but the director’s job as well. Considering he’d sold his dog to buy food a few weeks previously (luckily, he was able to buy the dog back), Stallone probably deserved every bit of the subsequent success for his bravery alone.
Made for just under a million, Rocky made $225 million, and they’re still making sequels to it.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Believe it or not, but relying on an Internet campaign to promote your movie used to be a bit of a risk. As was handing a camcorder to your cast, as was creating a plot around the concept of scaring your cast while they’re walking through the woods.
Even more radical, in order to make audiences think that their mock-documentary was real, the filmmakers convinced its cast to go into hiding, which is probably the biggest rule break of them all.
It was that ‘is it real, or isn’t it?’ element that brought in major profits, as Blair Witch became the first viral hit of the Internet age – making $248 million from $60k.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Oh, sure, we’ve all shot a movie in our house on a camcorder we bought with our savings, starring two complete unknowns. And we’ve definitely seen the subsequent film going on to form a franchise that’s earned just under A BILLION DOLLARS at the box office.
Films aren’t supposed to be made like this. Nothing about Paranormal Activity should’ve worked, outside of the brilliant inspiration.
“After seeing Blair Witch and Open Water,” director Oren Peli said. “I realised that anyone can buy a video camera and start shooting a movie. I thought the basic concept of setting a video camera up at night when you’re asleep and vulnerable was pretty scary because it plays on people’s primal fear.”
He was spectacularly right – the film made $193 million from a $15k budget.