You expect the likes of Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and the Marvel movies to dominate at the global box office. But every now and then, an unexpected film captures the zeitgeist, becoming both a cultural and financial phenomenon. With the following a few of our favourite “sleepers” from the last 30 years, including a couple of comedies, some horror, and even a documentary. Numbers courtesy of Box Office Mojo.
Global Gross: $505m
The summer of 1990 was filled with violent, big-budget action flicks like Total Recall, Die Hard 2 and RoboCop 2. But Ghost — a romantic drama with a supernatural spin — effortlessly defeated them all at the global box office. Its success was down to a combination of reasons that resulted in a perfect storm of success. Bruce Joel Rubin’s script masterfully tugged at the heartstrings. Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore made a gorgeous couple that appealed to film fans across the board. Whoopi Goldberg delivered a career-best performance that won her an Oscar. While the pottery scene — underscored by Unchained Melody — was seriously sexy, and helped make Ghost the must-see movie of the year.
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Global Gross: $228m
The summer of 1993 was dominated by Jurassic Park. But Sleepless is Seattle was a smart piece of counter-programming. You went with friends to see the dinosaurs. But Sleepless in Seattle was where you took a date. The storyline — about a widower whose young son phones a radio talk show to try and find him a new partner — borders on sickly-sweet. But with Nora Ephron — of Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally fame — both writing and directing, the script was whip-smart, and filled with fantastic jokes to break up the sentiment. While Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan proved to be a match made in heaven; a charming couple whose obvious chemistry helped turn Sleepless in Seattle into a monster hit.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Global Gross: $249m
Yup, you read that right. From a budget of $60k, The Blair Witch Project grossed nearly $250m worldwide. Making it — dollar-for-dollar — one of the most successful movies of all-time. And changing the film industry in the process. It told the tale of three film students searching for the titular witch, and while TBWP wasn’t the first ‘found footage’ flick, it popularised the sub-genre. So much so that nearly 20 years on, the conceit is still regularly used in horror. The movie also made clever use of the then-new Internet, creating sites which convinced audiences that the story was true. The Blair Witch Project was also scary. Very scary. And for that reason, above all others, it became a celluloid phenomenon.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Global Gross: $673m
Early in the summer of 1999, two sci-fi flicks dominated the conversation; The Phantom Menace and The Matrix. But as the silly season wore on, horror took centre stage. Via the aforementioned Blair Witch. But also because of The Sixth Sense, a film that had people coming back for more, largely thanks to THAT twist. The film launched the career of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, and starred Bruce Willis as a child psychologist helping a young boy convinced that he sees dead people. The ending meant the film pretty much demanded a second viewing, but it was far more than just a cheap parlour trick, with Sixth Sense a beautifully crafted drama, featuring one of the great child performances thanks to Haley Joel Osment’s subtle, nuanced, and ultimately quite heartbreaking turn.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Global Gross: $369m
Some of the entries on our list featured movies stars, so weren’t complete surprises. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding really did come out of nowhere. The films started out as a one-woman show, mounted by struggling actress Nia Vardalos, and revolving around her experience of being a Greek woman marrying a non-Greek man. Rita Wilson loved it, convinced her husband Tom Hanks to attend, and eventually Tom’s production company was overseeing the movie version, written by and starring Vardalos. And the comedy really connected with audiences, not just because of the central love story, but also due to the eccentric Greek family that people the world over could identify with. The film was followed by a short-lived TV series and a celluloid sequel, but neither hit the dizzy heights of the original.
March of the Penguins (2005)
Global Gross: $127m
Michael Moore pretty much invented the blockbuster documentary, and in 2004 he released the most successful of all-time in the shape of Fahrenheit 9/11. But Moore was already well-established, and the subject matter meant the movie was constantly in the news. March of the Penguins, meanwhile, was about penguins. And yet its depiction of the gruelling journey that Antarctic Emperors make each year managed to capture the imagination of children and adults alike. Shot over the course of a year, the original French version featured a first-person narrative that had actors voicing the penguins telling their own tale. But the American version used a third-person narrative, spoken by voice of God Morgan Freeman. And that tweak worked, because as well as making a mint at the box office, March of the Penguins won the best documentary Oscar, and was even sent up by way of spoof Farce of the Penguins, which replaced Freeman with Samuel L. Jackson in intermittently humorous fashion.