We all have an idea of what we think a blockbuster is. We associate blockbusters with big-budgeted, effects-heavy films that are heavy on spectacle and light on substance, often as part of bigger franchises like Marvel, Star Wars, or The Fast and the Furious. These films usually come out during the summer and have massive opening weekends at the box office. But sometimes unexpected blockbusters come along and surprise us at the box office.
These films might not have the budget of a superhero film or an all-star ensemble, but they gain box office traction because of great word of mouth, excellent reviews, or unexpected buzz and end up making loads of money. For this list, I am going to look at these unexpected blockbusters, look at why they were unexpected, and how they became blockbusters. There have been a number of unexpected blockbusters, so I couldn’t include every example of when this happened. The films I chose were ones that nobody thought would make a ton of money at the box office, but ones that became cultural phenomena and grossed over $100 million in their respective release years.
Budget: $9 million
Domestic Box Office Total: $260 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $470 million
We forget just how big of a game-changer Jaws was when it was released in the summer of 1975. It was Steven Spielberg’s second film and he was given the task of bringing a best-selling novel to the big screen. Despite a troubled shoot that saw the film go over budget and have numerous technical issues, the success of the film would cement Spielberg as one of the premier directors in Hollywood, eventually becoming the most successful director of all time.
But more importantly, Jaws invented the idea of what a blockbuster is. People were lining up around the block (hence the name “blockbuster”) to watch a shark terrorize beachgoers. The film’s $7 million opening weekend would balloon to almost $500 million worldwide and the film became the first to gross over $100 million at the box office. Nobody thought Jaws was going to be as successful as it was, let alone reinvent moviegoing as we know it.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
Domestic Box Office Total: $140 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $248 million
1999 was a landmark year for cinema and the box office. We saw auteurs like David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Michael Mann produce some of their best films and saw up-and-comers like Spike Jonez, M. Night Shyamalan, and The Wachowskis stamp their names as elite directors.
The top ten at the domestic box office for 1999 is just as interesting as the film year. The number one movie of the year, to nobody’s surprise, was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. We also saw Disney hits Toy Story 2 and Tarzan land in the top ten, as well as star vehicles from Adam Sandler (Big Daddy) and Julia Roberts (Runaway Bride).
Some of the big surprises of the year were The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, and The Mummy, all of which made more money than anyone expected them to. But the biggest surprise came in the form of a $200,000 indie horror movie called The Blair Witch Project, the number ten highest-grossing movie of 1999.
Thanks to an incredible viral campaign and great word of mouth, The Blair Witch Project would become the biggest surprise hit of 1999 and is a revolutionary piece of found-footage horror. This wasn’t a movie that had people lining up around the block but had people talking long after they left the theater, helping The Blair Witch Project reach $140 million at the domestic box office, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made.
CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
Budget: $17 million
Domestic Box Office Total: $128 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $213 million
Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon slowly made its way to becoming the most successful foreign-language film at the domestic office. Before Crouching Tiger, Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust film Life is Beautiful held the top spot, making a very respectable $58 million in 1998. Throughout its eight-month run at the box office, Crouching Tiger would more than double Life Is Beautiful’s total, ending with $128 million at the domestic box office.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received great reviews and earned its place as one of the best movies of 2000. A lot of the film’s box office success can be attributed to something we don’t see too often in today’s cinematic landscape, the “Oscar bump”, in which a film would be nominated for a number of Academy Awards and see its box office flourish. As the awards buzz for Crouching Tiger grew, so did its box office, and the film saw its biggest box office weekend the weekend following the Oscar nominations, where it earned ten nominations. I highly doubt there will be a foreign film that makes as much money as Crouching Tiger did. It was a true phenomenon we won’t ever see again.
MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002)
Budget: $5 million
Domestic Box Office Total: $241 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $368 million
Speaking of phenomena we won’t ever see again, My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s box office performance is one that will certainly never happen again simply because of longevity. Nia Vardalos wrote and starred in a little romantic comedy based on her own one-woman show that was picked up by IFC Studios, one of the smaller studios, for $5 million. Rather than releasing the movie on over 1,000 screens right away like most studios do, IFC platformed released it, opening the film on only 108 screens and slowly increasing the number of theaters week after week. My Big Fat Greek Wedding didn’t eclipse 1,000 screens until its eighteenth weekend and hit its maximum theaters in week twenty-six.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding would stay in theaters for a full year and earn $241 million at the domestic box office. It was the number five movie at the 2002 domestic box office despite never reaching number one at the box office and becoming the highest-grossing romantic comedy ever made, a record that still stands to this day. This is the definition of a word of mouth hit.
FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004)
Budget: $6 million
Domestic Box Office Total: $119 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $222 million
Controversial filmmaker/documentarian Michael Moore is always going to cause a buzz when he releases a new film. Following his Oscar-winning Bowling for Columbine, in which more looked at gun control in America, everyone was wondering what his next project would be.
That project was Fahrenheit 9/11, where Moore looked at the presidency of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, two of the most controversial subjects of the time. The film premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where it surprisingly won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s prize for Best Movie, only adding more buzz to an already hotly anticipated film.
Everyone wanted to see this movie. Fans of Moore and his liberal-sided films wanted to see him tear down the Bush administration. His conservative detractors wanted to see it to tear it down. Film lovers wanted to see what the Quentin Tarantino-led Cannes jury awarded the best film, and the general public was interested in seeing what all the hype and buzz was about. Fahrenheit 9/11 would go on to gross $119 million dollars at the domestic box office, making it the highest-grossing documentary and the highest-grossing Palme d’Or winner of all time.
GET OUT (2017)
Budget: $4.5 million
Domestic Box Office Total: $176 million
World Wide Box Office Total: $255 million
Before Get Out, most knew Jordan Peele from his days as a sketch comedian on Mad TV and Key & Peele. Peele first ventured into movies with his Key & Peele co-star Keegan Michael Key in the crime comedy Keanu, which felt like a 90-minute Key & Peele sketch. Nobody would have been surprised if Peele’s movie career would stay in the comedic lane.
Peele was given a modest $4.5 million from Blumhouse to make Get Out and the result was unlike anything anyone had anticipated. Get Out is a smart, twisted, creepy, darkly funny look at racism in America that earned rave reviews and made $33 million at the box office on its opening weekend. Most horror movies peak hard in their first weekend and quickly vanish from the box office, but not Get Out. Thanks to great reviews and word of mouth, Get Out stayed in the top ten of the box office for nine weeks straight, eventually earning $176 million at the domestic box office.
Some other unexpected blockbusters include Rocky, Pretty Woman, The Sixth Sense, Traffic (2000), Magic Mike, and Mad Max: Fury Road. What film will be next?