10 Hit Movies That No One Thought Would Work
This week's Your Nerd Side Show:
Hollywood is a slow-changing beast and relies largely on convention whenever it can. What worked before is bound to work again, and until a genre or movement is beaten into the ground at the box office, nothing new or different has much chance to thrive. Taking a chance just isn't attractive when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, and the more hedged bets, the better.
That also makes a ripe environment for surprise hits, as films written off as too different or too expensive suddenly turn into cultural events. Many of them benefit from good timing, but most of them become trailblazers, and their profits lead to a host of imitators. Below is a list of ten of the most prominent. All of them came seemingly out of nowhere, and all of them made a noticeable impact on film history.
10 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
No one was clamoring for a Planet of the Apes movie in 2011. The franchise had effectively perished in the mid-70s amid the consensus that it had overstayed its welcome. Tim Burton's 2001 remake featured intriguing components amid a hot mess and declined to set the box office on fire. Rise of the Planet of the Apes initially looked like nothing more than a lazy cash grab: late to the party and with nothing to show for it.
Instead, it became an instant sci-fi classic, leading to a well-regarded trilogy that many fans consider as essential as the 1968 original. Andy Serkis's ape Caesar has joined Gollum as one of the actor's crowning achievements, and the film itself grossed $481 million worldwide, with the trilogy pulling in a collective $1.6 billion. It seems there was an appetite for the story, after all, provided it was as well-told as this one.
9 My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Romantic comedies tend to stack the box office deck by casting big stars to attract audiences. They also have a way of delivering surprise blockbusters, especially considering their comparatively modest budgets. The likes of Crazy Rich Asians, Legally Blonde and Pretty Woman all came more or less out of nowhere and turned their stars into household words in the process.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the undisputed champion of a surprise hit rom-coms, based on a one-woman play by writer-star Nia Vardalos and financed for about $6 million. It turned into the pop-culture event of 2002, grossing over $360 million worldwide, which has made it the most successful rom-com of all time for over two decades and counting. And while it was a tad over-exposed at the time, its frothy story and eccentric characters have aged exceedingly well.
8 The Blair Witch Project
The internet was still in its infancy in 1999, and its implications for pop culture and entertainment were still unknown. The Blair Witch Project shattered every concept of how movies should be made and marketed. Shot for a paltry $60,000, it purported to be "real" camera footage from a trio of college students who ventured into the woods in search of a local ghost story.
Thanks to a genius viral marketing campaign -- another first -- and staggering word of mouth, that transformed into over $140 million in box office revenue. While The Blair Witch Project was never the masterpiece its supporters claim, it opened up options for low-budget filmmaking that never existed before. It also created the found footage genre in the process and provided horror with a new style that has yet to fade.
7 Apocalypse Now
The production of Apocalypse Now was so difficult that it merited a movie of its own: Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse. Francis Ford Coppola wanted to capture the essence of the Vietnam War, taking his crew to the Philippines for a shoot that lasted well over a year. Star Martin Sheen suffered a near-fatal heart attack midway through production, the set was destroyed by a typhoon, and the helicopters required for the story would periodically leave unannounced to attack insurgents against the then-ruling Marcos regime. The budget skyrocketed, and the film opened two years after its initial slated release amid the expected cries of doom.
Instead, it became the rare out-of-control production to actually exceed expectations. Amid the madness, Coppola captured some essence of war as a concept and created one of the greatest films of all time in the process. And while its budget came in at a then-elephantine $31 million, it grossed well over $100 million in return.
6 A Nightmare on Elm Street
A Nightmare on Elm Street arrived amid the slasher movie glut of the 1980s, and it had trouble finding a studio to back it. Director Wes Craven eventually turned to the microscopic New Line Pictures, which had previously only distributed pictures. Funding ran out during production, and the cast and crew had to work in good faith until a distribution deal could be secured. It even had the indignity to open opposite another horror movie -- Silent Night, Deadly Night -- which enjoyed considerably more publicity over its supposedly "controversial" content.
But the film survived, grossing a tidy $25 million on a $1 million budget and going on to become a smash on home video. It launched a merchandising empire, along with a long line of sequels and a TV series, Freddy's Nightmares. Today, it's considered one of the best horror movies of all time, reinventing the slasher genre while transforming New Line into a Hollywood player overnight. The company is still referred to as "The House that Freddy Built."
5 The Exorcist
Director William Friedkin, a notorious perfectionist, drove The Exorcist cast and crew to their limits in his attempts to bring the story of a possessed little girl to the screen. That culminated in physically striking actor -- and actual priest -- William O'Malley to get the desired effect: part of a grueling shoot that ballooned from 85 days to over 200. The budget shot through the roof, and Warner Bros. more or less wrote it off as a disaster, convinced that its off-putting subject matter would keep audiences away in droves.
Instead, the opposite occurred. A cunning marketing strategy played up the film's taboo elements, arousing curiosity among audiences grappling with very dark headlines in the real world. The results proved irresistible, and The Exorcist became a runaway hit. Even today, it retains its power to shock, and the film received the reboot/sequel treatment with the release of Exorcist: Believer in 2023.
The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 had been a longtime passion project for director James Cameron, who never did anything small. After the innovative underwater camerawork of The Abyss, the infamous historical disaster felt like a good fit for a director ready to move beyond sci-fi actioners. The resulting production cost an astronomical $200 million, and conventional Hollywood believed it could never possibly make that much back at the box office.
Cameron had the last laugh, and then some, as Titanic shattered all previous records en route to $2.2 billion globally. It also garnered 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Cameron, and turned into a milestone of late '90s pop culture. And for all of Titanic's historical detail, the wholly fictional romance between Jack and Rose remains its most endearing quality: powering its way to unprecedented profits in the interim.
Steven Spielberg was still considered a neophyte when production began on the movie that would make his name. He had only directed two feature films previously, and the logistics of Jaws looked very much like they might overwhelm him. The mechanical shark didn't work, shooting on the ocean proved nightmarish, and a schedule of 55 days grew to almost 160.
2 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Rivals at the time called it "Walt's Folly:" Disney's ambitious efforts to create a feature-length animated production. Conventional wisdom in the 1930s held that only shorts were appropriate for the medium and that an 83-minute "cartoon" would be more than most audiences could stomach. Disney invested his company's future and a good deal of his own personal finances in the belief that the project would succeed.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs succeeded beyond even his expectations, becoming the highest-grossing movie of any kind at the time and launching a cultural phenomenon in the process. It launched the genre of feature animation, as well as influencing fantasy films and musicals for generations to come. More than a box office phenomenon, it's one of the most important pieces of art in the medium.
1 Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
It seems hard to believe in retrospect, but the immortal first entry in the Star Wars saga -- what eventually became known as Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope -- opened in just 37 theaters nationwide in 1977. After failing to secure the rights to Flash Gordon, director George Lucas came up with his own take on swashbuckling space opera, then struggled to sell it. Disney, United Artists, Paramount and Universal all declined to finance the project before 20th Century Fox reluctantly agreed to back him.
Everyone thought it would be a huge disaster, even Lucas himself, who famously took a vacation in Hawaii to escape the anticipated fallout. Ironically, his buddy Steven Spielberg -- who joined him on the beach, where they conceived of Indiana Jones -- always had faith in the film, and his faith won out. The movie became a phenomenon, transforming Hollywood overnight and grossing a staggering $775 million -- and counting -- worldwide. Today, it's one of the biggest licensed properties in the world, with a flourishing franchise that has become a pop culture evergreen. All because of a movie that no studio in Hollywood wanted to touch.