What is a Sleeper-Hit Film?

26 Nov

What’s a sleeper-hit film? How does a film become a sleeper-hit? The Silver Lining Playbook earned the best screen average amongst the Top 10 films in theaters this weekend and on its way to becoming a sleeper hit. In this article we will explore  marketing strategies used to make a sleeper-hit. Plus look into how many sleeper-hits turned into sequels?

What’s a Sleeper-Hit Film?

A sleeper-hit are typically low budget, original works with limited release and expand later as word of mouth and demand grows. A sleeper hit does not necessarily have to make a lot of revenue; it just needs to achieve a high degree of success relative to expectations either critical or box office acclaim. However, the term is generally not used to refer to large budget movies, regardless if they defy expectations, such as Titanic.

How Does a Film Become a Sleeper-Hit?

The film The Silver Lining Playbook is considered a sleeper hit. According to The Playlist film studio Weinstein & Company was going to release it wide but chose to platform the movie instead.(1) What does it mean when a film gets a platform? Normally, its a limited release marketing strategy used after a small budget film has received positive reviews and or award interest. Later on after these results they wait to attract viewers in the later part of its wider theatrical release. Black Swan and The Artist used this  platform strategy. Studios have become more sensitive at responding to sleeper success by gradually increasing the number of screens and advertising over a several week period. Typically films that get platform releases can last in theaters for about four months if ticket sales are good.

Today it’s hard to determine what will get moviegoers into theaters. According to an article from Business Time written in February 2012, by Brad Tuttle states,

Harris Interactive conducted a poll gauging consumer interest in hitting the movie theater. For the most part, interest is fading. Slightly more than 6 in 10 (61%) of adults said that they rarely or never go out to the movies. What’s more, of those who do go to the movies, more than half (55%) said that they go see films less often now than they did before the recession.” (2)

The writer goes on to say…..

“…….people are staying away from movie theaters not because the economy’s bad, but because movies cost too damn much. And because the movies being shown aren’t particularly good. And because paying an extra $5 for a mediocre film in 3-D is a rip-off. And because most households are already paying around $100 a month for cable and movie channels at home, as well as another $9 or more for Netflix or some other service. And becasue a DVD rental at Redbox costs just a bit over $1……

Perhaps you agree with the above statement. Yet, I wanted to demonstrate how special a sleeper today can be. In 2012 theaters raised ticket prices by 3% to make up for poor attendance and to prevent a repeat performance of last year ticket sales that hit an all time low. (3)

How Many Sleeper-Hit Films Turned into Sequels?

Note: films that have a “no sequel yet” means its currently in pre-production.

1. 2009- Paranormal Activity (got sequels)

  • Budget: 15,000
  • Domestic Gross: 107.6 mil

2. 2004-Napolean Dynamite (no sequel)

  • Budget: 400,000
  • Domestic Gross: 44.5 mil

3. 2002- My Big Fat Greek Wedding (got a sequel)

  • Budget: 5 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 241.4 mil

4. 2004-Saw (got a sequel)

  • Budget: 1.2 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 55 mil

5. 2007-Juno (no sequel yet)

  • Budget: 7.5 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 143.5 mil

6. 2002- JackAss: The Movie (got a sequel)

  • Budget: 5 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 64.3 mil

7. 2005-March of the Penguins (no sequel yet)

  • Budget: 8 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 77.4 mil

8. 2008- Slumdog Millionaire (no sequel yet)

  • Budget: 15 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 141.3 mil

9. 2005-Diary of a Mad Black Women (got sequels)

  • Budget: 5.5 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 50. 4 mil

10. 2000-Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (no sequel yet)

  • Budget: 17 mil
  • Domestic Gross: 128 mil

The list above is taken from an article on Rueters in 2009, The Top 10 Sleeper Hits of the Decade.(4) This list was purposely selected to give you the opportunity to guess the sleeper hits of 2010 and 2011? Good luck!




2. http://business.time.com/2012/02/16/most-people-rarely-or-never-go-to-the-movies-nowadays/

3. http://business.time.com/2012/01/05/the-cure-for-the-ailing-movie-business-is-to-raise-ticket-prices/


58 Responses to “What is a Sleeper-Hit Film?”

  1. Comic Relief November 26, 2012 at 11:12 AM #

    Great article OB!!! I will comment more later.

    • Comic Relief November 27, 2012 at 11:16 AM #

      The platform marketing strategy sounds very much like scaffolding strategy for instructional design. They sound similar in that they are both stage oriented and are carried our increments. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner is responsible for both.

      • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 6:46 PM #

        Great post CR!

        • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 5:59 PM #

          Sorry I missed the discussion; unfortunately I was hung up with other things. I hope neither you nor Paris mind me chiming in late. Since neither of you are still here, I will attempt to keep questions at a minimum.

          By the way the “Squeak” video has nothing to do with “platform” marketing strategy or “scaffolding” instructional strategy. I wanted people to hear Jerome Bruner’s voice to get a better idea of who he is. In general, I’m sure I’m not the only person who thinks he’s a living genius.

  2. Comic Relief November 27, 2012 at 11:40 AM #

    Why do you think audiences are responsive to this strategy? In the past marketers could rely on the fact that if actors like Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence or Robert Deniro had a sufficient enough social capital, (patience, pleasure with past work and faith that neither their time nor money would be wasted) audiences would return to sample new work.

    Bradley Cooper:

    Jennifer Lawrence:

    Robert Deniro:

    Why are these multi-stage strategies so popular now?

    Seems like they the marketers’ whole game could flop if one stage failed.

    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:10 PM #

      Here’s some interesting info that will help in explaining why studios want to get rid of the middle man Movie Theaters.

      “Here some history is helpful. In the golden age of the movie business — the thirties and forties — studios owned their own theaters and thus decided where their releases would play, forcing theaters outside their empires to buy films without even having seen them. Then, a Justice Department antitrust case led to the 1948 Supreme Court ruling known as United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. Studios were told they could own the tracks or the trains, but not both. Hollywood opted for the trains. With studios no longer able to ram an entire year’s worth of films — hits and stinkers alike — into helpless theaters, the stakes for each production went up.”

      Here’s the source: http://www.vulture.com/2012/09/hollywoods-box-office-problem.html

      • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:19 PM #


        My theory is that Movie theaters are the only thing keeping consumers in control of the entertainment they are receiving. Meaning most big studios also own television, cable etc…. So if they can eliminate Movie theaters they will monopolize all entertainment including movies. The little Red-Box movie u get for a dollar won’t exist after Movie theaters go out of business. Studios will be able to charge a lot more than a movie theater if they have full control IMO.

        • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:25 PM #

          I have to disagree with you on one point Open Book, consumers do not control the entertainment they are receiving. The studio does. The studio decides what the consumer shall see and whether or not the consumer likes it is up to the consumer. One day though the people will rise up and take back their voice and demand quality film making.

          • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:29 PM #


            How can consumers take it back if movie theaters go out of business?

            • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:30 PM #

              by writing into the stations and demanding better programming.

              • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:33 PM #

                Yes, but what if the movie studio controls that station?

                • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:35 PM #

                  then they write in to the movie studio and flood them with complaints. That’s the problem…..no one is complaining….yet.

                  • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:37 PM #

                    Ahhh! I see.

        • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 6:00 PM #


          That’s a chilling argument, in regard to the theatres.

          I’m not going to get between Paris and your argument but…

          I somewhat agree with Paris in regard to verbal complaining; I disagree in regard to audiences NOT expressing how they feel. Audiences are already voting with their wallets. “Battleship” was wrecked because audience rejected a sci-fi profiting formula that was supposed to be full-proof.

          • Open Book November 28, 2012 at 7:36 PM #

            Hi CR!

            Not to oversimplify the issue but the NY Times article I posted discussed how film studios are trying to move toward television to boost its earnings. There’s been an ongoing struggle between Movie Theaters and Studios about offering films on DVD 13 weeks after its been released in theaters. That means consumer might choose to wait for a film on DVD rather than see it in theaters because the turn around time is so short. This really hurts the theaters. My point is if movie theaters go out of business than consumers won’t have that ability to vote with their wallets at the box office. Instead studios who control cable, internet, radio, television can charge whatever they want.

          • Open Book November 28, 2012 at 8:47 PM #

            Oh! BTW CR- Paris knows what I like. We had a good debate and discussion…: -)

    • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:29 PM #


      I don’t think actors are what make people see films. Its the storyline. If the story that is being told in an intruging and flowing manner than it doesn’t matter what actor is in the film.

      • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:32 PM #


        Do u believe audiences will see a good original film with an unknown actor and director?

        • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:37 PM #

          Yes, I do believe they will see it. I don’t believe that a “name” has to be attached with a film in order to help the film. People just want to watch a movie with a story that speaks to them on a personal level.

          • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:41 PM #

            If movie studios are responding to public demand by making stupid sequels, franchises etc… Then how can a small movie compete? Plus if movie theaters go out of business. Consumers will be at the mercy of Big media houses who cater to advertisers not consumers.

            • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:55 PM #

              I don’t think that consumers are begging for sequels and franchises. Its the studios that hire screenwriters to write sequels and franchises to milk money from the consumers.

              Take for instance the Twilight Saga. There is no reason that BD 1 and 2 could not have been one film. It was turned into two strictly for financial reasons.

              The Harry Potter and LOTR/Hobbit franchises. I understand why those films are the way they are. They actually transport people to a different time and have positive messages embedded in them. At least HP does.

              • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:58 PM #

                My point exactly. Consumers don’t want franchises and sequels but big media likes them because they can advertise and make money off of video games, comic books, books, toys etc… Sequels and franchises are just one big commercial.

                • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 6:03 PM #

                  I think it’s OK to have your own opinion, but I think it’s O.K. if audiences want another adventure featuring Indiana Jones, James Bond or Bridgette Jones.

                  • Open Book November 28, 2012 at 7:19 PM #


                    It’s ok to see these films but IMO there needs to be a balance. Far too often studios over produce the big budget comics, adaptations, sequels and franchises etc… because their perceived to offer some guarantees.

          • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:51 PM #

            I guess my belief is that Movie Theaters is the only thing standing in the way of movie studios having full control over the quality of films we are getting. They have already proven they are willing to put out big crap 3-D movies and limiting the arthouse films? Will they get better once they cut out the middle man?

            • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:57 PM #

              They shouldn’t necessarily take away movie theaters. Part of the fun of being with other people is going to see a film that is well liked and sitting in the theater eating snacks and laughing or crying. Humans need socialization not to be kept at home and catered to.

              • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:01 PM #

                I wish more people felt the way u do. Yet, the more big media make living in front of a computer non-stop seen as natural and normal. I fear going outside and engaging with people will be taboo?

                • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:05 PM #

                  No. I don’t think it will ever be taboo. I think that people have a fear now of going outside due to all the violence surrounding children and adults that is being shown on television.

                  Look at the one girl who was riding her bike home from her friends house and was kidnapped and killed. People can’t ride bikes and children can’t go play at a neighbor’s house with out fear of being cut up and shoved in a suitcase. (that happened a few years ago)

                  • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:11 PM #

                    So again. My point is consumers are being driven mad with fear because the scandal media is being shown over and over again to get big ratings. Fox News for example is good for that crap! If it were up to them everyone would own a gun and the wild west would look like heaven.

              • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:03 PM #

                Here’s an article claiming 1, 000 movie theaters are going out of business. What do u think of that?


                • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:15 PM #

                  I do apologize the link to a long time to load for me.

                  Here’s what I think:

                  I think that arthouse theaters are rather quaint and I like them. They are not something that one sees every day. There is one by my grandma’s house that closed due to the fact that it couldn’t compete. They served cake, coffee and an assortment of snacks in the lobby that you could purchase during intermission because they had to change the reels.

                  Do I think they stand a chance now even if they convert? No.

                  • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:19 PM #

                    U said: “Do I think they stand a chance now even if they convert? No”

                    U know I’m going to ask u to please expand on that statement? LOL!!

                    • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:21 PM #

                      They don’t stand a chance given that some theaters now serve gourmet meals to your seat and bring you pillows and blankets.

                    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:26 PM #

                      Pillows and blankets. Really? So your saying it’s better concession food and service that need upgrading not just converting? Gotcha! Thank U!

                    • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:30 PM #

                      Yes. They bring you pillows and blankets. I’ve seen that on t.v. The show was showcasing the theater. I have been to one where they do make gourmet meals though. You do have to pay a higher price for the meal and the ticket though.

                    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:37 PM #

                      Wow! I went to one movie theater a few months ago that had a jazz club and bar off to the side. I saw Cosmopolis.

                    • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:40 PM #

                      Still have not seen that film want to see it though.

      • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 6:02 PM #

        Paris and OB,

        You both are very sad misguided and misinformed Cinefiles. (Tee-He!!!!!!!)

        I’ve almost seen every film Denzel Washington, Leonardo Dicaprio, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Michael Fassbinder, Tom Cruise or Kate Blanchet movie has ever made. I almost always read something about the film, but to be honest if they are in it, the ticket is almost already bought. But I am more loyal to directors.

        They (the list above) are all extremely selective, and their portfolios prove it. Honestly except for some exceptions all rarely make stinkers or (un)thoughtful films.

        I know I’m not alone in that, the term “star” would not exist if I was wrong.

        • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 6:02 PM #

          Of course an excellent story is paramount, but I’m sure many fans are as equally faithful as I am.

  3. Comic Relief November 27, 2012 at 11:41 AM #

    “…people are staying away from movie theaters not because the economy’s bad, but because movies cost too damn much. And because the movies being shown aren’t particularly good. And because paying an extra $5 for a mediocre film in 3-D is a rip-off.”


    In your opinion which recent movies helped define that old and reliable strategies don’t work anymore? Can you list any specific movies that undeniably prove this?

    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 12:22 PM #

      Hi CR!

      Hmm! I not sure if I understand your question but let me take a stab at it.

      IMO the art of filmmaking has gotten away from Hollywood. Filmmakers did not have (years ago) this huge media competition to contend with. Today consumers have a lot more options to choose from. Plus the turn around time for films on DVD after its been released in theaters keep shrinking each year. This is what’s really hurting box office sales. Not the economy, bad films etc…… Studios became more interested in security than taking risk and its hurt the relationship between Hollywood and the consumer. In the past studios made room for “auteur” directors to develop which allowed for some great collaborations between actors and directors on screen. Consumers got a front row seat watching an auteur director and actors grow and refine their craft. Today, audiences have to work harder to seek them out and support them because today big studios are serving advertisers not consumers IMO.

  4. Open Book November 27, 2012 at 12:47 PM #

    I also have a theory. Here is a good article that explains it better than I could.


    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 6:55 PM #

      I hope everyone had a chance to read the above article.

      • Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 6:14 PM #

        I just wanted to hear your opinion on time-tested supposedly (un)challengeable strategies…
        • I believe the last “Sherlock Holmes” movie proved sequels are not always universally successful.
        • “Battleship” proved sci-fi is not always universally successful.
        • I think it’s OK to have your own opinion, but I think it’s O.K. if audiences want another adventure featuring Indiana Jones, James Bond or Bridgette Jones.
        • “Trouble with the curve” proved big starsare not always universally successful.

        • Open Book November 28, 2012 at 7:56 PM #


          The reason Red Box and NetFlix is so cheap is to lure consumers away from movie theaters. Yet, my fear is that once theaters are gone. The prices and the quality of films will no longer matter. U might be paying 20.00 for crappy RedBox movie instead of a dollar. Because of the US vs. Paramount Studio case in 1948 is what holds movie studios accountable for the films they produce today. Why? Theater owners make money off of concession and the box office after the 3rd or 4th week a film is out in theaters. So they need to make sure a film is good enough to sustain itself long enough for them to profit. All I’m saying there needs to be some balances to hold studios accountable.

  5. Open Book November 27, 2012 at 6:58 PM #

    Welcome new and returning visitors to our discussion tonight. Please feel free to ask questions or comment.

  6. parisienne November 27, 2012 at 7:18 PM #

    Hi Everyone,

    I’m here and catching up!

    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 7:20 PM #

      Hi Paris!

  7. Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:16 PM #


    BTW I think your a great debater.

    • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:30 PM #

      Thank you!

  8. Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:29 PM #


    Can u name a arthouse film put out in the last two years that did really well in theaters with unknown actors?

  9. parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:31 PM #

    no i can’t. sorry.

    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:34 PM #

      That’s ok. Why are some directors so into going after unknown actors in small budgets films when ITA its the story that really matters?

  10. parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:38 PM #

    I think if they put a recognizable name in the film it will ruin the film strictly for the fact that certain people are better in certain genres. Take Robin Williams for example. He does pretty much all comedies. He’s very funny. One Hour photo didn’t work so well for him because people don’t take him seriously as a dramatic actor.

    • Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:42 PM #

      Ahh! Gotcha. I really think instead of focusing on the actor the story is really most important. especially if the actor has a good work ethic, is easy going on set, and good promoting a film. Who cares?

      • parisienne November 27, 2012 at 8:46 PM #

        ITA! I’m going to go for the evening. Great article!

  11. Open Book November 27, 2012 at 8:46 PM #

    Paris & everyone-

    I have to go for the night.

    Paris- thank u for a wonderful and informative discussion. Always a pleasure.

    I will check back tomorrow if there are more questions or comments. TC!

  12. Comic Relief November 28, 2012 at 8:18 PM #

    I know you don’t think I hear you.

    The movie theater does lot of great things like:

    • Keeps every theaters from becoming bathhouses
    • Is the biggest deterent to “Fifty Shades” coming to theaters
    • Supports the MPAA

    I want the movie houses to stay to keep the film industry honest.

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