10 films that massively exceeded expectations on release

little miss sunshine

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We’ve all been guilty of judging a book by its cover – or in this case a movie by its trailer. But every now and then a film will appear out of nowhere to delight audiences and go on to be a critical and commercial success, often by word-of-mouth alone.

Luke Hearfield looks back on ten films that exceeded expectations on their release.

little miss sunshine
[Little Miss Sunshine became a huge hit in 2006]

Lost In Translation (2003)

Who knew Bill Murray still had it in him? Lost in Translation was a brilliant career-move for Murray, who’s fortunes had been flagging, and helped gain Scarlett Johansson a huge fan base. Made for only $4 million, this film spread like wild fire and went on to make $120 million worldwide. The title may be Lost in Translation but this film certainly had no problem reaching a global audience.

District 9 (2009)

As far as sci-fi blockbusters go, it was never a sure bet that District 9 would find an audience. Its director and leading man were both relative unknowns, and by sharing similar themes with Avatar it could easily have lived in the shadow of James Cameron’s blockbuster. Fortunately District 9 was the thinking-man’s alien movie rooted with deep social/political commentary which went on to become the sleeper hit of 2009.

Once (2006)

Once is the little movie that could. This was the film that busked its way into the hearts of millions and went on to win an Independent Spirit Award and an Oscar for best song. The humble indie film managed to make over $20 million worldwide and has subsequently been translated to both Broadway and The West End to critical success – not bad, seeing as it was produced for $160,000.

The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)

OK, this film was never expected to tank, but the film about four hapless, sexually frustrated boys on a lads holiday went on to earn £13 million pounds in its opening weekend alone – making it the most successful UK comedy film debut of all time. It even triumphed over Hollywood monster-budget films Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Cowboys & Aliens. In total it raked in almost $90 million worldwide.

21 Jump Street (2012)

Nobody could have guessed that 21 Jump Street was going to be the surprise smash-hit comedy of 2012. An unlikely pairing of Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum as a squabbling buddy-cop duo based on a tired ’80s TV show seemed like a doubtful premise for success. Thankfully we’re happy to be proven wrong on this occasion.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Danny Boyle’s feel-good hit of 2008 was made for $15 million but thanks to extremely gushing reviews and word-of-mouth hype the English/Hindi tale of a plucky slum boy on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire show went on to gross $377 million at the box office worldwide, and took home the Best Picture gong at the Oscars. Not too shabby.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Initially dismissed by critics, Night of the Living Dead is known as the original zombie film, and has spawned a whole subculture of imitations, revisions, sequels and remakes. George A Romero’s breakthrough hit is still regarded as the quintessential undead movie and is now recognised by the National Film Registry as a film of culturally significant value.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine was met with adoring admiration at the 2006 festivals but it slowly built up momentum upon general release to become the ultimate indie-comedy movie of the mid-Noughties. It made stars of young Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano, and earned veteran character actor Alan Arkin a much deserved best-supporting actor Oscar. Not bad for a family road trip film – Robin Williams’ dismal RV could learn a thing or two.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

The concept of the ‘found footage’ horror film may have been done-to-death, but the original Paranormal Activity was the flick to kick-start that trend back into action. Made on a tiny budget of $15,000, the fact that it went on to make $107 million worldwide means that Paranormal Activity is the most profitable movie of all time. Sometimes simplicity is the secret of success.

Frozen (2013)

No one could have predicted the phenomenal success of Disney’s musical take on the Snow Queen. The top 10 grossing movies of all time are littered with James Cameron epics and Hollywood blockbuster-sequels, but Frozen defied the odds and recently nudged out Iron Man 3 to become the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. It doesn’t look like Frozen-mania is thawing any time soon.

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Luke is a freelance writer based in London who has weird obsessions with Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan and Jennifer Lawrence.