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image of my big fat greek wedding, a sleeper hit

Our Favorite “Sleeper” Movie Hits

Back in 2002, no one would have guessed that My Big Fat Greek Wedding would become one of the most successful movies of all time. It had a $5 million budget (tiny by Hollywood standards), didn’t star any famous names, got mediocre reviews, and was originally released in only 100 theaters—not exactly the recipe for box-office boffo. But word of mouth helped catapult it to a whopping $241.4 million—and 17 years later it still holds the title of highest-grossing romantic comedy ever. (And it’s still one of my favorite movies because it reminds me so much of my own family.)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the textbook definition of a sleeper hit. And no, that doesn’t mean it’s a movie that will put you to sleep. With the Oscars right around the corner on February 24—and because we consider ourselves experts on anything and everything sleep-related—we’re breaking down exactly what it means for a movie to be a “sleeper.”

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What is a sleeper hit?

“A sleeper hit is a movie that isn’t a success right out of the gate,” explains Christopher McKittrick, Hollywood movie expert for ThoughtCo.com. “Over time, it goes from seemingly being an under-performer to being a hit.”

Sleeper hits don’t enjoy booming success right away for a variety of reasons, explains McKittrick. They don’t have the built-in fan base that comes from being based on pre-existing material (like, say, a comic book or Nicholas Sparks novel), they receive average reviews from critics, and the marketing may not sell the movie well or even target the right type of audience. Think about 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, which also fits the definition: “I don’t know how you’d go about marketing that movie,” says McKittrick. “It’s so quirky and weird.”

Sleepers also typically star unknown actors, or at the very least performers who aren’t household names, and usually only receive a limited release to start. “There’s no built-in audience to rely on,” McKittrick says. Sometimes they’re also initially overshadowed by a blockbuster that’s released the same weekend—as in the case of Mamma Mia! going up against another installment in the Batman saga, the Dark Knight.

How does a movie become a sleeper hit?

That first weekend a movie is in theaters is generally the most important, because that’s usually when it makes the bulk of its earnings, says McKittrick. Plus, “every movie wants that headline of being the number one movie for that week,” he adds.

While most successful movies make most of their money opening weekend with earnings tapering off from there, sleeper hits have the opposite trajectory. My Big Fat Greek Wedding made only $600,000 in its limited opening weekend in April 2002, but it steadily kept raking in more dough over time. On Labor Day weekend of that year, it grossed more than $14 million—hence its position at the top of the sleeper charts.

So what exactly turns a would-be dud into a stealth hit? Word of mouth, says McKittrick—and these days, that word of mouth conversation happens even faster on social media. People tweet about how much they like a movie, or they share songs from the soundtrack on Spotify, and all of a sudden the movie starts picking up steam at the box office.

Are certain types of movies more likely to become sleeper hits than others?

Just as with viral videos, there’s no formula that can predict whether a movie will become a sleeper hit; sometimes a movie simply has that mysterious X-factor. For Napoleon Dynamite, “it was just the sheer weirdness of the movie,” says McKittrick. That weirdness turned out to be very appealing to audiences (including pretty much everyone in my high school). Napoleon Dynamite may have only taken in $116,000 on its opening weekend, but it made close to $4 million over Labor Day weekend in 2004—three months after it was initially released—and went on to gross more than $46 million worldwide.

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Although there’s no way to foretell if a movie will become a sleeper hit, horror movies often fall into the sleeper category. That’s because there have been so many objectively bad horror movies that when one is actually good, people talk about it—a lot. “I think this happens because audiences are aware enough that horror movies can be laughably bad and not worth your time,” says McKittrick. “So horror movies work really well with word of mouth.”

Take 2009’s Paranormal Activity: It made just $78,000 in its first weekend at the box office but went on to gross more than $107 million and has spawned multiple sequels over the years. “Paranormal Activity was made on a minuscule budget, but people kept talking about how different it was, how weird it was, how creative it was—and that ended up getting more people into theaters to see it,” says McKittrick.

Next up, see what the movies get right (and wrong) about sleep.

Christina Heiser is the content manager at Saatva. She has held previous positions at Everyday Health, Women's Health, and L'Oréal. When she's not working, you can find Christina checking out the latest boutique fitness classes in New York City, cheering on her college basketball team (go Red Storm!), and trying new beauty and wellness trends.