Any work that becomes an unexpected success upon its release, usually through word of mouth. Either the work slipped under the fandom and critics' radar during production, it was dismissed as crap outright based just on previews, or the company/publisher didn't have much faith on it and neglected its promotion, yet it managed to get sizable box offices or sales. It might make an impact on the fandom collective and become a Cult Classic, or be a matter of Quality by Popular Vote and be forgotten quickly: the point being, exceeding expectations.
It may start a Cash Cow Franchise, and spawn cases of Follow the Leader. It might even start a whole new genre.
Supertrope of And You Thought It Would Fail, where the work is actively derided before release and still ends up being a hit. Compare to Ensemble Dark Horse, when a character in a show/film/etc. becomes unexpectedly popular. If it takes longer than just its initial release to become popular, then it has been Vindicated by History instead.
Contrast Acclaimed Flop.
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Anime and Manga
K-ON! went from an unknown Yonkoma to a marketing juggernaut when it was adapted into a Twelve Episode Anime by Kyoto Animation. The first series was popular enough to spawn a second series and the second series was given a 26 episode run and a movie side story was released which became the highest grossing film to be based from a late night series, until Puella Magi Madoka Magica Rebellion topped it's record.
Mobile Suit Gundam, as noted in Gundam Sousei and in the page quote. Other entries in the franchise have also experienced a similar trend, gaining popularity after they're first aired.
Hear now the tale of Elfen Lied, a show that was so drenched in blood and nudity that even in Japan it could only air on satellite TV as an advertisement. It was cancelled after one season...and purely by word of mouth, nearly every anime club in America heard about it and it became one of the top-selling anime of 2005, much to everyone's surprise (but too late to get it Un-Cancelled in Japan).
Attack on Titan. The mangaka originally sent the manuscript to Shonen Jump, but was rejected, and the manga ended up in Bessatsu Shonen Magazine, a monthly offshoot of Weekly Shonen Magazine, that by then was a new mag in need of a real hit. It soon became one of the best selling manga in Japan, triggering a high-budget anime adaptation that boosted its sales even further, to the point of having all 10 previously released volumes making to list of best sellers forsomeweeks.
Deadman Wonderland certainly qualifies, albeit in the United States. After a lukewarm reception in Japan, the show got cancelled and the rights to the show were practically given away to Funimation. When it became part of [adult swim]'s revival of Toonami, however, the show became an unexpected hit for the new block, with later episodes topping one million viewers. Time will tell if Manglobe will be able to adapt the rest of the manga, given that the show has now become a centerpiece for the much-revered American anime block.
Many people didn't give much thought to Kotoura-san when it was first released, since they believed it was just another standard Romantic Comedy. However, when word about the Break the CutieDowner Beginning that was the first ten minutes of the first episode and Kotoura's Woobie status began to spread, the popularity of the show immediately spiked and there was sudden interest in the original 4koma material.
For an anime initially expected to cater to a small niche,Girls und Panzer was a breakout hit in Japan. Its BDs have been selling about 28,000 copies each, where a typical successful series does well to sell 6,000. And thanks to its popularity, it managed to help out another sleeper hit in the process: World of Tanks (as explained below.)
Robotech began as a very obscure show that many TV stations bought only because to them they assumed due to the name it would be just like other "robot shows" of the time such as The Transformers and Challenge Of The Go Bots. Despite probably knowing that it was a Japanese import, they also probably assumed it would probably follow the same route as Voltron by removing graphic violence, death, and mature themes. When it was realized (too late after buying the show) that Robotech was a serious show that emphasized the human elements, mature themes, realistic violence and death of the original anime series, many stations immediately relegated the show to unusual early morning timeslots, sometimes as early as 6:00 am. Some stations truncated the show's run. Word of mouth spread about how this show was different from other cartoons at the time. The show became the crest of the first wave of anime fandom outside of Japan as well as being a science fiction franchise in its own right, inspiring a series of besteslling novelizations and numerous comic book series. To many purists, the show is the original example of the trope Macekre (not due to being the trope namer, which would actually be the late Carl Macek, the producer of the show, being his first foray into such.), but to this day, Robotech retains a historical significance due to the fact that it was Fair for Its Day.
Demon King Daimao, similar to the Deadman Wonderland example above, had a very average reaction in Japan, writing it off as an action and fanservice show, but the in the US, it got good ratings on The Anime Network, only rivaling High School Of The Dead! As a result, it was able to get an English dub, and its DVDs were able to sell just as good as HOTD, CLANNADandAngel Beats!. Was it the fanservice or the action that got it's attention? Regardless, it's a rather odd example of this trope, seeing as there doesn't seem to be much of a fanbase compared with the other shows.
Despite being one of the biggest Modern Day Cash Cow Franchise's in Japan today (Rivaling even it's much older contemporaries in Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and Even One Piece) The originalPretty Cure series started off as one. Many anime fans initially wrote it off as just another Magical Girl series, but when word spread that it had high octane action you would normally find in the likes of a Shounen Action series than a show aimed at girls, the popularity kicked off, increasing the episode length from it's original 26 episodes to 49, and then a second season, while having higher ratings as it went on, and the rest is history. It also allowed series like Mai-HiME and ESPECIALLY Lyrical Nanoha to be accepted as good shows in their own right and not just normal magical girl shows, probably because of how Pretty Cure defied the idea, and them following in it's footsteps allowed them to become popular as well, reviving a genre then almost dead in Japan.
The Happiness Charge Pretty Cure movie was this. In it's first week, it grossed less money than predicted due to Typhoon Vong Fong, but made enough money in it's second week to become the fourth-highest grossing Pretty Cure movie ever, and the second highest-grossing non All-Stars film (only beaten by the previous series' movie).
Axis Powers Hetalia began as an online webcomic back in 2003. Since then, it's gotten expanded manga volumes, an anime series (with currently five seasons) and even a movie. That it also garnered an international fanbase of sorts, if not a vibrant online presence definitely helps.
CLANNAD first appeared in the U.S. only in a subbed version. (The U.S. anime industry was going through a rough patch.) The series became known as a modern classic, and Sentai Filmworks released dubs for both the first series and ~After Story~.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica initially pitched as a 13 episode series but made as a 12 episode series instead it became a breakout hit of 2011 thanks to the mind screw, the dark brooding storyline and the playing of common magical girl tropes. It's now among the most profitable franchises, raking in over 40 billion Yen in merchandising.
Rage of Bahamut: Genesis was on almost nobody's radars before it aired. An Animated Adaptation of a moderately successful fantasy card game is not what most people think of when they hear the words 'compelling story pitch', and even the impressive staff and shiny trailers weren't enough to stoke serious interest for what was assumed to be a cheap, plot-devoid cash-grab. Then the show actually aired, and phrases like 'anime Pirates of the Caribbean' started getting thrown around as reviewers were drawn in by its swashbuckling charm and stellar production values.
The Yokai Watch anime, along with the games, proved to be a major success in Japan.
The Superior Foes of Spider-Man was originally only planned for a 12-issue miniseries, but the book proved so unexpectedly popular and well-received that Marvel extended it into an ongoing. Several solicitations for the series lampshaded this, one of which even used the term Sleeper Hit.
How to Train Your Dragon started out in first place, but was quickly knocked down after its disappointing premiere weekend. Word of mouth of its sheer brilliance took it back to the top in a month.
Coraline was generally low-priority in terms of marketing because it didn't fit the mold of a typical children's film. But it was met with critical acclaim and became moderately popular, and even a little notorious for its pushing the PG rating.
Disney had little faith in Robin Hood to the point that they had to resort to re-using animation from previousanimatedfilms. It still became a commercial success.
Most Disney executives thought that The Lion King was not going to make much money while Pocahontas was going to be the next big hit. Needless to say, the former was and still is the highest grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time.
An American Tail debuted at a time when no one had been able to top Disney in the animated film department. But a combination of a lack of real competition in the box office (Disney thought re-releasing Lady and the Tramp and Song of the South in theaters would stop it dead, which it didn't), having Steven Spielberg's name attached, and a popular Award Bait Song made it the highest grossing animated film ever at the time. This scared Disney enough to start trying to step up their game.
Frozen is probably the greatest pop culture phenomenon Sleeper Hitever in terms of animated films, and can arguably be considered among the top unexpected Sleeper Hits ever, period—it was expected to be a middling-to-modest success for Disney and earn somewhere around $170 million. Its trailers also caused many people, Disney fans included, to have low expectations of the film's quality and appeal to non-kid audiences. Then, the web-exclusive trailer focusing on Elsa (in other words, the main story and premise) and unexpectedly rave reviews and word of mouth started spreading, and it not only held up exceptionally well against The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug but outgrossed higher-profile films that had bigger opening weekends like Man of Steel, Despicable Me 2 and the aforementioned Hobbit, and dethroned The Lion King as Disney's highest-grossing animated film of all time, then Toy Story 3 for the highest-grossing animated film of all time, over $1 billion worldwide, in the Top 10 of all time, then Iron Man 3 as the highest-grossing movie of 2013 and Top 5 of all time; it was so massive it indirectly caused Walking with Dinosaurs to flop. It was even number 9 at the box office the weekend before the DVD came out, and that's not even mentioning how well the soundtrack has sold (13 weeks and counting atop the charts; and more than 2.5 million copies sold in the U.S. alone), and Let It Go in particular took on a life of its own that no one was expecting (countless covers/parodies, Idina Menzel's only song to get into the Top 10 on Billboard charts, Top 5 on the charts despite zero airplay, a New Years-party-style nationwide sing-along on Good Morning America, a CD set with 50 different language versions of the song... the list goes on!). Plus there's the ice show, planning for the Broadway show, a crossover in Once Upon a Time...
What makes it even more amazing? Every single one of the above mentioned milestones happened less than a year after the movie came out.
Additionally, the movie became a smash success in Japan, taking first place for 16 consecutive weekends at the box office and earning nearly $250 million. This is despite the fact that Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph each earned about $30 million in the country. It eventually became the third highest grossing film ever in Japan, below only Spirited Away and Titanic.
It was also a sleeper in terms of The Merch. Disney produced an amount based on the sales of their last two fairy tale films. It's taken months for supply to meet demand.
After the financial failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia on their initial releases, Disney planned for his next feature Dumbo to be a safter, low-budget "filler" movie that clocked in at only 64 minutes, something that even their distributor RKO had doubts about. It went on to become Disney's biggest hit since Snow White.
Similar to Frozen above, The Lego Movie was released in early February, considered for the most part to be a dump month for movies, and was expected to be a modest success at best. But then the awesome reviews and word of mouth started pouring in, and the film dominated the box office with the second highest February opening of all time and stayed on top for three weeks, beating out films such as Robocop 2014 and The Monuments Men with ease, and ultimately grossing more than $400 million worldwidenote as of this writing. The film's surprise success has guaranteed it a sequel, set for release in Summer 2017.
Jaws ended up the first film to gross $100 million domestically (unadjusted for inflation), but the film was plagued by a Troubled Production, with Universal refusing to fund some parts (which were paid for elsewhere) to avoid losing money on the film. After all, this was only the second theatrical film by Steven Spielberg, and his first film didn't make money (Duel didn't really count since it was made for TV and just released theatrically in Europe). So this movie was also a sleeper for Spielberg's film career.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding started off slow, but eventually grossed nearly $250 million on a $5 million budget. It also holds the world record for highest-grossing movie to never have a #1 spot at the box office.
The Ring's success by word-of-mouth caused the Japanese horror remake craze back in the 2000s.
Forrest Gump. Before release, it was only expected to be a modest hit at best and had a smaller than usual opening of 1,500 theatres (at the time, 2,000 theatres was the expected release for a big movie). Excellent word of mouth from sneak previews helped make the film a long runner.
Blade was not only a sleeper hit, it probably resurrected the comic book movie genre after Batman & Robin killed it. When Blade came out in 1998 it was thought to be a niche, genre-bending action/horror flick, and in fact the advertising for the film never even mentioned it was a comic-based movie. But all of the elements came together under Wesley Snipes' steely performance, and word of mouth made the film into a hit, spawning two sequels and convincing Marvel to pull X-Men out of some 20 years of Development Hell to get it out two years later. After that, the flood gates opened and comic book movies have been a staple of the summer action season ever since.
When the first Twilight movie went into production, no one realized how big the fanbase was. This is plenty evidenced by the fact that it was produced by an independent film studio, Summit Entertainment, with a then-unknown cast and cheap special effects. As the release approached, however, it became steadily more and more obvious that the books' fangirls were going to turn the movie into a hit and the media quickly picked up on it. This resulted in a weird situation in which essentially a low-budget indie was being being hyped as a blockbuster. Of course, after the first one came out, Summit realized what a profitable franchise they had on their hands and the sequels were budgeted accordingly, hence bigger actors for roles not already cast and better effects.
Paranormal Activity was picked up by Steven Spielberg after seeing a screener copy in 2007 with the intent to remake the film. After two years on the shelf, Paramount canceled the remake and released the original in a few markets as a midnight movie. After excellent word of mouth and demand for more showings, the studio first allowed it to be shown all day and then went wide in the fourth week after reaching the Top 5 in its third week (doing so in just 160 theatres, a record for the fewest theatres for a film to reach the Top 5). The film grossed over $100 million and the sequels keep on coming.
The first Scream (1996) movie was initially dismissed as yet another entry into the beaten-like-a-dead-horseslasher genre, and it made only $6 million on its opening weekend. Word of mouth eventually pushed its theatrical take to $103 million, guaranteeing it three sequels and a wave of copycats. Today, Scream is regarded as a classic horror film.
The Bourne Identity had tested horribly for Universal and its Summer 2001 release date was pushed back in order to do extensive reshoots on the film. When it opened, it was expected to flop against rival studio tentpole films Scooby-Doo and Windtalkers. Then reviews and word-of-mouth managed to be surprisingly good and became a long runner in theatres, grossing over $100 million in the process. The success spawned three sequels.
Babe was a $30 million Australian/US co-production with no stars and a Talking Animal lead that wasn't expected to make its budget back in the summer of 1995. After a decent $9 million opening, near-unanimous critical and audience acclaim got to finish with a $64 million gross and an additional $190 million overseas. The film also got seven Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nomination (winning for Best Visual Effects), a sequel and a long life on VHS and DVD.
Se7en had tested badly with audiences and was slotted into the dumping ground of September against the higher-publicized Showgirls with the hope that the film's star power would allow it to break even. Then the critics responded in praise and with audiences agreeing, the film managed to spend four weeks at the top spot. The film went on to gross $327 million worldwide and launched David Fincher's directing career.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was considered a throwaway project for New Line Cinema as Mike Myers had not had a successful project post-Saturday Night Live and the film had the worst test screenings in the history of the studio. Expected to die quickly in the heat of the Summer 1997 movies (such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and The Fifth Element), the film opened decently but kept on going to a final gross in the U.S. of $50 million. But when it hit video, it started a phenomenon that led it to be the most rented movie in 1997 (and still in the Top 10 one year later) and two sequels (with a third in the works) have been made since. The sequel made more in its opening weekend than the first film did in its entire theatrical run and become one of the top-grossing pictures of 1999.
Boyz n the Hood was a low-budget urban film that was only intended to be given a small release until two events happened: 1. The film premiering to mass acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, and 2. Columbia's big Summer 1991 film Radio Flyer getting pushed back due to reshoots, which led Columbia to slot the small production it is place. Even against strong blockbusters Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and violence breaking out at some screenings, the film managed to gross over $50 million, made director John Singleton the youngest Best Director nominee in the history of the Academy Awards, launched the film careers of Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. and almost single-handedly launched the African American film industry in the 1990s.
Bonnie and Clyde. Jack Warner regretted his decision to put the film into production the moment he read the script, as he felt that the audience wouldn't cheer for the outlaws. Warner Bros. had so little faith in the film that they tried to bury it with a release in the doldrums of August 1967, and offered star and producer Warren Beatty 40% of the gross instead of a minimal fee. Despite a glowing reception at the Montreal Film Festival, it received mixed reviews from American critics — while Roger Ebert gave it four stars, many others were put off by its juxtaposition of comedy and (for the time) gratuitous violence. Young Baby Boomers, however, loved it, turning it into a blockbuster and a pop culture sensation that was nominated for ten Oscars (winning two). Beatty became a very wealthy man as a result of his 40% gross, allowing him to do pretty much anything he wanted, while Faye Dunaway became one of the hottest leading ladies in Hollywood. Time magazine, which originally panned the film, featured it on its cover that December. The New York Times even fired its staff critic Bosley Crowther over his panning of the film, feeling him to be out of touch with the modern moviegoing public, and replaced him with Pauline Kael, who had praised the film in an op-ed in The New Yorker. Now, it's recognized as one of the foundational films of the New Hollywood era.
While The Hunger Games was the adaptation of a very successful book, no one expected the third best opening weekend ever (especially since it was not opening during a summer month reserved for tentpoles, but in March), or that in three weeks it would pass the $300 million mark, and it would end up with over $400 million, among the top 15 of all time in North America. Industry experts undersold it as the next Twilight and Harry Potter; it outgrossed the domestic totals of every movie of those series with its first iteration, and then the second film topped that mark.
The Denzel Washington/Ryan Reynolds film Safe House was released in the January/February dumping ground and wasn't expected to do much business, but surprisingly the film stayed in theaters for 3 months and made well over 200 million worldwide.
The film adaption of Think Like A Man was projected at a $15 million opening, but surprisingly, the opening weekend tally was over $30 million, double what analysts predicted (analysts are rarely ever this off the mark), mostly thanks to positive word of mouth from preview screenings and marketing it well to its demographic. It opened up at number #1 at the box-office, finally knocking Hunger Games down from the top spot that it had held for 4 weeks straight.
The highest grossing film of 1987? Not Lethal Weapon or Beverly Hills Cop II or other big-budget action extravaganzas, but Three Men and a Baby, which took in $167m, the equivalent of over $300m today, on just a $11m budget.
Opening against Apollo 13, Clueless managed to make back its budget several times over and received critical acclaim.
Crocodile Dundee was only expected to be a modest hit, but it ended earning over $300 million worldwide and becoming both the second-highest grossing film of 1986 (only behind Top Gun) and the highest grossing Australian film of all time.
The King's Speech was normally expected to be your basic UK-based period film that would be liked by the big cities and do nothing everywhere else. Then the film won the People's Choice Award (the grand prize) at the Toronto Film Festival and with a Holiday season opening as well as heaps of acclaim, grossed over $400 million worldwide on just a $15 million budget. It also won four Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor).
Universal had such a low opinion of Fast Times at Ridgemont High that the film didn't even open in the East Coast initially and instead mostly opened regionally in mall theatres and drive-ins. After strong opening weekend numbers came in, Universal prepared a wide expansion three weeks later and ended up having one of the big word-of-mouth hits of 1982. Since then, the film continues to be a popular title on home formats and many careers were launched because of it (such as director Amy Heckerling, writer Cameron Crowe and actors such as Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Phoebe Cates).
Ghost was a notable example. Expected to do only modestly by competing against numerous summer titles as Total Recall (1990), Die Hard 2 and Presumed Innocent, it went on to gross over $500 million worldwide (out of a $22 million budget), making bankable names out of Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Whoopi Goldberg, won two Academy Awards including Best Supporting Actress for Goldberg (and was nominated for Best Picture), making it the highest grosser of 1990 worldwide and the second biggest earner domestically behind Home Alone.
Another Patrick Swayze film, Dirty Dancing, was also a surprise hit. Vestron Pictures had only planned to release the film in theaters for only a weekend, and then send it straight to home video, since they had originally been in the video distribution business long before entering film production. Instead, it became sensational upon release, with reports of people supposedly viewing the film, then immediately returning to the theater to watch it a second time, becoming one of the highest grossing films of 1987.
Ted was only expected to be a modest hit at best, but it surprised everyone by opening with $54 million — the second highest ever opening for an R-rated comedy. It continued on to make more then $218 million domestically and over $500 million worldwide, dethroning The Hangover Part II as the highest-grossing R-rated comedy film of all time.
District 9 was not expected to be a major blockbuster considering that it was released in August 2009 with a 30 million dollar budget. But great critical acclaim and positive word of mouth resulted in a box office performance of nearly 211 million dollars.
Disney was busy pushing Hercules in the summer of 1997, culminating in a giant New York City premiere that included a parade, while their George of the Jungle adaptation opened the following month with a modest campaign by comparison. But the films ultimately ran neck-and-neck in U.S. box-office takes, both coming close to the $100 million mark, as George had good word-of-mouth and some unexpectedly (considering the track record of Live-Action Adaptation movies derived from cartoons) positive reviews. It received a Direct-to-Video sequel years later, but it didn't include the big screen George, Brendan Fraser — since his career got a bit of a boost from this sleeper success.
The Conjuring was released in a jam-packed summer that had already cannibalized several blockbuster films, without much fanfare or promotion and a teen-unfriendly R rating. Despite all of that, it went on to take $41.5 million during the opening weekend, breaking The Purge's previous record as the biggest opening for an original R-rated horror film. Thanks to rave reviews from both critics (over 80% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences, the film had an abnormally strong second-week hold for a horror film, and ultimately wound up with $137 million domestically and over $300 million internationally. To put its success in context, The Conjuring opened with $41 million on a $20 million budget; the same week, fellow newcomers RIPD and Turbo had a combined opening weekend of $33 million... on a combined budget of $265 million. A franchise starring the Warrens as main characters is now being planned.
Gravity: When the film was released, it was on track to a $40 million debut at the U.S. box office. In the end, it made a whopping $55 million in its opening week. Experiencing a very light 23% drop in its second week, it had the best second-week hold for a movie opening above $50 million outside the Holiday season.
The Heat was released amidst several blockbusters during the summer and as such it was not expected to do more the modest business. However it wound up earning over 200 million, making it the highest grossing comedy of the year until...
We're the Millers was released in the late August dumping ground and as such wasn't expected to do too well, but surprisingly it made over 250 million, more then seven times it's production cost.
Ride Along surprised everyone by having the highest grossing 3-day weekend in January (beating out Cloverfield) and making over 100 million in two months.
Despite the massive success on opening weekend, Godzilla (2014) legitimately shocked movie analysts and ticket number trackers, expecting the movie, based on social media hype and overall production budget, to only do around 70 million dollars domestically on opening weekend. Instead it did 93 million dollars on opening weekend, beating out The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and just second behind Captain America: The Winter Soldier as one of the highest openings of the year so far. Made all the more impressive due to the character's dormant status for 10 years after Godzilla Final Wars) and the critical thrashing of the 1998 film.
The movie also did much better in China than expected. Analysts initially worried that the movie would bomb there due to Godzilla's well-known Japanese heritage combined with both the historical tensions between China and Japan along with their ongoing maritime territory disputes around the time the movie came out. China ended up being the second-biggest box office market for the movie behind the United States.
Back to the Future: No one expected the movie to become as big as it did. Director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis openly admitted he was just hoping it would break even and the final bit with the DeLorean flying and "something's got to be done about your kids!" was meant as a joke on Marty having just changed the past for his parents. Michael J. Fox recalled getting a call from his agent telling him the movie was a hit and he was pleased, but his agent had to reiterate that it was a BIG hit.
Sharknado gained an unexpected amount of buzz for a SyFy Original Movie from social media posts about the ridiculous premise. And while the original premiere was written off as a ratings failure, the film saw a significant boost in viewership with encore showings in the following weeks.
In 2014, the month of May was jam-packed with numerous high-profile blockbuster films: The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The ultimate highest-grossing May-debuting film? Maleficent, which came in relatively under the radar compared to the aforementioned films but ended up having longer staying power than them. It's also currently outgrossing every other 2014 film not named Transformers in worldwide box office numbers.
Guardians of the Galaxy, in spite of Marvel's excellent box office record, was expected by most to do relatively modest Thor-level numbers of around $180 million because it was based on a much more obscure comic book property than Marvel's other films and released in August instead of the more traditional May/June/July summer blockbuster months. Guardians of the Galaxy, however, ended up getting the last laugh all the way to the top summer spot, dethroning the presumed summer box office champion Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as the highest grossing movie of 2014.
Edge of Tomorrow stumbled at its opening, grossing $28.7M, and was quickly written off by many as a box office bomb (largely due to its inability to draw a female audience against the release of The Fault in Our Stars). However, thanks to Tom Cruise's international appeal and good word of mouth, it managed to show its worth throughout the summer and became a sleeper hit, grossing over $364M worldwide, making it the 12th highest grossing film of 2014 thus far.
Harry Potter, among the most familiar examples. The first book was rejected by several publishers, but, once finally published, got significant attention, which exploded exponentially after the release of the third book. In particular, it was considered too long for a "kid's book"; finally, Rowling's agent gave it to his eight-year-old daughter, only to find she devoured it and couldn't wait to read more. It was only then anyone began thinking it ever had a chance, and the rest is history.
Pratchett's first few Discworld books were small, fantasy parodies. Now, the Discworld series is one of the biggest and most popular pieces of modern fantasy literature.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians started out as this because of Harry Potter, which itself was a sleeper hit in its first years of publication. While the Percy Jackson books are wildly popular now, The Lightning Thief came out the same year as the sixth Harry Potter book, which vastly over shadowed almost all other young adult fiction releases that same year. Because of the release and success of Harry Potter, and the somewhat similar premises of the two series (young boy finds out he has cool powers and goes to a place where others are like him), The Lightning Thief was cast aside as another young adult fiction trying to play off of Harry Potter's success. Word of mouth quickly spread about the Percy Jackson series after the second book came out, because readers started to realize that the two series actually had little in common with each other, and Percy Jackson is now one of the top selling series in the country.
NCIS was largely ignored as simply another CBS crime procedural early in its run and had fairly middling ratings. It has its own spinoff NCIS: Los Angeles and in 2012, it was the number one scripted drama on network television. Also a very rare example of a show getting more popular with age; it has broken its record for single-episode viewership in each of its 9 seasons.
NCIS parent series JAG was also, albeit to a lesser extent, a sleeper hit which hardly received any press coverage until the fourth season when it entered the top 15.
Power Rangers fit this trope. Haim Saban spent the better part of a decade looking for a network, be it broadcast or cable, to accept his concept of an Transatlantic Equivalent of Super Sentai. No one would accept until Margaret Loesch, then head of the Fox Kids Network gave him the go-ahead. A last minute change in management at Fox left Loesch with a new boss who was less than thrilled with the idea and wanted the show cancelled before airing even one episode. Luckily, Loesch's faith paid off and she was able to convince her boss to give it a chance saying she had a back up if it flopped. It ended up being a smash hit the likes of which had not been seen since Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Loesch herself (along with Stan Lee) was trying to do essentially the same thing with Super Sentai when she was at Marvel. So she jumped at the chance to bring it to the air.
The X-Files was a classic example. When Chris Carter pitched the idea to Fox, it was initially rejected. When he fleshed it out and pitched it again a few weeks later, they reluctantly took it on. They were unsure about the idea of having a show centered around the paranormal and were not happy with the casting; they wanted someone more more established and traditionally attractive to play Scully. Gillian Anderson was a theater actress but mentioned later that The X-Files pilot was only her second time in front of the camera. The pilot was well-received by those who watched it (not many) and by critics, but the ratings for the first and second season were rock bottom. However, it was the increasing popularity of the internet in the 1990s that really saw it take off; The New York Times reported the the show was likely one of the first shows to see audience growth influenced by the internet. The show had its own forums, discussion groups, fan pages and fanfiction far before it became commonplace to do so with a show. By season six, The X-Files was Fox's highest-rated show. Its popularity led to Executive Meddling coupled with The Chris Carter Effect and spelled the show's downfall: by its final season, ratings were about where they were for the first and second season. However, the show went on to inspire and influence other shows of the time and subsequent shows (many cult classics in their own right), including LOST, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Torchwood, Eleventh Hour, Alias, Bones, and most notably Fringe, which has a similar blend of Monster of the Week and Myth Arc episodes.
The Big Bang Theory started off with okay ratings consistent enough to keep it on and it survived the 2007 writers strike virtually unscathed in writing quality (largely due to its episodic nature), unlike a lot of other shows which made TBBT's modest success stand out more. Ratings continued to grow as the fanbase increased and by its' fifth season, due to a record breaking syndication deal that exposed it to wider audiences, it is the highest rated scripted show on television and huge internationally as well.
The Five on Fox News Channel was originally intended to be a temporary program meant to fill in the mid-afternoon gap left by Glenn Beck's departure from the network. Viewers ended up really liking the interaction among the panelists, however, so the show was kept. It ended up exceeding the popularity of Beck's show and got the second-best ratings of any Fox News show after The O'Reilly Factor.
CBS threw The Waltons on the air solely to answer those who were criticizing the network's "rural purge" in the early '70s, its focus on more urban-focused, boundary-pushing programming at the expense of shows set in Flyover Country. It was expected to die a quick death against the ABC hit The Mod Squad, but instead ran for nine seasons and is now remembered as the "sole survivor" of the rural purge.
The American version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? was specifically intended by ABC as a temporary filler show—the show went up against Friends and Survivor, both of which were (at the time) ratings juggernauts which ABC couldn't hope to successfully go against. But Whose Line ended up getting way more viewers than expected (mostly from people disillusioned with "popular" TV), and, given the show's low production costs, ABC was still able to make a profit on it and thus didn't have any reason to take it off the air. Whose Line ultimately became a Cult Classic that lasted for five seasons on ABC proper—not bad for a show the network never intended to renew.
Hard to believe now, but Breaking Bad started off like this. Word of mouth, Netflix, and twitter helped the ratings increase TREMENDOUSLY by the last season, breaking its own ratings record five times and ending with one of the most watched finales in the history of cable television.
"Creep" by Radiohead initially received very little airplay upon release in 1992. It wasn't until months later in 1993 that it became an international success that it was re-released in the UK and became a top 40 hit.
The band Temple of the Dog was formed to record an album mourning the death of Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood. The album got little notice when it was released in 1991, but a year later it got some media attention when some of the members had success in a couple other bands you may haveheard of.
Nicki Minaj's album Pink Friday. It got fanfare when it was released, but it was completely overshadowed by the hype for Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Its competitors (including Kanye's album) fell, but Pink Friday kept selling, and it reached #1 on the Billboard 200 in its 11th week of release.
Hard though it may be to believe, XL Recordings (an indie label) only had moderate expectations for the 21 album by Adele, whose first album had done well enough, but was perceived as being just another Amy Winehousecopycat. The album ended up doing much better in Britain than they had hoped (helped along by Adele's show-stealing performance at the BRIT Awards) and it certainly exceeded expectations for America.
Leonard Cohen's much-covered song "Hallelujah". The original version released in 1984 began life as a forgotten album track. Former Velvet Underground musician John Cale did an improved version of the song in 1991 but it also went unnoticed. Jeff Buckley then did a cover based on Cale's version three years later on his Grace album, which was in itself a sleeper hit, bringing the song to prominence. Since then, literally hundreds of artists have covered it and various versions have frequently been used on soundtracks.
"We Are Young" by fun. came out of nowhere and is more unusual than most pop songs.
"Somebody I Used to Know" by Gotye is also unusual for a pop song and became a smash hit without any prior mainstream following.
"Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster The People gained momentum slowly, hitting it's chart peak at #3 in the US about a year after its initial single release. To say nothing of it being unusual for pop radio at the time, even morelyrically than sonically. Radio has become more friendly to alternative crossovers since, but it was literally the only major crossover hit of 2011.
Geffen Records' alternative rock imprint DGC expected that Nirvana's Nevermind would sell about 250,000 units (roughly the same as Sonic Youth's Goo did for the label) and that after "Smells Like Teen Spirit" built the band some buzz on alternative radio, they could attempt a pop crossover with "Come As You Are". Then the video for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" premiered on 120 Minutes and the rest is history.
One Direction's "Up All Night." Sure, they had a significant American fan base at the time of its US release, but the industry was absolutely shocked when it became clear that it was the top contender for the coveted number-one spot on the Billboard 200 for its release week, a feat never before accomplished by a British band's debut album. It accomplished exactly that, and continued to be a strong selling album well after its release, staying in the top 10 for half a year and becoming the third best-selling album of the year.
Ariana Grande's first song, The Way, featuring Mac Miller is flat out described on The Other Wiki as an unexpected success. To clarify: Within seven hours of going up on iTunes, it was top of the download charts. It entered the Billboard 100 at No. 10 (By coincidence, this made Ariana the first artist since 2008 to enter the Top 10 with her first single). It peaked a No. 9, and currently is behind Suit & Tie by Justin Timberlake featuring Jay Z and One Direction's Best Song Ever as the third highest first-week sales figures. It has sold over 1.3 million copies alone in the US and spent 17 weeks in the charts, 13 of those weeks in the Top 15. This is all for her first song.
The Black Keys had released five albums and were on the verge of breaking up before releasing Brothers. Their first album to chart, it was certified platinum and nominated for five Grammys, winning two.
Though Nine Inch Nails debut album, Pretty Hate Machine, didn't sell at all well at first, it gradually managed to crawl its way up to 75 on the Billboard chart. This in spite of being a debut album in a genre (Industrial Music) that had previously had only a handful of relatively minor club hits to its name. The LONG tour and well-received Lollapalooza appearance in 1991 definitely helped- in 1992, it was certified Gold. Almost three years after its release. The next material NIN released (the Broken EP in 1992 and The Downward Spiral in 1994) was much more immediately successful, topping the charts very shortly after release.
Magic: The Gathering was shopped around for a while until a little company called Wizards of the Coast, whose only call to fame was being the holder of the Ars Magica RPG franchise, decided to give it a go.
Amusingly, Magic itself is known to have Sleeper Hit cards.
Nowadays it's recognised as one of the all-time great operas, but Bizet's Carmen famously opened to great indifference in 1875, with the promoter struggling even to give away tickets. Bizet died without seeing the success it would become.
Shuffle Along, like many lesser Broadway musicals of the early 1920s, was a vaudeville sketch expanded into an evening-length show. The production featured an all-black cast of unknowns in borrowed costumes, and barely managed to open in New York at a small, out-of-the-way theater in May 1921, late in the theatrical season. It unexpectedly won critical praise and became the eleventh longest running musical of the decade.
Disney Theme Parks sometimes get these — attractions that weren't the focus of giant marketing campaigns, but then the word-of-mouth kicked in.
Voyage of the Little Mermaid, a multimedia live show, officially opened in a miniscule theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios in January 1992 — right after the Christmas rush. As of 2013, it's still running.
How popular is Beauty and the Beast — Live on Stage at the Studios? It opened the same day the movie opened in wide release in 1991, and given the previous tendency of new release tie-in shows to last until the next big release came along, it should have lasted about a year. Again, it's still running as of 2013 — and has been credited for inspiring the company to adapt the show into a full-fledged Broadway musical in 1994!
The 3-D MovieHoney, I Shrunk the Audience was, according to The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, "launched with very little fanfare" at Epcot in 1994; it came along mainly because Captain EO had run its course and something fresh was in order. Well, that guide mentioned the "little fanfare" part by way of explaining that it swiftly became the hottest attraction in a park devoted mainly to Edutainment, and managed to run until 2010. It's also the only 3D movie besides Captain EO to play in more than three Disney parks, since it was exported to Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland — and even though Tokyo didn't get it until 1998, they were rewarded for their wait with a unique preshow. Even The Simpsons made a joke about its tactile special effects in "Special Edna" — Homer and Bart get Covered in Gunge by Honey, I Sprayed Goo on the Audience — and Gigabyte, the python that menances the shrunken crowd, was incorporated into Ridley Pearson's third Kingdom Keepers novel.
Turtle Talk with Crush, an interactive Finding Nemo-based show, became this as part of Disney's California Adventure's animation exhibit. It was subsequently ported over to Epcot as a standalone show and repeated its success, and the technology used for it has since become the basis for other attractions, such as Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor.
Many people bashed Mixels before they were released, saying their designs were silly and the shorts were unneeded. Then, it turned out that the sets were cheap for their piece-to-price ratio, contained the new balljoint mechanism, and contained rare pieces in hard-to-find colors, and they soon shot up, to the point many people that bought them for their parts have admitted to caving in and making the Mixels instead and finding them appealing.
The Playstation itself is one. Or, at least in the US. In early-1995, the system had proven to be a huge success in Japan. However, things seemed a bit less promising on the American front. Sega was busily hyping its upcoming Sega Saturn, while Nintendo was silently creating some buzz for its upcoming Nintendo 64 (then titled the Ultra 64). How could Sony, then a newcomer to the video game industry, possibly compete? By taking note of and learning from the mistakes their competitors were making. Sega ultimately botched the Saturn's chances of success with a hastily-executed stealth launch and some questionable design choices. Not to mention a $399 price tag (which was, at the time, unheard of for a gaming console). While Nintendo's "kid-friendly" image and insistence on sticking with a cartridge format for the N64 led many gamers and third party developers (including Square Soft) to abandon the company in favor of Sony. The Playstation, despite little pre-release hype, eventually went on to become the most successful video game console of all time until its successor, the Playstation 2, succeeded that throne in 2006.
When Nintendo made the Wii, it was hoped to turn around the diminishing returns for each home console Nintendo released, just a little. The gaming press laughed it off, expecting Nintendo to finally go third party after the Wii flopped (and the system still has extreme Critical Dissonance). Instead it was sold out for years and even outsold the NES. It's also the third home console to sell over 100 million units.
Golden Eye 1997. The game had little pre-release hype or fanfare, getting a listless reaction from critics at the 1997 E3 and suffering a rather Troubled Production cycle. In fact, Star Fox 64 was originally supposed to be Nintendo's big Summer Blockbuster that year. However, once Goldeneye was released, the game garnered overwhelming critical acclaim and quickly went on to become the N64's flagship title. It garnered numerous "Game Of The Year" awards and, even today, stands as one of the most influential video games of all time.
Demons Souls quickly grew a reputation for its punishing difficulty, and proved to be a hit with both players and critics, garnering several "Game of the Year" awards in 2009 and possibly convincing Atlus and From Software to extend the life of its online servers well beyond its planned six-month period.
The original Katamari Damacy got initial moderate, but still not-as-expected success in Japan. After numerous positive reviews, the sales of the game kept gradually increasing, especially when it came to North America.
Portal was intended as a small bonus to the Orange Box compilation, but became an instant cult classic and the Ensemble Darkhorse of the Orange Box. To put things in perspective, the other games on the Orange Box included Half-Life 2 and its episodes (including what was the much-anticipated at the time Episode 2) and the much-anticipatedTeam Fortress 2 (which would later go on to becoming Valve's most successful game of all time). That package sold altogether for 50 US dollars at launch. Portal 2 sold for the same price and was still a hit. A Gaiden Game developed by ten people as a follow on to a freeware game, was put on The Orange Box with little fanfare. Fans ate it up, the critics loved it, it sold quickly when released as a stand alone, it has inspired a massive sequel, and it became a Fountain of Memes.
Like Star Wars, it's hard to believe that Pokémon was ever a sleeper. When it was first released over in Japan, the Game Boy was on its last legs. Despite this, Pokémon Red and Blue kept selling, spurred by rumors of a hidden 151st Pokémon. By the time it reached the U.S., the juggernaut was in full swing.
Still, it took a while to catch on in the U.S., as Western divisions of Nintendo had dismissed it as a Widget Game until its popularity had exploded in Japan. Gamers used to complain that Pokémon Red and Blue weren't in color, unaware that they came out only one month ahead of Game Boy Color in the U.S. and years earlier in Japan.
Minecraft, initially a one-man project, gained a ton of press by word-of-mouth alone, and is still receiving steady sales even past its beta release.
The Xbox 360 edition ended up being one of the most popular games on the system.
Scribblenauts. While developers 5th Cell were not unknown at the time, having already made the well-liked Drawn to Life and Lock's Quest, they weren't considered hugely big contenders in the game scene, and Scribblenauts premiered with little fanfare. The concept was enticing, but didn't make any waves... Until E3 2009, when the greater game journalism public got their hands on the game. Cue explosion.
World of Tanks got the -tanks part when a small Belorussian gaming studio making "yet another elves and orcs MMO" decided there are bit too many of those. Tank fans were expected to form small yet reliable niche...
Notably enough, its popularity also accelerated another sleeper hit: Girls und Panzer. This is because just about every WoT player watches the Anime. The Reverse is proving true as the aforementioned anime series is practically the main marketing plan for the game's introduction in Japan.
The original Mega Man fell under the radar until positive word of mouth made into Capcom's flagship franchise.
Angry Birds has proven itself to be the little iPhone app that could, having reached the top of the Apple App Store download rankings in over 60 (!!) countries.
The World Ends with You had little to no advertising for its US release, but word of mouth made it the top selling Nintendo DS game its first week in America. The only reason it didn't stay that way for the next few was because the stores literally ran out of copies to sell almost overnight and would be back-ordered for quite a while. Even today it still gets rather high on Amazon's best selling DS games, coming after new releases and Nintendo's Cash Cow Franchises in sort by best selling. Now it's even gotten an iOS port!!!
The Witcher was a PC-only single player CRPG released in 2007 by a development studio largely unknown outside eastern Europe, based off a fantasy setting almost unheard of in the English-speaking world. It proceeded to sell over a million copies in its first year of release, with its sequel reaching that number in under six months.
The first game's success was such a surprise that the studio more or less apologized for their shoestring-budget hack job of a localization by using some of their windfall to produce a much more polished Enhanced Edition, which further boosted the game's popularity.
The original Super Smash Bros. started a side project by Masahiro Sakurai that Satoru Iwata allowed him to do on the weekends at HAL Laboratory. Eventually Iwata became interested in this "King of the Hill"-like fighter, and the company asked Nintendo if they could use some of their characters. Nintendo was iffy on the entire thing: keeping the budget on the game incredibly small and planning on a Japan-only release. Despite little promotion, the game took off in Japan and was brought to North America and Europe later that year, becoming a Killer App for the Nintendo 64. Its twosequels on Nintendo subsequentconsoles followed the trend, with an upcoming installment for both the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U looking to continue it.
Similarly, when the sequel to the original Smash Bros was released, two characters, Marth and Roy, were originally going to be Dummied Out for the international releases of the game, as at that point, both were part of a franchise that had been Japan-exclusive (and around since 1990, at that). The North American localization team loved the two characters, and their surprising popularity allowed Fire Emblem to be exported. The seventh game in particular was a hit in the United States.
To mention Fire Emblem again, the series hit a slump when the remake of the first game slumped on the Nintendo DS, which was enough for the (better) remake of the third game to not be exported. It's been mentioned in interviews that had Fire Emblem Awakening not sold over the 250k mark (and the fanfare that the U.S has given it was a major bonus), Nintendo would've pulled the plug on the series.
Defense Of The Ancients All Stars: Originally just "Defense of The Ancients" a Custom map for Warcraft 3, it's gone on to become not only a Sleeper hit but actually start a Genre of games.
Mortal Kombat was made simply to fill a hole in Midway's arcade schedule. A four-man team was given 10 months to churn out a fighting game and pretty much gave them free reign to do what they wanted since it was a small project. The team turned it into one big Rule of Cool game that gave Midway its signature, money-making franchise and cut way more into Street Fighter II's marketshare than they could have imagined.
Lollipop Chainsaw. Due to the mixed reception from critics, and the fact that previous SUDA51 games like Killer7 and No More Heroes weren't all that successful in sales (especially Killer7, which is one of the most sought-after GameCube titles, even to this very day), most SUDA51 fans were expecting this one to have low sales too, when actually, it ended up selling 700,000 copies worldwide as of August 2012, a mere two months after the game's release.
The original Final Fantasy. It was supposed to be Square's swan songtitle, but instead managed to fish the dwindling developer out from near-bankruptcy and helped turned it into the giant it is today.
Edmund McMillen didn't hold a lot of hope in The Binding of Isaac, mostly because he thought it would be too difficult and/or too disturbing for most people to get into it. It was quite a surprise for him when it managed to sell 500,000 copies, and in a relatively short time! He originally planned this game as a side project between Super Meat Boy and another game.
Xenoblade is probably one of the most notorious examples in recent memory. The game was outright snubbed for an North American release despite previous news that it would be released there. However, the game got itself a very vocal fan base right from the start, since it was a new JRPG by the creators of the cult classics Xenogears and Xenosaga. An entire web campaign (Operation Rainfall) was started to get the game released in Western countries, but Nintendo of America didn't listen. Nintendo of Europe and Australia, however, brought it over to their respective continents. With little advertising and very limited units (understandable, since JRPGs' had fallen from grace), the game was a surprise hit, garnering positive reviews and rather good sales. Since then, the game was released in North America, along with The Last Story and Pandora's Tower (the other two games from the OpRainfall campaign) getting expanded advertising and international releasesnote XSEED Games published The Last Story in the North America in the late summer of 2012, and released Pandora's Tower there in the spring of 2013.. Furthermore, the upcoming follow-up Xenoblade Chronicles X was promoted by Nintendo's Treehouse team on their E3 2014 livestream, and the original game will see a port on the upcoming "New Nintendo 3DS" revision.
Borderlands: As Randy Pitchford noted in one interview, the game actually sold better as time went on, compared to the usual pattern of a burst of sales at release, and it was all thanks to word of mouth advertising. This is one reason why the sequel got a much bigger budget and proper advertising.
Yokai Watch took only one year to become a multimedia success in Japan comparable to Pokémon in late 1990s. The franchise's second game sold an incredible 1.3 million copies in its debut week, instantly outselling the first game. Its anime adaptation even get better ratings than Pretty Cure staring from the first episode and shows no signs of stopping.
As revealed in this interview, the original Raiden was a low-expectation project only made because the developer's previous game flopped and a vertical shmup was all they could do with the alloted budget. The game initially sold poorly, but eventually ended up being very successful thanks to positive word-of-mouth.
Adventure Time started out as a short produced for Nickelodeon's Random! Cartoons show, which was pre-screened and then leaked onto the Internet, where it gained a massive amount of popularity in 2007. People who liked the short were already begging for it to be made into a series then. It didn't matter if critics didn't like it, the show had a fanbase three years before it even aired.
Recess was originally just going to be another Disney animated series. But due to excellent word of mouth, critical acclaim, and a huge Periphery Demographic, it ended up outliving most of the other shows on the One Saturday Morning block, had a very successful movie, and was rerun to death on every Disney station.
While many found the concept and previews interesting, nobody expected Avatar: The Last Airbender to become such a phenomenal success, not even its creators. In fact, many anime fans considered the show's "animesque" look an affront. But by the time A:TLA was at its 8th episode, it had gathered a sizeable fanbase that kept on growing. The show's enduring popularity earned it a sequel series in 2012.
Invader Zim was originally pitched as an idea to Nickelodeon, who reluctantly green-lit the project and then screwed it over. Despite inconsistent timeslots and gaps between episodes, the show actually got great ratings (though apparently not great enough to justify the show's huge expenses) and a massive cult following. Nickelodeon eventually decided to cash in on the show's success... by yanking the home video rights from the independent company they'd sold those rights to (for next to nothing) years earlier.
Let's be honest, this is a show about magical Ponies, based on a legendarily terrible show about magical Ponies, both of which were created solely to sell plastic pony dolls to little girls. It's also a musical. Yet FiM turned out to be a synthesis of action, comedy, adventure, drama, fantasy, and musical so potent that it blew nearly every other children's show out of the water (it snagged an Emmy nomination for its songs). News of the series' unexpectedly high quality percolated across the darker corners of the internet by simple word-of-mouth throughout its first two seasons, eventually earning it an enormousPeriphery Demographic that took pretty much everyone associated with the show completely by surprise.