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Sleeper Hit

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"At that time, no one knew that this small work called Gundam was to become a legendary anime, shaking the very foundation of Japan."

A sleeper hit is a 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 outright crap based just on previews, or the company/publisher didn't have much faith in 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, it exceeded expectations.


It may start a Cash Cow Franchise, spawn cases of Follow the Leader, or 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 Darkhorse, 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.

Compare Colbert Bump. Contrast Acclaimed Flop, where a work flops in terms of box office or ratings but does well with critics and audiences, and Critic-Proof, in which a popular blockbuster/franchise gets a lot of bad publicity, despite being a box office hit.



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    Anime & Manga 
  • Arpeggio of Blue Steel: Ars Nova was not expected to become one of the more acclaimed manga adaptations during the Fall 2013 Anime season, as its source manga filled a rather niche readership. However, it gathered so much critical acclaim that, in the following year, famed magazine Newtype handed out fan-selected prizes to various shows, and among them Ars Nova won several top prizes (as well as many runner ups), lining it up along hit shows like Kill la Kill.note 
  • Attack on Titan. The mangaka originally sent the manuscript to Weekly Shōnen Jump, but was rejected, and the manga ended up in Bessatsu Shōnen Magazine, a monthly offshoot of Weekly Shōnen Magazine. At the time, it was a new magazine that was 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 ten previously released volumes making to list of best sellers for some weeks.
  • Beastars: You wouldn't think an older teen-skewing anthropomorphic animal manga (in itself a relatively niche genre in Japan) would be so popular, especially under its label, but it ranked in the top 10 for Shonen manga in the yearly Kono Manga wa Sugoi! rankings, as well as winning an award from Kodansha the same year. The anime adaptation in 2019 gathered even more fans to the series thanks to its quite unique animation style and became one of Netflix's most popular anime.
  • BOFURI: I Don't Want to Get Hurt, so I'll Max Out My Defense was a relatively unknown light novel prior to it receiving an anime adaptation, and even once it did, it didn't garner much attention due to its premise as a VRMMO-centered series, which there were plenty of. Once it did start airing, the series quickly gained a strong community following for its light-hearted take on the VRMMO genre, consistently clean animation, and many entertaining scenarios courtesy of its protagonist, to the point where a second season was immediately announced at the end of Season 1.
  • CLANNAD first appeared in the U.S. only in a subbed version.note  The series became known as a modern classic, and Sentai Filmworks released dubs for both the first series and ~After Story~. This ended up leading to a very successful Kickstarter campaign to license the original visual novel for an official English release.
  • The anime adaptation of Deadman Wonderland certainly qualifies, albeit in the United States. After a lukewarm reception in Japan, the series got cancelled and the rights were practically given away to FUNimation. When it became part of [adult swim]'s revival of Toonami, however, the series became an unexpected hit for the new block, with later episodes topping one million viewers.
  • Demon King Daimao had a very average reception in Japan, where it was written off as an action and fanservice show. In the U.S., however, it got good ratings on the Anime Network, only rivaling Highschool of the Dead. As a result, it was able to get an English dub, and its DVDs were able to sell just as well as HOTD, CLANNAD and Angel Beats!. Was it the fanservice or the action that got its attention? Regardless, it's a rather odd example of this, seeing as there doesn't seem to be much of a fanbase compared with the other series.
  • Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a particularly extreme example. Launched in 2016, it had good but not particularly outstanding sales numbers (by Shonen Jump standards, at least) and didn't garner much conversation until its anime adaptation was announced. But near the end of the anime's run around August-September 2019, the manga's sales exploded, every single volume making it to the top 50 of the Oricon sales ranking for more than a year straight. In November 2019, Demon Slayer became the first manga in more than a decade to outsell One Piece during the year (12 million copies against 10 million for One Piece). By May 2020, just as the series ended, it had sold 45 million more copies, obliterating One Piece's yearly sales record of 38 million… in only half-a-year, and with only 19 volumes at that point. Theories abound about what caused such an unprecedented boost, but many point towards episode 19 of the animated adaptation, which was praised for its stunning production and music, even more so than the rest of the anime, and trended on social networks.
  • 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).
  • For an anime initially expected to cater to a small niche, Girls und Panzer was a breakout hit in Japan. Its Blu-rays 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.
  • This happened when Kyoto Animation adapted the Haruhi Suzumiya Light Novels, which had limited underground success up to that point. Thanks to the anime adaptation, it became one of the most popular anime franchises of the 2000s and a huge Cash Cow Franchise. Unfortunately, the demotion of Atsushi Ito, the Kadokawa executive who had pushed for Haruhi to be animated, was one of the factors that led to the death of the franchise by the beginning of The New '10s.
  • Hetalia: Axis Powers 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.
  • K-On! went from being an unknown Yonkoma to a marketing juggernaut when it was adapted into a 12-Episode Anime by Kyoto Animation. The first season was popular enough to spawn a second season, which was given a 26 episode run, and a movie sidestory, which became the highest grossing film to be based from a late night series until Puella Magi Madoka Magica the Movie: Rebellion topped its record.
  • Kaguya-sama: Love is War managed to become one of the best selling romance manga in the world (#2 at the end of 2019, and the only one to outsell it ended shortly afterwards) despite lacking the fanservice and harem elements that most of its contemporaries have, and coming from an author who never found success with any of their previous works. And that's without factoring in how insanely popular its anime adaptation is.
  • Kemono Friends is an incredible example. As a conspicuously low-budget CG anime based on a failing franchise, it wasn't on anyone's radar. Even the creators expected it to flop—the mobile game it was meant to promote was cancelled before the anime aired, its manga wasn't talked about at all when it premiered, and they hadn't planned to sell any merchandise. As it turned out, the generally decent writing, solid character designs and surprisingly compelling Ontological Mystery made for a solid watch, and it ultimately became extremely popular through internet word-of-mouth. Its first episode became the most-watched anime episode on Nico Nico Douga; disc sets and merch quickly sold out, and the "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune reached #3 on Japan's iTunes rankings. People began reading the manga in earnest to see the connections between it and the show, and eventually the clamor to bring back the mobile game became so great that Nexon backtracked and said they were considering reviving it while another company created two of them in its place.
  • Initially, many wrote the anime adaptation for KonoSuba off as yet another generic light novel harem and the fact that Studio DEEN was working on it didn't help matters either, not to mention that it was only scheduled to have 10 episodes rather than the usual 12. However, after the first episode aired, people were surprised at how funny the show actually ended up being and loved its charming brand of self-aware parody humor especially when many "trapped in a video game" anime usually take themselves far more seriously. It was one of the most well-received anime in the Winter 2016 season and it absolutely dominated the sales charts in Japan, and a second season was announced at the end of the final episode.
  • 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 Cutie Downer 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 a sudden interest in the original 4koma material.
  • Love Live! began as a small project within Dengeki G's Magazine and wasn't popular at first, with the first CD for the franchise only selling 434 copies during its first year. It wasn't until the release of the anime and Love Live! School Idol Festival that the franchise became one of the most popular among otaku.
  • 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.
  • My Hero Academia became an unexpected hit. The mangaka, Kohei Horikoshi, had two previous short-lived attempts, and the one-shot the series was based on wasn't that well-received. In America, Naruto fans looked to it as a series that could fill the void after it ended.
  • When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in its native Japan in 1988, it took two years in theaters before it became profitable. It technically made only $45 million at the box office, with about half of that coming from a 2018 release in China. However, once it hit home release and started selling merchandise, it took on a new life, especially once Fox distributed a VHS version in the U.S. in the early '90s. By the end of 2019, it made a total of $1.5 billion in revenue across theatrical releases, home releases, and merchandise.
  • My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom! came out of nowhere to become the smash hit of the Spring 2020 season. At first, many people who read the synopsis before release dismissed it as just another Isekai with a really silly premise. However, after the show was released, fans began to fall in love with the wholesomeness and cuteness of Catarina's character, and word-of-mouth quickly spread about its rare mixed-gender harem premise. It became so popular that only a few weeks in, all of Catarina's ships were 7 of the 10 'best couples' in a weekly survey by Anime Trending. A second season was thus announced before the first had even finished airing.
  • Omamori Himari is a fairly obscure manga in Japan, but became incredibly popular in North America, with multiple books on best-seller lists for manga and even topping long runners like One Piece, Fairy Tail and (almost) even Sailor Moon.
  • Osomatsu-san is a sequel to and was based on the older Fujio Akatsuka work Osomatsu-kun, but it was only expected to have moderate success thanks to nostalgia. However, the series was one of the breakout hits of the Fall 2015 Anime season. Even the staff has no idea how it became so radically successful.
  • A Place Further than the Universe is definitely this. At first, many audiences wrote this anime off as a standard fare of "cute girls doing cute things", albeit with a slightly different premise.note  But from the first episode to the last, many were shocked by its surprisingly good writing, strong characterizations, well-made animations and some truly well-earned tearjerking moments, so much so that they gave unanimous praise for these qualities. Notably, The New York Times even included it on their list of the Best TV Shows of 2018, specifically eighth in the Best International category.
  • Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon were this in the West. Anime was still proving its viability to an international audience in the late '90s, and both Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon had done poorly in U.S. syndication before finally finding their audience on Toonami in 1998. The mainstream success of all three shows in North America took almost everyone involved with them by surprise. In addition, shows like Tenchi Muyo!, Ranma ½, Slayers, and Neon Genesis Evangelion were among the first anime to find wide audiences and fanbases in North America, far exceeding any expectations.
  • Pretty Cure:
    • Despite being one of the biggest modern day cash cow franchises in Japan today (rivaling even its much older contemporaries in Super Sentai, Kamen Rider, and even One Piece), the original Pretty 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 its 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 My-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 its footsteps allowed them to become popular as well, reviving a genre then almost dead in Japan.
    • Maho Girls PreCure itself was this. Before its release, the Pretty Cure franchise had declining ratings and merchandise sales due to the surprise successes of Frozen, Aikatsu!, and PriPara amongst the target audience. Then Maho Girls Pretty Cure came, with a storyline many young kids could relate to, the main characters being able to use magic to do anything they wanted, from changing their clothes to making food for their friends, a mascot who is treated as a main character, and beautiful, collectible stone charms as the key item for the series. This surprise success led to the show gaining ratings that hadn't been seen since Smile Pretty Cure!, sales for the franchise being recovered, a movie that became the highest-grossing Pretty Cure film to date, and Cure Miracle and Cure Magical becoming two of the official anime ambassadors of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
  • PriPara was Takara Tomy's attempt at cashing in on Aikatsu! after their previous girls' multimedia franchise, Pretty Rhythm, bombed, so many people didn't expect it to do well. But the series' message of "Anyone can become an idol!", the simple gameplay of the arcade version, the idol group i☆Ris being a part of it, and it being a mix of the Magical Girl and Idol Singer genres made it a major success. It even extends to Pretty Rhythm Rainbow Live's own male-focused spin off film, KING OF PRISM by PrettyRhythm. Though the series it was based on did not so hot in ratings, KING OF PRISM proved explosively popular with the teenaged girl audience, netting it a nearly one year long box office run. By the end of the run of the film, a second was greenlit to air the very next year.
  • The Promised Neverland started during a transition period in Weekly Shonen Jump, after many big hitters of the magazine ended. In that time where many new series were launched and swiftly cancelled, came two authors no one had ever heard about with a horror-mystery series that seemed completely out of place in the magazine's catalogue. Then word about its chapter 1 twist and its intense psychological battles spread and the series' popularity quickly skyrocketed. After two years, its volume sales already started rivaling long-established series like Food Wars! or Haikyuu!!, and that was before its anime adaptation was even announced.
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica was initially pitched as a 13 episode series before it became a 12 episode series. It became a breakout hit 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.
  • Believe it or not, one of the series which drawed most attention from anime viewers, at least in Asia, during the heated-up Winter 2021 season is Pui Pui Molcar. The series remains largely unknown in the West, but watching a bunch of unbelievably cute vehicles that look and act like giant guinea pigs doing things for 3 minutes surely doesn't hurt much. In fact, its official Twitter account has the highest numbers of followers among all the new titles aired that season (sitting over 300k which is at least three times that of the next contender Idoly Pride) and ranked 5th overall (as of early February it's just behind four sequel titles aired), with numerous fan art with different Molcars spread around the Internet. Even the producers are surprised about its popularity.
  • 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.
  • Re:Zero was panned initially for being another isekai that revolved around an otaku being summoned to another world with harem following him around. It was somewhat more anticipated in Japan as they could read the original books. However, there were no translations of the original books in English as well as the fact that the manga covered less than three episodes worth of material. As a result, it was not very anticipated among foreign viewers. To add on to this, the initial reviews were So Okay, It's Average, praising the technical merits but criticizing the overdone plot. However, the series quickly reworked itself, adding in expansive world building, interesting characters, and a heavy mix of archetype deconstruction of the stereotypical isekai which culminated in a major Wham Episode in episode 7, finally putting on equal footing with the other established major hits like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable, My Hero Academia, and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. It continued the tone until it hit an even greater Wham Episode in Episode 15, drawing comparisons with End of Evangelion, Puella Magi Madoka Magica episode 3, or the Eclipse from Berserk, making it one of the biggest contenders for Anime of the Year for 2016.
  • Robotech began as a very obscure show that many TV stations bought only because they assumed that due to the title, it would be just like other "robot shows" of the time such as The Transformers and Challenge of the GoBots. Despite probably knowing that it was a Japanese import, they also assumed that it would most likely follow the same route as Voltron by removing graphic violence, death, and mature themes. When it was realized that Robotech was a serious show, many stations immediately relegated it 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 bestselling novelizations and numerous comic book series. While many purists consider the show to be the original example of Macekre, Robotech retains a historical significance due to the fact that it was Fair for Its Day.
  • The animated adaptation of School-Live! became the hit anime of Summer 2015 during its airing despite it not being hyped as one of the most anticipated anime before that thanks to its misleading premise. Its success led to a very high rise in manga sales as a result, becoming one of the best-selling manga at the time.
  • Tiger & Bunny. According to several articles, T&B was an unexpected success in both ratings and DVD/Blu-ray sales — and this put a lot of pressure on Sunrise's next projects.
  • WorldEnd: What Do You Do at the End of the World? Are You Busy? Will You Save Us? was originally only supposed to last two or three volumes due to poor sales. However, the series received an enormous amount of critical praise and earned a top spot on the yearly light novel rankings. This boosted the series enough to receive a sequel and anime adaptation. At first, many in the West dismissed the anime as yet another light novel adaptation in a crowded season. It had a ridiculous name and seemingly cliché plot. Yet in spite of this, it managed to became one of the most talked about anime of the season. Much like with Re:Zero, the initial look was deceiving. Rather than the typical light novel power fantasy, we were given a Failure Hero protagonist who behaved like an actual adult. The well developed romance between Willem and Chtholly was another pleasant surprise. Finally its heartrendingly tragic ending left many watchers in tears. Suffice to say, many fans went straight to the light novel following the anime's conclusion.
  • Yo-Kai Watch went from an unknown video game to a marketing juggernaut when the anime came out. At one point, like Frozen below, the merchandise sold out and was scarce to find, mostly the medals and the watch, until nearly a year after the show premiered.
  • While Makoto Shinkai was already a fairly known animator even in the eyes of mainstream Japan, Your Name was not expected to do as well as it did. The anime movie was slated to hit theaters on the last weekend of August, with the general expectation being that it would cater mainly to the otaku audience and not have a wide appeal to the average Joe. The movie topped Japanese box office for 9 weeks straight (its streak was broken by Death Note: Light Up the New World, which bumped it to number 2 for a week, before resuming the number 1 spot for several more weeks) and earned over 150 billion yen (about $148 million), handily defeating Shin Godzilla and Zootopia as the highest grossing movie of 2016 in Japan and became the first non-Hayao Miyazaki anime film to cross over the 100 billion yen threshold. Likewise, its novelization also has topped Japanese paperback book chart for 8 weeks straight and has sold over a million copies, making it the 34th book to do so in history. By early 2017, the movie achieved huge successes overseas, making it the highest grossing anime film in China, South Korea and eventually becoming the highest grossing anime film of all time worldwide. As of July 2017, its box office had surpassed Spirited Away, becoming the highest grossing anime movie in Japan of all time, earning over $225 million domestically and over $350 million internationally.
  • Yuri!!! on Ice was this for the Fall 2016 Anime season, both in Japan and abroad. Many assumed it would only be a modest success, since it was an original anime that focused on the not-very-mainstream sport of figure skating. However, it steadily grew in popularity, which exploded when the seventh episode aired and both the Yaoi Fangirl crowd and the LGBT Fanbase caught wind that the main character really did end up with his coach rather than it just being Ship Tease with the rug pulled out from under the shippers later. In the West, all you have to do is look at Crunchyroll at the beginning and end of the season; at the start, the only thing they were promoting besides Naruto was the fanservice romp Keijo!!!!!!!!. By the time the last episode of Yuri!!!! on Ice aired, it had supplanted Keijo!!!!!!!! and every other show on the site as the most popular and most advertised series of Fall 2016. It was also hugely successful in Japanese Blu-ray and DVD sales, surpassing fifty thousand copies in the first week and becoming the fourth best-selling anime of all time less than a year after its release.
  • Zombie Land Saga: Up until its first episode released, it looked like it would be a straightforward zombie horror anime in the likes of High School Of The Dead or School-Live!. Absolutely nobody expected it to be an Idol Singer Horror Comedy, and that shock value, combined with lovable characters and rather unorthodox musical numbers, lead it to being one of the most popular anime of the Fall 2018 season.

    Card Games 
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird decided to make a one-shot based on a dumb idea that made them laugh during a night brainstorming, drinking beer and watching bad TV. As Self-Deprecation, the self-published comic was hailed as being from "Mirage Studios", given there was no actual company. And yet Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sold out its 3,275 copies, and the successful reprints led the duo to make an ongoing. A few years later, a toy line (rejected by big companies) and a cartoon adaptation broke the Turtles into the mainstream, and the rest is history.
  • 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. Several solicitations for the series lampshaded this, one of which even used the term Sleeper Hit.
  • X-Men '92 was a 5-issue mini-series designed for Secret Wars. However, unlike Old Man Logan, which was already popular and planning to become a full-fledged series in the All-New, All-Different Marvel lineup, this one took everyone by surprise, leading to them approving of an ongoing in 2016.
  • Silk launched right before Marvel were planning the above-mentioned All New revamp, starring a controversial Spider-Man character who was considered The Scrappy and a Creator's Pet at best. Despite a lukewarm amount of hype before release, the series ended up being surprisingly really good, succeeding in allowing Silk to be Rescued from the Scrappy Heap and connecting to audiences thanks to the titular character's battle with anxiety. It became a modest seller (by no means one of their highest-selling books, but enough that it got to stay on as part of the All-New revamp, and maintained decent sales all throughout its run), and by the time it ended, was considered one of Marvel's best Spider-Man-related books being released at the time.
  • During the Marvel NOW! (2016) era, one of the titles released was Unstoppable Wasp. However, the title was caught up in Marvel's Dork Age and was cancelled after seven issues. However, the title had strong and consistent sales in the trade paperback that the title was revived as part of 2018's Marvel: A Fresh Start imitative.

    Comic Strips 
  • Pearls Before Swine was this, according to Stephan Pastis. The sales staff at United Features Syndicate didn't think the strip was going to sell, so it was placed online-only on the syndicate's website for about a year (while common today, this was unheard of back when the strip began). What got it launched in newspapers was that Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was a fan of the strip and endorsed it in his newsletter. The readership increased as a result, and with Adams' support, the sales staff now had enough clout to get it sold to newspapers. It has since appeared in over 750 newspapers, has over a dozen book collections, and was even turned into an animated web series.
  • Calvin and Hobbes debuted without much fanfare in 1985 in 35 newspapers, OK for a new strip in that era but not a phenomenal number. Its rather quirky premise probably made it a tough sell at first. But word of mouth was strong, and by its one-year anniversary the number of subscribing newspapers had grown to over 250, and in the spring of 1987 the first book collection became a runaway best-seller.

    Films — Animation 
  • Disney:
    • After the financial failures of Pinocchio and Fantasia on their initial releases (they've since been Vindicated by History), Disney planned for his next feature Dumbo to be a faster, 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.
    • 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. The former was and still is the highest grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time.
    • The Little Mermaid is a special case, as when it was first released, Disney didn't really expect it to be too big a success, especially with The Great Mouse Detective being beaten by An American Tail in 1986 and Oliver & Company being beaten by The Land Before Time in 1988. When The Little Mermaid went up against All Dogs Go to Heaven in 1989, Disney actually beat Don Bluth that year! The Little Mermaid's success in 1989 was what led to Beauty and the Beast in 1991, Aladdin in 1992 and The Lion King in 1994. The success of Mermaid also led to other animated musicals, not just from Disney, but from other animation studios.
    • Disney had little faith in Robin Hood to the point that they had to resort to re-using animation from previous animated films. It still became a commercial success.
    • Tangled wasn't expected to do particularly well, given that Disney's previous princess movie was a relative disappointment in terms of ticket and merchandise sales. It went on to make $591 million (more than any other Disney animated movie at the time excluding The Lion King) and the main character Rapunzel went on to become one of Disney's most popular princesses.
    • Frozen was this in several aspects:
      • Disney at first hoped Frozen would do as well as Tangled, which looked like a tossup after the opening weekend. It ended up still making money in theaters several months after release. Eventually it topped Iron Man 3 to become the top-grossing film of 2013, making it one of the slowest films to do so on its initial release. At 155 days, it was also the slowest film to reach $400 million at the domestic box office. So it took a while, but the audience kept coming.
      • The soundtrack and "Let It Go" also banked on the film's success. After word-of-mouth gave Frozen some steam, the sales of the soundtrack started picking up, and YouTube hits for official versions of "Let It Go"note  were getting higher and higher, some into the hundreds of millions. Furthermore, the Demi Lovato version was the version Disney was banking on to become a hit single, but the film version overshadowed the Rewritten Pop Version, ended up being the version to appear on compilation albums, and even reaching top 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 chart despite minimal airplay at first.
      • Even the merchandise was this. Disney based projections for toy sales based on initial sales of their previous princess films, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, and some of the toys initially didn't even meet those. Suddenly, merchandise across the board was selling out for months. Even over five years later, Frozen merch is some of Disney's hottest. Some Disney fan videos assume that the main reason Anna and Elsa aren't part of the Disney Princess line is because the "Frozen" toyline is still selling so well.
      • A Forbes article suggested that this was a deliberate strategy by Disney. Disney's marketing and trailers had sold it as yet another kid flick, emphasizing Olaf (the kid-appeal talking snowman who would ordinarily gather an instant Periphery Hatedom) and similar kiddie elements. Then when parents got to the theatre, they were treated to one of the coolest films in years, and told all their friends about it, causing the film's popularity to surge wildly after the opening weekend.
    • Many people thought Zootopia would mainly be just a "filler" movie before Disney's next princess film Moana, and that its domestic box office grosses would be in line with Big Hero 6's at best (i.e. a little over $200 million). Then reviews and word-of-mouth spread about how Zootopia wasn't just a great film but also a highly topical story about prejudice. It ultimately ended up grossing over a billion dollars worldwide and is the second highest-grossing Disney Animation Studios film behind Frozen. This was nearly double the box office of Moana, which still ended up a respectable hit. It’s the highest grossing completely original movie (not based on an existing IP, a real event, or part of a franchise) 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.
  • 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.
  • Despicable Me managed to net a terrific gross and critical reception, especially impressive given it was the debut for Universal's Illumination Entertainment and came out in the same year as How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and Tangled, and even outdid dueling film Megamind, despite that film being made by an established studio. The blockbuster successes of its sequels and the Minions spin-off have turned it into a bankable Cash Cow Franchise.
  • Hotel Transylvania was seen by most people as just another goofy CGI animated comedy, and many thought it would fail, given that the more recent Adam Sandler movies of the time had a bad track record. But good word of mouth among kids combined with how much they love monsters helped it have the then-biggest September opening weekend for any movie. The success of the film spawned two sequels that were also big hits and a TV show, making the series Sony's very own Cash Cow Franchise.
  • 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.
  • Inside Out, having a mainly-female cast of main characters, was expected to not fare as well as previous Pixar movies. Then people actually watched it and had very positive reactions to it, scoring a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, becoming Pixar's biggest original success since Toy Story, and fully helping them Win Back the Crowd after a string of lackluster films. Although Jurassic World caused it to become the first Pixar film not to open at #1, Inside Out holds the honor of having the highest grossing opening not at #1 of all time (the previous champion being The Day After Tomorrow), as well as the highest-grossing Thursday opening of any animated film. Inside Out is also starting to become a cash cow for Disney due to its surprise success, but not as big as Frozen was - it was one of the best-selling DVDs and Blu-rays of 2015, merchandise is still being produced long after its release, a Disney on Ice show with Riley's emotions taking center stage has been produced, and a successful meet and greet has taken place at Disney World. And even within that, the character of Bing Bong could be considered this. He was kept a secret by the filmmakers until merchandise came out, but he later became such an Ensemble Darkhorse that plushies of him became one of the hard-to-find Christmas toys of 2015, selling for double the retail price; essentially, Bing Bong became the new Olaf.
  • Isle of Dogs had a lot stacked up against it—it was a PG-13 animated film that wasn't a comedy, and it was directed by Wes Anderson, whose record of success was spotty to say the least. Unsurprisingly, many people expected it to bomb the way his previous animated outing, Fantastic Mr. Fox, did. Thanks to positive word of mouth and a relative lack of competition, it managed to gross $64 million on an estimated $30 million budget.
  • Kung Fu Panda is definitely a major example. Based on humorous clips in the trailers and the choice of having Jack Black voice the main character, many expected it to be a comedic satire of Martial Arts Movies. Much to everyone's surprise, the film was actually faithful to Chinese culture and had a powerful, dramatic storyline. Even China commended it as the way to do a Kung Fu movie. The film has since replaced Shrek as DreamWorks's Cash Cow Franchise.
  • 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 and The Monuments Men with ease, and ultimately grossing more than $400 million worldwide.note  The film's surprise success has guaranteed it a sequel, two spin-off films, and a spin-off TV series (although none of these spinoffs have matched the original's success).
  • Though it was only a limited release during June 2013 (it was originally intended to be a simple Made-for-TV Movie), and its initial announcement was met with ire from fans, My Little Pony: Equestria Girls actually was a huge success due to its parent show's massive fandom and the fact that it wasn't the clichéd Monster High ripoff said fandom expected it to be. Many screenings played to sold-out houses, causing more showtimes to be added to the movie's original showtimes. Later on, Hasbro/DHX got the hint to create two follow-up movies (Rainbow Rocks was released in September 2014, while Friendship Games was released September 2015), with a third headed for Netflix in 2016. It also helps that the toys and other merch sells very well.
  • The Prince of Egypt is buried under many of DreamWorks Animation's later CGI successes, but it opened in second on its opening weekend and was the highest grossing non-Disney animated film until Chicken Run and the highest grossing non-Disney animated film until The Simpsons Movie.
  • Sausage Party was practically an Audience-Alienating Premise when trailers for the film were finally released. It's an R-rated lowbrow comedy starring Seth Rogen and features anthropomorphic food engaging in a lot of raunchy humor. So naturally, many people expected it to fail. However, upon release, it was critically acclaimed and managed to make back its budget, with most people saying that the film is Better Than It Sounds.
  • The Secret Life of Pets was not expected to do well, and was expected to only make as much as Illumination's films that weren't Despicable Me. But good word of mouth, along with a Minions short at the beginning of the film, helped the movie become successful. It topped the box office for two weeks and beat out Ice Age: Collision Course on its opening weekend.
  • SpongeBob SquarePants:
    • Similar to the HTTYD example, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie was not expected to do well, given the recent track run of Nicktoon-based movies, all of which were beaten out by Disney films.note  Positive word of mouth shot the movie to #2 on its first weekend, only beaten by another Disney effort. Before Sponge out of Water was released, it was the second highest-grossing 2D theatrical adaptation of a Nicktoon (the first being The Rugrats Movie).
    • The Spongebob Movie Sponge Out Of Water repeated the trick. It was originally expected to have a $30-40 million opening weekend but ended up grossing more than $50 million. It became the #1 movie in America (knocking American Sniper from the top spot) and not only scored the second-highest opening for an animated film based on a TV show (after The Simpsons Movie), but dethroned Scooby-Doo for the highest-grossing opening weekend for a Live-Action Adaptation of a TV show aimed at children.note  This surprise success made SpongeBob the only Nicktoon to date to have all of its movies top the box office for at least one weekend. It also made more than the previous film and became the highest-grossing animated Nicktoon-based film (beating Rugrats' record) in just two weeks! The success of this film has many fans of traditionally-animated films hoping that this will cause 2D animated films to come back in style. Due to this, like Frozen above, The Merch of the film sold out and took months to meet demand.
  • Trolls was released when everyone believed that DreamWorks was well past its prime, having released a long string of original movies beforehand that, while none were actually bombs, could be considered as such for the standards they had established. However, due to Trolls being a musical, the fact that it was the first DreamWorks film aimed at children after years of making movies aimed mostly at a general family range, and star Justin Timberlake deliberately stabbing at the Breakaway Pop Hit trope by releasing the soundtrack's lead single "Can't Stop the Feeling!" well before the movie's release date, Trolls became one of the most successful movies of fall 2016, and eventually started a Cash Cow Franchise. This improved further when the sequel Trolls: World Tour was released, since it was considered a Surprisingly Improved Sequel.
    • A bigger example of this happened in Japan with the spin-off series Trolls: The Beat Goes On!. Before the series began, Dreamworks Animation's films didn't do as well in Japan as they did overseas. After multiple box office failures in the country, ending with Megamind being released the exact same weekend as a major earthquake, the films went Direct to Video, including Trolls, where they still weren't gaining an audience. Despite this, TV Tokyo picked up the rights to The Beat Goes On! and tried hyping it up by using well-known Japanese celebrities as the voices of the characters and having idol group Tsubaki Factory promote the show. These methods paid off as the show wound up being a major success in Japan.
  • Many viewers were initially worried that Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit would not do well outside of its native England, given that the series is not well-known in America. When it was released though, it was well-received by American audiences and ended up topping the box office there. Though given the North American success of Chicken Run, which was made by the same studio, was it really a surprise?
  • Sing had a relatively under-the-radar debut during Rogue One complete domination of the box office in December 2016, but it wound up becoming successful anyway in its own terms; it was the second consecutive sleeper hit for Illumination after Secret Life of Pets, ending My Big Fat Greek Wedding's 13-year-long reign as the highest-grossing film to never be ranked #1 at the U.S. domestic box office, and outgrossing Moana, an animated film that had debuted during the same season with more hype surrounding it.
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse debuted in 2018 at #1 the weekend before the other big-budget Christmas franchises (Aquaman (2018), Bumblebee, Mary Poppins Returns) with a good, but not great $35 million. As the winter of 2019 wore on, it began to hold much better than its competition. Probably due to its incredible word of mouth and the fact that after Christmas there was no real reason to see The Grinch (2018) and this was the only other kids' movie out. It surpassed both the domestic and international totals of Mary Poppins Returns, despite it opening to $58 million domestically. It stomped the domestic total of Bumblebee by over $50 million but couldn't reach its international total (the Transformers franchise is incredibly popular in foreign markets, especially the huge Chinese market). It even managed to be "leggier" than the billion-dollar juggernaut of Aquaman as its domestic total was 5.29x its opening weekend whereas Aquaman 's was 4.6x.
  • The Addams Family (2019) was released in a year where most animated films released up to that point had underperformed, if not outright bombed. Even films from some established studios were struggling, and the only other notable movie from this film's studio was Sausage Party. It opened to over $30M Worldwide, and ended up making over $200M on a $24M budget. A sequel is currently set to be released in 2021.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Blair Witch Project was a small, independent horror flick, made with just three no-name actors and a few handheld cameras for $25,000. It turned out to be a monstrous success; not only did it help jumpstart the found-footage horror movie, it grossed nearly $250 million, or ten-thousand times its budget, and still holds the world record for highest cost-to-profit margin of a film, ever.
  • Star Wars is a really notorious case. It's hard to believe now, but the movie was expected to tank. 20th Century Fox had such little faith in it that they gave a mild surplus to Damnation Alley instead. It only opened in 37 theaters. Word of mouth convinced 20th Century Fox to give it a proper release:
    Mark Hamill: We didn't even have a poster. [beat] There was no poster!
  • The Sixth Sense is another famous case. It was created by a then-unknown first time director, released in the doldrums of August, and stunned everyone by riding a tidal wave of "You HAVE to see this movie's twist!" word of mouth to come in second to only The Phantom Menace in 1999 box office grosses.
  • It Happened One Night is arguably the original example. The film was made on a low budget by a small studio and a director that had yet to make a name for himself. Columbia had little faith in the film, and spent almost nothing on advertising, while both of its stars wanted to distance themselves from the project. The film was originally released to average box office, but positive word-of-mouth eventually spread, and the film amassed a huge cult following, especially in rural areas. It later went on to sweep the Oscars in 1935, unheard of at the time for a smaller movie.
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the gold standard example of a sleeper hit film. It was a low-budget indie with no bankable actors (John Corbett, known for a stint on Sex and the City, and NSYNC's Joey Fatone were the film's biggest names) and almost no marketing budget, and opened in only about a hundred theaters, but strong performance and positive word-of-mouth allowed it to expand, eventually reaching wide release (600+ theaters) in its sixteenth week. Its box office returns defied industry gravity, increasing for six consecutive weekends, and then barely dropping week after week. It grossed $241 million domestically and was the fifth highest grossing film of the year, beating several big-budget summer tentpoles. It finally left theaters after a run of 52 weeks, 28 in which were in wide release, marking one of the longest runs ever for a film in the home video era. It set a few impressive domestic box office records: the highest-grossing film to never spend a weekend at #1 note , and the the highest grossing film without major studio backing.
  • Napoleon Dynamite was produced for a paltry $400,000 by a first time director, with all unknown actors. It opened in only six theaters and strong word of mouth kept it performing strongly week after week, finally reaching wide release after twelve weeks, and earned $44 million during its run, an extraordinary gross for a film that was essentially a no-budget passion project.
  • The Ring earned a modest $15 million during its opening weekend but positive word-of-mouth encouraged DreamWorks to expand the film and its box office actually increased in its second weekend, almost unheard of for horror films and films playing during non-holiday frames. The film held well for the next two months and earned over $129 million in the US. The film's success 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 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 cancelled 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 movie was initially dismissed as yet another entry into the beaten-like-a-dead-horse slasher 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 screening in the history of the studio. Expected to die quickly in the heat of summer 1997 against films such as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and The Fifth Element, the film opened decently but kept on going to a respectable final gross in the U.S. of $50 million. When it came out on home video it became phenomenon that led it to be the most rented film in 1997 (and still in the top 10 one year later) and two sequels have been made since. Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me 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.
  • 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.
  • There's Something About Mary wasn't a huge hit at first, and only got a small release, but positive word of mouth shot it to the top of the box office in its 8th week of release, making back its $23 million budget more than 15 times over, as well as catapulting Ben Stiller and Cameron Diaz into the limelight.
  • 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).
  • No one could’ve expected Black Swan to be as big a hit as it was. An extremely disturbing Mind Screw released around Christmas lead many to think that it would only appeal to artsy and in-the-know cinephiles. However, thanks to the critical acclaim, the shoo-in-for-Oscar performance of Natalie Portman, and of course, the people just there for the sexual content it wound up grossing over $100 million in the US alone, had a tally of over $300 million worldwide, and got a Best Actress Oscar win for Natalie Portman.
  • 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, 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.
  • Dirty Dancing was 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 a sensation 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. The unexpected successes for both films got Swayze nicknamed "King of the Sleepers" for a period.
  • 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 budget, but great critical acclaim and positive word of mouth resulted in a box office performance of nearly $211 million.
  • 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 its 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.
  • Another American Godzilla after the derided Roland Emmerich movie did not seem like a good idea. Yet Godzilla (2014) won over critics and audiences and started a MonsterVerse, continued by Kong: Skull Island.
  • Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars are two films adapted from young-adult novels, both starring Shailene Woodley. Ever since The Hunger Games came out, other young-adult adaptations flopped, and these two were expected to follow suit. They didn't, and proved to be profitable films with big $50 million openings and helped strongly boost sales. It's saying something when a movie based on one of the most lucrative children's franchises in history and an action movie starring one of the most bankable actors of all time, respectively, flopped just by going against them, at least in America.
  • 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. Equally outlandish sequels followed.
  • 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.
  • 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 - see above). 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. It also helps that fans of the source material considered it a surprisingly well-done adaptation, considering the low track record of Western-made adaptations of Eastern media. A sequel is even scheduled.
  • There was almost no buzz for John Wick when it was first announced, especially after star Keanu Reeveslast film. With initial estimates of a soft $7-8 million opening, it seemed doomed to mediocrity. Then the surprisingly positive reviews and buzz came in and boosted the film to an impressive $14 million opening weekend. It finished its run with box office returns four times its budget, started a Career Resurrection for Reeves, and eventually got a sequel.
  • Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey was not expected to do well, yet upon its release it topped the box office two weeks in a row.
  • Back in the summer of 1986, many people expected Ferris Bueller's Day Off to be very successful. However, it didn't do as well as Back to School did, thanks to the good word of mouth the latter film got, grossing $20 million more than Ferris Bueller did. The ironic part? Unlike Ferris Bueller, this movie rarely gets referenced at all in modern pop culture, only ever being parodied on certain animated shows.
  • Bring It On was made with a rather paltry $10 million budget, and had a pretty under-the-radar production.note  When it was released in 2000, the highest expectations the cast and crew had was that it might take second place at the box-office to the still-popular-at-the-time Wesley Snipes film The Art of War. To everybody's surprise, the movie topped the box office (moving star Kirsten Dunst to tears), has had a long life on DVD, and spawned a franchise that includes four direct-to-DVD sequels and a Broadway adaptation.
  • Mainstream producers in the Philippines were initially skeptical about Heneral Luna, as they expected a historical film would be a niche title at best amongst audiences glued to so-called "love teams", chick flicks or comedies. It was proven otherwise when the film was released to critical acclaim, earning over ₱163 million for an independent production with a limited budget.
  • The 2015 Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg comedy Daddy's Home did much better than anyone else was expecting. It had mixed reviews going in, and opened on Christmas Day, going up against The Force Awakens in its 2nd weekend, and yet it still did remarkably well for itself. It had surprisingly good staying power as well, only decreasing 24.6% in its 2nd weekend. By the end of its domestic run, it had made $150 million, which was surprising for what was thought to just be a throwaway comedy.
  • The original Halloween was made on No Budget and the only name of note was Donald Pleasence, as PJ Soles would have been known only for Carrie and Jamie Lee Curtis had not made a film before. The film grossed $47 million, turned Jamie Lee Curtis into a star, and popularized the slasher genre.
  • Lights Out was a movie based on a two-minute short film, directed by newcomer David F. Sandberg, and made for $4.9 million. Within one week of its premiere, it had gained back 12 times its budget around the world and has already been greenlit to have a sequel.
  • Bad Moms had at least three serious factors working against it: it was released in 2016 during a very brutal summer box office season; multiple R-rated comedies had already underperformed or outright bombed earlier that year (including Ride Along 2, Zoolander 2, Dirty Grandpa, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, The Nice Guys, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates); and Mila Kunis’ previous leading role was the major flop Jupiter Ascending less than eighteen months earlier. This film wasn't expected to do any better, and it opened to a modest $23.8 million, but positive word of mouth helped keep its audience week after week, and it eventually grossed over $110 million domestically and $179 million total worldwide on a light $20 million budget. The recently formed STX Entertainment, which had released the bomb Free State of Jones earlier in the year, got its biggest (and only?) hit to date and it led to a 2017 sequel, A Bad Moms Christmas, with at least one more spinoff on the way.
  • Split was produced for only $9 million, and was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, whose career was recovering from the flops The Last Airbender and After Earth. It was scheduled for mid-January, usually a dumping ground for expected flops, and also opened during a period of mostly hit-or-miss horror films at the box office (The Bye Bye Man bombed just a week earlier). Split opened to surprisingly strong reviews and grossed $40 million in its opening weekend, and stayed at #1 for three weeks. It has grossed $100 million domestically, and $150 million worldwide, over 15 times its budget.
  • Hidden Figures's success was a huge surprise. It wasn't expected to flop, but it also wasn't expected to do any better than the other Oscar front-runners of 2016, and a total gross of $50 million was a safe guess (on par with Hacksaw Ridge, Fences and Manchester by the Sea). It ended up opening wide at #1 with $23 million, dethroning Rogue One, and made another $21 million in its second week (again at #1). It has gone on to make $120 million domestically and $150 worldwide on a modest $25 million budget, and is the highest grossing Best Picture nominee of 2016, beating even La La Land. In addition, while Octavia Spencer was always expected to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, the film's Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations also came as a surprise to many.
  • Moonlight, is an example of this. The movie had a budget of $1.5 million and contained no big stars, with the lead roles being played by unknown actors. It also has an entirely black cast and deals with poverty and LGBT themes. The movie managed to make 50 times its budget at the box office and win three Oscars (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay), becoming both the first LGBT film and the first film with an all-black cast to take the Best Picture honor.
  • Get Out, a little horror film that cost less than $5 million to produce and was a black director's first-ever produced film, completely defied Minority Show Ghetto and "horror films don't have much staying power at the box office" conventional wisdom by opening at #1 with stellar word-of-mouth and having a series of incredible holds at the box office (ex: dropping only 15% in its second weekend in spite of Logan debuting on that same weekend) to ultimately gross over $170 million and make back its budget more than 30 times over.
  • 47 Meters Down. This article talks about how the movie was financed for less than $6 million, and was intended to go straight to DVD and video-on-demand. However, on Aug 2, 2016, the exact day the DVDs were released (under the title In the Deep), Entertainment Studios made a deal with Dimension Films to release the movie to theaters the next year, and the DVDs were recalled the next day (becoming collectors items). The movie was released on June 16, 2017, and debuted at #5 with $11.5 million. Better than expected, but still a modest number. However, the film went on to have strong legs, and fell only 34% the next week. It finished its North American run with an unexpected $42.4 million domestically, and almost $50 million worldwide, becoming the horror hit of Summer 2017.
  • The Greatest Showman was called a flop after it quietly debuted at #4 in the shadow of The Last Jedi and the equally surprising hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but proceeded to stay in the top five of the box office for eight straight weeks, and played in theaters for nearly eight months, the longest theatrical run of any 2017 film. It grossed more than ten times its opening weekend of $14 million for a total of $175 million, and went on to become 2018's top selling home video release, and its soundtrack was the only album to sell over a million copies in 2018.
  • I Can Only Imagine was expected to have a moderate $4.4 million opening gross on its opening weekend, considering it was up against Tomb Raider and Black Panther as well as two other faith based films (Paul, Apostle of Christ and God's Not Dead: A Light in Darkness), as well as the casting of an unknown as the lead and its only well-known and still popular actor being Dennis Quaid. However, due to strong word of mouth from early screenings, it made $17.1 million, placing third in the box office and getting the fourth best opening for a faith based film. In its second week, it only had a 19% drop, finishing third again. It finally dropped a spot in its third week, but gained an impressive $83.5 million against a mere $7 million budget, making more money for Roadside Attractions than Manchester by the Sea (its previous record holder and an Oscar winning film). It's currently the fourth highest grossing music based biopic ever (Bohemian Rhapsody, Straight Outta Compton, and Walk the Line are the other three), and is one of a few movies on CinemaScore to receive an A+ rating from audiences, as well as a 70% Fresh Rating from Rotten Tomatoes.
  • The film adaptation of 21 Jump Street had plenty going against: rebooting the property was seen as a creatively-bankrupt move at a time where the backlash against Hollywood's reboots and sequels of nostalgic '80s properties was growing, early trailers didn't have the best reception, and doing an irreverant and R-rated take on the property was seen as disrespectful since the source material's co-creator Stephen J. Cannell had died two years prior to the movie's release. Yet the film ended up having good word-of-mouth and did great at the box office. An early scene in the sequel even comments on it:
    "Ladies, nobody cared about the Jump Street reboot, but you got lucky."
  • Valley Girl was intended to be a cheap teen exploitation film to cash in on the Valley Girl stereotype that had become a fad due to Frank Zappa's 1982 song "Valley Girl." The film cost $350,000 but was far more popular with audiences than anticipated. It earned $17.5 million at the box office and launched Nicolas Cage's career.
  • Teen Wolf was designed expressly to be quick and cheap to make, hoping to imitate the success of Valley Girl. Michael J. Fox took the role simply because he could fit the brief film shoot into a break in his Family Ties schedule. The film far exceeded its inspiration, earning $80 million off of a $1.2 million budget. It launched a quick cash-in sequel Teen Wolf Too, a Distaff Counterpart film Teen Witch and a 2011 TV series.
  • The Gods Must Be Crazy is a South African adventure/comedy starring a Namibian bush farmer as the lead. Even with the Afrikaans dialogue very obviously dubbed into English, it managed to charm international audiences with its exotic setting and slapstick humor, earning over $100 million and smashing all South African box office records.
  • The Hangover was seen by Warner Bros. as a lesser film between two of their summer blockbuster releases and wasn't expected to beat the higher-budgeted Up (which was on its second week) and Land of the Lost on its opening weekend. Instead, great word-of-mouth caused it to stay #1 at the box office for two weeks. The film grossed $467.5 million from a $35 million budget, spawned two sequels, and won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes.
  • Elf was made on a mid-tier budget and was released when more tentpole fare were around. It got to #2 on its opening weekend, behind The Matrix Revolutions, but it had great legs at the box office, dropping only 15% on the next weekend. It grossed $220 million, higher then some of the blockbusters it was competing with, established Will Ferrell as a leading actor, and was a Breakthrough Hit for Jon Favreau.
  • Mandy was a revenge thriller with a strong touch of Surreal Horror, starring Nicolas Cage, who had been a target of Internet mockery for years. The film became an unexpected critical darling at festival appearances, with many praising Cage's performance as a return to form, yet no one expected the film to blow up quite like the way it did. For example, its night time only showings in September went from just a couple of weeks to nearly two months, something that distributor RLJ Entertainment did not expect, with the film's box office haul actually succeeding what the company thought the film would have. This surprise success has actually caused the company to rethink its release strategy for future releases.
  • Throughout production, Home Alone was considered a small family film that was only expected to put up modest box office numbers. In fact, Fox initially distributed it to the minimum number of theaters required for it to be considered a wide release. It went on to spend a whopping 12 weeks in the #1 box office slot, became one of the highest grossing films of all time ( and is still in the top fifty when adjusted for inflation), and a classic Christmas film alongside the likes of Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life.
  • One Cut Of The Dead was a No Budget Horror Comedy made by a cast and crew of unknowns for $25,000, but its overwhelmingly positive reception caused it to earn $30 million, over 1,000 times its budget.
  • Considering that most films that adapt edutainment shows don't bring in much money at the box office, many people weren't expecting Dora and the Lost City of Gold to be much of a success. However, good word of mouth made it dethrone every single movie adapting an edutainment show, beating the previous record set by Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.
  • The Fly (1986) was not initially a high-priority release for 20th Century Fox — of the five genre pictures they released over summer 1986, it was the one slated for August (SpaceCamp and The Manhattan Project got June while Big Trouble in Little China and Aliens got July). While modestly budgeted the producer had to secure initial financing from an independent production company because the studio suits weren't sure a movie about a Protagonist Journey to Villain would appeal to audiences, the filmmakers couldn't find an A-list actor to play that protagonist (and liked the character actor who DID want to play him more anyway, to the disappointment of the suits), the leading lady was a near-unknown, it was Christmas Rushed for the locked-in August release date — and it was a hard-R Body Horror movie. But once a rough cut was screened, the suits saw it had real breakout potential via its Genre-Busting and it received an excellent marketing campaign that quickly seized on the rave reviews it received from many critics. It ended up spending two weeks at the top of the North American box office, handily turning a profit even before it reached the video market. It provided star making roles for both of its lead actors, firmly secured writer-director David Cronenberg an Auteur License, won an Oscar for Best Makeup, yielded a B-Team Sequel in 1989, and remains one of the best-regarded horror films of its era if not all time.
  • The Terminator was made on a $6.4 million budget; despite a post-Conan the Barbarian Arnold Schwarzenegger's starring role in the production, its distributor Orion Pictures saw it as a cheap genre picture and gave its 1984 release only a modest amount of advertising. It topped the domestic box office for two weeks straight, made back many times its investment and eventually launched a Cash Cow Franchise.
  • Parasite received rave reviews when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, eventually winning the Golden Palm. What no one expected was that it would gross over $200m worldwide, become the 3rd highest grossing foreign language film in the US ($61m), end up in the IMDB Top 50, win 4 Academy Awards (Namely, Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and International Feature), and inspire a HBO miniseries.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), despite its time in Development Hell, problems in its production timeline, outright public rejection of the original Sonic design and the clichés present in similar family films such as Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs and Peter Rabbit, the film managed to become the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time in North America, and seemingly also managed to break the associated Video Game Movie Curse. A combination of Sonic's design retool, genuine love for the source material being noticed upon release, the movie being released for Valentine's Day Weekend 2020, and its lucky timing of being released before the brunt of the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the United States all contributed to its newfound popularity.
  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu was initially expected to perform just modestly; with many unsure how the film would perform opening in the wake of Avengers: Endgame. The film was also the first Pokémon movie to get a wide release since Pokémon 3 in 2001; and the first live-action adaptation of any Nintendo game since the infamous Super Mario Bros. in 1993. There's also the fact the film was adapting a little-known spinoff game rather than the main video games or the anime. The film ultimately ended up getting positive reception from critics, fans and audiences; becoming the highest-grossing Pokémon film domestically and eventually surpassing Warcraft as the most-successful video game movie worldwide.

  • 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 had less in common than people initially assumed, and Percy Jackson is now one of the top selling series in the country.
  • Tom Clancy really struggled to get The Hunt for Red October published, getting no interest from traditional publishers. He finally tried the Naval Institute Press, for whom he had previously written a number of nonfiction articles, and they agreed to print it as their first-ever foray into fiction. The novel became a surprise bestseller after President Ronald Reagan read it and loved it.
  • The EarthCent Ambassador ebooks started out as a standalone story, Date Night on Union Station. Author E.M. Foner originally wrote it while taking a break from a more conventional sci-fi series, but its unexpected popularity on Kindle led to him getting bombarded with requests for sequels.
  • House of Leaves is a chaotic ball of footnotes, faux-academic writing, unusual formatting, and a whole lot of nightmare-stuff. The writer, Mark Z. Danielewski, spent ten years writing the haunted house story the wake of his father's death. Pieces of the book were published online, and a proper book was released in 2000. Over time, word of mouth (quite a lot of it stemming from This Very Wiki) turned the novel into a juggernaut of horror and a fine example of experimental fiction, pleasing genre writers like Stephen King and literary writers like Brett Easton Ellis alike.
  • The Lord of the Rings was expected to lose money, but was approved for publication anyway. The final decision came by telegram: "If you believe it is a work of genius then you may lose a thousand pounds."

    Live-Action TV 
  • NCIS was largely ignored as simply another CBS crime procedural early in its run and had fairly middling ratings. It entered the top 10 in 2008 and has its own spinoffs NCIS: Los Angeles and NCIS: New Orleans. For the 2012-2013 season, 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, with "Shiva" as the most watched.
  • 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. 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 backup 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 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 6, 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.
  • Firefly's DVD set sold so well that Universal was convinced to make a movie out of it.
  • 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 (and several attempts, such as Vengeance Unlimited, proved that point). 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.
  • Banshee could qualify; it began to almost no fanfare whatsoever, but with each passing season the ratings snowballed, ultimately becoming the most-watched original show on Cinemax (surpassing the much more advertised, more "prestigious" The Knick).
  • The first Puppy Bowl was a quick No-Hoper Repeat show Animal Planet threw together to air during the Super Bowl. To everyone's surprise it gave Animal Planet some of its highest ratings ever and has steadily grown in popularity, even spawning its own imitator, Hallmark Channel's Kitty Bowl. Now, as of 2019, they've done their fifteenth Puppy Bowl, have a number of pregame specials regarding current and past Puppy Bowls (including an actual pregame show, natch), and even created another bowl, the Dog Bowl, which is the Puppy Bowl with older dogs.
  • The Great British Bake Off started in 2010 as a low-key summer filler show with no significant publicity, on the BBC's secondary channel. Word of mouth made it a hit; it nearly doubled its ratings over the course of its first short run, and by 2013 it was the highest-rating show on BBC Two for over twenty years and beating other channels' ratings bankers like EastEnders and The X Factor. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking the show had reached its ceiling at that point, but then it transferred to the flagship channel, BBC One, and got even bigger. In 2015 it was the highest rating show on British television outside of the Christmas period. And of course it's been exported around the world too.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer had so little expected of it, with a very young showrunner whose experience mostly lay in being a staff-writer and script doctor for moderately successful shows, and a cast whose most senior member was mainly known for his work in British theatre and occasional tv show episodes, that it was only commissioned for thirteen episodes. It promptly kicked on and became a pop culture phenomenon, running for seven seasons and spawning a successful spinoff in Angel, a series of comic continuations, and an enduring influence on genre television, including that other television Sleeper Hit of the 21st century, Doctor Who.
  • Charmed was not expected to be a great hit. Producers didn't warm to the witchcraft concept until Constance M. Burge made the leads sisters - feeling that the family values would at least get a few people watching. The show was female-led and didn't have any major stars in it. Shannen Doherty's last project of note was Beverly Hills, 90210 four years previously, and she had been doing made-for-TV movies since. Alyssa Milano meanwhile was a Former Child Star who had only just regained traction through Melrose Place, while Holly Marie Combs was virtually unknown. The first episode drew 7 million viewers and the first season kept a 10 million viewer average. Despite Doherty leaving at the end of the third season, it lasted for eight seasons in total.
  • The Late Late Show had been a cult hit under its previous host Craig Ferguson (aided by his unique humor and charm), but James Corden's incarnation all but surpassed it in mainstream popularity thanks to the viral popularity of his "Carpool Karaoke" segments.
  • When Doctor Who was commissioned in 1963, it was intended to be basically low-budgeted filler content for kids. Confidence in the series was so low the BBC actually cancelled it months before the first episode aired, instructing the series to end after its 13th episode (after originally agreeing to literally dozens more). The show was Uncancelled after a few weeks and production was slated to continue past episode 13, which was a good thing given that, after a modest start, episode 5 introduced the Daleks and the show's popularity took off like a rocket, becoming a globally renowned pop-culture juggernaut that has, 16 year hiatus aside (a hiatus that was still filled by a TV Movie and innumerable Expanded Universe materials), run near constantly for over half century.
  • The Doctor Who revival in 2005 was also an example of this. By the turn of the millennium, Doctor Who as a franchise was considered as good as dead; it had been cancelled in 1989 after several years of rapidly-declining ratings, the only new material (outside of the expanded universe) since then was an American telemovie in 1996 that bombed in the states, and its fandom had been reduced to a devoted cult following at best. When the revival was announced, the general public never expected it to last more than a few years and there were jokes from mainstream press about it winding up as filler for PBS telethons. However, once the show's first televised episode in 16 years finally hit British airwaves, it was a ratings success, gluing nearly 11 million people to their TV screens, motivating the BBC to greenlight a second season after just four days, and establishing to the world that Doctor Who was back in business.
  • In general, this tends to happen to minority-led network shows that become hits, perhaps because people usually expect them to fall into the Minority Show Ghetto. For example, Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, and Scandal are huge hits that star African American leads, while black•ish and Fresh Off the Boat proved to be surprise comedy hits as well. However, read any review for these shows, especially Empire, and critics will be shocked at how high the ratings were.
  • Sesame Street was originally made to prep the kids of low-income families for school, and as a result it had very low ratings early on. After word of mouth spread about how beneficial the show was not only to poor families, but to all children regardless of their wealth, along with the show's Parental Bonuses attracting a Periphery Demographic, the ratings skyrocketed. It beat Captain Kangaroo (where several members of Sesame Street's initial creative team had been hired from) as the most popular show for preschoolers on TV, and it's now a certified Long Runner Cash Cow Franchise.
  • Barney & Friends was originally a Direct to Video series called "Barney & The Backyard Gang." Initial sales of the first three "Backyard Gang" videos were middling at best and wouldn't have taken off if it weren't for creator Sheryl Leach's grass-roots marketing efforts which included giving free Barney videos to preschools, to the point of listing stores where the videos were sold. By 1991, the initial video series was selling 500,000 copies. That said, it would have stayed a direct to video series if not for a father who rented one of the Barney videos for his young daughter - he happened to work at Connecticut Public Television, the state's PBS affiliate. They happened upon the video and decided to make a TV series out of it. The network had little faith in the series succeeding on TV and wanted to cancel it after one season, but the surprising popularity among toddlers led to it running on TV for nearly 20 years (not to mention providing Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, among others, with some early child work).
  • Tends to happen to any Netflix original series. Each new show is given modest promotion before word-of-mouth does the rest. Stranger Things deserves special mention, as it became wildly popular enough to get its own Super Bowl commercial, a rarity for any Netflix original.
  • The Thick of It was given a limited budget and aired on the niche BBC Four channel, but it became a cult hit that turned Peter Capaldi into a star. Season 4 ended up getting a Channel Hop to BBC Two as a result. It also inspired a similarly successful American version.
  • Teletubbies was just expected to be another British children's series that would only be remembered by those who lived there and not get worldwide exposure. There were also parents who were furious that it replaced the long-running BBC show Playdays, as well as concerns about the show targeting a very young demographic. However, the colorful characters, fun stories and intriguing concepts of the show lured in not just the target demographic, but a Periphery Demographic of teenagers and adults. The instant success lead to Teletubbies being the hottest toys that Christmas and the theme song selling over a million copies. It also kickstarted the trend of creating television shows meant for babies.
  • The Noddy Shop was not expected to make a significant impact in North America, as some elements of the Noddy's Toyland Adventures stories it framed were controversial (such as the Brownies and the relationship between Noddy and Big Earsnote ), and some people in its native United Kingdom felt that the framing device itself was useless. However, children loved both the stories in both the shop and Toyland, and it got ratings on par with Sesame Street in its first few weeks alone, leading to a long run on both PBS Kids and TVOntario.
  • Schitt's Creek was popular enough in its native Canada, but in the USA critics dismissed it as an Arrested Development knockoff and it attracted few viewers on the new and somewhat obscure Pop Channel. However, strong word of mouth and the show becoming available on Netflix led it to become a hit in the fourth season.
  • Of the Day One original productions of Disney+, the lighthearted Edutainment Widget Series The World According to Jeff Goldblum was the most-hyped of the unscripted/nonfiction productions because of the presence of the eccentric actor, who became the "face" of the National Geographic brand on the service and did plenty of morning/talk show appearances to promote it. Still, it saw far less advertising (especially offline) than Killer App The Mandalorian and the service's extensive back catalog of Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars movies and shows, all of which had more obvious appeal to kids/families. While reviews were mostly favorable, even positive notices warned that it wouldn't appeal to viewers who weren't Goldblum fans...but by the time the first season ended it quietly became the service's third original production to be renewed for a second season (after The Mandalorian and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series).
  • When Apple TV+ was approaching its launch, most of the hype for its original programming went towards The Morning Show with it getting the bulk of advertising and media attention, as well as having a massive price tag ($15 million an episode) and several big-name lead actors (Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell, and Reese Witherspoon). After the show premiered, the general sentiment towards it was So Okay, It's Average. Instead, most of the expected acclaim would go towards fellow Apple TV Plus original Ted Lasso, thanks to Word Of Mouth praising it for expertly turning what was a series of joke commercials into a well written dramedy with lead actor Jason Sudeikis churning out what has widely been hailed as the best acting performance of his career. The show and Sudeikis proceeded to win several high profile awards and, as a result, the service pivoted towards marketing the latter show as its flagship program.

  • "Creep" by Radiohead initially received very little airplay upon parent album Pablo Honey's 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.
  • Korn's 1994 debut is a particularly extreme example. Upon release in 1994, it got little media attention and its songs received no airplay. However, critics, as well as everyone who listened to it, noted that the band had a very 'unique' sound. It featured heavily downtuned guitars, angsty lyrics, funk-influenced bass, and the absence of solos. Additionally, the album would mix genres as random such as funk metal, grunge, groove metal, prog metal, hip-hop (without actually rapping), hardcore, alt metal, and even traces of death metal. With non-stop touring, more and more people were exposed to the album, and the sound garnered an enthusiastic following. As time went on, it eventually charted on the Billboard 200 nearly two years after release, and sold over 10 million copies worldwide, which shocked even the band; as per Brian "Head" Welch, they expected, at most, to become big for an alternative act, but to otherwise stay niche. The biggest success however, was that it spawned Nu Metal. Those who heard the album emulated, and later modified the sound by forming their own bands, which started in Southern California, but eventually spread across the world as a genre all on its own. This genre, while polarizing and controversial to metal purists, would take the rock music world by storm in the late '90s, and helped revitalize Heavy Metal after spending several years in the underground following Hair Metal's demise. In 2014, Rolling Stone Magazine even declared it "the most important metal album in the last 20 years".
  • Similarly, Slipknot's entire rise to fame was this. While they emerged during the peak of nu metal's dominance, they were quite far removed from the rest of the genre stylistically. As an overtly death metal-influenced act from flyover country (at a time when death metal was largely viewed as a fad whose time had passed) with no real radio friendliness, no one was expecting them to explode the way they did. Yes, they had some label hype behind them, but so did plenty of other acts that went absolutely nowhere. They should have been yet another act that played Ozzfest and two or three other major package tours, then vanished into obscurity. Instead, they exploded out of the gate as they went platinum and went from supporting tours to drawing significantly more as a headliner than the acts that they used to be placed below on bills over the course of a year, then debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200 (up from #51 with the self-titled) with Iowa just two years later.
  • 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 have heard of.
  • The Michael Andrews and Gary Jules version of "Mad World", a cover of a 1982 Tears for Fears song, was an unusual case of a song taking several years to became a hit. The song was originally included in 2001's Donnie Darko, itself a sleeper hit that didn't have a major following until it came out on DVD, and then on Jules' 2001 album Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets. The song slowly developed a following of its own from Donnie Darko's growing popularity and from frequent radio play, and it wasn't until late 2003 that the song was released as a single and a music video was filmed.
  • 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, released on the same day no less. Its competitors (including West'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 Winehouse copycat. 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.
  • A virtually unknown English singer-songwriter named Passenger released the single "Let Her Go" in mid-2012 for his third studio album. The song initially made waves on Dutch radio in late 2013, and in the following year went on to top the charts in multiple countries, as well as peak at number 2 in the UK and number 5 in America. The song is now one of the most streamed songs ever on Spotify, and its music video is in the top 30 most watched YouTube videos of all time.
  • Leonard Cohen's much-covered song "Hallelujah". The original version released in 1984 began life as a forgotten album track on Cohen's album Various Positions. Former Velvet Underground musician John Cale did a rearranged version of the song in 1991 for a Cohen tribute album entitled I'm Your Fan but that 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. The inclusion of Cale's version in Shrek helped a lot, as did another version by Rufus Wainwright (replacing the Cale recording version on the soundtrack album). Since then, literally hundreds of artists have covered it and various versions have frequently been used in films and TV shows (though, ironically, the original Cohen recording didn't appear in any other media until it was used in Watchmen, but that was only because another recording of the tune was rejected from that film).
  • "We Are Young" by fun. came out of nowhere and is more unusual than most pop songs. Todd in the Shadows (during his review of that song and the below-mentioned "Somebody That I Used To Know") attributed the song's hit status to the Glee cast covering the song, though it never truly took off until it was featured in a Chevy commercial that played during the Super Bowl a few months after the Glee episode aired.
  • "Somebody I Used to Know" by Gotye is also unusual for a pop song and became a smash hit without any prior mainstream following - no doubt due to it topping Triple J's Hottest 100 poll for the year 2011. The Walk Off the Earth cover (you know, the one where they're all playing on one guitar) may have also done the trick.
    • A similar scenario happened in 2013 with Vance Joy. At least Gotye was big in Australia at first. Vance came straight from Triple J's Unearthed indie podcast with no record deal even. When he won the countdown, the song "Riptide" was a hit on rock radio and made #32 in the US and the Top 10 in several other countries. Not bad for an out-of-nowhere jam.
  • "Pumped Up Kicks" by Foster the People gained momentum slowly, hitting its 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 more lyrically 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.
    • Three years later, DGC had an even more unexpected success with Weezer's Blue Album. The band was obscure even in their hometown of Los Angeles, the album only sold a handful of copies in the wake of its May 1994 release, and the video for "Undone—The Sweater Song" was a minimalist Spike Jonze affair with a budget of just $60,000. But the song caught fire in late summer, followed with an even bigger hit in "Buddy Holly", and by January the album had gone Platinum.
  • Nobody would expect a heavy metal band to come close to the Top 40 in 2016, but Disturbed somehow pulled it off with their cover of "The Sound of Silence". It peaked at an amazing #42, though it would certainly have been a Top-40 hit if Prince hadn't died hours before the end of the tracking week and Drake and Beyoncé didn't release albums in the following couple of weeks.
    • It wasn't the first time this happened with the song. Simon and Garfunkel's first album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. flopped, but "Silence" got some late-night airplay in Boston and it quickly gained a following among college students. Capitalizing on the growth of folk rock, producer Tom Wilson added some rock instrumentals and re-relased the song in November 1965. By January it was No 1 on the Billboard chart.
  • British boy band One Direction is one of the biggest sleeper success story of the 2010s. They were five boys who finished third on the 2010 The X Factor. By then, however, boy bands had been out of fashion for almost a decade - and, as groups like Take That have shown in the past, they had next to no chance of making it big outside the UK. Add the fact that Justin Bieber's massive popularity was derailing similar heartthrobs' careers like Cody Simpson, and it would appear that they would have a very short shelf life. But then, a campaign to promote their debut album Up All Night went viral and caught on all over the world. As their fanbase continued to multiply dramatically, they started to be as powerful a social media force as Bieber was. Sure, they had a significant American fanbase at the time of their album's U.S. 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. The group would ultimately become more successful that Bieber was, selling more albums than him, trouncing him in awards ceremonies, shattering his records left and right, and one-upping him in the touring circuit by playing in stadiums. Since 2016, the group has been on an indefinite hiatus.
  • Ariana Grande's first song, "The Way", featuring Mac Miller. Even Wikipedia considers it an unexpected success. Within seven hours of going up on iTunes, it was top of the download charts. It entered the Billboard 100 at No. 10, which by coincidence made Ariana the first artist since 2008 to enter the Top 10 with her first single. It peaked a No. 9, and as of this writing is behind Justin Timberlake and Jay Z's "Suit & Tie" and One Direction's "Best Song Ever" as the third highest first-week sales figures. It sold over 1.3 million copies alone in the U.S. and spent 17 weeks in the charts, 13 of which were in the Top 15. Not bad for a first single, no?
  • 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.
  • Scooter's "Jumping All Over the World" was a number 1 album in the UK, despite the band not having released anything there for years. It was released there to cash in on the Clubland tour the band was appearing on. The band had massive success in the UK in 2002-2003, but after the flop of the Jigga Jigga single, they didn't release anything there for a few years (despite having continued success in Europe, and a lot of UK fans who imported their next few releases). The reason is said to be Scooter's obsession with uncredited samples preventing their albums from being released in the UK. In 2008, Scooter joined the Clubland tour and that tour's label "All Around the World" put out the band's most recent album Jumping All Over The World as a UK release to cash in, with the addition of a Scooter version of Status Quo's Whatever You Want, and a bonus disc of their greatest hits. Nobody in the UK was expecting the album to get very far, but lo and behold, it reached Number 1 in the album charts, ousting Madonna, and without a hit single. Critics (of which there were many) were eating their words. Unfortunately, their next album, Under the Radar Over the Top, was a flop, so they didn't release anything in the UK after.
  • Lorde:
    • It's hard to believe that her Breakthrough Hit "Royals" was an obscure song at one point. Initially a non-single off a little-known EP titled The Love Club, it didn't become the mega hit that it is today until she was lucky enough that an agent heard her sing it at a school talent show. The next thing you know, "Royals" topped charts worldwide, including both the US Pop and Alternative charts, staying atop the former for a whopping nine weeks and becoming the first female artist to top the latter since before she was born. It went 7x multi-platinum in the U.S. alone, easily making it one of the best-selling singles of all time. In a year where Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, and Beyoncé all released new albums, no one ever thought that the female artist who would spend the most weeks at #1 would be a 16-year-old from New Zealand.
    • Her debut album Pure Heroine, despite not topping the Billboard 200 (peaking at #3), stayed in the top 10 for a long time, managing to go platinum - and later, double platinum - (an extremely rare feat for any artist nowadays, and this was her debut album), and sold over three million albums worldwide, easily outselling the Justin Timberlake album that was #1 the week it debuted. All of this was achieved through the quality of the music and positive word-of-mouth, rather than purely mainstream promotion.
  • Imagine Dragons released their album Night Visions in September 2012, narrowly being beaten by the latest Matchbox Twenty release. "It's Time" became a big hit on Alternative radio and giving them a big crossover. However, it was the next single, "Radioactive," that would shoot them into the stratosphere. Aside from having a near-record reign on the Alternative charts, it soared into the top 10 with almost no pop airplay that April. About a month later, pop airplay took off dramatically, as the song reached #3 and sold over seven million copies in the U.S. alone, one of less than ten songs to ever accomplish this feat, and the only one that failed to reach #1. It was also the longest-lasting song in Hot 100 history. "Demons" only added onto the success, and Night Visions sold more than 2 million copies, well ahead of Matchbox Twenty's 300,000 total, and outselling similar albums by fun. and The Lumineers.
  • Can you believe that Daft Punk, after seemingly being written off as has-beens, would have their biggest success in 2013? Not only did the duo have their biggest selling album in history (Random Access Memories), but it brought them to the top of the Billboard 200 for the first time ever. And, after years of trying and failing, Daft Punk finally got a top 40 hit in the U.S., "Get Lucky", peaking at #2. Seeing a veteran act finally have a true breakthrough in America was amazing. Add a huge night at the Grammys, and Daft Punk orchestrated arguably the finest breakthrough/comeback in music history.
  • Meghan Trainor is a 20-year old pop singer from Nantucket, Massachusetts. In 2014, she recorded the song "All About That Bass," which had a rather unusual message about body acceptance and a seemingly-dated doo-wop soundnote . Early in July, the song started to make a small impact as a viral hit. Then, at the end of the month, it started to surge up the charts. By the end of August, it was one step away from the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. It stayed atop the chart for a whopping eight weeks, becoming the second longest running #1 of the year and the longest in Epic Records' history. Yes, the same Epic Records behind the catalog of one Michael Jackson (!). It ultimately finished 2014 as one of the top five best-selling songs of the year. She went on to have several other hits since then.
  • Hozier's "Take Me to Church" was released in 2013, but didn't become a hit in the U.S. after the song (and its accompanying video) went viral over a year later, where it shot up to #2 behind Taylor Swift's "Blank Space", and spent a whopping 23 weeks atop the Rock charts (a feat matched only by Imagine Dragons' "Radioactive", until it was broken by Walk the Moon's "Shut Up and Dance").
  • Capital Cities' "Safe and Sound" was released on January 6, 2011 but was completely unnoticed for over two years, until it was rereleased for their debut album. It topped the Alternative charts and reached a #8 peak on the Hot 100 in October of 2013, over two-and-a-half years after it was released.
  • Awolnation's "Sail" was also released in January of 2011, but didn't chart until September of that year. After spending twenty weeks at the bottom of the chart, it fell off. Then it reappeared over a year later, it reached a new peak of #17 and stayed there for 79 weeks, making it the second-longest run in Billboard history.
  • Mark Ronson collaborated with Bruno Mars on "Uptown Funk!" with worldwide success on the horizon. Everyone expected Ronson to get his all-time biggest success, but not too many people thought that Mars would get his biggest hit with the song as well — let alone the biggest song of the decade so far.
  • A number of Breakaway Pop Hits from films fall into this category. To list all the most prominent examples from that page would send the category on overflow, but here are some of the more notable examples.
    • Everyone knew that Furious 7 was going to be a huge hit, but nobody could have predicted the runaway success of its lead single "See You Again" by Wiz Khalifa. It sold nearly 500,000 copies in the U.S. alone the week after the movie came out, had a 12-week reign on the top of the charts, and the biggest graduation song since Vitamin C's "Graduation".
    • "Somewhere Out There", as recorded by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram for An American Tail, could be considered the 1980's equivalent to "See You Again". It reached #2 on Billboard in 1987, as Tail's popularity began to slide off, and was also a top 40 radio hit that became a wedding staple and helped popularize the Award-Bait Song for films, especially animated ones.
    • Pharrell Williams' "Happy" initially made little impact when it was released alongside Despicable Me 2. When it got a 24-hour music video, was nominated for an Oscar and he performed it at the ceremony, then people noticed; it eventually went to #1 for 10 weeks, and became one of the biggest hits of the decade.
    • Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)". Its source film, The Breakfast Club, was a moderate box successful at the box office in the U.S., making almost $45 million U.S. though it made another $51 million internationally on a $1 million budget, but frequent airplay on radio stations led to the tune becoming one of the most popular songs of 1985.
    • "End of the Road" by Boyz II Men. It was recorded for the Eddie Murphy film Boomerang, which made back its budget but has since fallen into obscurity. "Road", meanwhile, is the best-selling single in Motown's history.
    • "Let It Go" is one that banked on the success of its source film Frozen, which is a sleeper hit in itself - see the Animated Film category for the full story.
  • Major Lazer had been around for years as the side project of Electronic Music DJ Diplo. They were popular for years and filled up dance clubs across the world, but never truly had a hit of their own. Then in 2015, they released "Lean On" in collaboration with DJ Snake featuring vocals from little known Danish singer MØ. The result was not an immediate success, as it debuted at the bottom and slowly rose up the charts and fell back a few times, but the longer it stuck around, the more people discovered the song. It eventually went Top 5 over five months after release, hit #1 in almost every other county it charted, and became the biggest EDM crossover since Avicii's "Wake Me Up" until The Chainsmokers' "Closer" (see below). The most impressive achievement? It dethroned Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" as the most streamed song on Spotify of all time. When you consider that Major Lazer was little known outside their audience and Sheeran was a global superstar, that's unbelievable. However, they eventually lost the title to a song by a considerably bigger star: Drake's "One Dance".
  • The Chainsmokers' "Closer". The NYC-based production duo, previously only known for the reviled One-Hit Wonder novelty hit "Selfie", had two comeback hits with "Roses" and "Don't Let Me Down" before releasing this collaboration with indie-pop singer Halsey. It shot up to number-one in only its third week, becoming the longest reigning #1 of 2016 and as of this writing is tied with LeAnn Rimes' "How Do I Live" for the longest-running top 10 single in the history of Billboard's Hot 100, with both spending a total of 32 weeks in the tier. Not to mention breaking the record for the most weeks in the top 5, at 26.
  • Swedish singer Tove Lo's song "Habits (Stay High)" was originally released in 2013, then simply called "Habits". It was later rereleased under the new title in late 2013 and started to slowly climb the charts. Eventually, it sold over 2,000,000 copies and received a 5x platinum certification in the US alone. It peaked at top 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100, a feat that could not be attained by Avicii's "Wake Me Up" nor Icona Pop's "I Love It" could achieve (the former peaked at number 4 whereas the latter peaked at number 7). Ironically, the original song never made the Swedish singles chart, but the Hippie Sabotage remix did. Said remix didn't enter the US Hot 100. However, together they managed to sell over 4,000,000 million worldwide.
  • As hard as it may be to believe, Iron Maiden's 2010 album The Final Frontier was announced to moderate-to-low expectations from people who weren't hardcore fans. The band had been successful and one of the biggest metal bands in the world, yet much of this was coming from their concert ticket sales. Ironically enough, when the album was released, it debuted at #1 in 30 countries, including the band's native UK where they'd had their first #1 in 18 years, and while it didn't debut at #1 in the US, it still reached their highest chart position ever (#4 with 63,000 units sold in its first week of release).
  • "I Can Only Imagine" is one of the few Contemporary Christian songs to cross over to the mainstream pop charts. But it wouldn't have done so if some shock radio DJ's didn't play the song as a one-off joke, giving the song a Colbert Bump to top 40 radio stations across the country.
  • Alessia Cara released her debut single "Here" in April 2015. After circulating on the Internet for several months as well as Cara's performance of the song on the The Tonight Show, it started to chart in the fall of 2015. By the start of the following year, the song reached top 40 positions in Australia, Canada, France, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States, where it took six months to reach its number five peak.
  • Eurovision Song Contest:
    • The 2017 Portuguese entry "Amar pelos dois" was not viewed as a strong favorite when it was chosen to represent the country in Kiev. But it wasn't until the actual contest when it won people over, and Portugal - who had never even placed in the top five before thennote  - would go on to claim their first victory.
    • Austria was never as successful as most other countries and had only won once before they decided to send bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst in 2014. Her song was initially met with a mixed response, but it went on to take the top honors in Copenhagen.
  • Sabaton's song "Swedish Pagans" was only published as a bonus track on the Updated Re-release of The Art of War. It proved so popular it got its own T-shirt.
  • The entire band Delain was one of these. Martijn Westerholt (ex-Within Temptation) started it with vocalist Charlotte Wessels as a studio project, but the debut album Lucidity was such a hit they started touring.
  • Shadow Of Intent started out as one of many bedroom deathcore projects on Bandcamp, with no real intention of ever playing live. Primordial wound up gaining a surprising amount of buzz, however (likely due in no small part to vocalist Ben Duerr's strong social media presence), and after they gained a full band and released Reclaimer in 2017, their buzz had reached absolutely astronomical heights, enough to give them a compelling reason to start playing shows instead of just being a studio project. Their first set of live dates all sold out the venues that they were playing, and multiple attendees flew over from across the country, or, in at least one case, all the way over from Germany to see them.
  • Many were taken aback when Panic! at the Disco's 2018 song "High Hopes" reached the number 5 position on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming their first major hit single in ten years, long after the band had all but disappeared from the mainstream eye.
  • "Truth Hurts" by Lizzo was released in September 2017 to little attention. After gaining viral popularity on TikTok and being featured in the film Someone Great, it climbed to #1 on Billboard Hot 100, stayed there for 7 weeks and netted 3 Grammy nominations, a whole 2 years after the song's original release.
  • Inferi was, for a while, an unknown regional act from the Nashville metro area whose reach outside of the area was mostly limited to MySpace and their association with the then-upcoming Enfold Darkness. After a deal with Sumerian Records fell through due to the label being upfront about the gratuitous Executive Meddling that was going to occur, they disappeared completely for several years. Over the next few years, mainman Malcolm Pugh built up something of a Memetic Badass reputation in the underground, and when the band finally released their comeback album The Path of Apotheosis in early 2014, the album slowly gained more of a following than anyone had thought it would, and by 2017, Inferi and Malcolm's label The Artisan Era (which started out as a vehicle for his solo project and eventually put out releases from several of his local friends) had picked up so much steam that Inferi started playing live shows again for the first time since 2009, while The Artisan Era had turned into a fast-rising label that was able to snag numerous established acts and newcomers from all over the world.
  • Toby Keith's How Do You Like Me Now?! album got off to a slow start. At the time, he had just signed to DreamWorks Records after disputes with his previous label, Mercury Records. DreamWorks released the album, which consisted largely of material rejected by Mercury, in late 1999. The album and lead single "When Love Fades" were both tanking, so Keith asked if they could pull "When Love Fades" in favor of "How Do You Like Me Now?!" After a slow start on the charts, that song slowly ascended to #1 on the Billboard country singles charts and hold that position for five weeks between March and April 2000. The album eventually built up steam and sold platinum, while also giving him another #1 hit in "You Shouldn't Kiss Me Like This". With his newfound momentum, Keith went on to experience a Career Resurrection that lasted for most of the 21st century's first decade.
  • Tracy Lawrence had largely been absent from country music radio since 1997 when a domestic dispute with his ex-wife largely proved to be a Creator Killer. While he had stray hits in 2000 and 2004 with "Lessons Learned" and "Paint Me a Birmingham", both were stunted by label closures. Recording independently in 2006, he released "Find Out Who Your Friends Are", which lingered at the very bottom of the country singles charts for nearly half a year. Then radio stations caught wind of a remix featuring Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw on guest vocals, causing an unexpected surge in airplay due to their star power. The result? A 42-week run to the top (then the slowest in the chart's history), Lawrence's first #1 hit since 1996, and one of his most popular songs overall.
  • Lee Brice's "Love Like Crazy", with a 56-week chart run spanning 2009 and 2010, broke a record set in 1948 by Eddy Arnold's "Bouquet of Roses" for the longest continuous run on the Billboard country music charts at the time. Thanks to its longevity, it also became the first song to top the Billboard Year-End chart for the country format despite only peaking at #3 on the weekly charts.
  • Brice's longevity record has been broken countless times since. As of 2020, the longest run on Country Airplay belongs to "After a Few" by Travis Denning, which took sixty-five weeks before finally peaking at #1 in summer 2020.
  • Many people know nowadays how disastrous The Rite of Spring was when first performed in 1913, mainly because nobody was ready back then. It took many years to realise just how significant it was to ballet as a whole, thanks in large part to Fantasia, and it became one of the most popular works of Igor Stravinsky.
  • Sanguisugabogg started out as Cameron Boggs' bedroom project that graduated to their grabbing a few friends to jam with and flesh out their songs, and eventually became a local act that rapidly turned into a regional thanks to their heavy self-promotion. By the time Pornographic Seizures was released in mid-2019, they had a substantial amount of buzz across the northeastern United States that rapidly spread across the country, and was enough to turn them into one of the fastest-rising new stars of death metal with nothing more than a demo.
  • Blanco Brown looked destined to be a One-Hit Wonder with the viral 2019 hit "The Git Up", an obvious Follow the Leader of Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" which looked to fuse contemporary hip-hop with country music. That same year, he collaborated with Parmalee, an obscure country band who had not had a hit in years, to release the ballad "Just the Way". A slow-burn fueled largely by streaming ensued, and the song enjoyed a 43-week ascent to the top of the country charts — no small feat when the COVID-19 pandemic rendered bands unable to tour, and especially after Blanco himself spent a large portion of the song's chart run hospitalized after a motorcycle accident.
  • Saint Jhn's "Roses" was completely ignored back in its 2016 release, but three years later, a then-unknown producer by the name of Imanbek gave it an EDM remix and once it was featured on a Snapchat filter and countless TikTok videos, it began to spread all across the world. By 2020 the song was a global smash, topping the charts in several countries and peaking at the Top 10 almost everywhere else.

  • Podcasts are usually written off as niche topics and rarely break-out as cultural phenomena. But in 2013, Welcome to Night Vale managed to break the mold thanks to vocal support from Tumblr and various other sources. Eventually, it reached #1 on iTunes and the live crossover with Thrilling Adventure Hour ranked higher than Beyoncé for about a day.

  • 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.
  • RENT also became a surprisingly huge success, largely due to the sudden death of its composer/author just before it opened on Broadway.

    Theme Parks 
  • 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 minuscule theater at Disney's Hollywood Studios in January 1992 — right after the Christmas rush.
    • 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. And has been credited for inspiring the company to adapt the show into a full-fledged Broadway musical in 1994!
    • The 3-D movie Honey, 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 menaces 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. However, 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. Sales soon shot up, and many people that bought them for their parts have admitted to caving in and making the Mixels instead and finding them appealing.
  • While Monster High had fans since it began, many thought the appearance of the dolls and the premise were too bizarre for a toy line aimed at young girls. It became one of Mattel's best selling toy franchises ever note .
  • Many believed that DC Super Hero Girls would bomb among the target audience since making a franchise out of the female heroines from a company with works mainly aimed at a male audience didn't sound profitable. However, thanks to various shows about superheroes becoming popular at the time, and the franchise being praised for having good girl role models compared to similar doll lines, DC SuperHero Girls became one of the top 5 best-selling girls' brands in the United States, and caused other companies to try to create similar girl franchises based off properties aimed at boys, most notably Star Wars: Forces of Destiny.
  • When LOL Surprise dolls came out, most just dissmissed them as another cash grab. They became one of the biggest selling doll lines in years, entire stores sold out of them in mere hours, and they helped MGA Entertainment out of a slump.

    Video Games 
  • After the infamous flop that was Daikatana and the lackluster release of Anachronox, hardly anyone was excited about a third upcoming release from Ion Storm called Deus Ex. The game was a surprise hit that ended up being game of the year of 2000 and is widely considered to be one of the greatest games of all time.
  • The PlayStation itself is one. Or, at least in North America. In early 1995, the system had proven to be a huge success in Japan. However, things seemed a bit less promising on the North American front. Sega was busily hyping its upcoming Sega Saturn, while Nintendo was silently creating some buzz for its upcoming Nintendo 64 (then known as 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, some questionable design choices and a $399 price tag.note  Meanwhile, Nintendo's infamous bowdlerization practices, and their insistence on sticking with a cartridge format for the N64, led many gamers and third party developers, including Squaresoft, 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.
  • Similarly to the Wii, a large amount of critics and gamers initially laughed off the Nintendo Switch in the months between its announcement and release, due to it being on the heels of the massive commercial flop that was the Wii U. In addition, its controversial paid online system, return to cartridges, continued use of motion controls long after they fell out of favor, and near-last-minute reveal (being announced mere months before launch) earned considerable skepticism from those outside of Nintendo's core fanbase. However, come March 2017, it ended up being a smash success for Nintendo, selling out within a day and repeatedly suffering from the same stock shortages that hit the Wii and NES due to its demand being that unexpectedly high. By the end of the fiscal year, the Switch had become the fastest-selling game console of all time, beating out even the PS2's year one sales.
  • GoldenEye. The game had little pre-release hype or fanfare, getting a listless reaction from critics at E3 1997 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, as well as possibly the greatest example of how to do a movie-based Licensed Game right, and was a major milestone in the First-Person Shooter genre, especially when it game to bringing the genre to consoles.
  • Demon's 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 FromSoftware to extend the life of its online servers well beyond its planned six-month period (in fact, they finally shut the servers down at the start of 2018!).
  • The original Katamari Damacy initially had 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 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-anticipated Team Fortress 2 (which would later go on to becoming Valve's most successful game of all time). That package sold altogether for $50 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 the student project Narbacular Drop, 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, and it has inspired a massive sequel.
  • Touhou Project. One man making his own Shoot 'em Up games has become one of the best known Bullet Hell series around.
  • Like Star Wars, it's hard to believe that Pokémon was this. 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 North America, the juggernaut was in full swing. It took a while to catch on in North America, however, 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 the Game Boy Color in North America and years earlier in Japan.
  • Minecraft, initially a one-man project, gained a ton of press by word-of-mouth alone, and still regularly tops the sales charts on most of the platforms it's been released on. The Xbox 360 version ended up being one of the most popular games on the system. As of late 2019, more than 10 years after its very first release, 180 million copies have been sold across all platforms, making it the best selling single video game of all time.
  • 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.
  • The first Tokimeki Memorial game was this: a low-profile game, it became a surprise massive hit thanks to word of mouth. It soon became a long and successful Cash Cow Franchise for Konami, and lots of companies tried to cash on the non-H Dating Sim genre it created with varied success.
  • 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.
  • Lunar: The Silver Star was released on the Sega CD and was one of the first Eastern RPGs to hit the States during the 16-bit era. It got so popular that Game Arts couldn't stop making remakes.
  • 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 North American release, but word of mouth made it the top selling Nintendo DS game its first week in North 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. It even gotten an iOS port, followed by a 2018 release on the Nintendo Switch.
  • The Witcher:
    • The original game was a PC-only single player CRPG released in 2007 by a development studio largely unknown outside eastern Europe, based off a fantasy book series 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 success of the games also led to the original novels being promoted globally, followed by an Live-Action Adaptation by Netflix.
    • The first game's success was such a surprise that the studio more or less apologized for their shoestring-budget "Blind Idiot" Translation by using some of their windfall to produce a much more polished Enhanced Edition, which further boosted the game's popularity.
    • The third game's entrance into the open world genre turned into a massive smash hit mostly by word of mouth after release.
  • Super Smash Bros.:
    • The original game 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 sequels have followed the trend.
    • When the first sequel Super Smash Bros. Melee was released, two characters, Marth and Roy, were originally going to be Dummied Out for the international versions 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 Fire Emblem 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 North America has given it was a major bonus), Nintendo would've pulled the plug on the series. Instead, not only did Awakening save the franchise, but it was the first in the series to break a million sales. With the large amount of newcomers to the series, Fire Emblem has gone from being "that series with the swordsmen in Super Smash Bros.," to becoming popular on its own merits, leading to heavy worldwide promotion for the succeeding games.
  • The Nintendo Entertainment System, and by proxy Super Mario Bros. The Great Video Game Crash of 1983 made console gaming a joke in America, and as such, retailers were not real eager to stock their shelves with any consoles. This made it necessary to sell the NES with R.O.B. so that people would buy it for the toy robot but keep it for the games. Mario had seen some moderate success with Donkey Kong and Mario Bros., but not on a scale that was terribly notable. But very impressive word-of-mouth for Super Mario Bros., coupled with the game being bundled with the NES, made both smash hits.
  • 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.
  • Grasshopper Manufacture:
    • No More Heroes became this in 2007; even though it didn't sell very well (40,000 in Japan, 208,000 in North America), it has a rather sizable fanbase and a sequel, and is widely considered one of the best games on the Wii. One could chalk it up to the fact that it's one of the very few Ultra Super Death Gore Fest Chainsawer 3000 games on the Wii, and that its pedigree was a cult classic. The series went on hiatus for a while, but returned with the Gaiden Game Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes in 2019, ports of the first two games to the Nintendo Switch in 2020, and the official third installment planned for 2021.
    • 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 song title, 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, disturbing, sacreligous, and/or weird 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 Chronicles 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 fanbase right from the start, since it was a new JRPG from 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 . Following this, Following games in the series have garnered international releases, its main protagonist got to appear in Super Smash Bros., and the original game was ported to the New Nintendo 3DS and received a remake on the Nintendo Switch.
  • 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.
  • Despite its novel premise (the Console Wars as an actual war for market share waged by goddess Console Patron Units), nobody expected Hyperdimension Neptunia to sell very well and it was developed for peanuts. Surprisingly, it not only got a Western release, but became far and away the best-selling release from Compile Heart, garnering two (properly-funded) sequels.
  • Yo-Kai 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 gets better ratings than Pretty Cure and Pokémon staring from the first episode and shows no signs of stopping.
  • As revealed in this interview, the original Raiden was a low-expectation project Seibu Kaihatsu only made because their previous game Dynamite Duke flopped and a Vertical Scrolling Shooter 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. Seibu's U.S. distributor Fabtek boasted in a flyer promoting the sequel:
    The original Raiden has been on the charts since September 1990—38 consecutive months and counting—with 26 months in the top 10. Not even the most popular fighting game ever can make that claim.
  • Five Nights at Freddy's started out as a failed kickstarter — it raised exactly $0 — game intended to be Scott Cawthon's Swan Song. At last count, there have been five sequels, a spin-off, two novels, and an upcoming film. Not to mention the metric tonne of merchandise.
  • After the troubled launch and release of SimCity (2013), fans of city-building simulation games hoped to find a viable alternative. In came 2015's Cities: Skylines, which rapidly picked up positive buzz as the game those fans wished SimCity had been, with the capability for larger and more expansive cities, and none of the annoying online issues. Skylines became the fastest-selling and best-reviewed Paradox Interactive property in its debut week, selling a quarter of a million copies in just two days, and surpassing the half-million mark in six.
  • Crackdown was not expected to do particularly well, so to ship copies Microsoft gave away the Halo 3 Beta to anyone who bought the game, with the expectation of a high refund rate. However, this didn't happen as it was very well-received by the Gaming public and press alike. It ended up spawning two sequels on 360 and Xbox One.
  • Splatoon garnered major attention during its reveal at E3 2014, being a major new IP from Nintendo and a particularly unique take on the Third-Person Shooter genre. However, considering that it was both on the floundering Wii U and was a genre that the company had never tackled before, many expected it to be dead on arrival. What happened instead was that the game sold one million copies worldwide in less than a month. More notably, despite shooters rarely selling well in Japan, it managed to completely sell out on release day (Nintendo had to apologize for the lack of retail copies), consistently remained among the Top 5 on Japanese game sales charts for fourteen straight weeks, and went on to be the best-selling Wii U title in Japan. It later garnered two sequels on the Switch, the former having quickly outsold its predecessor, Splatoon references and the ability to race as an Inkling in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, and have the Inklings be the first new characters announced for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate.
  • Rocket League was a fairly small game with not a lot of press during development, made as a sequel to a game that was not particularly well received but became something of a Cult Classic. Then the beta happened, at which point the game's popularity and press shot through the roof to the point that when it came out, it was the #2 best seller on Steam and became a part of Sony's PlayStation Plus "Instant Game Collection" service.
  • WarioWare was not expected by its development team to do particularly well due to its unconventional gameplay, quirky style, and being a Spiritual Successor to a mode for a game released exclusively on the failed Nintendo 64DD. The game ended up doing well above Nintendo's internal expectation and spawned a long line of sequels.
  • Stardew Valley is a Spiritual Successor to Harvest Moon. Despite being of the niche genre of farming Simulation Games, it managed to sell nearly a million copies within a few weeks through mostly word of mouth.
  • Homeworld by Sierra did not have a heavy advertising campaign. The mood of the game also screams Hard Science Fiction, which scares off a lot of casual fans. There is also the Chris Foss/Peter Elson inspiration behind much of the design that screams old-school Sci-Fi. Not a single human character is seen onscreen during the game and the voice acting, while not wooden, is decidedly humorless and subdued, giving it a detached, cold feel. Nevertheless, this 1999 game became very popular due in part to its fully realized 3D gameplay (unlike every other Real-Time Strategy game of the time), resemblance to the plot of the original Battlestar Galactica (a then marginally remembered TV show whose big revival still several years down the road), the moody in-game music (such as the brilliant use of Samuel Barber's "Agnus Dei") and the Closing Credits song by Progressive Rock group Yes. It had several sequels as well as a remastering and remake for modern systems.
  • KanColle was originally meant for the very niche market of military Otaku (something it shared with Arpeggio of Blue Steel, see example above); but thanks to some Colbert Bumps from big names in the manga and anime industries (the most notable example being Kohta Hirano's epic meltdowns about the game on Twitter), it got a lot more popular than intended.
  • NieR: Automata, a sequel to the Cult Classic yet niche NieR, was expected to be a modest hit at best because of its limited appeal on paper, and especially with the amount of competition it had on initial release.note  Despite this, a combination of the strong critical praise, popularity of the main character's design, dramatic plotline, well-written characterization, and just enough marketing by Square Enix without going overboard, led to the game not only becoming the best selling title in its whole franchise in a little more than a week, but also managing to break one million sales worldwide, becoming the third PlatinumGames title to do so and the very first for Taro Yoko.
  • Paladins was first released as an open beta in 2016 and garnered little attention, other than for being like "a less polished Overwatch". Jump to 2017, where after numerous improvements to the graphics and gameplay, nearly double the amount of Champions, a slew of customization options, and Paladins has risen to being the only other Hero Shooter that could seriously be considered The Rival to Overwatch, with 11 million players announced soon after the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One version were released.
  • Mad Max had been in development for years, until Mad Max: Fury Road entered production, whereupon it actually picked up the Mad Max license to become an official game just in time for both film and game to be finished around the same time. In a twist of fate, both the game and film became sleeper hits. After being released a few months after Grand Theft Auto V launched on PC, and on the same day as mega hit Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it eventually found a niche in the open world genre, and fans began to realize it was far from the rushed licensed tie in game that many expected, and instead was a very solid action adventure game that fit incredibly well into the Mad Max aesthetic.
  • Hitman Go, a mobile puzzle game based on Hitman series, was met with heavy scepticism at first and seen as a shameless attempt at milking the franchise. Despite negative expectations, it ended up being a well-received title with solid gameplay and complicated puzzles, and got popular enough to not only be ported on modern consoles as an Updated Re-release, but also spawn its own series of sequels, with installments based on Tomb Raider and Deus Ex.
  • When PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was released in 2017 as an early-access title, most pundits wrote it off as just another forgettable bland shooter. Yet it became the most played game on Steam with 3 million concurrent players as of December 2017, with its closest competitor Dota 2, a "triple-A" game made by Valve Corporation, only having 1.29 million peak players. Not only that, but it also sold 20 million copies in early access and managed to spawn the "Battle Royale" sub-genre of shooter.
  • Octopath Traveler was largely overlooked when it was first announced, as not only were people much more hyped for other Nintendo Switch games shown off around the same time like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, but the game's Retraux "2D-HD" aesthetic got it pegged as an inherently niche title regardless. When the game came out, though, it managed to sell well enough to become one of the Switch's most popular original role-playing games, roughly on par with the bigger-budgeted and more heavily hyped Xenoblade Chronicles 2. The number of initial physical copies for the game were so low that it repeatedly sold out despite Square Enix restocking it multiple times.
  • Euro Truck Simulator, similar to many games of this page, started out as one more game in the borderline shovelware category of extremely niche vehicle simulators, with most of its initial players buying it ironically in order to make fun of it on social and streaming media. However, unlike many similar videogames, it had one big difference: it did try to be fun, and tried its best to appeal to people outside of the utilitary vehicle fandom. Unlike most vehicle simulators, which were all about recreating in minute detail every single little button, gage and internal mechanism first and foremost, Euro Truck Simulator did acknowledge that sometimes realism is at odds with fun and was not afraid of cutting short some things in the name of gameplay. Core aspects that vehicle fans like such as faithful, detailed models, realistic physics and highly detailed controls were maintained; aspects that people were more likely to find annoying were reduced or simplified such as compressing spacetime by 20-fold, keeping AI-controlled traffic light and giving it a reasonably smart AI, or simplifying some controls in order to not require an analog controller to play the game properly; and in addition to all that, elements that give the player a purpose beyond just driving trucks were added, such as aftermarket parts that cost in-game money, a level-up system, online-based jobs, six gameplay stages that require putting a good few hours to unlock with in-game money, or nods to hardcore achievers with elements that make the game more challenging such as heavy loads, time-constrained missions or eighteen wheeler trailers. These differences, coupled with a laidback, relaxing driving experience, a planar corporate structure that favored creativity over discipline and authority, and an always constant development that takes feedback from actual truckers who play the game, caused many ironic players to end up actually enjoying the game unironically, leading them to praise the game through word of mouth and positive Steam reviews. Six years after its release, Euro Truck Simulator has managed to make it more than once to Steam's weekly top selling charts, gained the coveted "Overwhelmingly Positive" user review score, spawned its hardcore-looking sibling game American Truck Simulator as well as eight major expansions with increasing degrees of artistic polish, created one of the most thriving modding communities on the entire Steam Workshop (going as far as creating entire countries such as Canada, Mexico or Brazil), and has even begun to increase its media presence through racing team sponsorships.
  • Warframe started out on the backfoot as one of the most prominent examples of It Will Never Catch On in gaming history, with developer Digital Extremes actually unable to find any publisher willing to back it, forcing them to self-publish with their entire company on the line. After a slow start, with its eye-catching premise (space ninjas!) drawing people in and its grindy, repetitive nature turning them away, the game continued to evolve over the years gaining more and more positive word of mouth as DE reworked old systems and added new ones. Around about the time they released "The Second Dream" the game's popularity exploded as what was previously seen as a fun but shallow looter MMO began to be recognised as something close to art, as well as one of the best examples of free-to-play monetisation in a game done intelligently and with integrity. It has subsequently become one of the foremost F2P games in the world, with releases on all the consoles as well as PC and millions of registered losers logging in every day, making it also one of the foremost modern examples of And You Thought It Would Fail.
  • Though it would become one of the most iconic game in the Neo Geo library, Metal Slug had very little expectations from SNK. The game was purely a passion project for its developers, who made it in their spare time as Nazca was set up for porting SNK's games to the Saturn and PS1. The original "tank" version was poorly-received in location testing and the game was released in a slow quarter. Furthermore, it was a 2D sidescrolling game in a time where fighting games were dominating the arcades and 3D was king. This is one of the reason why the "home" Neo Geo version is surprisingly rare as SNK didn't produce many copies, expecting it to be a flop.
  • Divinity: Original Sin II was the sixth game in an obscure Western RPG series from Belgium, and while the groundwork for its success on Kickstarter was laid by Larian Studios faithfully delivering on their promises for the previous installment, nobody — not even the devs — expected it to become the best-reviewed PC game of 2017, as well as in Larian's history, to sell a million copies within a couple months (despite little fanfare or marketing), and to win a Game of the Year (from PC Gamer) and numerous Best RPG awards.
  • Epic Games managed to pull this thrice:
  • Disco Elysium, a modest indie Urban Fantasy Role-Playing Game from 2019 developed by the small Estonian game development collective ZA/UM, was not expected to stand out as its year of release was a year already stuffed with critically acclaimed titles from both the West and East. However, in spite of its unconventional design it became a critical and commercial darling and wound up not only being nominated in four categories for the 2019 Game Awards, including Best RPG and Best Narrative, but also sweeping the award in all four categories. Its success would continue in 2020, where it won three BAFTAs, and, thanks to a translation patch, became a surprise hit in China.
  • Ring Fit Adventure qualifies: while performing decently enough in its initial launch in 2019 amid competition from the likes of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and fellow Nintendo Switch title Pokémon Sword and Shield, it really took off in 2020 after many gyms were forced to close due to the COVID-19 Pandemic ; selling over 5 million copies worldwide. New copies can easily go for $300 at online resale, five times the $60 list price.
  • Among Us released on IOS in June 2018 and later on Steam in November, initially amassing a small but dedicated fanbase of a couple hundred players at best. It saw a surge on popularity in mid-2020 driven by South Korean and Brazilian content creators, but it wasn't until July, when Twitch streamer Sodapoppin got his hands on the game and spread the good word-of-mouth around other big-name streamers and content creators, that the game truly exploded worldwide.
  • Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid had a massive uphill battle. A game created for the franchise's 25th anniversary, it was being created by a company that just previously released Power Rangers: Legacy Wars, a mobile game that initially promoted Power Rangers (2017) before it became a Box Office Bomb. Its release was not spectacular with the game being buggy and lackluster. However, the company, N-Way, refused to back down and worked on the game, improving its engine, adding a vast cast, adding in voice actors (going so far as to recruit some of the original actors, too) and making the game fun that it is now part of the fighting game community. One of the things that saved the game was its amazing rollback netcode, which was even better than what Dragon Ball Fighter Z and Street Fighter V had.

    Visual Novels 
  • As shocking as it may sound, Higurashi: When They Cry was actually not that well known when it first came out. Word of God says that it wasn't until Meakashi-hen that the series started to garner wide spread attention. The series would eventually become known as one of the flag ships of Japanese Horror and of the visual novel medium.
  • Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, a Visual Novel for the Nintendo DS, was released in North America to little fanfare - there was basically no advertising and retailers had to specifically request copies of the game to stock. It then received several near-perfect scores from major reviewers, and good word-of-mouth led to so many sales that the distributors had to re-print the game. The sequel, Virtue's Last Reward, was released on the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita to similar critical acclaim.
  • Mystic Messenger became far more popular than its developer Cheritz expected; while their previous two English releases were relatively well-received by the otome gaming community, Mystic Messenger ended up vastly outstripping the two of them in popularity combined and even getting publicity outside of the niche otome community as it became a number of players' introduction to the otome genre.

    Web Animation 
  • The creators of The Most Popular Girls in School didn't think that anybody would even watch their videos. And then, Episode 1 got over a hundred-thousand views in a week.
  • The most famous YouTube Poop by pooper cs188 is "No one needs foundation repair", which he created merely as a one-off filler. It became famous after he was asked to take it off YouTube due to a privacy complaint from workers at the foundation company whose commercials he used in it. Now, countless Poopers have re-uploaded and mirrored it, and have given it countless Shout Outs in their own Poops.
  • Red vs. Blue was meant to be just a short series Burnie Burns and his friends did for fun. Yet the videos gathered thousands and thousands of views bordering on Demand Overload, so everyone quit their day jobs, founded the still thriving Rooster Teeth, and Red vs. Blue has been running continuously since 2003.
  • Pinkfong was a little-known Korean education company that produced videos, including one of the popular camp song Baby Shark. Nobody expected said video to become the most watched YouTube video of all time and for said song to become a Cash Cow Franchise, spawning toys, t-shirts and a Nickelodeon show.
  • Similar to Baby Shark, Potty Monkey originally started as a little-known toy by a company who made bedwetting alarms and wasn't very successful at first, having very few purchasers in its first decade of sales. It wasn't until a web cartoon based on the toy was published in 2018 that the toy really took off and became popular with kids, with said video reaching two million views in the span of a year.
  • Cocomelon started as a channel called ThatsMEOnTV that uploaded educational videos. After two rebrands, it began producing original animated videos featuring a set cast of characters. As the channel's last two incarnations were rather obscure, it was not expected to do well. Cocomelon is now the third most-subscribed to YouTube channel in the world, and the song "Bath Song" is the ninth most-watched YouTube video of all time.

    Web Original 

    Western Animation 
  • Regular Show was one of only two shows to survive one of Cartoon Network's failed projects, right during the channel's Dork Age. Sure enough, it and Adventure Time helped Cartoon Network out of its slump, and it was easily the second-most popular show on the channel for most of its run.
  • 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 sizable fanbase that kept on growing. The show's enduring popularity earned it a sequel series in 2012.
  • Back in 1999, no one knew SpongeBob SquarePants was going to be as wicked popular as it became... outside Nickelodeon Animation Studio, at least. Internally, it was a case of And You Thought It Would Fail, as artists at the studio were completely convinced Hillenberg and his crew had a hit on their hands, while execs mostly shunned the show in favor of CatDog.
  • 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. Eventually, Oni Press would publish a comic book continuation and Nickelodeon released a finale film on Netflix.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is one of the best examples out there. The original show from the '80s had the nostalgia factor going for it, but the most recent installment at that point, My Little Pony (G3) did not have the best reception from fans and had the Tastes Like Diabetes factor going against it. Combined with the series as a whole often being seen by non-fans as a shamelessly Merchandise-Driven hack-job toy commercial, it was hard to see anyone besides hardcore MLP fans giving it a chance. Indeed, industry watchers thoroughly trashed the show before a single episode had aired. Then, after reading the articles and finding out Lauren Faust, who previously worked on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and The Powerpuff Girls, was the showrunner, people started to watch it, and it now has a Periphery Demographic rivaling that of Doctor Who and Star Trek. It even made it into a Super Bowl commercial!
  • Hilda is a fairly obscure though critically acclaimed children's graphic novel series. The Netflix animated adaptation was made and released with little fanfare, but it quickly became a critical and commercial success thanks to excellent word of mouth. It also gathered quite the large following from Gravity Falls and Over the Garden Wall fans due to its similar setting about a magical woodland.
  • In a situation not to dissimilar from Regular Show and Adventure Time, Gravity Falls came out when Disney Channel had alienated many of their over-14 viewers with their endless crop of kidcoms, and Phineas and Ferb and Fish Hooks were the only animated series still running on the channel. Enter Gravity Falls, which came out of the blue with quick gags and random (and slightly dark/adult) jokes reminiscent of shows you'd expect from Cartoon Network, all tied together with an imaginative and intriguing darkly supernatural story. Suddenly, every episode had over a million views, MTV listed it as #2 on their top cartoons of 2012 list, and it now has a massive fanbase on sites like DeviantArt and Tumblr.
  • When the Nicktoons brand started in 1991, Nickelodeon hoped Doug would be the smash hit Nicktoon at the time. In actuality, that honor went to The Ren & Stimpy Show. That show was itself dethroned by Rugrats as Nick's biggest hit, until SpongeBob SquarePants came along.
  • Britt Allcroft, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, did not believe her series would do as well as it became, as previous attempts to adapt source material The Railway Series flopped (most notably "The Sad Story of Henry"). Today, Thomas is one of the most popular franchises among preschool boys, and has something of a Periphery Demographic on the Internet (leading it to become one of the most popular YouTube Poop sources ever), all thanks to her!
  • Many people thought that Teen Titans Go!, like most other shows aired during DC Nation at the time, would be screwed over and quickly canned by the network. But since it was Lighter and Softer than the other DC Nation shows, it gained a huge following of kids and dethroned fellow sleeper Adventure Time as Cartoon Network's flagship show, getting ratings that were on par not only with other family-oriented channels, but with prime time shows on broadcast networks. Teen Titans Go's massive success also helped Cartoon Network become the highest-rated kids' channel in 2015 and 2016, causing the ratings of its rival channels to drop significantly.
  • A few people thought that the The Loud House would be a mild hit at best and do about as well as Nickelodeon's other shows that weren't SpongeBob SquarePants before eventually getting screwed over. However, the show proved to be an instant hit with kids and older Nick fans alike and had already garnered a large following before the show even premiered, as well as a sizable Testosterone Brigade thanks to the Loud sisters. In fact, the show was so successful in ratings it actually beat out SpongeBob as the network's highest rated show. It received a spinoff series in 2019.
  • Many people expected Sofia the First to be a modest hit at best, what with the reputation of preschool shows on the Internet. And yet it turned out to be a very well written show that was able to appeal to multiple levels. As of this writing (October 2017), it's been on the air for 5 years and 4 seasons. In fact, Craig Gerber's next Disney Junior series, the spinoff Elena of Avalor, managed to gain even more success partially due to Sofia's fanbase.
  • No one thought Doc McStuffins, which also came out in 2012, would be so hugely popular. Once again, people were proven wrong, and it has the honor of being the first Disney show to get a 5th season.
  • PAW Patrol began as an obscure Canadian import from TVOntario during its run on Nick Jr. and wasn't expected to be a big hit among kids since it was a preschool show teaching social morals on a block dedicated to shows that taught educational morals. However, older viewers found that they could enjoy the show as much as the target audience, which lead to the Nick Jr. block returning on weekends to show re-runs. Because of this, the fact that most kids like superheroes and dogs, and Nick Jr. finding a successor to Disney Junior's crop of series with pro-social aesops, PAW Patrol dethroned Dora the Explorer as Nickelodeon's flagship preschool property.
  • PJ Masks wasn't expected to amount to much for Disney Junior, given their track record with acquired foreign series (where they would either only air them once a day or late at night, or take the show on and off the schedule at random), but ended up becoming their first acquired series to be successful, to the point where merchandise sales and TV ratings for the show beat those of their in-house programming.
  • Big Mouth was hated by many when it first came out due to people thinking that the show's art style looked weird and because the show itself used too much Toilet Humor. But after a good advertising campaign hyping up the second season and word of mouth abut how the show was Actually Pretty Funny and relatable to most people's lives, it grew in popularity.
  • Green Eggs and Ham was expected to do decently at best like most animated adaptations of Dr. Seuss. However, good word of mouth about the show's quality made it successful enough to be renewed for a second season and become a hit with not only families, but the animation community.


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