Dear White People creator Justin Simien told CreativeLive CEO Chase Jarvis something that a lot of creative entrepreneurs know to be true: That a lot of times, the thing you want to create is not the thing that other people want to pay to make, even when there’s an audience.
“Let me tell you who was looking for this movie: Nobody.” said Justin in their conversation. “I felt like this was something new that I could add to the cultural conversation.”
Of course, because no studio wanted to fund his project, Justin was charged with the task of finding alternate ways to pay for the movie. What he found was that, though it was too big a gamble for many mainstream film studios, fans were clamoring for a movie just like the one he was making, and they chipped in to help get Dear White People made.
It’s true that most film studios don’t want to risk a big loss by investing in films that aren’t guaranteed successes — but plenty of independent films do end up seeing breakout success, both commercially and in the film community. Here are a few indie films that went from Sundance favorites to big box office hits.
Billy Elliot: A perfect example of the kind of film that would be pretty tough to get greenlit by a studio but that clearly captivated audiences, Billy Elliot, cost about £2.5 million to make, but ended up grossing about ten times that amount. Additionally, the film — which is about the son of a miner who learns to dance — was spun off into an award-winning Broadway musical, with music written by Sir Elton John.
Hoop Dreams: Hoop Dreams, which grossed over $11million, is widely regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever. The Sundance favorite, which was originally intended to be a documentary short, tackled issues of race, class, social justice, and achievement in inner city schools — not exactly your typical big box office smash.
The Blair Witch Project: Who in the late 1990s and early 2000s didn’t make a reference to The Blair Witch Project in some way? Produced by a tiny, five-person production company owned by the film’s creators, the ubiquitous horror film became one of the most-seen movies of its release year. And while speculation about the actual production costs of the film abound (some estimates are as low as $20,000, though others involved in the film have said it cost much more to make), it’s hard to argue with the $248million it made, or the huge cultural impact it left.
Napoleon Dynamite: Leading action Jon Heder famously only received $1,000 for his role as the titular character in low-budget Napoleon Dynamite. Luckily, after the film got huge — which it did; it grossed about $46million after it moved from limited release to major box office saturation — he was able to renegotiate for a cut of the revenue.
Eraserhead: Creepy, industrial, and generally surreal, Eraserhead would be a pretty impossible movie to pitch to a film studio today. The black-and-white cult classic grossed $7million, but perhaps its biggest accomplishemnt was launching the career of David Lynch, who has since gone on to create beloved movies and the TV series Twin Peaks.
Little Miss Sunshine: Little Miss Sunshine is one of those movies that almost never saw the light of day. Originally bought by Focus Features, the film was dropped due to creative differences between writer Michael Arndt and the studio. Producer Marc Turtletaub then paid $400,000 for the rights and poured about $8million into the productive — quite a gamble on a film with a cast of largely-unknown actors and a first-time writer. Two years later, after screening at Sundance, Fox Searchlight bought the film for $10.5 million. It later went on to received huge acclaim, and remained one of the highest-grossing films in theaters for weeks.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Before Beasts of the Southern Wild was an multi-category Academy Award nominee, it was a 16mm project with mostly unknown, first-time actors, including then 5-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis. But the film’s production and content was so beautiful and emotionally powerful, critics and audiences couldn’t help but take notice.