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An investigative report from Film Industry Analyst Stephen Follows and Founder of The Numbers Bruce Nash
This is an expanded and updated version of last year’s article which looked at the patterns behind low-budget breakout movies. We have added more data, dug deeper and widened the criteria to look at all movies budgeted below $3 million.
Many filmmakers and film professionals spend their careers chasing the elusive “low-budget breakout” movie. i.e. A film made for pennies that rakes in mega-bucks and in so doing transforms the careers, companies and cars driven by those involved.
This kind of success is often written off as a random event. However, this is far from the case. While nobody can provide a surefire formula for success, there are patterns we see time and again among the highest performing low-budget movies.
To reveal these patterns, we began with a list of over 3,000 films from The Numbers’ financial database, investigating full financial details, including North American (i.e. “domestic”) and international box office, video sales and rentals, TV and ancillary revenue. We narrowed our focus to study the 100 most profitable feature films released between 2007 and 2016, budgeted under $3 million, using a standard distribution model where the distributor charges a 30% fee.
We looked for common themes and found (with a small number of exceptions) that the breakout hits divided naturally into four types:
It will come as no surprise to producers that horror films feature prominently on the list of low-budget breakout successes.
The second group of films that stood out were documentaries.
Critical reviews seem vital for this type of film to break out and it’s interesting that the documentaries with the lowest scoring critical ratings (The September Issue at 69 and Religulous at 56) both had strong inbuilt audiences (‘Vogue / fashion’ and ‘Bill Maher / religious scepticism’).
In fact, only a handful of the documentaries on the list don’t have an obvious audience: Man on Wire, Anvil: The Story of Anvil, and Searching for Sugar Man are the only ones that needed to find a crowd. The others were either about someone who was already very famous (Marley, Tyson, Senna, Amy… note the one-name titles!) or played directly to a receptive audience (Inside Job, Blackfish, An Inconvenient Truth etc).
Speaking of receptive audiences, the third group of films we found were faith-based films.
Two things stand out with these films. First, they make virtually all of their money in the United States. Second, they get very bad reviews from mainstream movie reviewers. The strength of these movies isn’t their quality so much as their message: they deliver to an audience that is already interested in what they have to say.
At the other end of the spectrum (at least in the eyes of professional film reviewers) are very high-quality dramas. Almost half of these films were American productions, with the rest coming from a wide variety of countries including Germany, Argentina, Mexico, the UK, France and Poland.
The lowest-rated film in this category received a Metascore of 71 out of 100, which was higher than all but three of the films within the Horror breakout success category.
A common thread among these films is awards attention. While they may not all be big enough to win main category Oscars, at the very least, these films have picked up a bunch of Independent Spirit Awards, Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, and got some screenwriting and/or acting Oscar nominations.
The 2016 version of this article focused on movies costing between $500k and $3 million with an estimated Producers Net Profit of over $10 million, released 2000-15. In this updated version, we have expanded the criteria for inclusion (to all movies budgeted under $3 million), included more movies (from 63 to 100) and narrowed the time-frame (2007-16).
The previous criteria resulted in no action movies, no thrillers, no musicals and almost no comedies or movies directed at children. Our expanded list is slightly more diverse, with one musical, a few thrillers and comedies.
Aside from the missing genres, the other notable absence is major star involvement. Of course, this is largely a function of the budget—it’s hard to get Tom Cruise for a $3 million film—but it’s remarkable how few of these films attracted anybody who would even be called a B-list star at the time the film was made.
The 2017 expanded list led to the inclusion of a few films starring familiar names: Kevin Bacon in Cop Car, Kirsten Dunst in Bachelorette, Kurt Russell in Bone Tomahawk, and Kristen Wiig in Girl Most Likely, for example. So we’re not completely ready to drop the “don’t worry about named talent” observation – getting a well-known actor or actress into a leading role can clearly help.
One trend that we noticed in this 2017 redux was that there seem to be slightly fewer breakout hits in recent years.
The only films from 2016 that make the list are Oscar-winner Moonlight and New Zealand indie Hunt for the Wilderpeople. That may be because we are missing some recent films that haven’t yet earned enough on video to crack the top of the chart, but it also might reflect the fact that independent films are increasingly picked up by the likes of Netflix and Amazon for fixed fees.
That’s generally good business for all involved: the film-makers get their money back early, probably making a decent profit, and the streamer increases their library of exclusive films. But those films also don’t get the chance to break box office records, or earn a small fortune on video. The risk is reduced, but so is the potential reward.
An interesting finding from this research is that quality is only relevant for certain types of films.
If we plot this on a graph, we can see just how distinct the three sub-categories are.
We think there are a few lessons for independent filmmakers who are hoping to make breakout hits:
Stephen Follows is a writer, producer and film industry analyst. His film research has been featured in the New York Times, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Evening Standard, Newsweek, The New Statesman, AV Club and Indiewire. He acted as an industry consultant and guest on the BBC Radio 4 series The Business of Film, which topped the iTunes podcast chart, and has consulted for a wide variety of clients, including the Smithsonian in Washington. In addition to film analytics, Stephen is an award-winning writer-producer and runs a production company based in Ealing Studios, London.
Bruce Nash is the founder and President of Nash Information Services, LLC, the premier provider of movie industry data and research services and operator of The Numbers, a website that provides box office and video sales tracking, and daily industry news. Mr. Nash founded the company in 1997 and it now serves approximately 1,000 clients, from the major studios to first-time independent filmmakers. Mr. Nash provides regular commentary and analysis for media outlets, including the L.A. Times, the New York Times, Variety, the Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes, and CBS News. Mr. Nash is the official adjudicator of movie records for the Guinness Book of Records. To learn more about his company’s services, visit Nash Information Services.
Copyright © 2017 Stephen Follows and Bruce Nash. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.
Explore more articles and research at Producers Resources.