Breakout indie hits may be some of the most romantic stories in the movie business. The plucky lone film-maker battles the odds to make their dream film, putting naysayers in their place when it becomes a box office sensation, bringing them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams…
But are breakout hits random events that no-one can plan for or do they share some kind of DNA that can teach us how to make successful independent films, and also what genres or techniques to avoid?
To answer these questions, 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 feature films released between 2000 and 2015, budgeted between $500k and $3 million, which generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit, using a standard distribution model where the distributor charges a 30% fee.
This produced a list of 63 films in total: roughly four films a year over the 15 years under consideration. Almost all of the movies will be familiar to followers of independent film, from small films that became Oscar hopefuls, like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter’s Bone to horror movies like Insidious and The Purge that got picked up by the major studios and became box office sensations. With the list in hand, we looked for common themes and found (with a small number of exceptions) that the breakout hits broke down naturally into four types.
It will come as no surprise to most producers that horror films feature prominently on the list of top 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 to note that the documentaries with the lowest scoring critical ratings (The September Issue at 69 and Religulous at 56) each 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 already very famous (Marley, Tyson, Senna, Amy… note the one-name titles!) or played very 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 necessarily their quality so much as the message; they deliver to an audience that is interested in what they have to say.
At the other end of the spectrum, at least in the eyes of professional film reviewers, come 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 68 out of 100, which was higher than all of the films within the Horror breakout success category.
A common thread among these films is awards attention. While they might not be big enough to win a lot of main-category Oscars, these are the films that 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.
An interesting finding from this research is that the quality of the film is only relevant for certain types of films.
If we plot this on a graph, we can see just how distinct these three sub-categories are.
Many of the films in the list come as no surprise, but what’s interesting is what’s missing from the list. We found…
Aside from the missing genres, the other notable absence is any 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 that none of these films attracted anybody who would even be called a B-list star at the time the film was made.
So we think there are a few lessons for independent film-makers who are hoping to make breakout hits:
This analysis looked at feature films released between 2000 and 2015 budgeted between $500k and $3 million and which we estimate generated at least $10 million in Producer’s Net Profit. The films which fit our criteria are listed below.
|RANK||FILM TITLE||YEAR||METASCORE||IMDB RATING||ESTIMATED BUDGET|
|1||Bowling for Columbine||2002||72||8||$3,000,000|
|2||The Lives of Others||2006||89||8.5||$2,000,000|
|4||God's Not Dead||2014||16||4.9||$1,150,000|
|5||An Inconvenient Truth"||2006||75||7.5||$1,000,000|
|9||Paranormal Activity 2||2010||53||5.7||$3,000,000|
|10||Hustle & Flow||2005||68||7.4||$2,800,000|
|14||The Motorcycle Diaries||2004||75||7.8||$3,000,000|
|15||Exit Through the Gift Shop||2010||85||8||$500,000|
|16||Man on Wire||2008||89||7.9||$1,900,000|
|17||Dr. Dolittle 3||2006||3.9||$3,000,000|
|21||This Is England||2006||86||7.7||$2,380,000|
|24||The Last Exorcism||2010||63||5.6||$1,800,000|
|25||Shine a Light||2008||76||7.2||$1,000,000|
|27||The Squid and the Whale||2005||82||7.4||$1,500,000|
|30||The September Issue||2009||69||7||$1,000,000|
|31||The Devil Inside||2012||18||4.2||$1,000,000|
|37||The Hidden Face||2011||7.4||$2,600,000|
|42||To Save a Life||2009||19||7.1||$500,000|
|45||Real Women Have Curves||2002||71||7||$3,000,000|
|50||Dead Man's Shoes||2004||52||7.7||$1,125,000|
|52||I've Loved You So Long||2008||79||7.6||$2,500,000|
|53||The Human Centipede (First Sequence)||2009||33||4.5||$1,850,000|
|54||Beasts of the Southern Wild||2012||86||7.3||$1,800,000|
|55||Anvil: The Story of Anvil||2008||82||8||$500,000|
|56||Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room||2005||7.7||$750,000|
|59||A Haunted House||2013||20||5.1||$2,500,000|
|61||Is Anybody There?||2008||54||6.8||$2,500,000|
|62||Searching for Sugar Man||2012||79||8.2||$500,000|
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 News 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 founder and President of Nash Information Services, LLC, the premier provider of movie industry data and research services and operator of The Numbers, a web site 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.
Explore more articles and research at Producers Resources.
Copyright © 2016 Stephen Follows and Bruce Nash. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.