Sleeper hit is a term used in the entertainment industry for a film that plays successfully for a long period and becomes a big success, despite having relatively little promotion or lacking a successful opening. It is also used in a similar sense for music releases.
Some sleeper hits in the film industry are strategically marketed for audiences subtly, such as with sneak previews a couple of weeks prior to release, without making them feel obliged to see a heavily promoted film. This alternative form of marketing strategy has been used in sleeper hits such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Forrest Gump (1994), My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), There's Something About Mary (1998), and The Sixth Sense (1999).
Screenings for these films are held in an area conducive to the film's demographic. In the case of Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy, screenings were held at suburban shopping malls where romantic couples in their mid 20s to early 30s spent Saturday afternoons before seeing a new film. In theory, a successful screening leads to word-of-mouth marketing, as it compels viewers to discuss an interesting, low-key film with co-workers when they return to work after their weekend.
Easy Rider (1969), which was created on a budget of less than $400,000, became a sleeper hit by earning $50 million and garnering attention from younger audiences with its combination of drugs, violence, motorcycles, counter-culture stance, and rock music.
The 1979 Australian film Mad Max, which sprung from the Ozploitation movement and helped to popularise the post-apocalyptic dystopia genre, held the record for the biggest profit-to-cost ratio for some years until it was broken by The Blair Witch Project in 1999.
The independent film Halloween, which played over the course of fall 1978 through fall 1979 and relied almost completely on word-of-mouth as marketing, was also a sleeper hit, having a box-office take of over $50 million on a budget of only $325,000. Its success caused other slasher films to try the same approach, although few fared as well since horror films heavily rely on opening weekend box-office and quickly fall from theaters. Other notable examples of horror sleeper-hits to follow in Halloween's wake include A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Scream in 1996, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Saw in 2004, and Paranormal Activity in 2007.
The Romantics' 1980 single "What I Like About You" was a sleeper hit. It was a minor hit upon its release and charted at number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, while not charting at all in the United Kingdom. It ultimately became one of the most popular songs of the 1980s.
In 2008, Raphael Saadiq released his classic soul-inspired album The Way I See It, which became a sleeper hit. Overlooked upon its release, it ended up charting for 41 weeks on the Billboard 200.
In November 2010, Miguel released his debut album All I Want Is You. It initially performed poorly, debuting at number 109 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 11,000 copies, and was underpromoted by his record label. However, it became a sleeper hit, as its singles attained radio airplay and Miguel toured in its promotion, and ultimately sold 404,000 copies.
- Berra 2008, p. 68.
- Ganeri & Bergan 2006, p. 458.
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- Gimarc 2005, p. 287.
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