In the entertainment industry, a sleeper hit is a film, television series, music release, video game, or some other entertainment product that was initially unsuccessful on release but becomes a success later on. A sleeper hit may have little promotion or lack a successful launch, but then garner a fan following that garners it media attention, which in turn increases its public exposure and public interest in the product.
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), the Oscar winner 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. It was also one of the successful films during the beginnings of the American New Wave of cinema.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) was considered a flop for the first 6 months of its release and it wasn't until it found popularity in midnight screenings afterwards. A Christmas Story (1983) was initially a modest success with little promotion, but after Ted Turner purchased the MGM back-catalog a few years later and began rerunning the film on his cable networks every December, it became an iconic Christmas classic.
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 several years until it was broken in 1999 by The Blair Witch Project, also a sleeper hit.
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 $70 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 Friday the 13th in 1980, The Evil Dead in 1981, A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Scream in 1996, I Know What You Did Last Summer in 1997, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Final Destination in 2000, Saw in 2004, Hostel in 2005, Paranormal Activity in 2007, both The Purge and The Conjuring in 2013, and both Happy Death Day and the Academy Award-winning Get Out in 2017.
Don Howard's 1952 recording of "Oh Happy Day" was one of the earliest sleeper hits. Featuring only Howard's baritone vocals and his acoustic guitar played at an amateur level, it was initially released regionally and was never expected to become a hit. A massive groundswell of support from teenagers in Howard's home base of Cleveland, Ohio, led to the song rapidly rising in popularity, despite music industry scorn; cover versions (including one by Larry Hooper and the Lawrence Welk orchestra) were quickly rushed into production, and by 1953, there were no fewer than four hit recordings of the same song circulating, including Howard's original.
The Romantics' 1980 single "What I Like About You" was a minor hit upon its release, charting at number 49 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, while not charting at all in the United Kingdom. It eventually became one of the most popular songs of the 1980s thanks to its use in various advertising campaigns.
The 1987 single "Welcome to the Jungle" by American rock band Guns N' Roses performed poorly in both the United States and the United Kingdom when first released in September of that year. As the band's popularity grew steadily in 1988, it became a sleeper hit in the US and reached the top 10 of the Billboard charts. It was then re-released in the UK, charting within the top 40 there.
Nirvana's second album Nevermind was released in September 1991 with low expectations, hoping to sell 500,000 copies. The album entered the Billboard 200 at number 144, but slowly climbed up the charts over the following months, entering the top 40 in November. The album was selling 300,000 copies a week by December, before in January 1992, it even replaced Michael Jackson's Dangerous at number 1 on the Billboard charts. The album went on to sell over 30 million copies worldwide.
The R&B singer Raphael Saadiq's classic soul-inspired album The Way I See It was a sleeper hit. Overlooked upon its release in 2008, it ended up charting for 41 weeks on the US Billboard 200.
"Sail" by rock band AWOLNATION, was originally released on January 2011, and did not chart in the U.S., until 8 months later in September where it debuted at No. 89 on the Billboard Hot 100. It spent 5 months leaving and reentering at the bottom of the chart, until it disappeared completely in early 2012. However, it's prominence through commercials, television broadcasts, and it's feature in the 2012 Olympics, helped revitalize new success for the song, where it cracked the top 40 in 2013, and ultimately peaking at No. 17.
"Just Dance" and "Poker Face" by pop singer Lady Gaga were both released in 2008 but did not become popular hits until the end of the year and the following year in certain countries, including the US and the UK, and eventually becoming No. 1 hits in those countries.
"Let Her Go" by Passenger was released in July 2012, but did not reach the top 20 until November 2013, and peaked at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 2014. He remains a one-hit wonder to date, as it's his only charting single.
Alessia Cara's debut single, "Here", was released in the spring of 2015, but did not become popular until much later into the year. It debuted at No. 95 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August, and took 6 more months to peak at No. 5 in early 2016. Same goes for her follow-up, "Scars to Your Beautiful", which was released in July 2016, but did not enter the top 10 until February 2017.
The R&B singer Miguel's 2010 debut album All I Want Is You performed poorly at first, debuting at number 109 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 11,000 copies, while underpromoted by his record label. As its singles achieved radio airplay and Miguel toured in the record's promotion, All I Want Is You became a sleeper hit and reached 404,000 copies sold by 2012. As of November 2017, the album has been certified platinum in the US.
"Truth Hurts", by American singer Lizzo, was released in September 2017 and did not chart until its appearance in the 2019 romantic comedy film Someone Great led to the single debuting at the number 50 position on the Billboard Hot 100. As the song became a sleeper hit on the chart, the music video—featuring the singer in a "wedding-gone-wild" concept—went viral. By September 2019, the single had reached number one on the chart. The music video has been viewed over 240 million times as of January 2021. The single also benefited from its use in TikTok videos by users who lip-synced or referenced the lyric "I just took a DNA test, turns out, I'm 100 percent that bitch". During its chart run, Gary Trust, the senior director of charts at Billboard, noted the rarity of a song topping the Hot 100 almost two years after its release, but explained that, "in the digital era, it's much easier than ever before for music fans to be exposed to older songs that might've been overlooked the first time around." According to Paper magazine's Michael Love Michael, Lizzo's sleeper hit can also be explained by a more inclusive popular media since the song's original release: "Black women are more visible than ever on magazine covers; fashion is having broader conversations about size, racial, and ethnic diversity. Lizzo's presence in these spaces signals a future of greater inclusion."
The COVID-19 pandemic played a significant role in audiences' rediscovery of previously-released media, including music. Songs such as "Arcade" by Duncan Laurence (released March 2019), "Astronaut in the Ocean" by Masked Wolf (released June 2019), and Beggin' (The Four Seasons cover) by Måneskin (released December 2017) became sleeper hits, mainly through TikTok and other social media platforms, achieving popularity and subsequently chart success in early spring and summer of 2021.
In video games
Pocket Monster Red and Green were released in 1996 in Japan, and later released as Pokémon Red and Blue in 1998. They followed several years of development and became sleeper hits. Believing it to be a one-time product, Nintendo initially shipped 200,000 copies, a relatively low amount. Most media ignored the games, but largely by word-of-mouth stemming from the hidden character Mew's introduction, their popularity gradually spread throughout Japan, selling a million units by the end of 1996. They eventually became the best-selling video games ever in Japan, with 7.8 million copies sold, and 45 million sold worldwide. After becoming a national sensation in Japan, the franchise was introduced to the United States in September 1998, going on to start a worldwide craze dubbed "Pokémania".
SteamWorld Dig (2013) was released on the 3DS by little-known developer Image & Form. It became one of the first indie games mentioned in a Nintendo Direct, and ultimately sold over a million copies on all platforms. If the game had not succeeded, the studio would have been forced to close.
Among Us was released in the late first half of 2018 and received little mainstream attention and was estimated to only have an average of around 30 to 50 concurrent players. It received a sudden and significant jump in popularity in mid-2020 after being popularized by streamers on Twitch and YouTube. In November 2020, SuperData Research reported that the game had over half a billion users, proclaiming it to be "by far the most popular game ever in terms of monthly players."
- Berra 2008, p. 68.
- Ganeri & Bergan 2006, p. 458.
- Crawford, Travis (16 December 2010). "Criterion: American Lost and Found: The BBS Story". Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
- Ivan-Zadeh, Larushka. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show: The film that's saved lives". www.bbc.com.
- Koehler, Robert (14 May 2005). "Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream".
- Maslin, Janet (8 January 1984). "IN THE ARTS: CRITICS' CHOICES". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 December 2009.
Popular misconceptions can get a movie off to a slow start, and they may have helped turn 'A Christmas Story' into the sleeper of this season.
- Nast, Condé (30 November 2016). "How A Christmas Story Went from Low-Budget Fluke to an American Tradition". Vanity Fair.
- Beard, Lanford (22 July 2014). "Summer Sleepers: 14 Unexpected Movie Hits". Entertainment Weekly.
- Kerswell, J.A. (2012). The slasher movie book. Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Review Press. ISBN 978-1556520105.
- Chaney, Jen (28 October 2015). "The Magical Tale of How 'Hocus Pocus' Went From Box-Office Flop to Halloween Favorite". Yahoo.com. Retrieved 28 October 2015.
- "What'll become of the cult movie? - Baltimore Sun". digitaledition.baltimoresun.com.
- Thompson, Gary (22 August 2019). "How 'Friends' inspired Conshohocken's Aaron Scotti to start making movies, like the delightful 'Peanut Butter Falcon'". The Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
- D'Alessandro, Anthony (1 September 2019). "'Angel Has Fallen' Still In Flight At Sluggish Labor Day Box Office With $16M+ 4-Day". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 3 September 2019.
- "Mystery Hit –". Time. 9 February 1953. Archived from the original on 22 December 2008. Retrieved 9 October 2008.
- Smith, Richard N. (19 February 1953). "No One Likes 'Happy Day' Except Public". Galveston Daily News.
- Gimarc 2005, p. 287.
- Masterton, James (2015). "Guns N' Roses". The Top 40 Annual 1988. James Masterton.
- Newman, Melinda. "Nirvana's 'Nevermind' Turns 25: How It Changed The Record Business". Forbes. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
- "The baby from Nirvana's Nevermind cover recreates the pose for its 25th anniversary". The Independent. 25 September 2016. Retrieved 22 February 2021.
- Sless-Kitain, Areif (6 August 2010). "Raphael Saadiq + Balkan Beat Box + Javelin at Lollapalooza 2010: Live review". Time Out. Chicago.
- Watson, Margeaux (24 December 2008). "Raphael Saadiq's 'The Way I See It': Most overlooked CD of the year". Entertainment Weekly. New York. Retrieved 7 April 2012.
- "Raphael Saadiq Album & Song Chart History". Billboard. Retrieved 16 May 2012.
- "Lady Gaga Superstar". epubli. p. 7 – via Google Books.
- Lipshutz, Jason (21 September 2012). "Miguel's 'Kaleidoscope Dream': Inside The R&B Dynamo's Fresh Start". Billboard. Retrieved 20 October 2012.
- Rytlewski, Evan (9 October 2012). "Miguel: Kaleidoscope Dream". The A.V. Club. Chicago. Retrieved 19 October 2012.
- Graham, Nadine (24 March 2011). "Q&A: Miguel". Soul Train. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
- "Gold & Platinum". RIAA.
- Love, Michael Love (3 September 2019). "How Lizzo's 'Truth Hurts' Became the No. 1 Song in America". Paper. Retrieved 5 November 2019.
- "How Lizzo's Truth Hurts could hit No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 despite 2017 release". CBC Radio. 30 August 2019. Retrieved 5 November 2019.
- "The Real Meaning Of 'Arcade' By Duncan Laurence". Nicki Swift. 22 April 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
- "Chartbreaker: Inside Måneskin's Unlikely, TikTok-Assisted Journey to Rock Stardom". Billboard. 3 August 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2021.
- Knodle, Matt (2 January 2018). "Top 10 Sleeper Hit Games". Honey's Anime. Retrieved 26 December 2018.
- Berens, Kate; Howard, Geoff (2008). The Rough Guide to Videogames. Rough Guides. p. 21. ISBN 978-1848362291.
- Kent, Steven (2001). The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press. pp. 566–567. ISBN 978-0761536437. See this and this link.
- Master Blaster (8 July 2012). "Japan's 30 Best Selling Video Games of All Time". SoraNews24. Archived from the original on 21 December 2018.
- Parish, Jeremy (24 September 2018). "Pokémon: The 20-year fad". Polygon. Archived from the original on 26 September 2018.
- "Pokémon Craze Zeros In On the United States" (Press release). Atlanta, Georgia, US: Nintendo of America Inc. 27 May 1998. Archived from the original on 10 June 1998.
- Chua-Eoan, Howard; Larimer, Tim (22 November 1999). "Beware of the Pokemania". Time Asia. Vol. 154 no. 20. pp. 80–93. Archived from the original on 20 February 2001.
While best-selling games like Final Fantasy grabbed the top slot for a couple of dramatic months and then faded, Pokémon sales grew slowly and steadily--and they did not stop.
- "Indies Take the Cake at Game Developers Conference". WIRED.
- Jackson, Gita. "The Making of a Switch Sleeper Hit". Kotaku.
- "November 2020 worldwide digital games market". SuperData Research. Archived from the original on 22 December 2020. Retrieved 23 December 2020.
- December 2020, Hope Bellingham 23. "Among Us gained almost half a billion players in 2020". GamesRadar. Retrieved 23 December 2020.
- Berra, John (2008). Declarations of Independence: American Cinema and the Partiality of Independent Production. Intellect Books. p. 68. ISBN 978-1841501857.
- Ganeri, Anita; Bergan, Ronald (2006). Eyewitness Companions: Film. Penguin. ISBN 0756643465.
- Gimarc, George (2005). Punk Diary: The Ultimate Trainspotter's Guide To Underground Rock, 1970-1982. Hal Leonard Corporation. ISBN 0879308486.