Sometimes they come from the studio system, produced almost as an afterthought, but mostly they're produced well off the radar. On occasion, they upend the established order by opening at No. 1 at the box office.
But more typically they start small, building over time, hanging on in theaters as more heralded movies come and go. Often the filmmakers involved meet with initial rejection before wildly triumphing in the end. And in the process, they expose the limitations of Hollywood's conventional thinking about what makes a hit.
Sleepers, when everyone wakes up to their potential, tend to be wildly successful, resulting in box office returns that dwarf their modest budgets. And so, top sleepers of the past decade, take another bow.
10. "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON" (SONY PICTURES CLASSICS, 2000)
Budget: $17 million
Domestic gross: $128 million
Except for a handful of martial arts fans, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was indeed hidden from sight during its production. Most Westerners weren't familiar with stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. Taiwanese director Ang Lee, coming off the commercial failure of "Ride With the Devil," wasn't exactly known for burning up the box office, either. Even its rollout was uneventful: "Tiger" was first shown out of competition at Cannes and made its U.S. premiere at the Hawaii International Film Festival. But after an Oscar-qualifying run in December 2000, it opened wide January 12, 2001, to $8.6 million. And then, the subtitled movie became a sensation. While it never made more than $10.5 million during a single box office weekend, it clawed its way to a $128 million domestic cume. It became the highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. history, won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, made an international star of Zhang Ziyi and ushered in an Asian movie revival in the West.
9. "DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN" (LIONSGATE, 2005)
Budget: $5.5 million
Domestic gross: $50.4 million
"Tyler who?" most folks in Hollywood were asking each other the Monday morning after the Atlanta-based filmmaker's "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" opened in first place to the tune of $21 million. The answer was Tyler Perry, and he was already well-known by the extensive black fan base he'd cultivated during his years writing and performing plays on the so-called Chitlin' Circuit. Several Hollywood studios gave him the cold shoulder before Lionsgate struck a deal for Perry's first feature, in which he also appears as his signature big mama character, Madea. The relationship has spawned a whole series of consistently profitable films, two TV series and a potential Oscar winner in "Precious," which Perry joined as executive producer after Lionsgate acquired it at this year's Sundance.
8. "SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE" (FOX SEARCHLIGHT, 2008)
Budget: $15 million
Domestic gross: $141.3 million
This could easily be at the top of the list when taken as a whole. Not just because it was very nearly buried by Warner Bros. before anyone ever had a chance to see it. Not just because it is essentially a foreign film with unknown actors and multiple languages. Not just because it's violently R-rated and yet went out into the world to gross $362 million worldwide. That certainly would have been enough. But it did all of this and then won eight Oscars, including best picture, for good measure. Jai ho!
7. MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (WARNER INDEPENDENT/NATIONAL
Budget: $8 million
Domestic gross: $77.4 million
Penguins sure are cute, but a whole movie about a bunch of birds who do nothing but march inland, canoodle, fish, lay eggs and huddle together for warmth among ferocious winter storms? After the French-made production played Sundance in 2005, new -- and ultimately short-lived -- Warner Independent, along with National Geographic, acquired U.S. rights for $1 million and released it in only four theaters in June. But it steadily warmed moviegoers' hearts, played all the way to November, won the documentary Oscar and became the top-grossing nature documentary ever.
6. JACKASS: THE MOVIE (PARAMOUNT, 2002)
Budget: $5 million
Domestic gross: $64.3 million
True, the TV series "Jackass" had run for two seasons on MTV before MTV Films, at the time something of a poor stepchild at Paramount Pictures, greenlighted a movie version starring Johnny Knoxville and his whacked-out crew and directed by Jeff Tremaine. Seemingly embarrassed to be stooping to a slapdash mix of skits involving urine-soaked snowballs, soiled trousers and unpixelated private parts, Paramount kept the movie away from the censorious eyes of critics. But the fans couldn't have cared less. Opening to a $22 million weekend, "Jackass" stunned Hollywood by arriving in first place, spawning a 2006 sequel and surely an even-grosser 3D version set to let it all hang out this coming October.
5. "JUNO" (FOX SEARCHLIGHT, 2007)
Budget: $7.5 million
Domestic gross: $143.5 million
Diablo Cody's quirky little gem about cinema's hippest accidentally pregnant teenager may feel like it's always been with us, but for a while it was just a buzzed-about script from an unknown writer with a titillating backstory. Director Jason Reitman, stars Ellen Page and Michael Cera and distributor Fox Searchlight then spun an early Toronto International Film Festival success into a cultural phenomenon, complete with its own striped color scheme, hit soundtrack and invented lexicon. Like its ballooning pint-sized protagonist, "Juno" eventually swelled to 19 times its original body weight in grosses (plus $83.5 million overseas).
4. "SAW" (LIONSGATE, 2004)
Budget: $1.2 million
Domestic gross: $55.2 million
Like its madman protagonist, "Saw" succeeded with an intricate, moralistic premise executed with precision and no small amount of blood. The low-budget horror film, co-written by director James Wan and actor Leigh Whannell, screened in a midnight slot at Sundance and then rode a slow burn to a surprise $20 million opening the weekend of Halloween. Thus, a franchise was born that has grossed more than $650 million worldwide in relentless yearly installments (No. 7 hits in 2010). It also birthed Jigsaw, the first new top-tier horror villain in more than a decade.
3. "MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING" (IFC, 2002)
Budget: $5 million
Domestic gross: $241.4 million
At first, Hollywood insiders referred to it simply as "the small comedy Tom Hanks produced with his wife," but it became one of the biggest independent movies of all time. An ethnic-flavored rom-com, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" began life as a one-woman stage show performed by Nia Vardalos, which Hanks' wife, Rita Wilson, discovered and championed. Adapted for the screen by Vardalos and director Joel Zwick for only $5 million, it opened in April 2002 bolstered by a carefully targeted campaign that resulted in unprecedented word-of-mouth. It stayed in theaters for almost a year, an unheard-of length of time in an era of wide releases when movies are in and out of theaters in a matter of weeks. It never made more than $15 million on any given weekend, and never reached No. 1 during the run, but it enjoyed a take of $241 million domestically and $127 million abroad. The movie's title became part of the lexicon, spawned a host of imitators, and made Vardalos an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
2. "NAPOLEON DYNAMITE" (FOX SEARCHLIGHT/PARAMOUNT 2004)
Domestic gross: $44.5 million
A geek comedy, directed by Jared Hess, that seemed to divide along generational lines, "Napoleon Dynamite" was made for only $400,000 and became the poster child of Sundance 2004 when it got picked up by Fox Searchlight for $3 million. With the help of a promotional push from partners Paramount and MTV Films, the distributor orchestrated a slow rollout over the summer and watched as the movie collected more than $44 million over the course of months, even though the movie never attracted more than $4 million on any weekend during its lengthy box-office dance-off. Audiences related to the title character and took to wearing "Vote for Pedro" T-shirts, inspired by the movie, just to prove their hip quotient.
1. "PARANORMAL ACTIVITY" (PARAMOUNT, 2009)
Domestic gross: $107.6 million
First-time director Oren Pali's homemade ghost story could have disappeared at any step along the way. Shot for only $15,000 on a camcorder over the course of seven days, it found no buyers after appearing at Screamfest in 2007 and then Slamdance in 2008. DreamWorks picked it up with plans to remake it rather than release it. Then it almost got lost amid the Paramount/DreamWorks divorce. Finally, Paramount released it at midnight screenings in only 12 theaters, supported by a stealth marketing campaign that convinced fans they were discovering the movie for themselves. It climbed the charts until, by its fifth weekend, it reigned at No. 1. What "The Blair Witch Project" was to the '90s, "Paranormal" was to '00s. The cheapie project became a gold-plated ghost(block)buster.