Sleeper Hit

A sleeper hit refers to a film, book, single, album, TV show, or video game that gains unexpected success or recognition. Sleeper hits often grow in popularity over time. Some sleeper hits achieve unexpected success at the box office immediately upon their initial theatrical release, but this is not typical. Because these films are not expected to do particularly well they often receive little promotion or advertising and take time to register with the public.

Typically the sleeper hit relies instead on positive ‘word of mouth’ as well as the publicity generated by awards and good reviews. Two good examples of these are Mike Judge’s ‘Office Space’ and ‘Idiocracy,’ both of which quickly became cult classics. The movie ‘Caddyshack’ is another good example.

Thus sleeper films often attract the most viewers in the latter part of their theatrical releases. ‘There’s Something About Mary’ had a small release in 1998, but gained notoriety through word of mouth, and grew to top the weekend box office on its 8th week of release. Similarly, the 2010 film ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ was considered a relative disappointment when its premiere wide release box office gross was smaller than expected, but was later reassessed as a major success when its theatrical run proved unexpectedly strong over a longer term to more than compensate. Studios have become more adept at promoting sleeper success at the box office, gradually increasing the number of screens and amount of advertising devoted to a promising film over several weeks (as opposed to a traditional pre-release advertising blitz). Some sleeper hits fail completely at the box office but succeed later on television and video as cult films (such as ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’) through positive word of mouth reviews communicated between fans in particular social networks or demographics.

A sleeper hit does not necessarily have to create a lot of revenue; it just needs to achieve a high degree of success relative to expectations. The Dreamworks film ‘Shark Tale’ was panned by critics but was a box-office success with fans garnering $367 million, nearly five times its budget. However, the term is generally not used to refer to large-budget films—even those that defy their expectations, such as 1997’s ‘Titanic,’ which had been expected to lose money. The term is fairly subjective, so many films are informally referred to as sleepers. Sometimes unreleased films are advertised as sleepers.

The term is used for songs that have attained massive popularity against the odds, due to them belonging to a genre unpopular at the time. An example is the song ‘Fireflies’ by Owl City, a 2009/2010 synthpop song that became a hit in a time when most hits were hip hop songs. Another example is the song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana, which became a hit in 1991 when alternative rock was not yet mainstream and hair metal and other 1980s styles were at the end of their heyday. Sleeper hits often change the music scene as they tend to break new genres into the mainstream.

In publishing, success is usually measured by reaching the bestseller lists. Sleeper books are usually released by an unknown (often first-time) author, are not widely publicized on release, and may not sell well at first. However, sleeper books gain recognition by word-of-mouth and this leads to sales increases. They can be promoted by independent booksellers, book clubs, or literary awards. For example, ‘Cold Mountain’ by Charles Frazier (a first-time novelist), was released with a modest print run of 25,000 copies. It received good reviews and was initially promoted by small booksellers and word-of-mouth. The book won the 1997 National Book Award, spent 45 weeks on ‘The New York Times’ bestseller list, sold over a million copies in hardback alone, and was adapted for film in 2003.

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