In the entertainment industry, a sleeper hit is a title (such as a book, film, song or game) that becomes successful, gradually, often with little promotion.
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 successful films 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 Rocky Horror Picture Show was considered a flop for the first 6 months of its release until it found popularity in midnight screenings.
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 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 $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 A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984, Scream in 1996, The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Saw in 2004, and Paranormal Activity in 2007.
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 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 eventually became one of the most popular songs of the 1980s.
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.
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. With its singles achieving radio airplay and Miguel touring in the record's promotion, All I Want Is You became a sleeper hit and reached 404,000 copies sold by 2012.
The rapper XXXTentacion's song, "Look At Me!" was released in 2015, but only started to become popular in when he was jailed in 2017, charting at number 34.
"Gone", a song by Kanye West featuring Cam'ron and Consequence from West's 2005 album Late Registration, did not chart for eight years until 2013 when the song was featured in a viral video about a woman quitting her job, when it charted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 18.
"Thrift Shop" by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis was released in August 2012 but did not chart until early 2013.
Alessia Cara released her debut single, "Here", in April 2015 with minimal recognition. The song, which entered Billboard Hot 100 in August of that year at position #95, ultimately mobilized the success of Cara's career as a whole. The song peaked at #5 on the Hot 100 in February 2016 nearly a year after its initial release.
"Cheap Thrills" by Sia was first released as a promotional single in December 2015. In the US market, it didn't garner any attention until after the release of the song as an official single featuring Sean Paul in February 2016. This version debuted at #81 in but didn't reach its peak until August 2016 at #1, marking Sia's first number 1 hit in the United States.
MAX’s single "Lights Down Low" (featuring gnash) was released in October 2016. The song eventually debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 in October 2017, eventually peaking at #20 in March 2018.
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