The reigning US box office champion (by average theater) is “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” an independent sci-fi film by the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert), exploring parallel universes through the eyes of an oppressed mother.
Chinese superstar and martial artist Michelle Yeoh is the beleaguered heroine searching for purpose in life, only to find it in unexpected (and unimaginable) places.
Historically, independent films made outside of the studio system, or without an established distributor, have struggled to break even or make a small profit. The “Star Wars” and Marvel Universe movies are safe, bespoke productions with huge budgets – in exchange for even more obscene profits.
But once in a while, a small independent film breaks through and becomes a critical and financial blockbuster.
The model for all modern independent films remains 1969’s “Easy Rider”, produced by Peter Fonda, directed by Dennis Hopper and starring the two actors with Jack Nicholson, in a performance that shot him to stardom. This counterculture phenomenon is revered for its psychedelic visuals and rock soundtrack. With themes exploring the hippie movement, drug use and community life, many audiences were introduced to a country they didn’t recognize. The production cost just $400,000 and the film made over $60 million.
How can two young people in their twenties win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, then star in their own movie to launch big careers as celebrities? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are the driving forces behind “Good Will Hunting” (1997), directed by Gus Van Sant and also starring Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Damon portrays a genius working as a janitor at MIT who has the ability to solve complex mathematical formulas but prefers to bar-hop with his South Bawston buddies and resolve disputes with his fists. Affleck is Will’s blue-collar best friend who recognizes that a life outside of their local haunts is Will’s destiny. Nominated for nine Oscars with a production cost of $10 million, the film earned over $225 million.
Let’s watch another movie starring Yeoh, with Chow Yun-fat, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) by famous director Ang Lee. Shot with a Chinese cast, it is the most successful wuxia (martial arts hero) film of all time. The story is a parable based on a serialization of a popular 1940s novel and features remarkable gravity-defying special effects. Nominated for ten Oscars; it won Best Foreign Language Film, Cinematography, Art Direction and Music. The production cost $17 million and the film earned over $215 million.
In terms of actual net gain between production costs and box office revenue, you’d be hard pressed to beat Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s 1999 horror touchstone “The Blair Witch Project.” The title itself evokes feelings – equally loved and maligned – but the film’s impact is undeniable. Not only has it spawned a new genre of countless found horror films, but it carries another characteristic for which it’s rarely recognized: it’s genuinely scary. Focusing on a group of college students who venture into the wilds of Maryland to make a documentary about a local legend, the film is endlessly innovative in its ability to create suspense. Yet unlike the wave of empty Hollywood films, it never shows enough for audiences to spoil the tension. Structurally, it’s most indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” another horror masterpiece that defuses violence in order to heighten dread through its plot. It was produced for around $25,000 and the film earned $250 million.
If we’re aiming for longevity, it would be hard to hold a candle to Jim Sharman’s 1975 musical, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Produced on a shoestring budget (and it shows), the film has grossed over $226 million in the decades since. Even more impressive: the film is still regularly shown on screens around the world to this day. Carving out an odd niche in the porn-leaning nightlife crowd of the mid-’70s, the film is a mainstay of midnight movie culture. A young couple find themselves stuck in the elaborate haunted house of a mad scientist (yes, Dr. Frank N. Furter) who is an “alien transvestite from the planet Transgender in the galaxy of Transylvania.” Great Scott! As you might have guessed, college students, bohemians, queer communities, and the burgeoning punk scene all jumped in to embrace the film. His impact on independent filmmaking, especially camp, is so vast that even the Library of Congress inducted him into its famed National Film Registry. For all his transgressive flair (pun intended?), he continues to speak to and for those traditionally voiceless in the Hollywood mainstream.
(This column is co-authored by baby boomer Denny Parish and millennial Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)