The Most Successful Independent Films
The answer to “What is an independent movie?” is seemingly simple. By most basic definitions, an indie film is one made outside of the major Hollywood studios or “mini-major” studios (like Lionsgate Films), past or present. In other words, a film produced by any company that typically has less than 5% of the U.S. box office market share annually. What makes the film “independent” is that the film does not rely on the resources of a Hollywood studio.
But even that basic definition is imperfect. For example, both the Independent Spirit Awards and the British Independent Film Awards, which are prestigious award ceremonies dedicated to awarding indie filmmakers, currently define an independent film as any movie that costs less than $20 million to produce regardless of its financing.
This explains why Get Out, a film that was distributed by major Hollywood studio Universal, was qualified to win Best Feature at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards in March 2021 and Best International Independent Film at the 2021 British Independent Film Awards. Other organizations with stricter criteria might question why a film released by one of Hollywood’s major studios would be considered an “independent” film. That’s just the start of answering that question—particularly since the rise in popularity of indie movies in the early 1990s made it more difficult to distinguish what is and isn’t an independent movie.
Early Independent Movies Successes
Prior to the mid-1980s, it was relatively easy to determine what was and wasn’t an independent movie. Movie studios were generally divided into “major studios” (such as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Warner Bros.), “mini-majors” (smaller, but still successful operations like United Artists and Columbia Pictures), and what were originally called “Poverty Row” studios—small, low-budget companies. These companies—including Mascot Pictures, Tiffany Pictures, Monogram Pictures, and Producers Releasing Corporation—shot movies quickly, cheaply, and sometimes poorly (it was very common for these studios to reuse sets, props, costumes, and even scripts for multiple films). Often these moves would serve as an inexpensive lead-in to more prestigious Hollywood movies on a double feature.
Though dozens of these small film companies came and went over the decades, the lines were pretty clear: there were big and small Hollywood studios, and everything outside of that was considered independent. Through the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, filmmakers like Roger Corman, George A. Romero, Russ Meyer, Melvin Van Peebles, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Oliver Stone, and many others found great financial success working outside of Hollywood studios while also earning recognition for their work. Many of these filmmakers would end up later making films for major studios after their earlier low-budget movies became cult films.
As Hollywood become increasingly focused on blockbuster movies in the 1980s, smaller companies like New Line Cinema and Orion Pictures began creating and distributing smaller-budget films and became the home of many indie filmmakers like Woody Allen and Wes Craven.
The 1990s Indie Movie Boom
In the early 1990s, several young filmmakers were gaining notice by creating their own films wholly independent from any studio, including Richard Linklater (Slacker), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and Kevin Smith (Clerks). These films were produced on very low budgets (all shot for less than $28,000 each) and each became critical and commercial hits when they were acquired for distribution and released to theaters. Unsurprisingly, bigger studios began to take notice of these successes—and that’s where the definition of “independent film” began to become murkier.
The major Hollywood studios soon formed smaller divisions that would acquire and distribute independently-produced movies, like Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, and Focus Features (owned by Universal). Similarly, in June 1993 Walt Disney Studios acquired Miramax and in January 1994 New Line Cinema was acquired by the parent company of Warner Bros. as their own “independent” studios.
While in many instances these smaller companies acquired the distribution rights to movies that had already been made independently (such as Clerks), they also financed and produced their own low-budget projects. These arrangements blurred the line between what constitutes a studio production versus an independent production. Most films released by these companies have been considered independent films even with the distribution and marketing muscle of a major studio behind them.
By that criteria even the highest-grossing movie in U.S. box office history, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, should be considered an “indie” movie because it was financed and produced by “independent” studio Lucasfilm. Of course, Lucasfilm is owned entirely by Walt Disney Studios, which also distributed the movie. But aside from the massive difference in budget, is that really any different from Sony owning Sony Pictures Classics or Fox owning Fox Searchlight?
Highest Grossing Indie Films of All Time
Discounting films like Star Wars that have clear origins with a major studio, the highest-grossing indie film of all time is Mel Gibson’s controversial 2004 film The Passion of the Christ. It was produced solely by Gibson’s Icon Productions, was distributed by small company Newmarket Films, and grossed $611.9 million worldwide with no Hollywood studio involvement. While that seems like the obvious indie box office champion, figuring out what comes next on the list is challenging.
Both The King’s Speech (2010) and Django Unchained (2012) grossed over $400 million worldwide, yet both were released by The Weinstein Company at a time when it could have been considered a mini-major (in addition, Django Unchained had a reported budget of $100 million—far beyond what would typically be considered an indie budget).
On the other hand, horror film Paranormal Activity (2007) is arguably the most successful independent film of all time considering the production cost to box office ratio. The original film was shot for $15,000 and grossed $193.4 million worldwide!
Other notable worldwide box office successes with (often debatable) indie roots include:
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)—$377.9 million
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)—$368.7 million
Black Swan (2010)—$329.4 million
Inglourious Basterds (2009)—$321.5 million
Shakespeare in Love (1998)—$289.3 million
The Full Monty (1997)—$257.9 million
Get Out ( 2021)—$255 million
The Blair Witch Project (1999)—$248.6 million
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)—$236.4 million
Juno (2007)—$231.4 million
Good Will Hunting (1997)—$225.9 million
Dirty Dancing (1987)—$214 million
Pulp Fiction (1994)—$213.9 million
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)—$213.5 million