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Three Easy Pieces

Unlikely Blockbusters

Get Out made a hell of a lot of money on a minuscule budget, tapping into an unfortunately relevant subject. Photo credit: Universal Pictures

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Welcome to Three Easy Pieces, where I guide you through a narrow subsection of pop culture, for reasons known only to me. This time, I have Endgame on my mind. Yes, Avengers: Endgame recently crawled past Avatar's$2.78 billion to become the highest grossing film of all time. But the process of Endgame hitting that milestone was as tedious as it was inevitable: over 10 years of building up the biggest franchise in film seemed destined to result in the second half of a cliffhanger nabbing the top spot in box office history. What it beat, though -- 2009's Avatar -- was a true phenomenon; an original work by an ambitious filmmaker (the quality of its story notwithstanding) somehow lit the whole world on fire and became an unprecedented sensation. This month, I want to explore huge cinematic successes that seemingly came out of nowhere.

BIRTH: Deep Throat (1972)
Honorable mention: Night of the Living Dead, Rocky, Enter the Dragon

I know what you're sarcastically thinking: "Oh, you don't say? A porn movie released nationwide in movie theaters was a massive success?" It's easy to forget that, in 1972, it was becoming standard practice to screen porn films in mainstream theaters, and Deep Throat only distinguished itself by having a modicum of plot and relatively decent production values (a fun afternoon activity is to go back and read Roger Ebert's reviews of porn films of the ‘70s).

The film follows the typical hero's journey, though in specifics that would be impossible to relay in this paper. Needless to say, the movie was a hit, instantly becoming part of the zeitgeist (the Watergate informant didn't pull the "Deep Throat" pseudonym out of nowhere). Made for a paltry $25,000, the film ultimately made $45 million -- adjusted for today's dollars, it doesn't quite reach the rumored gross of $600 million, but $273 million is still plenty impressive. And for any porn film to have its name forever tied to a scandalous piece of American presidential history is one hell of a feather in a cap.

DEVELOPMENT: My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Honorable mention: The Full Monty; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Blair Witch Project

In the past few years, Hollywood decided that it wasn't worth it to invest in focused, character-based romantic comedies -- the same sort of entertainment that had been succeeding since the ‘30s. While these movies are easy crowd pleasers that can reliably bring in a fair amount of money, the middle-tier investment for a couple hundred million just didn't seem to add up.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a huge success that happened to take place near the end of the reign of rom-coms. Made for $5 million and raking in over $360 million, My Big Fat Greek Wedding showed the potential of word-of-mouth and charm to take film from sleeper hit into borderline sensation. In recent times, Netflix has become the unexpected advocate for the romantic comedy, releasing several films that have been received with the kind of enthusiasm that oughta be awaiting a genre that has practically disappeared. Crazy Rich Asians' success is another sign that My Big Fat Greek Wedding's brand of winning rom-com is set to make a comeback.

TODAY: Get Out (2017)
Honorable mention: Napoleon Dynamite, Split, Paranormal Activity

As has always been the case, horror movies provide the greatest distance between production cost and box office revenue -- countless cheapo horror classics were left off this list for the reason that they were made to get bucks. Get Out is something special.

The stars aligned for director Jordan Peele to release his debut film at just the right time to a zeitgeist that had never been more on fire and receptive to the kind of movie that he was showing. With racism in the air, Peele released a film that was not only a commentary on black marginalization, faux-liberal unity, and the paranoia that exists in an ostensibly "post-racial" world, but a commentary on the trope of black people in horror films. Get Out is a brilliant and incisive piece of work, but its success -- $230 million from a $4 million budget -- was compounded by it being an unfortunately timely film.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Heat Wave Songs.

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