Most filmmakers know that their chosen profession is a risky one. A finished film represents months or even years of hard work by many people working together. But there is never a guarantee that the film will succeed either critically or financially. Yet many filmmakers are so driven by the power of the art form that they will risk nearly everything to see their vision projected on a big, silver screen in front of an audience.
The good news? Occasionally the gamble pays-off. The following five films were enormous risks for the people who made them.Most had limited budgets, many of the directors and producers were inexperienced at the time, but all of them pushed the envelope of conventional wisdom about what a film should or should not be. Lucky for them, audiences loved them and rewarded the filmmakers’ hard work and perseverance.
The Filmmaker: Kevin Smith
The Film: Clerks
Smith scraped together nearly ever penny he could find to finance the film. He sold his comic book collection, maxed-out all of his credit cards, borrowed from his college fund, and used insurance money from a totaled car. Even after all of that, he still could only afford black-and-white film stock, which is a seriously risky move with modern audiences, who are often intolerant of black-and-while.
Clerks was picked-up by Mirimax Films after screening to cheering audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. Ultimately, the film grossed more than $3 million at the box office alone. It also launched Kevin Smith’s career as one of the most promising young filmmakers of the 1990s.
The Filmmaker: Robert Rodriguez
The Film: El Mariachi
Like Smith, Rodriguez had virtually no money to finance his film. He raised the film’s meager budget by participating in medical experiments. This meant that he could only afford to shoot most scenes with one camera, pausing the action from time to time to move the camera, creating the necessary footage for cross-cutting. His cost-saving methods are now legendary and include incorporating mistakes and continuity errors into the plot when they were later revealed during daily screenings. Many of the “actors” were real people. The warden and guard from the jail scene were actually the warden and guard at the real-life jail where they shot the scene.
$7,000. But here’s the kicker: Rodriguez expected to spend $9,000 but actually came-in under-budget.
El Mariachi was originally intended for the Spanish-language home video market, and Rodriguez hoped to use it to fund another, larger project. But ultimately, he was able to generate interest at Columbia Pictures, who spent many times the original budget of the film on high-quality transfers and marketing. El Mariachi grossed over $2 million at the box office and created a long and successful career for Rodriguez.
The Filmmakers: Haxan Flims, aka Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, Gregg Hale, Robin Cowie, and Michael Monello. Known as “The Hexan Five,” all are graduates of the University of Central Florida Film Program and founded the company to produce...
The Film: The Blair Witch Project
The film was intentionally shrouded in secrecy, right from the beginning. The casting call consisted of an ad in a trade publication (Back Stage) that sought actors with good improvisation skills. The film itself was a gimmick, as audiences were asked to believe that they were watching the found footage of the on-screen “filmmakers.” During filming, the real filmmakers dropped the actors clues about their next locations and instructions for their performances that day by placing notes inside of milk crates whose GPS coordinates were provided on short notice. At night, the actors would be harassed by the filmmakers posing as ghosts and even went so far as to deprive the cast of food. The desired outcome was to capture authentic performances and true-to-life depictions of fear.
The Blair Witch Project became a cultural phenomenon, eventually grossing over $250 million dollars at the box office. While the film has it detractors, many critics agree that its unique and powerful approach to the horror genre was a game-changer. The Blair Witch Project paved the way for other successful “found footage” films like Cloverfield and...
The Filmmaker: Oren Peli
The Film: Paranormal Activity
Peli, like so many other filmmakers before him, had virtually no money for a production. Rather than despair, he spent a year converting his own home into a film set, and then he decided to shoot nearly all of the footage on stationary home video cameras set on shelves or mounted on tripods. But the real risk was that the film almost never made it to theaters. Nobody else believed that audiences would be interested in watching static home video footage, but Peli insisted that people would connect with the characters and story. During an early test screening, people started walking out of the theater not because they were bored but because they were scared. Peli had relatively little trouble generating interest in his film. CAA (a large talent agency) wanted to represent Peli, Dreamworks was interested, and so was Paramount. Eventually, Paramount acquired and distributed the film with a small initial release promoted primarily through the use of online viral marketing. Later, a wider theatrical release propelled it to the top of the box office charts.
Paranormal Activity went on to gross over $193,000,000 at the box office, spawned two sequels, wiggled its way into pop culture with references on shows like 30 Rock and South Park, and greased the tracks for a host of imitators.
The Filmmaker: George A. Romero
The Film: Night of the Living Dead
Romero was not completely inexperienced as a filmmaker, having shot many television commercials and various shorts for Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood before ever embarking on production of his first film, Night of the Living Dead. But he was a newbie. Mainly out of boredom with his current job, Romero collected a group of filmmakers and raised a meager budget for a horror film. They filmed in remote, outdoor locations in and around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The house where much of the action takes place was marked for demolition, so Romero was given license to alter and damage it to his heart’s content. As is common on many low-budget productions, many of the actors and other filmmakers worked right alongside the crew members, helping to load cameras, coil cables, and create the makeup for the zombies. In fact, the blood and guts were created from roasted ham and animal intestines donated by one of the actors who also owned several butcher shops.
Night of the Living Dead grossed $42 million at the box office, and to-date has earned over $256,000,000. Romero’s documentary shooting style, praised by many critics as a intimate and personal approach to horror film making, was largely the result of cheap black-and-white film stock and lack of professional camera equipment. Nevertheless, Romero went on to help define the horror genre with many other films and a series of Night of the Living Dead sequels, the most recent of which was released in 2009.