5 “Living in Oblivion”
If you’ve ever seen the behind-the-scenes footage or gag reels, you know that there’s a lot of levity on a movie set. Clearly all these comedy movies are missing the boat – what’s really needed is a movie about making a movie. Writer-director Tom DiCillo went meta for this 1995 film and not only snagged Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener and Dermot Mulroney to star, he somehow convinced them to work for free. Kickstarter didn’t exist in the 1990s, and DiCillo didn’t feel like begging people for money. Not paying the cast definitely decreased the overhead. The $500,000 film covers a day on the set of an independent film, a humorous love letter to independent filmmakers everywhere.
4 “Napoleon Dynamite”
Time to dig out that “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt. Director Jared Hess hits the awkwardly funny nail on the head with this polarizing comedy—and then keeps on hitting it. Granted, the film went to little effort to inspire sympathy for its protagonist, leaving some viewers feeling like bullies for laughing at (rather than with) the consummately unlikable Napoleon. Uncomfortable or not, they laughed anyway, and the film picked up 10 awards and another 18 nominations. A behind-the-scenes bidding war when the film debuted at Sundance resulted in a multi-million dollar distribution deal for the filmmakers, who spent less than $500,000 to produce this indie favorite.
3 “Bottle Rocket”
Admit it, every time you see a heist movie, you secretly dream of being an infamous master thief. You are not alone. Wes Anderson’s feature filmmaking debut follows three friends as they put an ill-conceived and naive plan into action to achieve that very dream. Given Anderson’s later successes, it might come as a surprise that this film bombed in the theaters. Despite (or perhaps because of) that failure, the film garnered Anderson an MTV Movie Award for “Best New Filmmaker,” an achievement that is every bit as impressive as you think it is.
You should probably never let a film school dropout get a hold of your credit cards—unless, of course, that dropout is Kevin Smith, who pulled together $27,000 in consumer credit to produce a little black-and-white film about a day in the life of a convenience store clerk who gets called in to work on his day off. Smith’s first feature won four film awards, introduced Jay and Silent Bob to the world, and enabled Scott Mosier to add “William the Idiot Manchild” as an acting credit on his resumé. With more than $3 million in box office receipts, it’s a safe bet Smith managed to pay off those credit cards with all the cash he made off “Clerks.”
1 “Little Miss Sunshine”
Want indie comedy gold? Take a suicidal Proust scholar, a heroin-addict grandfather, a failed motivational speaker, a frazzled working mother, a teen who hates everyone, and an average-looking 7-year-old who dreams of winning a beauty pageant. Put them in a Volkswagen Microbus and send them across the country in pursuit of the little girl’s dream. That’s what writer Michael Arndt did in “Little Miss Sunshine,” and the resulting film raked in more than 50 awards, including two Oscars and gross box office receipts of nearly $60 million. Not a bad haul for a film with an $8 million budget that took five years to complete.