Here’s an unfortunate disclaimer—despite common belief, there is no such thing as overnight success in Hollywood. All success comes after hard work and that certainly applies to the film industry. However, the concept of an “overnight success” can be attributed to those who entered Hollywood within a relatively short amount of time, usually after their first time at bat within their field. Here are 15 stories that are the closest things to an “overnight success” you’re likely to find in Hollywood, all of which combine talent with luck.
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Shane Black emerged in 1987 as Hollywood’s biggest screenwriting sensation. His first screenplay, Lethal Weapon, sparked a Hollywood bidding war that netted him a then-unheard of $250,000. Ironically, Black would attest to nearly trashing the screenplay several times over the course of its inception. Thankfully, he did not. Instead, mega producer Joel Silver acquired the script and, with director Richard Donner, helped Black craft it into the action classic we know today.
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The success of writer/director Troy Duffy (pictured right) occurred so quickly that it literally became the subject of a documentary called Overnight. That film tracks how Duffy took a script, parlayed it into the deal of the lifetime with Miramax, and let his egocentric behavior ruin it all. That’s okay—the film, The Boondock Saints, would get made at Fox and has become one of the biggest cult classics of its decade. Duffy’s property remains a home video and merchandising bonanza that has spawned one sequel to date.
Screenwriter Travis Beacham was lucky and talented enough to sell his first script before he even graduated from college. That screenplay, A Killing On Carnival Row, is currently in development at New Line Cinema. Its success has led him to further scripting duties on Clash of the Titans (2010, pictured above) and next summer’s blockbuster-to-be Pacific Rim.
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In 2009, a then-unknown 20-year-old actor named Liam Hemsworth was cast in Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. After moving to Los Angeles, he would find out later that his part was cut from the film before shooting began. Later, he would be brought in to audition for Marvel to play the title character in Kenneth Branaugh’s Thor. Fate conspired against him once again and he lost the part to his brother, Chris. Dejected, he would have to “settle” for the lead role in the Nicholas Sparks drama The Last Song opposite Miley Cyrus. Keep in mind, he was cast in that film the same week he lost Thor. While this may sound like a story of one burgeoning actor’s struggle, keep in mind it all happened within literally weeks the span of a few weeks. Hemsworth’s breaks are incredibly rare. The actor has since become a major heartthrob and the male lead of The Hunger Games film series.
Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sanchez
In 1998, The Blair Witch Project was shot by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez over the course of eight days in the backwoods of Maryland. On a budget of merely $25,000 and without any special effects, the micro-budget film was picked up by Artisan Entertainment, who marketed it as a real documentary. Through the film’s website, Blair Witch became a viral sensation. This buzz would build throughout the summer of 1999, leading the filmmakers to fame (the directors made the cover of Time Magazine) and the film to an eventual blockbuster gross. Years later, Paranormal Activity’s success would owe much to the success of Bair Witch.
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Robert Rodriguez broke into Hollywood by selling his body to science. That’s not an metaphor—the micro-budgeted, Spanish language action film El Mariachi was made on $7,000 raised by Rodriguez’s participation in medical science studies. After shooting the film as a one-man crew, Rodriguez took what he thought would be a straight-to-video action movie and watched it grow into a Sundance 1993 favorite. Two years later he remade/sequelized the film on a big studio budget with Desperado. Rodriguez documents the film’s production and his “overnight” success in his book Rebel Without A Crew.
After his first film, My Best Friend’s Birthday, failed to be finished due to a film development mishap, Tarantino opted to make Reservoir Dogs his first feature. Intended to be shot as a microbudgeted genre film without lofty expectations, Tarantino tapped his B-movie hero, Monte Hellman, to look at the script. Hellman subsequently managed to get backing from Live Entertainment and actor Harvey Keitel, who also took a lead role in the film. Much like El Mariachi, Reservoir Dogs became the sensation of Sundance.The film’s success catapulted Tarantino into such an intense spotlight he would choose to move to Amsterdam for two years, rather than jump into a big-budget Hollywood project as a celebrity director.
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Napoleon Dynamite emerged as an unlikely hit of the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. The offbeat geek comedy was acquired by Paramount and became a pop cultural phenomenon of its year. Even better, the cash cow comedy was remarkably made on a mere $400,000. While the filmmakers went on to garner some success, it was Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder who became an overnight comedy sensation. Starring roles in such Hollywood vehicles as Just Like Heaven, The Benchwarmers, and Blades of Glory soon followed.
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Julian Fellowes was a working British actor when Robert Altman gave him a job writing Gosford Park. Fellowes, who had never written a screenplay before, was chosen to write the murder-mystery thanks to his knowledge of British social classes. Fellowes, whose work on Gosford Park won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, has said “All the way through I thought this can’t be happening – a 50 year old fat balding actor is phoned up by an American movie director – but I did work as if it was going to happen.” Fellowes is now the mind behind the hit BBC series Downtown Abbey.
Recent Golden Globe winner Lena Dunham became an overnight sensation thanks to her independent feature Tiny Furniture. The film, which was directed by and also starred Dunham, told the story of a college graduate forced to move back home with her parents. It subsequently won Dunham Best First Screenplay at the 2010 Independent Spirit Awards. The film was soon acquired for distribution by The Criterion Collection, a home video label specializing in classic films from around the world.
Diablo Cody began as a part-time journalist whose blog chronicled a year she spent pursuing a career as a stripper. It was discovered by a literary agent who found the writing so sharp he helped earn her a book deal based on the blog. Candy Girl: A Year In The Life Of An Unlikely Stripper received great reviews, but it would be Cody’s first spec script, Juno, that became a bonafide Hollywood sensation. The script made huge waves in Hollywood, was filmed by Jason Reitman with an all-star cast, and won Cody an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
In the early 90s, Mike Judge was a computer programmer working on a defense contract. He played in a number of blues bands and made animated shorts in his spare time. In 1991, a short called Office Space was acquired for airplay by Comedy Central and, a year, later, Judge made Frog Baseball for MTV’s Liquid Television. The latter short saw a pair of teens playing a gory game of baseball with live frogs. Despite a cruel premise, the short was a hit and the characters were developed into the MTV series Beavis and Butthead. The show, which chronicles the misadventures of two dim-witted, socially awkward teenagers, became an overnight sensation. It ran from 1992 to 1997, spawned a feature film, and was revived and rebooted by Judge to great success last year.
Steven Seagal never intended to be an action movie star. He was an accomplish martial artist who became the first American to learn the self-defense style known as akido in Japan. Later, as a teacher of the martial art, Seagal would come into contact with Hollywood mega-agent Michael Ovitz. Rumor has it that, on a bet that Ovitz could turn anyone into a movie star, Seagal was hand-picked to headline Above The Law with no prior acting experience. The film was released in 1987 to widely positive reviews and managed to make twice its budget, leading Seagal to bigger hits like Under Siege, Hard To Kill, etc.
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Though Danny McBride became wildly popular for his comedic collaborations with David Gordon Green, it would be his work on Jody Hill’s first film that catapulted him into the spotlight. The Foot Fist Way was Jody Hill’s first film. Shot on $79,000, mockumentary centered on a callow Tae Kwan Do instructor Fred Simmons (McBride) who struggles to win the respect of his young pupils and his cheating wife. The film was a Sundance hit that was discovered by Will Ferrel and Adam McKay, who secured distribution for the film. Hill would go on to make further dark comedies in the form of Observe and Report and the hit HBO series Eastbound and Down.
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Eddie Murphy was playing nightclubs as a stand-up comic at the age of 15. A mere four years later, he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. At the age of 19, it was clear to audiences that Murphy was the heir apparent to the show’s previous comedic stars like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. A mere two years later he would have the lead in Walter Hill’s action classic 48 Hours, making him a comic superstar at the tender age of 21.