NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Sony's (SNE) No Good Deed, produced on a shoestring budget, managed to leap to the top of the weekend box office in its debut, exceeding indie film Dolphin Tale 2 and unseating Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy and Paramount Pictures' (VIAB) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The film, created by Sony's smaller 'indie-style' production house ScreenGems, is the latest small-budget film this year to exceed expectations and compete in cinemas overcrowded with superheroes, car chases and explosions.
The home-invasion thriller made $24.5 million in its opening weekend, much higher than $17 million projected by MKM Partners, and surpassing its production budget of approximately $13 million. Though it's unlikely the Idris Elba-starrer will hold its lead over the next fortnight with six new releases scheduled, its initial success is the latest in a trend of small-budget films blowing past expectations.
Universal Studios, Comcast's (CMCSA) film unit, had an early summer hit with comedy Neighbors. The film, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, pulled in $268 million worldwide, nearly 15 times its cost to produce.
The studio had another small-budget hit in Lucy, an action and psychological thriller starring Scarlett Johansson which scored $123.5 million in North America against its $40 million production budget. Overseas ticket sales are nearly double that and it is currently atop the foreign box office thanks to a strong $25 million opening weekend lead in Russia.
Fox's (FOXA) Fault in Our Stars saw similar success, proving that female-driven films can compete with, and exceed, male-geared tent-pole hits. The film, based on a popular John Green young-adult novel, has currently generated $299 million worldwide, eclipsing its $12 million production budget nearly 25 times over.
Given No Good Deed had neither Rogen nor Johansson as its star power nor a young-adult cult following to propel it to the top of the weekend box office, the Sam Miller-directed success is even more of an anomaly.
The achievements of Universal and Fox's small-budget films might not be felt as strongly as it will for Sony, though -- those studios also had sustained success and larger hits to complement the smaller breakouts. Sony, meanwhile, had what was considered one of the summer's biggest disappointments: The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The film, pegged as the studio's big-budget, big-returns blockbuster of the summer, made little more than $200 million domestically, much less than an estimated $255 million production budget. The reboot's $708.3 million worldwide gross was less than any of the other Spider-Man films.
Sony Entertainment chief Michael Lynton tied Spider-Man 2's poor performance to an undifferentiated summer box office. "What we need to do is (beyond superhero movies) be creating over forms of entertainment," he told investors at a Goldman Sachs conference last week. "That involves taking more risk."
After a weak summer box office overall, down 15% from a year earlier, the performance of less expensive character- and plot-driven films could incentivize studios to broaden the appeal of its releases and invest in projects without a nine-digit price tag.
Already, Sony has proven it is willing to take a gamble to cater to where it sees audiences shift. Last week, the company partnered with Viacom to release a video-streaming channel similar to Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) Prime.
-- Written by Keris Alison Lahiff in New York.