Tentpole Profits For A Pittance Of The Price: 4 Cheap Monster Hits

by ScreenCraft Staff - updated on June 7, 2022

As studios increasingly define the four-quadrant family tentpole film as a mega-budget, effects-driven extravaganza, there seems to be little hope that anyone who’s not an A-list screenwriter already will ever be considered to write one.

But what about a cheap four-quadrant family film?  Is a lower-budget, truly four-quadrant family film that brings in tentpole-level profits even possible?  Could you write it?

Encouragingly, the answer is yes!  It’s been done before, and that notion is something that studios never tire of.  Here are some examples, and how they did it.  And be sure to note the cost to gross profit ratios.

The Blind Side (2009; Cost: $29 million; gross profit: $294 million)


Here, an inspirational underdog story was skillfully told with both poignancy and humor, all against the backdrop of America’s favorite sport.  Its one A-list actor (Sandra Bullock) gave an Academy-Award winning performance with great support from a cast that included everyone from wonderful child/young adult actors to country singer Tim McGraw.  No special effects, big action sequences, or even bad guys.  Just a compelling, unforgettable true story flawlessly told.

Kindergarten Cop (1990; Cost: $22 million; gross profit; $202 million)


This high-concept premise of a hard-bitten cop going undercover as a kindergarten teacher to catch the bad guy skillfully blends edgy action, real danger, hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy, and an appealing romance to become the epitome of a four-quadrant film. There’s something for everybody with that setup.  And the fact that the cop is overstuffed (with muscles) “Terminator” Arnold Schwarzenegger and his main costars are a bunch of cut-up 5 and 6 year-olds doesn’t hurt.  Filming in real locations in a small town (Astoria, Oregon) cut out expensive sets, and contained, foot-based action scenes also saved bucks.

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993; Cost: $25 million; gross profit: $420 million)


This film boasts the irresistible high concept of a man who masquerades as his children’s grandmotherly nanny in order to spend time with them after his estranged wife legally banishes him. The concept is combined with sharp character work and a poignant story and is brought to life by a solid cast of both children and adults (Sally Field, Pierce Brosnan, Harvey Fierstein, 7-year-old Mara Wilson). Like Kindergarten Cop, Mrs. Doubtfire actively engages the fish-out-of-water trope, but in an unusual iteration: protagonist Daniel Hillard becomes a fish-out-of-water in his own body and in his own home. This is a star vehicle perfectly tailored to leading man Robin Williams, and it’s easy to see why his inspired performance made Mrs. Doubtfire the biggest hit of his career.  Limited location filming in San Francisco, an emphasis on practical effects and physical comedy also held down costs. A perfect marriage of concept, character, and talent behind and in front of the camera. (Rumors are getting out that a sequel is in the works.)

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial (1982; Cost: $10.5 million; gross profit: $722 million)


The granddaddy of low-budget four-quadrant family blockbusters, this one uses a sci-fi element (a lost alien kid) and simple special effects to spice up a sweet, emotional story in which a young boy helps an alien friend find his way home.  Elements of danger, suspense, and action are present, yet simple; a menacing man with rattling keys, will Mom find ET in Gertie’s closet?, and a wild chase involving preteens on BMX bikes.  11 year-old Henry Thomas leads a no-name cast in an astounding performance as Elliot.  Yes, even sci-fi fantasy can be done cheap (and profitably) if the story is right.


If you're a screenwriter, don't miss ScreenCraft's annual Family Friendly Screenplay Contest


From guest blogger Lee Tidball.

Lee Tidball is an optioned, represented screenwriter, novelist, and former middle-grades (4th-6th) teacher who has written numerous screenplays, TV pilots, and novels in the 4-quadrant, family genre.  Many have won various awards and recognitions in screenwriting and novel-writing competitions for family films and YA novels.



Also see  - 7 Low Budget Movies that Made it Big 

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