‘People are either laughing or they’re not’: An oral history of ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ (Part 2)

Once it got to Sundance, ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ quickly became ‘a cult movie in real time.’ But its success wasn’t guaranteed. For that, the strange film needed an equally strange effort from the studio that purchased it.

Every enormous, breakout indie film lives its life in two stages: first, relative underexposure, then second, glaring overexposure.

In Part 1 of this oral history, the “Napoleon Dynamite” cast, crew and others explained the film’s atypical beginnings in Provo, Utah, and Preston, Idaho. Three bizarre weeks of filming in Preston foreshadowed an implausible future for the film and its creators. In Part 2 of this oral history, “Napoleon” heads to the Sundance Film Festival, then theaters nationwide, then the courtroom. (Also, Hot Topic.)

Act 4: ‘There was a lot riding on this

Once shooting wrapped in Preston, the submission deadline for Sundance was less than two months away. Producer/editor Jeremy Coon returned to Los Angeles and edited “Napoleon Dynamite” for eight days straight. He finished a rough cut — no music, no sound effects and a running time nearing two hours (about 30 minutes longer than the theatrical version). Coon wanted to submit the rough cut. Director Jared Hess thought they should wait and submit a more polished version the following year. Coon submitted the rough cut anyway. The duo had no connections within Sundance. “I was kind of angry (with Coon),” Hess told the Deseret News. Fortunately, their submission came to Trevor Groth, one of the festival programmers, who later became Sundance’s director of programming.

Former Sundance Film Festival Programming Director Trevor Groth at the festival in 2018.
Trevor Groth at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred

Trevor Groth: It was just happenstance. Really, I just picked it out of a pile because of the title — it was such a unique title that it already had me intrigued. I always looked for films that really showed a complete vision of something I hadn’t seen before on film. And as the film progressed, I just completely fell in love with everything about it. I was so obsessed with it that I watched it over and over, even during the programming season, which is insane — I have so many new movies to watch at that point that I can never even catch up with the movies I’m supposed to watch. I was already starting to quote it — but no one had seen it yet, so the quotes didn’t mean anything to anyone. In fact, some of my favorite lines were from scenes that didn’t even make the final cut. I just think they had so much great material, that even in that rough form it was a lock to make it into the festival.

Jared Hess: I’d hoped that it could get into some festivals, and it would be a stepping stone to other projects, that maybe at some point I could get an agent, and that would kind of move my career forward. I never, ever in a million years anticipated that it would get into my dream festival in Sundance.

Groth: I think in general, it was under the radar. However, I always do meetings with journalists and industry executives pre-fest, so I had leaked it a little bit, about what a special film it was — without trying to overhype anything — but at least getting people to pay attention. Then the film did all the heavy lifting, because you put that film in front of a crowd, and I think they’re going to understand the power of it pretty quickly.

Jeremy Coon: I got a phone call from Cinetic, which is John Sloss’s company. He’s a producer’s rep. They asked about the movie — which I found suspicious because we were so far off the map, we weren’t actively out hustling the movie trying to get producers reps’ interest. I found out Trevor was the one who gave John a heads up.

John Sloss (producer’s representative): They sent Cinetic a cut of the movie, and we all watched it. And there’s a wide range of people who work at the company, both in age and taste. And it was the first film, of all the films we had seen, that everyone unanimously wanted to work on. I mean, we had never seen anything like this. This was such an original vision. Every single character in that film was new; you could literally go character by character and say, “Where did this come from?”

Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."

Coon: Within a week, I got the phone call from Trevor telling us we’re in Sundance and we were in competition — so we were selected as one of the 16 best narrative films at the festival. I never thought we had a shot at being in competition because it’s not a serious movie. It’s a comedy. And it doesn’t fit into their typical kind of Sundance movie.

Groth: I think everyone on staff appreciated how distinct it was, and how funny it was. When you’re putting together a festival, and you can find a movie that makes you laugh out loud in that crunch time of programming, then that’s a great sign. And I think we all had that experience watching “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Jared Hess: I remember it vividly. Trevor Groth called me, we were in our car headed up to my folks’ house in Idaho for Thanksgiving. And he said, “Not only did you get into the festival, but you’re in the dramatic competition.” I think I literally dropped my Cricket phone in the car. I had goosebumps. And at that point, it was like a race to the finish line.

Coon: The film print was done a week before we played Sundance, and the only people that had been in the room to see it were Jared, me, the color timer, the sound people and maybe one or two other people. But no one had seen the finished film at all. We had never sat back and watched it completed.

Jerusha Hess: Jared had been editing it for the past few months, and you start to forget how great your movie is when you’re sitting in an editing room. But every time I saw it, I was like, “This is super funny.” So I think I believed in it even before Jared did because I wasn’t staring at it all day.

Sloss: We had a very conscious strategic approach to this: We wanted the film to feel like a discovery for the people who were there for the first screening. So when the distributors came to see us to talk about what films were on our slate, we really played down this movie — because we wanted people to have the lowest expectations possible, and the people who saw it to feel like they alone discovered it. So we did not hype it at all. It was a specific strategy, and it worked to a T.

Sean Covel (producer): There were lines around the theater before we had our first screening, and that did incredible things for us.

Jared Hess: If it was a friends and family screening, I wouldn’t have been nervous. But there was a lot riding on the success of this, and it was packed with industry people.

Aaron Ruell (Kip): I remember in that first screening that Faye Dunaway was seated directly behind me.

Jon Heder (Napoleon): We had posters, and sweatshirts and buttons, that we were passing out to people.

Sloss: And if we didn’t want someone to buy the film, we gave them a “Vote for Summer” pin, and if they were a distributor we favored, we gave them a “Vote for Pedro” pin.

Covel: We were just nervous as heck, and Jared was certainly feeling it.

Jared Hess, director of "Napoleon Dynamite" Access Films (Submission date: 01/12/2004)
Jared Hess, director of "Napoleon Dynamite."

Jared Hess: I was dry heaving, just like when I made the film. I couldn’t eat. With a comedy, you can tell instantly whether or not something’s working: People are either laughing or they’re not. And I didn’t have any kind of sense of how people were going to respond because we hadn’t screened the film. This was the first audience, seeing it for the very first time. We didn’t even have an opening credits sequence — it literally went from a black screen to Napoleon standing in front of his house waiting for the school bus.

Covel: And the image comes up with Napoleon standing outside waiting for the bus, and the first audience member gets up and leaves. By the time he’s on the bus and throws the He-Man guy out the window, the second person leaves. And by the time he’s talking about Nessie our underwater ally, the third and fourth person get up to go. We’re all like, “Crap, it’s going to be a mass exodus.” But then the first, second, third and fourth people come back — and it turns out they were junior executives from movie studios who were calling their bosses to say, “There’s something here. I don’t know what it is, it’s weird, but you’ve got to see it.” And that became the groundswell.

Jared Hess: From there, it was like wall-to-wall laughs for the whole film.

Sloss: That first screening, it felt like people had put nitrous oxide in the vents. I’d never seen a reaction to a film like that. The movie was so odd, but genuinely, organically odd, like nothing any of the buyers had ever seen before. Jared and Jerusha are such normal, down-to-earth people, and yet they created something that seemed to almost come from another planet.

Jared Hess: And I remember vividly the point where I knew we were going to be OK: when Napoleon’s walking down the street in slow motion, in his brown polyester thrift store suit holding the corsage. The audience started to cheer. I’d never been in a screening where people were cheering and clapping for a character. It was just this wash of relief and excitement that we’re going to be OK, and I think we’re going to be able to sell it, and hopefully have a career being a filmmaker.

Jerusha Hess: When Jared and I got engaged, my dad asked him, “How are you going to make money, Jared? Do you have a backup plan?” So I’m sure there were a lot of grateful in-laws.

Jon Heder during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jon Heder during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite." | Napoleon Pictures Limited

Covel: As soon as it cuts to black, dead silence, and then a standing ovation. And I think we all knew in that moment that everything had changed.

Sloss: I was mobbed after the film. I had to hide almost, from the buyers. I’m slightly more jaded than the filmmakers, because I’d been in similar positions before. But it was kind of thrilling to see these 23- and 24-year-olds watch wide-eyed while these waves of adulation just sort of rolled over them.

Efren Ramirez (Pedro): It was interesting — the audience really loved it, but many reporters knocked it down. They thought it didn’t make sense, and they really gave Jared a hard time.

Groth: It wasn’t unanimously loved. I remember one of the trades — I’m pretty sure it was Variety — wrote a pretty bad review for it.

Todd McCarthy (film critic for Variety, in his initial review): “Napoleon Dynamite” represents the definition of the comedy of condescension and ridicule. There are lots of laughs for those who enjoy the sight of bottom dwellers doing stupid things that make them look even more idiotic.

Groth: The critic even doubled down, and wrote another editorial after “Napoleon Dynamite” had all this festival love. I was such a huge champion of the film that I really was frustrated by that.

McCarthy (in his second piece): No one I’ve talked to over the age of 30 liked “Napoleon” at all — it’s generally regarded as a Todd Solondz wannabe. … From a strictly cinematic point of view, the film is, as they say in French, nul, a void, a zero. There’s no way this film would be well-received at other film festivals, or by international audiences.

Covel: Critics were kind of split down the middle. Either they thought the movie was making fun of Napoleon Dynamite — like he was a nerd and we were trying to persecute him for being a nerd — or, thank goodness, most of them understood this was a story about somebody we cared about.

Doc Wyatt (producer): It was just like water rolling off a duck for me. We had made this tiny little movie for a shoestring budget, and we had gotten it into Sundance, and people were enjoying it and talking about it, and a studio had bought it, and it was going to be released all over the world. There was nothing that could poke a hole in a high like that. It had already gone so, so big for us, that it really couldn’t have mattered.

Groth: I was very happy that that critic was proven wrong in a big way.

Wyatt: After we passed some milestone at the box office, Fox Searchlight took out a two-page ad in Variety to celebrate. And Josh Dayton (the executive at Fox who acquired it) cut that ad out of Variety and hand-mailed it to that critic. That was his personal revenge.

(McCarthy did not respond to an interview request for this story.)

Jared Hess: Everyone needed to come see it, because the next day we had wall-to-wall meetings set with all the different studios to negotiate the sale. John Sloss had orchestrated it that way.

Sloss: I think if you create something as special and valuable as that, you’ve earned the right to basically have people really put some serious thought into how they would take that film and put it out into the world and try to sell you on that.

Coon: We got the first offer from MTV Films for $3 million. And I thought the best case scenario for it would be $2 or $3 million. That was my pie in the sky. So when that came in as the first offer to start a floor, it was like, “Oh, this is going to be really good.”

Jared Hess: For Jeremy and Jerusha and I, Fox Searchlight was at the top of our list, because they had a really good track record of promoting films that did not have big stars in them and making them successful. And I felt like they could get smart about how they promoted a film like this and really get it out there and give it a chance.

Coon: Back then, they were batting a thousand for stuff they were buying and releasing. So their entire team came over and met with Jared, Jerusha and me, and walked us through their plan. We talked for 20 or 30 minutes. And their deal was, “We’re going to leave with the film at the end of this meeting because we have to go see ‘The Motorcycle Diaries.’ We’re either going to leave with the film or we’re not.”

Jared Hess: They meant business. So we immediately started the negotiation process.

Sloss: Joe DeMarco, their head of business affairs, was a guy I was very comfortable with. And when he showed up and basically said, “What is it going to take?” then I knew there was probably a deal to be made, and that they were the right buyer.

Jared Hess: Before they had to leave for their next screening, we had a deal in place.

Coon: Somehow we settled on $4.75 million. That went down in five minutes. At the time, $4.75 million for a film we’d spent $400,000 on — that had no stars really, and we were just off the map as far as the industry is concerned — was huge.

Jared Hess: There were a lot of angry phone calls from the other studios that were vying for it, that didn’t get a chance to make their case. But we had the company we wanted.

Sloss: The fact is, there is so much that goes into telling these stories, into making these films, that it is really incumbent upon filmmakers not to just sell to the highest bidder, but to find the right buyer. There are a lot of moving parts that go into a deal, and it isn’t just who pays the most money who can have the biggest success with it.

Jon Heder, left, and Tina Majorino in a scene from "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jon Heder, left, and Tina Majorino in a scene from "Napoleon Dynamite." | Napoleon Pictures Limited

Act 5: ‘A cult movie in real time’

After Sundance, Fox Searchlight began the process of bringing “Napoleon Dynamite” to the masses. Given its success in Park City, the studio felt it had a major hit on its hands and planned to release the film in thousands of theaters nationwide that summer. Its initial test screening in Simi Valley, California, though, was less enthusiastic. Had Fox Searchlight made a huge mistake?

Coon: The screening wasn’t a total disaster, but it was not great. I know that it caused some pause on Searchlight’s end.

Jared Hess: It was a terrible test screening.

Covel: Hollywood perceives Simi Valley to be the same thing as Iowa. They think it’s far enough away from Los Angeles itself that it’s a perspective entirely different than LA. And that’s not really the case. Simi Valley is the home of very angry screenwriters and their very angry children.

Jared Hess: The way that recruited screenings work, you recruit a certain demographic you think the film caters to, and then you screen it and see if they’d recommend it — and that’s the important number, is whether they’re willing to recommend the film to another person. And our screening probably had the worst demographic ever — it was moms and elementary school kids who were mostly there. There were screaming kids, it was super late on a school night, so everybody’s kind of grumpy. And then there were a handful of college kids that maybe could have actually been Napoleon in real life.

Sloss: I wasn’t at those screenings. But I have memories of hearing the reports and thinking, “Ohhhh no, this is not good.”

Jared Hess: It was like the opposite of what we experienced at Sundance. They kind of laughed. They didn’t get it. It was just bad.

Covel: They released all but about 25 people. And a marketing guy from the National Research Group, NRG, gets up, and starts doing his marketing song and dance: “By show of hands, who loves the movie?” And maybe three or four hands go up. “Who here likes the movie?” A few more hands. And it went down to the point that there was disdain in the room. At one point, this kid who was about 15 years old raises his hand and says, “Listen, this movie has no primary story arc, it’s not following three-act structure, and the character is in no way different at the end than he was in the beginning. That’s not how storytelling works.” And I’m looking at this kid like he’s ruining our career — this child — who’s supposed to have some innocent perspective, like someone from Iowa, and he’s lighting things on fire right now.

Director Jerusha Hess on the set of "Austenland."
Jerusha Hess. | Sony Pictures Classics

Jared Hess: Jerusha and I were film students — we’re very aware of the different narrative structures and all the ingredients you’re supposed to have to make a great film. But the more that you tried to bring a big plot into the film, it just really overwhelmed the Napoleon character and who he was. By letting him just be a teenager that’s going wherever his mind takes him, that’s the film we wanted to make, versus one that was him trying to save the day.

Jerusha Hess: “Napoleon Dynamite” is so painfully real that it almost feels documentarian, even though it’s so simple and nothing really happens.

Sloss: To Searchlight’s credit, they didn’t panic. They always believed they could find an audience for this film. There was a concern that there was a little bit of festival fever at play — that Searchlight might have gotten too excited and not thought about whether this film had a real audience — but Searchlight never felt that way. They believed in it, they never stopped believing in it, and they realized it was going to take some work, and they rolled up their sleeves and did it.

Jared Hess: Most studios would be panicking, but they understood that they’d recruited it wrong. So a few weeks later, they had a screening at The Grove in Hollywood, and they recruited entirely high school and college kids. And it scored gangbusters. I remember they said, “Just so you know, this scored higher than ‘Star Wars.’”

Coon: I’m still amazed it ever played well for the high school and younger crowd. When we made it, we thought this was for college kids. I never expected it to cross over to people in junior high and high school — or younger.

Jerusha Hess: It weirdly appealed to a young audience and very old audience, so it had that co-viewership. A lot of comedies at the time, you couldn’t watch with your kids. I think that made the movie more popular.

Covel: Nancy Utley was president of marketing at the time, and now she runs Fox Searchlight. And she thought, “Maybe a grassroots marketing campaign is better.” So she hosted something like 200 pre-screenings all over the United States. All kinds of towns. And she would have them give away “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts and Napoleon chapstick. So she built the audience awareness of the picture well before the movie came out.

Heder: They kept doing these special screenings. It was all about trying to just build word of mouth and creating a cult movie in real time.

Jared Hess: This was 2004, so I think MySpace is out, but this is before true social media had hit. Twitter wasn’t around, you didn’t have Facebook yet. So how do you cut through the noise of other films that got really big marketing budgets? How do we do this? And they just got really creative. They had created all this material, and they did this in the month leading up to the actual release of the film. So by the time the film came out in theaters, it already had this incredible word of mouth.

Heder: It was all very unofficial, and I think Fox Searchlight was kind of new to it, too. There was a little bit of a wild west vibe to it, where we didn’t know what we were doing half the time. They had me do a lot of stuff in character, because it’s not like Jon Heder is going to be a name people recognize. After one of the first screenings they had in New York, I waited in the lobby dressed up in character. As people came out, they saw me, and they had a camera crew there, and they’d just have me interviewing people, saying in a Napoleon voice, “What did you think of the film?”

Avery: We decided to do this stunt where Aaron and I went to all the movie theaters dressed up as Kip and Lafawnduh. I didn’t know the gravity of what was really taking flight until we started to make these appearances at the movie theaters all around.

Heder: I think what truly worked for the film is that every fan felt like they were the first fan. Nowadays, it’s impossible, especially with social media, and how immediate everything is — everybody’s in on it.

Covel: It wasn’t a movie you went to because you saw an advertisement for it. It was a movie you saw because your friend told you about it. People were kind of taking ownership of it themselves, and it was something they were sharing with their friends.

Jared Hess: It was probably one of the most true word of mouth marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen.

Covel: When the movie was opening in Los Angeles, I went over to the Sunset 5 Theater just to see how the audience is taking it in. It was probably the third time the movie had played in LA ever. And as we walked up, there was a 16-year-old kid walking out of the theater wearing a “Vote for Pedro” T-shirt with an FFA jacket, with “Vote for Pedro/Vote for Summer” pins all over it. And he was turning back to a group of about 10 of his friends saying, “See, I told you it was awesome.” And that was the key to the success of that movie.

Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho, during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho, during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite." | Napoleon Pictures Limited

Jared Hess: We were lucky that it did incredible numbers in a handful of theaters. If you don’t have the numbers, your film can die pretty quickly in that first week, and not be given a chance. So they slowly kept rolling it out, and rolling it out, and rolling it out. It was a really, really long, slow burn. It stayed in theaters for such a long time.

Sloss: It might have reached its maximum distribution in the 11th week of release, which is very, very, very unusual. And nowadays, the notion of staying in theaters that long, while a film finds its audience, is almost unheard of. You get kind of nostalgic for days when you could do that, when you could have the patience to have a grassroots campaign and wait for it to take hold.

Coon: In six to seven weeks, it went from six screens to over a thousand screens. The film opened on June 11, 2004 in six theaters, and peaked on Aug. 27 with 1,024 theaters.

Jared Hess: It made $45 million or whatever it was, in theaters, which was pretty remarkable.

Heder: They really tried to push the website through, and had contests, and quizzes, and puzzles, and some kind of point system — and whoever got the most points wins Pedro’s bike. They flew me to the winner’s house, and I presented the bike to the winner, and they had a private screening of the film with me, which was very awkward. The girl who won was a teenager, so she had some of her teenage friends. But they were all kind of quiet and shy kids, and I was there seeing a movie I’d already seen a number of times.

Ruell: I remember when dolls and figures were being produced in my likeness. That was definitely a moment where I realized this movie might stay out in the world for a while.

From left, Tucson resident James Lee, 17, and friend Ryan Sanford, 18, sit in contestant row at Preston High School alongside Dallas native Bryan Demke, foreground-right, 15, Saturday morning in Preston, Idaho. The three participated in the Napoleon Dynam
From left, Tucson resident James Lee, 17, and friend Ryan Sanford, 18, at Preston High School alongside Dallas native Bryan Demke, foreground-right, 15, in Preston, Idaho for the Napoleon Dynamite Festival in 2005. | Tyler Sipe, Deseret Morning News

Coon: The merchandising was not something we ever anticipated when making the movie. You’d walk into Hot Topic for years, and they always had some type of “Napoleon Dynamite” stuff for sale.

Ramirez: I was with my friends at the mall, and Hot Topic was selling all these things about “Napoleon Dynamite.” And security had to take my friends and I out, because when people saw me, I got bombarded.

Jared Hess: We started seeing “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts all over the place. On television, Denzel Washington was wearing a “Vote for Pedro" T-shirt. It was something Jerusha made at the last minute when we were filming the big dance scene — she made it that night with some iron-on letters and an old ringer tee. It just started to take on a life or its own.

Jerusha Hess: That’s my only regret, that I didn’t get the royalties on that shirt.

Jared Hess: Jim Carrey told me he screened “Napoleon” at his house for a bunch of his friends, and Tom Cruise was there and ended up loving the film. He was in the middle of shooting “War of the Worlds,” so he and Dakota Fanning were quoting it while they were shooting — I remember backstage at the MTV Movie Awards, them mentioning something to that effect.

Covel: We were nominated for the MTV Movie Award for best movie. The award was presented by Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning. We were told Tom Cruise was presenting with her because he had to present with an actor who was shorter than him. But Jeremy Coon’s got to be about 6’ 5”, and I’m 6’ 4”, and Jared is 6’ 5”. We’re Sasquatch-looking creatures. Tom Cruise got right off stage when he saw us coming up. Afterward, he was backstage and said, “Guys, that’s so great, I love your movie!” But you will not find an image of Tom Cruise standing next to us anywhere.

Aaron Ruell as Kip on set during filming for “Napoleon Dynamite.”
Aaron Ruell as Kip on set during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite." | Napoleon Pictures Limited

Act 6: ‘A very, very expensive education’

If the box office success of “Napoleon Dynamite” was a party, its home video performance was a downright parade. It eventually surpassed $130 million in DVD sales.

Ruell: It seemed to me that the film really became big once it hit DVD. Then it was something everyone had heard of or seen.

Covel: It’s the No. 1 selling film for DVD sales in Fox Searchlight’s history. That means that the number of people who saw it in the theater, many, many, many more saw it on DVD. Every place I go, I meet people who are just finding it for the first time — some are young and some are old — and they all say someone else handed it to them and said, “Hey, watch this.”

Sloss: It was really the height of DVDs. And it’s when the transition was happening from the rental stores to sell-through, when sell-through was really on the rise. The video numbers on this film were just astronomical. And I don’t think Searchlight had ever seen anything like it, and hasn’t seen anything like it since. The film really has had a remarkable shelf life.

Coon: I’d say 70 percent of the people I meet hated the movie the first time they saw it, yet for some reason they revisited it and then fell in love with it.

Jared Hess: I remember David Letterman said, “You know, you watch this film for the first time, and then you come away from it and go, ‘You know what, I think that’s alright’ — and then you watch it again, and you totally get it.” You either love this character and go along for the ride with him, or are kind of turned off by him. It really boils down to that.

Coon: The thing that always strikes me is the range of people who like or dislike the movie. There’s not really a demographic, as far as I can tell. When Netflix first started their recommendations system, “Napoleon” was throwing their findings off, because there was no correlation between someone liking “Napoleon” and liking or disliking another movie. They offered a million dollars if someone could create an algorithm that fixed the problem by 10 percent. It took a couple years. They refer to it as “the Napoleon Dynamite Problem.”

Jared Hess: There’s an article in the New York Times about it.

As Netflix faced its “Napoleon Dynamite” problem, the film’s producers discovered a major problem of their own: Their royalty checks didn’t seem to match the film’s much-touted DVD sales figures. When Coon, the Hesses and John Sloss first negotiated the film’s sale with Fox Searchlight, Coon said they’d agreed to a 25 percent net royalty rate on home video profits. An audit, however, determined their royalty rate had only been 10 percent — a discrepancy worth millions of dollars. Fox Searchlight claimed to have provided a supplemental document defining “net proceeds” — which definition drastically changed the royalty amounts — but Coon, on behalf of the “Napoleon Dynamite” camp, claimed they never received that document till after the original term sheet was executed.

Complicating matters was the unexpected death of Joe DeMarco, Fox Searchlight’s executive vice president of business affairs, in 2008. DeMarco had facilitated the Sundance deal, and without his testimony, this point of the “Napoleon Dynamite” contract remained ambiguous. In 2011, Coon’s company, Napoleon Pictures Limited, sued Fox Searchlight for unpaid royalties of at least $10 million. An arbitrator later sided with Fox Searchlight on nine of the lawsuit’s 11 issues, and Napoleon Pictures Limited was awarded approximately $150,000.

Coon: Our legal bills as a company were a little over $1.5 million. The lawsuit was, like, two and a half years of my life. Whether you win or lose, it’s exhausting.

Wyatt: Jeremy definitely led the charge on that, and I appreciated it because it was taxing and stressful. I feel like if Joe DeMarco hadn’t passed away prematurely, the intent of those deals would have been honored, and Fox wouldn’t have been so aggressively unfriendly to the filmmakers.

Eriq Gardner (reporter/editor at The Hollywood Reporter, who reported on the lawsuit): My recollection was that the producers had a decent if not slam dunk case. A lot depended on experts testifying about what was customary, and interpretations of the dealmaking. I don’t think the outcome was particularly surprising. There are a lot of suits over so-called “Hollywood Accounting.” What made this one semi-unique was its focus on how deals get thrown together quickly at a film festival.

Coon: Here’s the thing, no one should really be crying for us. At the end of day, we have a disagreement over how our contract’s interpreted. It’s kind of like being friends who disagree. We still all made more money on this than we ever thought we would. From that standpoint, we don’t feel sorry for ourselves. I view it as a very, very expensive education.

Efren Ramirez, left, Jon Heder and Tina Majorino during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite" in 2003.
Efren Ramirez, left, Jon Heder and Tina Majorino during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite" in 2003. | Napoleon Pictures Limited

Act 7: Are you Napoleon?

Despite the lawsuit, “Napoleon Dynamite” seems to remain a bright spot for those who made it. Maybe it’s because the film’s life imitated its art: the obscure origins, the obtuse but endearing characters, the atypical plot that lifts its characters without changing them too much (or even implying they need changing). Maybe it’s because the film’s writers/cast/crew inevitably see a past version of themselves in Napoleon, or Kip, or Lafawnduh.

Covel: Everybody feels like an outsider at some point in their life. And as a teen I was 6-foot-2, 130 pounds, had a perm and I’m a redhead. So I gravitated toward Napoleon in a really real way.

Avery: The one year of public school I had, in 9th grade, was the worst year for me, because I was bullied. I’m 6 feet — I was different. I was tall and lanky and awkward; I was like Napoleon Dynamite, but a female.

Heder: Words like “underdog” and “outcast” are easy to bring up, but Napoleon hardly ever saw himself as having the same goals as some of these people around him. He just really lived in his own world and was fine with it. I think Jared was able to step outside of that world enough, having lived it, to have the artist point of view and see what was really going on: Instead of looking down on those kids, you just find them way more interesting — anybody who lives their life without irony feels more genuine.

Jerusha Hess: I think “Napoleon” was weirdly surprising and refreshing. During that time, there were a lot of comedies that looked the same way. And this, all of a sudden, is a comedy that looked different and felt different, and people just glommed on to that.

Covel: A lot of movies that were coming out of Hollywood at the time were set in big cities, had big budgets, and were about the cool kid. Napoleon is doing his thing — and he might be a nerd, but he doesn’t care. He’s still going to be into the Loch Ness Monster and ligers and stuff. And the movies I love that come from Fox Searchlight — “Juno” and “Little Miss Sunshine” and things like that — people will point to “Napoleon” as the origin.

Sloss: The punishment I’ve received for having worked on this film is that I’ve had to watch about a thousand lesser imitations since, of people who think they’re as original and valuable as “Napoleon,” and they’re really kind of knock-offs.

Jared Hess: For me, it really comes down to friendship. There are so many interesting people that we just dismiss and overlook in life, that are strange, but over time you can grow to have love and concern for, and actually have your life enriched by them. And for me, Napoleon and the other characters do that. If socially, you’re not up to the task of breaking the ice with someone like Napoleon or Kip, maybe the film will open that door a little bit for you.

Ramirez: If you don’t have anyone around you that’s like Napoleon, that makes you Napoleon.

Click here to read Part 1

Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."
Jon Heder on set in Preston, Idaho during filming for "Napoleon Dynamite."