Jon Heder Was Only Paid $1,000 to Play Napoleon Dynamite

The film world is full of carefully-planned projects with enormous budgets and sometimes they still flop. It can be hard to predict just what combination of acting talents, plot development, and special effects are going to make a film click for viewers, and sometimes there are real surprise hits — even in B-list movies that no one expected to do well.

The story of Napoleon Dynamite is definitely one of a surprise hit. The film was extremely low-budget with most of the cast consisting of the creators’ own family and friends. Along the way, the show’s title character and breakout star, Jon Heder, only received $1,000 for his work. 

The movie "Napoleon Dynamite", directed by Jared Hess, written by Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess. Seen here from left, Efren Ramirez (as Pedro) and Jon Heder (as Napoleon Dynamite) wearing a 'Vote for Pedro' t-shirt.
Seen here from left, Efren Ramirez (as Pedro) and Jon Heder (as Napoleon Dynamite) wearing a ‘Vote for Pedro’ t-shirt. Initial theatrical (limited) release June 11, 2004. Screen capture. | CBS via Getty Images

‘Napoleon Dynamite’ was a quirky film 

In 2004, Napoleon Dynamite premiered, and no one expected the response that followed. The plot was at once absurdly unique and comfortably familiar. Set in a high school — with all the social cliques and clichés that come along with it — the story of an outcast trying to do something bold is familiar ground for many teen movies.

What set Napoleon Dynamite apart was its tongue-in-cheek nature that was played so straight by the characters on the screen. Napoleon Dynamite is a weird, loner teen who lives with his grandmother and 30-something brother.

An unlikely friendship with new kid Pedro pushes Napoleon out of his comfort zone as he puts his all into getting Pedro elected class president, running against the popular and mean Summer. The film’s conclusion works its way up to a dance scene that has gone down in pop culture history

Jon Heder was very involved in the film 

Heder not only lent his talents to portraying the titular character, but he was involved in the film in other ways as well. For instance, IMDb reports that Heder did almost all the drawings in the film.

He also, as Bustle explains, completely freestyled the iconic dance scene. Heder remembers it like this: “The whole production was one of the last things we shot, so I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll plan something.’ I kept putting it off. I thought I might just wing it [but] actually, Tina Majorino, who played Deb, she was a hip hop dance instructor for kids, so she had worked with choreography before. I was like, ‘Can you help me?'” Majorina was thrilled and headed to a store to buy “as many Jamiroquai albums as possible.”

The dance ended up being to Jamiroquai’s song “Canned Heat,” and securing the rights to use the song became an important part of getting the scene exactly right. This kind of budgetary consideration was important for the film because they didn’t have a lot of money to play with. 

‘Napoleon Dynamite’ made a lot more money than expected 

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The film was definitely a low budget production. It was filmed in just 22 days, and it certainly did not have a lot of cash on hand to lure in big names or fund flashy special effects. Heder, clearly the star of the show, initially only got paid $1,000 for his participation.

It’s safe to say that no one was prepared for the movie to gross $40,000,000 in the United States, but that’s exactly what happened. Fans loved the film so much that it even sparked an annual festival in Preston, Idaho, the small town where it is set. 

The film’s unexpected financial success was also at the heart of a lawsuit between the film’s producers and the executives at Fox Searchlight. As The Hollywood Reporter reports, the producers believed they were not being paid their fair share of the royalties for the film.

A follow-up article from The Hollywood Reporter goes on to explain that the case hinged on very technical details in the definition of movie profits, and a judge sided with Fox’s definition — which ultimately cost the producers quite a bit.