You should never judge a book by its cover. Nor should you judge a movie based on its box office receipts. There are some truly terrible movies that have taken serious cash and there have been some masterpieces that were overlooked by both the critics and the wider audiences.
There are lots of reasons why a great movie can flop, in some cases it’s just bad timing. For instance, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mega-flop Last Action Hero almost ended his career when it went up against the instant classic and massive hit Jurassic Park. In other cases, movies simply don’t resonate with their audiences, they can be ahead of their time or in need of becoming family favourites before audiences embrace them in large numbers.
In any case, there are dozens of examples of movies that bombed upon their initial release but went on to place in many people’s personal top ten lists, as well as bring in plenty of money in home-media sales.
Here’s 15 Box Office Bombs That Became Huge Hits
15. Citizen Kane (1941)
Arguably the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics upon its release in 1941.
While some audiences were put off by the dark subject matter, the main reason for the commercial failure of the movie was due to the interference of powerful media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Hearst believed, rightly, that the story of Charles Foster Kane was a lose adaption of his life and an unfavorable one at that. Hearst banned his massive newspaper and radio empire from even mentioning Citizen Kane and his open hostility to the movie meant that very few theaters would even show the movie, so as to avoid the tycoon’s wrath.
Besides the intervention of Hearst, many audiences felt that the movie was simply too dark. The theme that following the American Dream was a lonely endeavour simply didn’t resonate with people in 1941.
While Citizen Kane took $1.5 million against a $839,727 budget, RKO lost roughly $160,000 due to marketing costs not being recouped. While commercially unsuccessful, Citizen Kane did manage to bag a massive nine Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. In the years since, Citizen Kane has topped numerous polls of Greatest Ever Movies and is a prime example of near-perfect storytelling in film schools around the world.
14. The Thing (1982)
A near-perfect example of horror and science fiction as well as a “what if” scenario, The Thing failed to perform at the box office when it was released in 1982. A deliberately dark movie, The Thing borrowed elements from the works of H.P Lovecraft, as well as Ridley Scott’s then-recent Alien.
While critics were overall very negative, they did praise the effects for being technically brilliant, if also visually repulsive. Roger Ebert complained that the movie had numerous illogical elements and was overall a disappointment. He did however say that the movie was a great “barf-bag movie” due to the graphic nature of the horror scenes.
Largely, the disappointing box-office take was down to the opening of the much more optimistic E.T The Extra-Terrestrial, which also featured first contact with an alien but was much more family friendly and resonated with the ‘80s audiences. It also opened on the same day as Blade Runner, which probably contributed to both movies receiving lower than expected grosses.
13. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Despite an impressive five Academy Award nominations, It’s a Wonderful Life received little attention from audiences when it was released in 1946. While it has become a staple of Christmas viewing in the years since, RKO pictures lost approximately $525,000 on the movie.
While seen by millions of people each Christmas these days, it wasn’t until 1974 that the movie began to find its audience. National Telefilm Associates failed to renew its copyright on the movie, deciding it wasn’t worth the expense to retain the rights to the flop. Once the movie was in the public domain, TV networks didn’t have to pay royalties to air it and it quickly became a staple of Christmas viewing. In the 1980s, the rise of the VHS format made It’s a Wonderful Life popular once again, as a favourite gift for families across the world.
Frank Capra himself called the phenomena of the movie “The damnedest thing I’ve ever seen” and went on to say “The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”
12. Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Probably the yardstick by which all cult favourites are measured, 1975’s Rocky Horror Picture Show was a massive flop upon release bringing in a paltry $22,000 dollars. The studio had no faith in the kitschy riff on classic horror and only released the movie in eight cities. The poor numbers prevented a wider release and the movie was expected to be forgotten quickly.
But then, Rocky Horror began to gain traction within the counter culture of New York’s party scene. Midnight screenings became incredibly popular and it wasn’t long before fans turned out in droves kitted out in appropriately camp outfits. The era of audience participation was born with fans encouraged to sing along at the top of their voices to Time Warp and the many other songs. The craze swept the U.S. and the movie hasn’t gone away since resulting in the record for the longest continuous theatrical run in cinematic history.
11. Office Space (1999)
One of 1999’s many cult-hits that seemed to capture pre-millennial tension a little too well, Mike Judge’s first live action movie only pulled in $10.8 million at the box office despite Jennifer Aniston’s involvement. While the story of disgruntled office employees setting out to defraud their employers was nothing new, the pinpoint dialogue and on-point satire earned the movie a devoted following.
The box office failure has largely been attributed to a poor marketing campaign that failed to judge the target audience correctly. However, its release at the beginning of the DVD format’s golden age meant that it quickly broke out on the new format and made a further $7.6 million dollars in the U.S.
The killer one liners and phrases such as “A bad case of the Mondays” and a million “That’d be great” memes have ensured that Office Space is a modern cult classic that’s as relevant to modern corporate employment and office banter as it has ever been.
10. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer should have been huge. Initial buzz was almost universally positive and the movie had a run of sold-out screenings at Sundance. The script was a brilliant, if spoofy, take on classic summer movies and attracted a great cast of young talent including Elizabeth Banks, Paul Rudd, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Jeneane Garofalo as a mismatched and goofy gang of summer camp counsellors in the 1980’s.
Despite high expectations, the movie tanked hard bringing in a mere $295,000 at the box-office after a mauling by critics who felt that the movie was attempting to parody a genre that was in itself a parody.
Despite a small cult following, Wet Hot American Summer didn’t truly become a hit until the 10th anniversary in 2011 where several theatres began to screen the movie again, largely due to the raised profile of many of the stars since the original release. The movie began to pop up during film festivals as a lost masterpiece and positive sales on DVD led to the creation of a Netflix TV series in the summer of 2015 which united the main cast.
9. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Despite its status as a family favourite today, Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was a big disappointment when it was released in 1971. Audiences didn’t know what to make of the trippy blend of black comedy and musical numbers and parents weren’t keen to take their kids to a movie that exposed kids to gruesome ends with no consequence to the seemingly sinister Willy Wonker.
As the movie was deemed a financial disaster, even the sales of the associated candy bars bombed, Paramount Pictures decided not to renew its copyright in 1977. Warner Bros acquired the rights for a mere $500,000 and licensed the movie for TV broadcasts where it became a huge hit due to a heavy dose of nostalgia. Adults who missed out on the crazy experience the first time around introduced a new generation of kids to the macabre adventure which seemed to suit desensitized ‘80s audiences.
Willy Wonka remains a cult icon, often imitated and parodied in a wide variety of other media, most notably Family Guy, where its subversive humour seems to have found yet another audience. Gene Wilder’s performance is often seen as a career highlight, despite the initial poor reception.
8. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
Much like many of Johnny Depp’s more recent movies (Transcendence, The Lone Ranger, The Tourist) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a box office turkey.
Fear and Loathing was always going to be a tough sell. Directed by Terry Gilliam and adapted from Hunter S Thompson’s novel, Fear and Loathing was a hallucinatory jaunt across the desert that was a love letter to indie filmmakers of the 1990s but was always going to struggle to find mainstream success. Critics at the time compared it unfavourably to other less-mainstream projects and the poor reception led to a mere $10.5 million return on a $18 million budget.
Another movie to do well due to the transition to DVD in people’s homes, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas became an essential movie to own in the early 2000s. Special editions on DVD led to a critical re-examination and the movie became seen in a far more favourable light. Sales were also driven due to Depp’s increased prominence in Hollywood after the mega-hit that was 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
7. Showgirls (1995)
Showgirls often tops the list of “biggest-ever flops” and “worst movies ever,” so it may come as something of a surprise to learn that despite falling millions of dollars short of its bloated $45 million budget, Showgirls took a relatively massive $100,000,000 in home media sales! Where 1990’s audiences had been a little shy about going to the theatres to see a movie notorious for its nudity, they seemed happy to enjoy Elizabeth Berkley’s good-girl-gone-bad persona in the comfort of their own homes.
There’s no doubt that an NC-17 rating is bad for box office returns, with few studios even going so far as a R rating, but Showgirls took the bull by the horns and went for a hard NC-17 rating and gambled that a wide theatrical release would ensure a decent return. In fact, Showgirls remains the only NC-17 movie to be given a wide release in mainstream theatres. It’s high-profile earned it a place on many So Bad it’s Good lists, with many people in the ‘90s enjoying it for the irony of its inherent badness.
While the massive sales on VHS and DVD led the movie to be one of MGM’s most profitable movies ever, Showgirls was still seen as a massive flop, both critically and commercially. However, in recent years Showgirls has been re-evaluated as a sharp and serious satire and one worthy of praise. Many critics now feel that ‘90s audiences were too keen to judge the movie as a mere skin-flick and failed to notice the socio-political commentary that often serves as an undertone of Paul Verhoven’s movies.
6. Dredd (2012)
The second attempt to bring Judge Dredd to the big screen didn’t fare any better than the first. In fact, despite 2012’s Dredd being a huge hit among fans of the comic book, it failed to meet its production budget upon release.
Despite being seen as a much more faithful interpretation of the character than the much-maligned Sylvester Stallone version, Dredd failed to find an audience in 2012’s over saturated comic-book movie market. The huge hit that was Marvel’s The Avengers garnered all the critical and commercial success and Dredd was largely overlooked. However, the fans were vocal in their praise and went out in large numbers to purchase DVDs, hoping that sales would sway studio executives into greenlighting a sequel. Despite over $10 million in DVD sales, the studio remained unconvinced.
Sadly, hopes for a sequel seem to have evaporated but there remains potential for Dredd to be adapted into other media, with many hoping to see NetFlix acquire the rights and make a series with a similar tone to their recent successful collaborations with Marvel.
5. Blade Runner (1982)
Despite easily being one of the most influential sci-fi movies of all time, and arguably one of the best, Blade Runner was at the time of its release simply considered to be one of many sci-fi flicks released in 1982. Theatres were already oversaturated with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, and E.T The Extra-Terrestrial. This oversaturation is often attributed to Blade Runner only taking $6.5 million in its opening weekend and finishing its run with a disappointing $27.5 million at the box office against its $28 million budget.
While timing is often considered to be what prevented Blade Runner from being an initial hit, it’s also what made it a cult classic. Blade Runner was released on VHS during the golden age of the format and a director’s cut became a must-own for home entertainment enthusiasts.
Perhaps the defining moment in Blade Runner becoming a bona-fide hit was in 1993 when the movie was picked by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry for its cultural significance. A sequel is coming in 2017.
4. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The ultimate slacker comedy, The Big Lebowski is far from your average box-office bomb. Not only is there an annual film festival based purely on the movie, but there is even an organised religion based on the homespun philosophy of “The Dude”. Released immediately after Titanic, The Big Lebowski suffered from intense competition as well as a withering critical response, with Variety calling it “Hollow and without resonance”.
Despite Roger Ebert calling the movie “Weirdly engaging”, the movie only pulled in $17 million at the box office against a $15 million budget. It wasn’t until several years later that the movie found an audience with decent DVD sales, but more importantly on social media where the numerous memes the movie spawned created even greater awareness of all things “Dude” related.
The increase in awareness of the movie, and the honest-to-goodness religion it has spawned (if you don’t believe us, look it up) has meant that The Big Lebowski isn’t just a cult-hit, it’s a legitimate cult. The epic, if meandering story of one man’s quest to get his rug replaced has been compared to epic tales of heroism from the ancient Greek tale of Sisyphus and Sir Galahad’s mission to retrieve the Holy Grail.
3. Donnie Darko
A movie that featured a plane crash as a central element of the plot was always going to have a tough time at the box office when released in September of 2001. Around the world, people were left horrified and grieving after the events of 9/11 and Donnie Darko’s dark and brooding themes couldn’t have come at a worse time commercially. The indie film only cost $6 million to make, but its $1.2 million haul gave it instant flop-status.
Released world-wide the following year, Donnie Darko fared little better overseas. But it found a home on DVD where Jake Gyllenhaal’s strangely captivating performance led to decent sales. The eerily prophetic movie, and the brooding theme “Mad World” seemed to capture the depression felt by many young people struggling to find any meaning in their lives post-9/11.
Many people still argue about elements of the plot to this day, and while a re-edited version did go some way to addressing the lingering questions of the central paradox, the movie is still one of the most talked about movies of the early 2000’s.
2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
If ever there was a movie that didn’t deserve to flop, The Shawshank Redemption was it. Inarguably one of the finest cinematic achievements of all time, it is a near flawless movie which is both brutal and tender in equal measure.
1994 was a big year for movies. Pulp Fiction was getting the indie-hype, Forrest Gump took mainstream success and Shawshank simply sat in the middle. As neither a true indie-movie, nor a mainstream movie, it was lost in the box-office shuffle and took a tiny $25 million. Its brilliance taken for granted, Shawshank was destined to be lost to history, especially after losing out on an Academy Award for Best Picture to Forrest Gump.
But then, it found its audience in syndication. Not only is the movie shown continuously across the world, it regularly features on people’s list of favourite movies and is currently number one on IMDb’s 250 Greatest Movies of all time. Both due to syndication royalties and strong sales on home media formats, The Shawshank Redemption is now considered to be one of Warner Bros most valuable properties.
1. Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club didn’t just bomb at the box-office, it received some pretty terrible reviews too. Seen as the first major release to centre around violence after the Columbine tragedy, Fight Club was seen to be everything wrong in America at that time. Too violent, too willing to accept violence, and far too proud of itself for its own good. Which just shows how much people missed the point the first time around.
Far from a movie celebrating violence, it is a movie that uses violence as a metaphor for the conflict between a generation raised by corporate advertising and the expectations society places on them. Instead of a young man with a world of possibilities ahead of him, the narrator is a man that has achieved everything society has asked of him, and frustrated by a future of shopping in IKEA and seeing no way to improve his lot in life, decides to brutally take the very system itself down. It is the ultimate inverse of the standard coming-of-age character from the ‘60s- ‘90s and it redefined the aspirations of a whole generation.
Despite the poor box-office, Fight Club has become an underground hit on DVD and TV ever since, perhaps fitting for a movie that seeks to subvert all expectations.
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