If the history of cinema has taught us nothing else, it’s that great films aren’t always appreciated in their own time. You need only take a glance at the box office statistics for any given year and you’ll spot at least one critical darling or cult classic that tanked commercially.
True, some of these flicks were always going to prove a bit too niche to cater to a broad audience. But more than a few possessed enough mainstream appeal that it’s downright astonishing they weren’t able to generate higher ticket sales. Indeed, with better marketing campaigns, stronger word-of-mouth, or even just a bit of good ol’ fashioned luck, the 10 box office bombs on this list could easily have reversed their fortunes.
10 Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World – Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley – took San Diego Comic-Con by storm in 2010… only to fizzle out when it was released in theatres later that year. Although distributor Universal Theatres chalked this up to the action/comedy’s quirky charms going over the head of the average moviegoer, we’re not so sure we agree.
After all, Scott Pilgrim is practically tailor-made for modern 20- and 30-something audiences: a hyper kinetic romp starring relatable characters and jam-packed with pop culture references, all set to a killer soundtrack. So frankly, we’re not sure why this one flopped. Seriously: how does a picture about a guy confronting his girlfriend’s seven evil ex-boyfriends in video game-inspired brawls fail?
9 The Iron Giant
Ask any movie buff to name their top 10 animated films over the past 20 years, and chances are that The Iron Giant will wind up somewhere in the mix. Brad Bird’s first outing in the director’s chair is a big screen reimagining of Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s book The Iron Man. This cartoon packs as much emotional and thematic weight as any live-action blockbuster.
Unfortunately, it was derailed by Warner Bros.’ lackluster promotional efforts, which meant that – despite rave reviews and a raft of award wins – almost nobody saw this affecting story about a boy and his over-sized robot friend. On the plus side, The Iron Giant has since achieved greater success through its various home media releases, while Bird himself went on to nab Best Animated Feature Oscars for The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
8 Fight Club
"The first rule of Fight Club is – you do not talk about Fight Club." It’s one of the most memorable lines of all time… the only problem was that not enough people were talking about David Fincher’s film in real life, either. What’s more, those who did discuss this Chuck Palahnuik adaptation couldn’t agree whether its arresting deconstruction of the '90s male psyche justified its graphic themes and nihilistic tone.
So despite buzz gradually building around the knock-out performances by Edward Norton and Brad Pitt – not to mention its cleverly handled plot twist – Fight Club wasn’t able to entice moviegoers wary of its visceral subject matter. Sure, it grossed $100.9 million off the back of a $63 million budget, but once you factor in marketing costs, Fincher’s gritty masterpiece didn’t even earn Warner Bros. its money back.
7 Children Of Men
We’re going to be brutally honest, here: the odds were always stacked against Children of Men. For starters, this dystopian thriller – based on P.D. James’ novel about a world where global infertility threatens the future of humanity – only opened in a small number of theatres. Worse still, it’s a decidedly grim affair, which made the decision to release it in the United States around Christmas time a bit of a head-scratcher.
But easily the biggest hurdle between Alfonso Cuarón’s movie and box office success was that it was smart. Cuarón refuses to spoon-feed information to audiences and instead demands that they fill in narrative gaps themselves. This proved a turn-off for those used to more traditional, expository storytelling. In the end, Children of Men couldn’t surmount the challenges arrayed against it, and one of the finest films of 2006 didn’t even recoup its budget.
6 The Shawshank Redemption
Surely a Best Picture Academy Award nomination should be enough to guarantee a massive box office haul, right? Wrong! Just ask Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption, which flopped during its initial theatrical run despite its obvious Oscar-calibre quality.
Oh, and let’s also not forget that the source material for Darabont’s screenplay was a novella by mega-popular scribe Stephen King – ostensibly yet another ingredient for sure-fire bankability. Nevertheless, The Shawshank Redemption didn’t rake in any cash until it was re-released to tie-in with its awards season campaign, although this affecting prison drama is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time.
5 The Lone Ranger
While most of the films on this list eventually turned a profit or at least gained wider recognition, The Lone Ranger has still yet to do either. Remarkably, negative pre-release industry chatter and savage critical write-ups were enough to derail Gore Verbinski’s update of the classic 1930s Western radio show, seemingly forever.
Honestly, we’re hard-pressed to explain why The Lone Ranger hasn’t been able to find an audience. Leads Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp share a likable “odd couple” chemistry, the old school action set pieces are suitably thrilling, and celebrated auteur Quentin Tarantino even named it one of his favorite flicks of 2013! Is it the greatest movie of all time? Far from it – but much worse blockbuster films have performed far better.
4 This Is Spinal Tap
This Is Spinal Tap may well be the definition of “sleeper hit.” Rob Reiner’s improv-heavy music mockumentary didn’t exactly light the box office on fire when it dropped back in 1984. However, it did solid business when it was released on home media later that year.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why audiences didn’t immediately warm to Spinal Tap. If we had to guess, though, we’d blame the surprising degree of verisimilitude achieved by Reiner and his cast and crew. No matter how ridiculous this satire of the excesses in rock and roll culture gets – including the infamous amplifier that dials up to 11! – it’s always grounded in just enough reality for its gags to fly over less astute viewers’ heads.
We’re just going to go ahead and call it: Dredd is the greatest comic book movie reboot of all time and undeniably the most overlooked. Director Pete Travis erases all memories of the widely-panned 1995 Sylvester Stallone vehicle, serving up a taut sci-fi action joint that finally did 2000AD’s iconic law enforcer justice.
Karl Urban gets Judge Dredd’s signature scowl down pat, while the slow-motion visuals transform the film’s graphic violence into something disarmingly beautiful. Toss in admirably restrained production design and a lean plot that perfectly balances brutal set pieces with effective character beats, and Dredd’s lukewarm commercial reception is flat-out puzzling.
2 Donnie Darko
Equal parts coming-of-age drama and sci-fi psychological thriller, Donnie Darko blew critics away when it premiered in 2001, but it passed mainstream audiences by entirely. Perhaps the yarn Richard Kelly spun was too bold, too esoteric, or straight-up too weird for the public – whatever the reason, it floundered financially.
That said, Donnie Darko lined distributor Newmarket Films’ pockets when it became available on home video, although debate still rages over whether the more explanatory director’s cut is superior to the theatrical version. It was also instrumental in launching the careers of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, so it’s fair to say its legacy is assured.
1 Citizen Kane
Fun fact: despite being regularly cited as the greatest movie ever made, Citizen Kane didn’t even accrue enough cash to cover its production costs. Why? Three little words: William Randolph Hearst. Orson Welles drew heavily from the details of Hearst’s life to flesh out fictional tycoon Charles Foster Kane’s personality and backstory.
The newspaper magnate took offense, exerting his considerable influence to deter cinemagoers from seeing the film, a ploy which clearly paid off. But Hearst couldn’t keep Citizen Kane from the masses forever, and before too long, both Welles and his magnum opus were showered with the praise they so richly deserves.