Would some of our favorite or most well regarded Hollywood classics be successful today? In modern study, they stand as the pillars of film history and are used by critics and some audience members as a standard for what qualifies as a good film. Naturally though, the film landscape has changed, as well as audience’s tastes, so if these films were released today, they probably wouldn't take home box office gold.
In the age of comic book movies, franchise reboots and actor’s vanity projects, there simply aren’t a lot of films being released on a wide mainstream level similar to many of the top listed classics. The result is that audiences aren’t conditioned to that type of material anymore. Of course, context is everything, but the question of whether or not these films would be able to be successful commercially is an intriguing one. Even the best marketing can’t get audiences to connect to certain challenging material; if they could, we'd probably see more films typical to art house theaters in megaplexes instead. Nonetheless, we’ve come up with a list of some of the Hollywood greats which we think might struggle to make money in 2016.
Here are 11 Classic Movies That Would Be Box Office Failures Today.
12 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Frank Capra, the well known director of It’s a Wonderful Life, struck a blow at the questionable morality of our nation’s government in this tale of an everyman going to the nation’s capitol to fight for the people. It starred the ever-so-likable Jimmy Stewart as the fresh faced Boy Scout leader-turned-politician. In its trailer, it tauted Capra’s Oscar wins and boasted the film as “the most significant picture to ever come out of Hollywood.” Though controversial in some realms, it was a box office success at the time. Would such a film work today though?
Capra’s films have been famously criticized over time as being “Capra-corn,” meaning too optimistic, sentimental, and/or idealist. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fits pretty squarely into this criteria, for better or worse. Today’s films are much more cynical and commercial audiences can be very skeptical and critical of mainstream movies with a social message. This would especially stand out due to the fact that this film deals with DC politics.
Capra himself, in his later writings, already believed that film was moving in a direction that wouldn’t embrace his style. With the marketing of the star cast and director Capra, it’s fair to say audiences of today would be intrigued. But with the early reviews and word of mouth, which might not react positively to this tale of simple optimism and belief that good triumphs over evil (even in politics), this film, if given a nation-wide release, might very well fade very quickly. It might earn its money back, but not much more; this is a type of film that rarely, if ever, gets made today.
11 Apocalypse Now
As ardent film lovers know, Apocalypse Now was plagued with many problems during principal photography and post production. The many entertaining tales of Coppola’s struggles have become famous in film schools and amongst film scholars alike, and were documented in the well known documentary Hearts of Darkness. The story of Brando showing up to set overweight and underprepared, and Coppola’s resulting adjustments in his costuming and lighting, have been repeated so often, it has become legend. The film was delayed multiple times as Coppola struggled with coming to a final cut. How would these struggles relate to box office performance in today’s market? With the tales of its delays and production saturating the modern media, and audience expectation based on those involved, it can be concluded that it would underperform on a commercial level.
Massively ambitious in its scale, Apocalypse Now was a Vietnam war film which packed quite a punch in its social commentary. For that reason and many others, it was asking audiences to take quite a leap with them. Audience expectations then and today would be certainly high due to Coppola’s involvement, as well as Brando’s. Upon release, a mainstream audience in 2016 would have difficulty sitting through two and a half hours of such challenging material. It’s ability to perform at the box office, past week one, would be very questionable. It’s tough to see it stand next to today’s popular blockbuster action pics and comedies and succeed. It would have its supporters, and it could possibly reach the goal of matching its budget adjusted for inflation, but either way it would most likely be considered a failure by the studio who released it based on today’s standards. It might just end up spending most of its theatrical run in independent theaters, doing moderate business.
10 The Birth of a Nation
The very utterance of this film’s title breathes controversy. It is a stain on American film history, and one which can’t be ignored. It’s blatantly racist and offensive, but for some reason we can’t stop talking about it. It remains a pillar of film history discussion because of its technical achievements and how many believe it advanced the medium. Either way, despite its problematic story, it did incredibly well in its commercial box office performance. It was even used as a recruitment film for the Ku Klux Klan, who were presented as the heroes of the film.
Today, however, it is extremely controversial both in content and its use in an education context. The question here is whether or not modern audiences would be able to accept and embrace such an offensive film, with such strong discriminatory stances. Would audience members flock to it due its technical achievement? This is highly doubtful. In a modern context, this film would most likely bomb hard at the box office, while unfortunately remaining popular among the small portion of people who share in its beliefs.
Social media has made boycotts as powerful as ever and Birth of a Nation would definitely feel the affects of those it discriminates against. Theater owners would probably refuse to play the film. It’s certainly interesting to consider whether this film or a modern day equivalent which espoused hateful messages would be able to succeed commercially. We’d like to think that due to our country’s progress, Birth of a Nation wouldn’t be a box office success today and would therefore never exist in history books in glowing terms of its technical prowess.
9 Lawrence of Arabia
A tale of epic proportions, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest masterpieces film has ever seen. It was an international production that was as massive and complex as they come, involving many different challenging locations, and complicated action scenes involving large groups of extras. The coordination involved both creatively and on the business side must have been akin to the difficulty and nuance of walking on a tightrope. Steven Spielberg, a big fan of the work, has allegedly mused that if the film was made today that it would cost around $285 million. If that is true, or close, the idea that Lawrence of Arabia, with its challenging content and ambitious production goals, could today both earn back that budget and go on to become a box office success is highly questionable.
The story follows the real life T.E. Lawrence in his experiences in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks. It’s a contemplative tale, which through Lawrence contemplates conflict in the region and European involvement in it. Peter O’Toole while having acted in some productions before this film, was not a star actor at the time. The most successful or recognized of the cast were Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, who were in supporting roles. The final running time of the original release was over three hours long. For all the above reasons, there is little to no reason to suggest that on a commercial level this film would be successful. Modern audiences are conditioned to much shorter films and with the lead not being a major star, their hesitance would be significant. The saving grace would be the positive critical reviews it would still get today, but still that wouldn’t be enough to get audiences to sit through such a challenging film.
This is unfortunate, because this is the kind of film that we sorely miss today. It would be nearly impossible to make such an epic in this time.
8 2001: A Space Odyssey
A visual masterpiece that has stunned audience members for generations, 2001: A Space Odyssey is unquestionably one of Kubrick’s most talked about films. It is incredibly ambitious both in story and approach. It came from a result of the famous director’s desire to make a “good science fiction movie.” While it was somewhat polarizing at the time, it had box office success far surpassing its total budget. The pacing is fairly slow and it sits at around two hours and twenty minutes. Though there are many takeaways audiences could get from such a film today, it is quite a leap to suggest it would be box office success. Far more likely, would be limited release in mostly art house theaters.
2001: A Space Odyssey is a great example of a film made brilliantly for its time. People from the millennial generation may have been saturated from birth with images of space, but this was not the case for those who grew up in the time of 2001. It was a spectacle at the time, especially due to the epic and boundary pushing nature of Kubrick's filmmaking approach. Today, this, of course, would still be appreciated, but the box office wouldn’t reflect that. People simply don’t buy tickets on a mainstream level for films like that. If it was produced as an independent film on a modest budget, it would probably do alright; but as studio film, with large expectations, it wouldn’t be able to connect to audiences. That kind of pacing and style is unfortunately just too challenging to have a larger life with those who aren’t already preconditioned to like that kind of cinema.
The 1976 film classic by Sidney Lumet, Network, is a tale of corruption in network television with lessons as applicable today as it was one when it was created. It’s a dark drama/comedy, at times satirical and emotionally moving. The famous line often associated with the film comes from it’s main character Beale, who shouts: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Despite its brilliant filmmaking, this picture would face a massive uphill battle in its attempts at commercial success. In fact, the actuality that it was such a box office success when it was originally released is stunning. It’s quite bold in its storytelling and its underlying message about.
Upon inspection, this type of political drama/comedy, with its dark humor, would struggle with a modern mainstream audience. It’s not politely skirting around the topic, it goes straight for the jugular. Additionally, it’s the kind of film that studios just don’t make anymore. It’s budget, when adjusted for inflation, would land in the $15-16 million range, the sort of middle ground that is quite simply avoided these days. There simply isn’t a market for mid range budget social commentary films on a commercial level. Let’s say, it does get released today, it wouldn’t even get the same type of release; it would probably be released in only a few theaters while the studio concentrates on pushing the latest comic book movie. This isn’t necessarily Hollywood’s fault, they only make what they think audiences would see.
We’re in an age of escapism in film, much of that as a result of our current political and social economic challenges today. Therefore, these films are only made by independent filmmakers who are putting their money on the line, knowing it will never have box office success.
6 Gone With The Wind
Gone With The Wind, one of our most iconic American film classics, was a commercial success of epic proportions. It was a historical romance, set during the Civil War era. The film starred the incredibly popular Clark Gable, as the dashing and bold love interest Rhett Butler. His character of course spawned the now oft referenced and homaged line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It’s running time is three hours and 58 minutes. Though perfect for its time, this type of film would struggle mightily in today’s box office.
There are a number of factors why it wouldn’t quite connect to a modern audience. First and foremost, there is the central premise of it being an almost four hour long historical costume drama/romance. Historical films already have the challenging task of bringing audiences in, especially when there isn’t a lot of action involved (which is the case here). Then, when you add in the fact that the pacing is fairly slow and the film’s incredibly long running time, and you have a recipe for a box office failure. Clark Gable, who might be billed as the main draw, is also absent for long stretches of the film.
This type of film would do much better as a leaner cheaper production. But released as today is, and it would struggle to do much better than breaking even. Given its marketing as a studio event picture, fervently building up audience’s expectations, if it wouldn’t well exceed their budget, it would be considered a box office failure.
The age of the Western is over, the time of the comic book movie is upon us. Stagecoach, a classic film by John Ford, and a favorite by many fans of the genre, would find itself in an unfamiliar world were it released today. It was Ford’s first Western with sound, as he previously had only done black and white silent films. Additionally, it marked John Wayne’s breakout onto the Hollywood scene, as it was his first role in a majorly successful film. Stagecoach had its difficulties being made in Hollywood back then, due to his insistence on using a less established star in Wayne and because of their belief that big budget Westerns were no longer popular. It would face those exact challenges today, the only difference is that it became a major success when it was released in 1939, but if it was released today that most likely wouldn’t be the case.
As seen with the cool reception to The Lone Ranger, big budget westerns are certainly not in vogue today. It’ll probably be a while till a studio again risks big money on a film in the genre. If Stagecoach were released, despite this, it wouldn’t connect to audiences commercially in the way the studio would want it to. More than ever, the idea of having an “unknown” in one of the largest roles in the film would be unthinkable today in Hollywood. Marketing would be especially difficult for such a film and would rely heavily on getting strong reviews and word of mouth. Due to the film simplicity in story and location, as well executed as it is, there wouldn’t be enough to draw major audiences. Depending on how it was handled in its marketing and distribution strategy, it might even have difficulty making back its budget.
4 All Quiet on the Western Front
As Christopher Nolan prepares his next film on the Battle of Dunkirk in WWI, it's the perfect time to look at the quintessential film on the conflict. All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic war film, poignant and visually moving. If Apocalypse Now showed the horror of war, All Quiet on the Western Front showed the incredible loss of war and in such a poetic fashion. It was a moderate box office success, despite it being censored in many parts of Europe. It was later blocked in Nazi Germany due to its allegedly negative depiction of the Germans. A film of this style, especially due to its deep involvement in the politics of the conflict, would have difficulty finding mainstream success today.
Most modern war films have been action based and have been lead by major stars. There is the odd exception, but primarily it is about the heroism of its protagonists.This isn’t the case with this movie. Some mainstream audience members might find its slow pacing and existential musings challenging or non engaging. Marketing this film would be incredibly difficult. It would have to be sold as a sort of prestige pic, and awards film. Even then, box office success wouldn’t be a given.
3 Dr. Strangelove
Starring the immensely popular and engaging Peter Sellers in multiple roles, and directed by the filmmaking savant Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a cinematic masterpiece. It is a political satire and black comedy about the Cold War and many of the irrational fears that came with the conflict. It is a perfect embodiment of its time, satirizing it with pinpoint precision. Ultimately though, this style of film isn’t for everyone and the question must be raised regarding whether or not it would connect to modern audiences commercially.
Their budget was modest, for a studio, when adjusted for inflation it is around the $13 million mark. This places it in that middle range, which major studios don’t often create at these days. Having an established director like Kubrick and star like Sellers would certainly help the film’s chances at success, but the issue would more be the story and quirky sense of humor. For one, how would they be able to market such a film today? And given the marketing, would audiences have false expectations and then react poorly to the film? When looking at the types of comedies given a mainstream release today, Dr. Strangelove simply doesn’t fit in. That’s not to say it wouldn’t find its fans and supporters, but its success would be much more on a independent level. With that being said, if it was given the budget of a major studio picture and distribution at the same level, it would probably be a box office disappointment.
2 Kramer vs Kramer
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, Kramer vs Kramer is a classic 1979 film and 5 time Academy Award winner; it was written and directed by Robert Benton. It was a powerful reflection of the time it which was released, demonstrating the cultural shift in how it viewed divorce and co-parenting. The budget, when adjusted for inflation, would be around $26 million today. The resulting box office haul however, also adjusted, would be an unbelievable $340 million dollars. That’s a type of success for an adult drama that is just unheard of today.
Firstly, a major studio would never spend $26 million dollars on a family drama today, unless we’re talking about a family drama that involves aliens or superheroes. The amount that a studio would have to spend on marketing, to be able to get a modern audience to buy into that type of a film and learn about the characters in it would make it not worth the money in their view. That’s why we don’t see those kind of films anymore in the megaplex. If however, a studio did pay that money and release such a movie today, it would ultimately be a box office disappointment. The Academy Awards would reinvigorate interest, and the film would most likely break even. But the idea of it making anywhere close to $340 million is insanity. We live in a different era of film.
What do you think? Do you disagree with some of our selections? Or did we miss a film that you believe might be a particular failure with modern audiences on a commercial level? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. As with all discussions and analysis with topics like these, it’s subjective. Film is constantly evolving as are audience’s palettes, so without any definitive answers, this will have to remain an open ended conversation.