15 Classic Movies You Didn't Know Were Box Office Flops

Blade Runner Harrison Ford sci-fi director's cut

The ridiculous furor surrounding the negative critical response to Suicide Squad perfectly summed up just how much disparity there is between those who write about film and those who simply watch it. The star-studded superhero movie was slated by reviews on its release in the summer, with 'ugly,' 'boring' and 'misogynistic' just a few of the unflattering terms bandied about, resulting in a relatively dismal Rotten Tomatoes rating of 26%.

However, taking not a blind bit of notice, cinemagoers lapped it up, ensuring that the DC Comics vehicle earned the highest-grossing August opening weekend ever, the second biggest debut for a non-sequel, and a worldwide total of over $636 million. Conversely, the press are just as likely to be ignored when they glowingly extol the virtues of a particular film. Indeed, there are countless examples of movies now considered classics by the general public which only found an audience when it moved to VHS/DVD/streaming. Here’s a look at 15 such flicks, which prove that the box office chart has never been a great indicator of quality. Some of these films managed to make their money back and more through restorations and re-releases, but all of them underperformed heavily upon their initial release.

Here are 15 Classic Movies You Didn't Know Were Box Office Flops.

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Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption
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15 The Shawshank Redemption

Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption

Some of the greatest Stephen King adaptations have had a hard time at the box-office. Dolores Clairborne, The Dead Zone and The Mist all failed to make it past the $25m mark, Apt Pupil didn’t even get into double figures, while the original and far superior Carrie had to watch its pointless 2013 remake gross $2m more. But no other King film has experienced a more unjust commercial response than The Shawshank Redemption.

Now considered not just the greatest King adaptation ever made, but one of the greatest movies ever made full stop, Frank Darabont’s third directorial effort opened in ninth place on its opening weekend in October 1994. Despite near-universal acclaim, the film left cinemas just a month later with a disappointing North American total of $16m on a budget of $25m. A re-release to capitalize on its Oscar nominations pulled in an extra nine million dollars, but it was only through video rental and TV licensing that it began making money, reportedly raking in more than $100m in total.

14 The Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland and co. in The Wizard of Oz

Considering the wave of remakes, sequels and spinoffs that have emerged in its wake, it seems unfathomable that the first full-length talking picture based on Frank L. Baum’s classic novel failed to recoup its budget. Yes, The Wizard of Oz managed a worldwide total of just over three million dollars on its release in 1939, but thanks to its high production costs, it actually recorded a loss of $1,145,000.

Surprisingly, the film was deemed to have taken far more than many anticipated, with previous (silent) attempts to bring the adventures of Dorothy and her friends to the big screen all flopping dismally. Of course, The Wizard of Oz did eventually make it into the red thanks to its 1949 theatrical re-release and its annual airings on holiday television, while its star Judy Garland was also given a substantial salary increase to become one of America’s highest-paid box office stars of her era.

13 Citizen Kane

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

It’s the film that everyone automatically cites when talking about the greatest of all time, even if they’ve never watched a minute of it themselves. But thanks to problems with distribution (one 500-theater chain refused to screen it out of fear of upsetting William Randolph Hearst – the newspaper mogul that the titular character was reportedly based on), and marketing (Hearst’s paper inevitably refused to run adverts for it) and the threat of a lawsuit, the film trickled into cinemas in 1941 with little fanfare.

Indeed, Citizen Kane was reported to have lost money with its limited screenings across the likes of Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, with only the showings in Seattle turning a profit. The movie later attracted the large viewership it deserved in 1956 when it started appearing on television for the first time and enjoyed a re-release to coincide with Welles’ return to the New York stage in King Lear.

12 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

The definitive adaptation of arguably Roald Dahl’s best-loved children's story boasts a worldwide gross of $25m, a fairly impressive figure when you take inflation into account and its budget of just $3m. However, it’s a rather misleading number when you discover that only $4m was earned during its initial run.

Indeed, grossing just $2.1m on its opening weekend and subsequently failing to make it into the Top 50 movies of 1971, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was regarded as something of a box office disappointment first time around. Indeed, Paramount even decided against renewing its distribution deal six years later on the basis that doing so would hold little financial value. But the studio was left cursing their short-sightedness when the film pulled in a further $21m with a 1996 re-release which introduced a whole new generation to the fantastical world of everlasting gobstoppers, chocolate rivers and oompa loompas.

11 Office Space

Stephen Root in Office Space

Two years before Ricky Gervais first set his sights on the banality of white-collar drudgery, Mike Judge did it with far more finesse with the brilliantly underrated Office Space. Sadly, despite the presence of Jennifer Aniston at the peak of her Friends fame, the 1999 comedy barely made a ripple at the box office, landing in eighth place in its opening weekend on its way to a poor $10.9m total domestic gross.

However, the film has since gone on to sell a far more impressive six million copies on DVD, regularly appearing in Greatest Ever Comedy polls and was even being referenced by Ted Cruz in a political ad for his 2016 Presidential campaign. Judge’s next venture, Idiocracy, would experience a similar slow-burning fate, but thankfully his brilliant tech industry satire Silicon Valley has managed to find a strong following at the first time of asking.

10 Blade Runner

Blade Runner

It’s the film which paved the way for everything from The Matrix and A.I. to Total Recall and Minority Report. Director Ridley Scott regards it as his most personal and complete work, and it received nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs. And yet it’s fair to say that the dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner underwhelmed at the box office.

You could perhaps blame producer Alan Ladd, Jr.’s superstitious nature for its disappointing $33.8m haul from a $28m budget. Having watched his previous ventures Star Wars and Alien achieve record-breaking takings, Ladd insisted on Blade Runner hitting cinemas on a similar opening date. Unfortunately, the week of June 25, 1981 just happened to be one in which Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Conan the Barbarian and a little-known film called E.T. the Extra Terrestrial were also competing for bums on seats. Unsurprisingly, the cute little alien emerged victorious.

9 The Thing

Kurt Russell in The Thing

John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic The Thing may not have had a superstitious producer at its helm, but it still suffered a similar fate at the box office as Blade Runner. In fact, the scary sci-fi adventure, which sees a parasitic alien life force assimilate the bodies of an Antarctic research team led by Kurt Russell's helicopter pilot, was actually released on the exact same day as the Philip K. Dick adaptation.

Based on John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There, the first part of Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy opened at number eight in the States with a $3.1m opening and went on to make a relatively unimpressive total of $19.6m. The director himself targeted the blame squarely at Steven Spielberg’s pesky little extra-terrestrial, believing that when it came to alien films, the mainstream was always more likely to be susceptible to a feel-good family-friendly affair than a gruesome body horror.

8 It’s A Wonderful Life

James Stewart and co. in It's A Wonderful Life

A poorly-chosen release date also scuppered the fortunes of the film widely regarded as the ultimate Christmas classic. Based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story The Greatest Gift, It’s A Wonderful Life was originally pencilled in for a January 1947 release, but in order to meet the eligibility guidelines of the 20th Academy Awards, it was instead moved forward to December 1946 at the last minute.

It was a strategy which didn’t pay off when the film failed to pick up any of the five awards it was nominated for, with many believing that it would have fared far better at the following year’s ceremony had producers stuck to their original plans. The lack of Oscar success and the competition from another festive favorite, Miracle on 34th Street, no doubt impacted its box-office takings too, and by the time it left cinemas it had recorded a loss of over half a million dollars.

7 Donnie Darko

Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko

Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Donnie Darko failed to set the box office alight. Richard Kelly was an unknown filmmaker, a first time director whose previous venture had been a goofy short about teleportation. Jake Gyllenhaal, who was far from the bankable leading man we all know and love today, had just come off the back of a major commercial bomb, Bubble Boy. And the story itself -- a brooding and complex tale of metaphysics, teen angst and oversized rabbits -- wasn’t exactly an easy sell.

But considering the glowing reputation it’s developed since premiering at the Sundance Festival, its takings of $7.3m still seem dispiriting. Of course, some believe that its release date, which landed just a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, was responsible for its poor showing, although that seems a pretty tenuous excuse. However, the film eventually recouped its budget several times over when it became a favorite on both the DVD market and the midnight screening circuit.

6 Raging Bull

Robert De Niro in Raging Bull

It’s now considered one of the greatest films in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, but at the time of its 1980 release, the legendary director was concerned that Raging Bull may have killed his career. Yes, despite picking up eight Oscars, winning two for Best Actor and Best Film Editing, the black-and-white boxing drama grossed just $23m on an $18m budget, leaving Scorsese to worry about the financing prospects of his future films.

The Jake LaMotta biopic was a commercial juggernaut compared to Scorsese’s next venture with Robert De Niro, The King of Comedy, an eerily prescient satire of celebrity worship which delighted critics but bombed at the box office, raking in just three million dollars. Scorsese’s losing streak continued with the underrated 1985 black comedy After Hours before he finally struck gold again a year later when he teamed up with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman with The Hustler follow-up, The Color of Money.

5 Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America

Four years after Raging Bull flattered to deceive at the box office, Robert De Niro found himself in another highly regarded affair which struggled to pull in the punters. Based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods, Sergio Leone’s sprawling crime drama Once Upon a Time in America received a 15-minute standing ovation when it premiered at Cannes in the summer of 1984, but was met with a resounding shrug of the shoulders across the other side of the Atlantic.

Indeed, the film raked in just $2.4 million on its opening weekend, finishing with a total of $5.3m on a $30m budget, with many pointing the blame at the disjointed and drastically different version that made it into US cinemas (the European release was a full 90 minutes longer). Whatever the reason, it ensured that the legendary Leone’s career ended with a whimper rather than a bang, and almost bankrupted production house The Ladd Company in the process.

4 Fight Club

Brad Pitt in Fight Club

An all-star cast which included Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter and People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, Brad Pitt. A director whose three previous ventures (Alien 3, Seven, The Game) had grossed a worldwide total of over $600m. A story adapted from one of the ‘90s most acclaimed debut novels. Fight Club appeared to have all the right elements for a monster hit.

And it got off to a respectable start, grossing $11m in its first week to beat The Story of Us and Double Jeopardy to the US number one spot in October 1999. However, word-of-mouth appeared to be non-existent, and the film rapidly dropped in revenue over the following month, finishing up with a hugely disappointing $37m domestic total on a $63m budget. The film would eventually pass the $100m figure worldwide, but that wasn’t enough to save the job of 20th Century Fox head Bill Mechanic, who resigned shortly after its release.

3 Children of Men

Clive Owen and Clare-Hope Ashitey in Children of Men

With its thought-provoking exploration of the human condition, star-studded cast at the top of their game, and possibly the most impressive single-shot tracking scene in film history, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men gripped audiences back in 2006. Unfortunately, the dystopian sci-fi thriller failed to attract enough cinemagoers to recoup its budget, finishing $6m short.

Indeed, one of the most intelligent and underrated blockbusters of recent years took in just $13.4m to enter the box office chart in third place, behind Will Smith schmaltzfest The Pursuit of Happiness in its fourth week and Night at the Museum in its third. Despite Oscar nominations and BAFTA wins for its stunning cinematography, the film could only crawl to a domestic total of $35.5m, a figure which appeared to have burned Cuaron so badly that he took seven years to follow it up. Thankfully, Gravity had no such problems finding the massive audience that it deserved.

2 Heathers

Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in Heathers

Forget The Craft, Mean Girls, or any of the other imitators that followed in its footsteps; no other high school movie has been more caustic, cynical or crueller than Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. The film that made stars of Winona Ryder and Christian Slater was also a highly quotable hoot from start to finish, from the opening croquet scene, to the famous "I love my dead gay son" line, to the explosive finale.

Unfortunately, the teens of 1988 didn’t appear to be as clued up as they should have been, and Heathers limped into the box office chart in 16th place in its opening weekend behind such ‘classics’ as Don Johnson B-movie Dead Bang, sex farce Skin Deep, and schlocky sci-fi flick Leviathan. After just four more weeks, the film ended its cinematic run with a fairly dismal $1.1m domestic gross, but later found an audience on VHS, spawned both a TV series (set to debut on TV Land in 2017) and a musical, and has continually had fans clamoring for a sequel.

1 Vertigo

James Stewart in Vertigo

Renowned for its pioneering dolly zoom shot, Vertigo has been heralded as Alfred Hitchcock’s most technically remarkable work, but its tender meditation on love and loss, superb performance from James Stewart, and typical levels of suspense ensure that there’s plenty more to admire than its dazzling camerawork.

But although it routinely tops all-time greatest film polls, the critics of 1958 weren’t as enamored with the movie, with both Variety and the Los Angeles Times describing it as labored and slow. Audiences who had previously flocked to the likes of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Dial M For Murder were also perhaps put off by its lengthy 128-minute running time, and as a result the film only took $3.2m at the box office. That’s a hugely underwhelming figure which puts Vertigo only ahead of 1956’s The Wrong Man ($2m) in the list of Hitchcock’s highest-grossing theatrical releases.


Which of these box office clunkers is your personal favorite? Sound off in the comments.

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