Movies are big business – of that there is no doubt. These days, the biggest movies bring in – quite literally – billions at the box office, with 2009’s Avatar currently being the highest-grossing movie of all time, having pulled in a worldwide total of no less than $2.788 billion.
In fact, at the time of writing this article, there are 23 movies that have grossed more than $1 billion at the global box office and it is now fairly standard for a movie to bring in hundreds of millions at the very least.
Looking back throughout movie history, the vast majority of movies that are now considered classics have performed well (heck, adjusted for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind grossed $3.44 billion!), but that isn’t actually always the case at all.
You might be surprised to see that some movies that you probably assumed performed exceptionally well at the box office actually struggled to pull in much more than their budget – and that’s what this article is going to look at. So, in no particular order, here are ten fantastic movies that barely broke even at the box office (bearing in mind that, classically, marketing costs haven’t been considered part of a movie’s budget – although that is changing somewhat in modern times).
10. Jason And The Argonauts (1963)
Jason and the Argonauts is a 1963 stop-motion classic directed by Don Chaffey. It stars Todd Armstrong in the titular role as he embarks on his question for the mythical Golden Fleece – facing a number of iconic stop-motion monsters along the way (including the brilliant skeleton army).
It cost $1 million to make and only pulled in $2.1 million at the box office. While that appears to be okay on the face of it, Columbia Pictures would have been hoping for considerably more and you have to bear in mind that any budget doesn’t take marketing into account, so the likelihood is that it just about broke even, all things considered.
9. Hugo (2011)
Martin Scorsese‘s brilliant 2011 offering Hugo – which had Johnny Depp on the production team and an all-star cast that included the likes of Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jude Law, Ray Winstone, Sacha Baron Cohen and the late, great Christopher Lee – is about a young boy who lives in 1930s Paris, alone in the Gare Montparnasse railway station.
It was a huge critical success, earning eleven Academy Award nominations and winning five of them, but from its $170 million budget it only pulled in $189 million at the box office – a modest profit. Then, bearing in mind marketing costs, you have to imagine the possibility that it actually made a loss.
8. Julius Caesar (1953)
1953’s Julius Caesar is a cinematic classic that was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Marlon Brando and Louis Calhern in the titular role, it earned universal acclaim and was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning in one category. It has an almost unprecedented 100% rating on RottenTomatoes.com. The film, as you would expect, depicted events in Rome during Roman times.
It cost $2.07 million to make and pulled in just $3.92 at the box office. Again, bearing in mind marketing costs for the movie, this means the profit on the project as a whole would have been paltry.
7. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Frost/Nixon is the brilliant 2008 Ron Howard movie which focuses on the story behind the David Frost and Richard Nixon interviews of 1977. Frank Langella starred as Richard Nixon, while brilliant Welsh character actor Michael Sheen (who has also played the likes of Tony Blair, H.G. Wells, Kenneth Williams and Brian Clough) portrayed David Frost.
In spite of being nominated for five Academy Awards (none of which it won, incidentally), it struggled commercially. The movie cost $25 million to make and scraped in just a tiny bit more than that at the box office, with takings of $27.4 million.
6. Hope And Glory (1987)
Hope and Glory is a wonderful 1987 British comedy-drama-war film, which was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. It followed the Rowan family, who lived in a suburb of London, during World War II, and achieves the impossible as it manages to make light of events like the Blitz – which provided the children of the family with nightly “fireworks”.
It was received favourably by pretty much everybody and was nominated in five different categories at the Academy Awards (though it didn’t win any). However, having cost $9.3 million to make, it only managed to earn $10 million at the box office.
5. Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Simply put, Hello, Dolly! is Hollywood gold. The Gene Kelly-directed 1969 romantic comedy-musical starred the likes of Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau and Michael Crawford. It followed matchmaker Dolly Levi (Streisand) as she travelled to New York to find a match for miserly millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Matthau).
Although the critical reception of the movie was mixed at the time of release, it has gone on to become a classic and still managed to earn seven Academy Award nominations (three of which it won). That being said, having cost $25 million to make, it only made $33.2 million at the box office which, on top of marketing costs, hardly makes it a financial smash hit.
4. Raging Bull (1980)
1980’s Raging Bull is some of the finest work of director Martin Scorsese and acting goliath Robert De Niro. It was adapted from legendary middleweight boxer Jake La Motta’s memoir Raging Bull: My Story and saw De Niro playing La Motta at the time of his life in which his temperament resulted in his family unit breaking down.
It was a massive critical success and was nominated for eight Academy Awards – two of which it won – but it surprisingly struggled to achieve the same success at the box office. It cost $18 million to make and only brought in $23.4 million.
3. Reservoir Dogs (1992)
1992’s neo-noir black comedy crime thriller Reservoir Dogs was the directorial debut of Quentin Tarantino and is the main reason for his success as a director. It depicted the events leading up to and following a botched diamond heist and had a wonderful cast that included Tim Roth, Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi and Chris Penn.
It was critically acclaimed, earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival and is widely regarded as one of the most influential movies of modern cinema – but it didn’t do too well commercially. It cost $1.2 million to make and only pulled in $2.8 million which, while more than double the production costs, still isn’t a lot of money and is even less when you consider marketing fees.
2. Donnie Darko (2001)
Richard Kelly’s weird but brilliant 2001 movie Donnie Darko has become something of a cult classic. It follows the adventures of the titular character – played by Jake Gyllenhaal – as he attempts to discover the meaning and significance behind his troubling Doomsday-related visions, aided by a giant monstrous rabbit called Frank.
Critics loved the movie and, as previously stated, it has garnered a cult following since its home media release, but from a $3.8 million budget it only doubled that at the box office, pulling in $7.6 million. Some of that modest profit was offset by a hefty marketing campaign, so it actually really struggled at the time of release.
1. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
In a nutshell, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the greatest movies ever made. Directed by Frank Darabont and based on Stephen King‘s Novel Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the movie sees Tim Robbins‘ Andy Dufresne falsely imprisoned, befriending Morgan Freeman‘s Ellis “Red” Redding inside, and plotting a spectacular escape.
The movie has become a genuine Hollywood classic and was nominated (without winning) in seven Academy Award categories, but it barely broke even at the box office. It cost $25 million to make and pulled in just $28.3 million.