Directors, writers, and producers have high hopes when they invest large sums of money and time into movies. But even with star-studded casts and big budgets, sometimes the most anticipated films end up decidedly ignored and flopping in the box office, typically heralded by a disappointing crucial opening weekend.
However, a movie isn’t inherently bad just because it failed to recoup its initial investment. More often than not, even the best films have to compete against blockbusters released during the same time, or may fall victim to inadequate marketing campaigns.
Most people agree that nothing compares to the power of word of mouth. Despite shaky starts, the movies in the following list gained significant reputations as they captured the attention of audiences in North America and around the world. They all beat the financial odds and became either critically acclaimed, or panned as the worst films ever made. Today, they are all cult classic movies that people either love or love to hate.
The collaboration between director Brian De Palma, legendary screenwriter Oliver Stone and everyone’s favourite gangster Al Pacino has all the necessary ingredients for a fantastic movie. And indeed, this tale of the rise of a Kingpin has earned its rightful place in movie history as a classic.
Yet, upon its release in 1983, the movie wasn’t immediately appreciated. Although it did admirably at the box office – grossing around $45 million at the time – it was panned by critics. Today, Scarface has an 88% approval rating on the tomatometer, reflecting modern critics’ appreciation for the oeuvre.
The movie was such a critical flop originally that it’s believed to have discouraged Al Pacino – who still earned a Golden Globe nomination for his role – away from mainstream Hollywood for a number of years. Having invested so much of himself into the role of Tony Montana, the critics’ generally hostile reception to the violent movie was inevitably disheartening. Pacino’s next film wouldn’t see the light of day until ’89.
12. Show Girls
Showgirls (1995) starred Elizabeth Berkley who played Jessie Spano in the long-lived teen sitcom Saved by the Bell. She left very little to the imagination in her role as a stripper. She even appeared scantily clad on the movie’s promotional posters. If the movie was a hit, it would have contributed to the relaunch of Berkley’s career into serious cinema, but the movie was panned by critics and was a box-office failure. The movie grossed only $20 million, less than half of its budget of $45 million.
11.Wet Hot American Summer
Hot Wet American Summer (2001) was one of the first feature films from director David Wain (Wanderlust, Role Models). It starred some of the biggest names in comedy and future Hollywood stars including Paul Rudd, Janeane Garofalo, and Bradley Cooper. Its off-kilter humor may not have been appealing for everyone which probably affected its box office success (or lack thereof) — it grossed only $300 thousand with a budget of almost $2 million. Today, the movie is considered one of the best comedies released in the last 15 years and is loved by fans.
10. Blade Runner
Science fiction films changed forever with the release of Blade Runner (1982). Its cinematic and cultural impact is almost unrivaled by any other film in its genre. Starring Harrison Ford in a post-apocalyptic future, the film was not a major success upon its original release. Although it came close, it did not break even after its $28 million budget. However, the film is a one of the most popular science fiction films ever made, and, thanks to its cult-classic status, has made over $33 million in lifetime gross.
9. The Boondocks Saints
The Boondocks Saints (2000) had everything going for it: Willem Dafoe as the star, a good script, violence, and vengeance. However, despite its overall appeal, the film opened to disastrous box office results when it grossed only $30 thousand after a budget of $6 million — the producers essentially flushed their money down the drain. Over the years the reputation of the film spread via word of mouth, however, and it gained tremendous popularity. A sequel was made shortly after but that was also poorly received.
Mallrats (1995) was an installment of a series of Kevin Smith comedies that all became cult classics in their own right. The story followed a band of slackers who hung out in a mall and attempted to repair broken relationships. Today, the film is considered a staple in the Kevin Smith canon, but its theatrical run produced a meager income. Its budget of $6 million did not prove to be a worthwhile investment after the movie grossed only $2 million.
7. Dazed and Confused
Many critics and fans characterize Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993) as a movie that defined a generation of high school stoners, jocks, nerds, and freshmen during the 1970s. Although a cult classic now, it made less than $1 million in its opening weekend, despite being made for almost $7 million. But the film wasn’t doomed. As its reputation began to spread, it eventually recouped the budget and more within North America and around the world.
6. The Room
The Room (2003) gained its cult-classic status not for its outstanding script or master directing. Actually, it’s considered one of the worst films ever produced. This label has, ironically, garnered considerable attention. This attention has done a lot to help Tommy Wiseau — director, writer, producer, and star — to recoup some of the expenses of its $6 million budget. However, its original box office run was only $1,800, one of the lowest grossers in cinematic history.
5. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Most fans of the original comic book love the film adaptation directed by Edgar Wright — a favorite of comic book nerds. Starring Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim must fight the seven evil exes of his love interest, Winona Flowers, as he rocks out in his Toronto-based band. Not only action packed, the film is also quite the comedy, but those features didn’t help when the film made back only half of its $60 million budget at the box office. It was a big blow for Wright who lost a lot of clout as a leading director in Hollywood.
4. Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko (2001) starred a young Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teen haunted by a giant bunny rabbit. Partly coming-of-age, partly superhero and science-fiction, it might be hard to find someone who hasn’t seen or at least heard of this film. Despite making only half a million dollars in the box office against a budget of $6 million, news of the film spread via word of mouth and DVD sales began to rise.
3. The Big Lebowski
Some may say the Coen brothers can do no wrong when it comes to movie making. Although their films are usually critically acclaimed, it doesn’t mean they’ll always go above and beyond in ticket sales. The opening weekend box office saw only $5 million of its $15 million budget. However, its memorable characters, plot, and quotable script became massively popular with audience and it was able to eventually surpass its budget.
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Even acclaimed actor Johnny Depp can’t always bring in the money. He starred in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based on the book by journalist Hunter S. Thompson who was searching for the “American dream”. Thompson himself is a cult classic figure as a writer, so it is hardly a surprise that the film based on his accounts of drug use, paranoia, and political dissension would not catch on among movie fans. Still, it was a box office failure with a total gross of almost $11 million against an $18 million budget.
1. Fight Club
Brad Pitt and Edward Norton joined forces with director David Fincher to adapt the seminal book by Chuck Palahniuk. Fight Club (1999) only made half of its $63 million budget at the box office, but eventually captivated audiences. Quotes from the film can still be heard in popular culture, including the most famous: “The First rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.”
The North American theatrical run was so underwhelming it contributed to the resignation of studio executive Bill Mechanic. However, over time, the film rose like a phoenix from the ashes to become a cult classic that made its mark on cinematic history.