Some movies bomb at the box office for a very good reason – the script is terrible, the acting is painfully bad, and the effects are downright embarrassing (although, this rule doesn’t always apply when you consider the Twilight series…). But then, there are some movies that get everything just right and they still manage to fail. For whatever reason, these gems of the silver screen don’t get the recognition they deserve until years or sometimes decades after being released.
Film audiences don’t always respond well to films that are ahead of their time in some way or ones that take a chance on a weird sub-genre or directorial style. It may take a new generation for a film to find its true audience and when it does, it blows up big time. Films that once flopped get a new lease of life thanks to DVD sales and a different perspective and before you know it, film failures can achieve “devoted geek” cult status!
It might be hard to imagine now, but each of the iconic and cherished films on this list faced a tough time at the box office and a pretty harsh critical reception too. Many of the following titles are now considered among the best films ever made, but it took a long time for people to come round to the idea. From epic sci-fi and historical sagas to classic family favourites, these movies became hugely influential in the years to come. In the year they were made, though, they influenced diddly squat. Here are 15 treasured films that completely bombed at the box office.
15. The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
If Star Wars is seen as the godfather of all sci-fi films, then The Wizard of Oz might classify as the godmother of all musicals. Whether you’ve never seen it before or you have every line memorized, everyone is familiar with some aspect of this enduring masterpiece. Dorothy’s dazzling red shoes in Technicolour is one of the most iconic images in cinematic history and the story has been parodied more times than we can count. So what made such a beloved classic flop?
Hard to pinpoint why exactly, although the film had stiff competition – 1939 was also the year of Gone With The Wind and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The Wizard of Oz would eventually recoup its losses a decade later, but at the time it was released in 1939, it struggled just to break even. Thanks to a 1949 re-release of the film, The Wizard of Oz took home a profit and TV airings in the mid-1950s saw the film take off in a way the creators couldn’t have ever expected. It’s now considered one of the greatest films ever made.
14. Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles was just 25 years old when he wrote, starred in, and directed Citizen Kane, but even this incredible achievement wasn’t enough to attract a large film audience. Welles’ remarkable debut is now lauded as one of the greatest films ever put to celluloid – so how on Earth did it manage to fail? The character of Charles Foster Kane himself may have had something to do with the disappointing box office numbers.
There has always been speculation as to whether Orson Welles modeled Kane’s character on the newspaper tycoon of the time, William Randolph Hearst. Welles claimed that his character was merely a mix of different personalities, but Hearst couldn’t let the connection go and waged a vindictive battle against Welles to get the film canned. Citizen Kane made a loss during its initial release and only took home one of the nine Oscars it was nominated for. Ouch.
13. Fight Club (1999)
The first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is that you probably don’t talk about how much it made at the box office. David Fincher’s tale of an insomniac office drone turned underground fighter did pretty terribly in box office sales – making only $37 million back from its budget of $63 million. Considering the film’s themes on how materialism can corrupt the mind, it would be a strange irony if the film had been a smash hit.
Since being released on DVD and on streaming sites, however, Fight Club has enjoyed a new lease of life and has picked up a strong cult following along the way. Fincher’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name has some of the most skillful cinematography you’re ever likely to see on screen, as well as knockout performances from Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. It’s no surprise that this film would eventually find its audience.
12. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
The image of Tim Robbins standing in the rain with his arms outstretched after tunneling his way to freedom has become an iconic image of modern cinema. And yet, the film was almost forgotten around its theatrical release. Amusingly, Morgan Freeman blames the box office failure on the fact that the title may have been hard to say, but it seems more was at stake here to keep this classic in the shadows for so long.
Despite an impressive seven Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, cinema audiences didn’t go for a Stephen King adaptation of the heart-warming bond between two prisoners (or for the moving narration by Morgan Freeman). The Shawshank Redemption only made $3.3 million more than its budget of $25 million. It enjoyed later success and esteem once the film was shared with cable and VHS owners, helping it rake in more than $100 million and earning the top spot in IMDB’s ranking of top-rated films. Talk about redemption!
11. Blade Runner (1982)
Riding on the back of his success in Star Wars and in the first Indiana Jones installment, Harrison Ford was Hollywood’s man of choice in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, even the biggest male movie star of the moment couldn’t help Blade Runner take off in the way Ridley Scott would have hoped. When most of us think 80s movies, we think popcorn blockbusters and maybe Blade Runner was overshadowed in favour of more light-hearted sci-fi of 1982, such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Tron.
Blade Runner is arguably the film that laid the groundwork for more serious sci-fi films to come, and maybe this was the cause for its downfall at the box office. Ridley Scott’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? may have been too dark and intricate for the laid back 80s audience. Now, thanks to numerous re-releases on DVD and Blu-Ray (including Scott’s extended and uncut versions) Blade Runner has earned cult classic status.
10. The Big Lebowski (1998)
The ultimate slacker movie starring Jeff Bridges as “The Dude” now has cult status, but its well-deserved loyal following took a while to form. The Coen Brothers‘ classic comedy about a layabout being mistaken for a millionaire originally only took away $17 million at the US box office – managing to recoup its budget of $15 million with a fairly small profit margin. Despite its lukewarm reception in theaters, however, The Big Lebowski became a sleeper hit.
To say the movie achieved a loyal fan base is putting it mildly. Fans of the bathrobe-wearing, White Russian drinking Dude and his surreal adventures created “Lebowski Fest” in 2002 – an annual Kentucky festival which hosts a screening of the film and a bowling party for ardent fans to attend dressed in full Dude attire. Lebowski Fest has also been held in London, New York, and LA in recent years and almost 20 years after the film’s release, The Big Lebowski is a quotable comedy masterpiece.
9. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The now infamous rock mockumentary has become something of a religion among hardcore fans and is now considered required viewing for any rock fan or film buff. But like the cool rock philosophy it so gloriously spoofs, the film was largely unappreciated and misunderstood in its own time. This is Spinal Tap only achieved modest success at the box office, earning just over double its $2 million budget, but this is water off a duck’s back for everyone involved.
The satirical rock comedy (that famously featured amp dials that turn all the way up to 11) soon built up a huge loyal following in the way that all iconic rock bands do – by taking the cult ‘underground’ route. This is Spinal Tap not only resonated with film fans when it was released on video years later, it spoke to real life musicians. The likes of Jimmy Page and Ozzy Osbourne praised the film’s accurate portrayal of life within a rock band and all the delusions that come with it.
8. Withnail And I (1987)
A film about two boozy, out of work actors in late 1950s Britain doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, but thanks to the hilarious and unflinching performances by Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann, Withnail And I slowly became the defining cult classic of a whole generation. Ardent fans consider it to be the film that changed their life and the movie regularly features at the top of the greatest ever film polls. But this wasn’t the reception it began with.
Withnail And I was largely forgotten after its release in 1987 and performed dismally at the UK box office – taking home only half of its £1.1 million budget. Casting unknown actors on a budget of more than a million pounds seemed risky at the time, but the last 30 years have transformed this modest Brit flick into a comedy classic. Endlessly quotable lines and a fun opportunity for drinking games is what hooks fans again and again to this cult favourite. (Fun fact: When Grant’s character drinks lighter fluid, the director swapped his can of water for vinegar to get an authentic reaction of disgust!).
7. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Settling down every December to watch Frank Capra’s bittersweet masterpiece is as much of a Christmas tradition in some households as decorating the tree, but the post-war film audience in America didn’t give this festive classic much of a glowing review at the time. The cinema-goers of 1946 weren’t in the mood for a depressing – albeit redeeming – tale around the holiday season. Wartime America was still fresh in their minds and they wanted something light-hearted.
It didn’t help that the war caused a market slump so people were spending less on luxuries, like trips to the cinema. It wasn’t until airings on TV in the 1970s that It’s a Wonderful Life became a fixture of Christmas viewing and a firm favourite with audiences. Now, it’s unthinkable to imagine the holidays without it. It might have failed to pick up any of the Oscars it was up for at the time, but if it were released now, it would no doubt scoop the lot.
6. Dazed And Confused (1993)
The movie that gave the world Matthew McConaughey’s imitable catchphrase “Alright, alright, alright” didn’t go so alright on opening weekend (only raking in $918,000). Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age stoner comedy was perhaps marketed badly back in 1993, because cinema fans didn’t take well to a film about 70s high school kids celebrating their last day of school. Dazed and Confused only just made back its $7 million budget, but it now basks in profits of well beyond $30 million.
So what is it that gave the film its enduring appeal? For one thing, the film boasts a (now) all-star cast with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich. The film’s infectious, ‘70s rock soundtrack may have also had a hand in its gradual popularity, littering the film with the sounds of KISS and Aerosmith. Thanks to memorable characters and a genuinely warm coming-of-age story, Dazed and Confused grew on audiences and continues to do so.
5. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971)
The clever musical numbers and Gene Wilder’s unique take on Roald Dahl’s eccentric candy man weren’t enough to sweeten film audiences back in 1971. Maybe parents didn’t like the implication that their unruly kid could end up as a blueberry or disappear down a garbage chute. Either way, people didn’t warm to it and neither did the film company after a while – selling the film’s distribution rights six years later.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory may have only raked in a bitter $4 million against its $3 million budget, but the film eventually became a family favourite thanks to getting TV air time and exposure on home video in the years after its release. I’m sure many people can agree that Tim Burton’s 2005 adaptation – while colourful and eccentric – blows compared to this heart-warming classic. Nearly 50 years later, Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka continues to charm audiences and give us that fuzzy nostalgic feeling when the holidays come around again.
4. The Iron Giant (1999)
Long before he gave the world Ratatouille and The Incredibles, Pixar mogul Brad Bird created the beautiful and majorly underrated film, The Iron Giant. The simple but sweet story of a young boy befriending a robot that the world wants to destroy was Bird’s homage to the cheesy sci-fi B movies of the 1950s. The old-fashioned storytelling and charming hand-drawn animation style in place of emerging CG was probably what made this endearing film tank upon release.
Despite fantastic characters and a sharp script, The Iron Giant failed to win over audiences in 1999. The film took away a pitiful $23.2 million at the US box office (less than a third of its estimated budget of around $70 million). In spite of a steep loss at the time, The Iron Giant is now treasured by kids and adults alike and actually has the power to make grown men cry. Fact!
3. Office Space (1999)
For anyone who’s ever had a 9 to 5 job in an office cubicle – this film was made for you. Office Space is a pretty amazing and underappreciated film with a razor-sharp script and lines so quotable that they’ve found their way into Internet meme culture. Before Office Space, the director and screenwriter Mike Judge enjoyed success with the animated comedy hit Beavis and Butt-Head, which spawned the movie spin-off Beavis and Butt-head Do America.
The Beavis and Butt-Head film racked up an incredible $323 million at the box office in 1996. To put this into context, Office Space only managed to collect $12.8 million worldwide (a $2.8 million profit). Yikes. The good news is, Office Space found the love and adoration it deserved after $8 million in DVD and online streaming sales of the film. Re-runs of the film on Comedy Central have also helped it find its true audience. “Ummm, yeah.”
2. Cleopatra (1963)
The sweeping historical epic starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton started out on a modest budget of $2 million. This quickly snowballed into $44 million, making Cleopatra one of the most expensive movies ever made. Unfortunately, it didn’t even come close to making this back, earning just over $26 million at the time of release. Oddly enough, the film had the accolade of being the highest grossing film of 1963, despite suffering the steepest loss.
Cleopatra’s poor performance at the box office may have been less to do with its extravagant budget, however, and more to do with ongoing issues behind the scenes. As well as suffering arduous production delays and a climbing salary increase for the film’s leading lady, the film was also mired in scandal after it was revealed that co-stars Burton and Taylor were having an affair. Antony and Cleopatra’s off-screen romance can’t have harmed the film for too long, though – the film is now considered a masterpiece.
1. Vertigo (1958)
The iconic thriller that regularly tops modern movie lists as the best film ever made was once the dud in Hitchcock’s canon. Teaming the ever-engaging Jimmy Stewart with the gorgeous and alluring Kim Novak did nothing to help box office sales upon its release in 1958 (it grossed only $2.8 million in the US, feebly covering its $2.5 million budget). The critics also bemoaned the fact that the film was overly long. Hitchcock himself suggested that the unsettling age gap between 50-year-old Stewart and a 25-year-old Novak may have harmed sales, but he always stood by the film.
He was right to, as well as the film fans that saw its potential from the start. Vertigo was named the greatest film of all time in 2012 by the British film magazine Sight & Sound. Far from being seen as Hitchcock’s worst film as original critics did, it is now celebrated as his best, not to mention one of the best thrillers ever made – with one of the most amazing plot twists! If you’ve never experienced the dizzying heights of Vertigo, you’re missing out.
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