How The Shawshank Redemption Went from Box Office Bomb to Contemporary Classic
By Jake Rossen
When The Shawshank Redemption opened on September 23, 1994, director Frank Darabont and producer Liz Glotzer decided to drop by the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Like many directors, Darabont was interested to see how his newest film was playing with general audiences.
The early buzz for the prison-set drama had been promising. The Shawshank Redemption cast included Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, and the movie had received positive notices from critics and during test screenings, which were some of the highest-scoring in the history of the film’s distributor, Warner Bros. While they likely didn’t expect the same sized crowds that had been flocking to Forrest Gump all summer, both Darabont and Glotzer knew they had delivered a good film.
Of the 900-plus seats in the theater at the Cinerama Dome, virtually all of them were empty. The scene was especially galling as the film had only opened in limited engagement, initially screening in just 33 theaters to help build word of mouth. While its per-screen average that weekend was actually impressive—the film took in roughly $22,000 per location, outperforming larger films like Quiz Show and Clear and Present Danger—The Shawshank Redemption failed to take off. When it expanded into wide release on October 14, it earned just $2.4 million at the box office; even the critically reviled sex comedy Exit to Eden earned more. By the time it left theaters in November, The Shawshank Redemption had earned just $16 million, failing to cover its estimated $25 to $28 million budget.
For people who have seen The Shawshank Redemption in the intervening 25 years, that failure may sound odd. Today it's played in heavy rotation on cable and is often found near the top of many well regarded best-movie-ever lists. How The Shawshank Redemption went from a largely ignored release to its present status as one of the most acclaimed films of the past 25 years is a story of hope and redemption that closely mirrors that of the film's central character, the imprisoned and imperiled Andy Dufresne, who endures a long period of purgatory before finding his happy ending.
The Shawshank Redemption grew out of Frank Darabont’s affection for the work of Stephen King. In 1980, when Darabont was just 21 years old and had no films to his credit, the future Oscar nominee wrote to King and requested permission to adapt one of the author's short stories, "The Woman in the Room." King fielded—and often granted—such requests from amateur filmmakers, allowing them to adapt his work for virtually nothing so long as they didn’t exhibit them commercially. He did the same for Darabont, who toiled for years on the short film, which he eventually finished in 1983. (It later aired on PBS.)
In 1987, Darabont had seen his first screen credit materialize as co-writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. This time, he wanted to approach King with a more ambitious plan to adapt The Mist, a novella first published in 1980 that chronicled the hidden threats of a strange fog that overtakes a small town in Maine. But then Darabont had second thoughts. Having just made A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, he worried that an adaptation of The Mist might typecast him as a horror filmmaker. So instead, he asked King for the rights to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, a novella from the author’s 1982 book Different Seasons. King wasn't sure how well-suited the story was to a film adaptation, but Darabont wrote the author a check for a few thousand dollars to secure the rights to at least try.
In the novella, wrongly convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne spends time in a New England prison under the thumb of several wardens and mentored by an inmate named Red, all while plotting his eventual escape. A character piece written from Red's perspective, it was not inherently theatrical. But Darabont knew that expanding the story to illustrate more of Dufresne’s prison struggles and capturing his bond with Red would be fertile material for the kind of old-school filmmaking he enjoyed.
It was several years before Darabont got a chance to write the script. When it was finished, he sent it along to Castle Rock, the company behind 1986’s Stand by Me, Rob Reiner's Oscar-nominated adaptation of King’s story "The Body." Darabont and producing partner Kiki Marvin figured the company knew better than to classify King as strictly a horror writer. Executive Liz Glotzer read the script and loved it. So did Reiner, who wanted to direct the film with Tom Cruise as Dufresne. But Darabont was adamant. While he had no major feature films as director to his credit, he felt he knew the material. Cruise, however, preferred Reiner, whom he had worked with on 1992’s A Few Good Men. When Darabont insisted he remain in the director's chair, Cruise walked.
Darabont instead hired Tim Robbins to play Dufresne. Though Red was described as a white Irishman in the novella, Morgan Freeman was the director's preferred choice for the mentor role. Filming took place in the summer of 1993 at Ohio State Reformatory, which had been open from 1896 to 1990 and closed due to allegations of inhumane treatment of its inmates. Many of the actors found the environment oppressive, though Robbins wanted to go a step further and spend a week in solitary confinement to get into character. (The production refused his request.)
Based on an excellent script—Robbins has called it the best he has ever read—and with impressive footage coming in, it’s likely both Castle Rock and Warner Bros., which was set to distribute the film, were optimistic about its chances for success. But there were other factors to consider. For one, prison movies traditionally had limited appeal for filmgoers. King adaptations had also frequently descended into schlock, with many of them garnering mixed commercial receptions. While Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Misery was a hit, 1993’s The Dark Half and Needful Things were not.
Freeman had reservations, too: Specifically, he didn't like the film's title. While it had been shortened from the novella, The Shawshank Redemption was not a terribly descriptive title and was difficult for some to remember. Was it The Scrimshaw Redemption? The Shimshank Redemption? In their 1994 review, the Hollywood Reporter called the title “enigmatic” and presciently described the movie as difficult to market.
But the real problem for the film was not necessarily its title or pedigree. It was John Travolta.
When The Shawshank Redemption opened wide on October 14, 1994, it was competing for audiences' attention with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's sophomore effort, which had taken the Cannes Film Festival by storm earlier in the year. The media ate up the comeback story of co-star Travolta, who led an all-star cast in a gritty crime anthology. Opening opposite Pulp Fiction relegated The Shawshank Redemption—already burdened by its seemingly morose premise—down to the bottom of the box office charts.
“It looked to the casual observer like a spoonful of medicine,” Darabont told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “One of those movies that just kind of looks like it’s going to be a difficult chore to sit through.”
For the remainder of 1994, it seemed as though The Shawshank Redemption would remain a film that had simply failed to resonate with viewers. Then the movie got a break: In 1995, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Freeman. While it didn’t win, it garnered many mentions during the March 27, 1995 broadcast.
“Nobody had heard of the movie, and that year on the Oscar broadcast, they were mentioning this movie seven times,” Darabont told the Los Angeles Times.
It was a start. On the strength of the nominations, Warner Bros. decided to re-release the film in theaters, where it collected another $12 million in revenue. The studio also issued 320,000 copies of the film on VHS in the spring of 1995, a move that was perceived as rather ambitious by many Hollywood insiders, considering how poorly The Shawshank Redemption had performed in theaters. But the risk paid off. The Shawshank Redemption became a success on the rental market, where it often outperformed the seemingly unstoppable Forrest Gump. Audiences were apparently more willing to take a chance on a funny-sounding prison picture at home.
The film's real breakthrough, however, came in 1997, when Ted Turner’s TNT network brokered the cable rights to the film. Studio movies often sell to broadcast and cable outlets for large amounts of money, but Turner’s deal for The Shawshank Redemption was somewhat unusual. The media figurehead had purchased Castle Rock in 1993, meaning he was really selling the film to himself—and for a very fair price. Free to play it as often as they liked, TNT made the movie a regular fixture on their schedule.
Once audiences finally got the chance to see the film, they quickly understood how they might have gotten the wrong impression when it was being marketed for theatrical release. While The Shawshank Redemption does indeed allow Andy Dufresne to wallow in misery for much of its running time—even his salvation involves crawling through a feces-filled sewer, which Robbins later said was filled with actual cow manure—Dufresne’s ultimate destination made it worthwhile. The movie’s messages of hope and persistence seemed to resonate.
For the film’s 25th anniversary, Warner Bros. and Turner Classic Movies are teaming to re-release The Shawshank Redemption theatrically via Fathom Events in select locations on September 22, 24, and 25. In August 2019, 30,000 people took a trip to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, where the prison has been dressed to recreate locations seen in the film. (Yes, you can listen to music in the warden’s office.) For a film that once made less than $1 million its opening weekend, it now brings in an average of $15 million to the local Mansfield economy every year via tourism alone. Not bad for a film that Darabont optioned for only a few thousand dollars.
Technically, that amount was actually zero. Darabont said King never cashed the check, instead sending it back to him in a frame when the movie was finished. “Just in case you need bail money,” King wrote. “Love, Steve.”