How The Shawshank Redemption Went from Box Office Bomb to Contemporary Classic

Castle Rock Entertainment
Castle Rock Entertainment

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 DangerThe 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.

(L-R) Morgan Freeman, Frank Darabont, and Tim Robbins attend a 20th anniversary Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of 'The Shawshank Redemption' at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills in 2014
(L-R) Morgan Freeman, director Frank Darabont, and Tim Robbins attend a 20th anniversary screening of The Shawshank Redemption in Beverly Hills in 2014.
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

“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.

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Warner Bros. via Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies

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.”

50 Fun Facts About Sesame Street

Getty Images
Getty Images

On November 10, 1969, television audiences were introduced to Sesame Street. In the 50 years since, the series has become one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids.

1. The idea for Sesame Street came from one very simple question.

Publicity still of the Sesame Street Muppets taken to promote their record album, 'Sesame Country,' July 1, 1981
Children's Television Workshop, Courtesy of Getty Images

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the original idea for Sesame Street came about during a 1966 dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney, who was a producer at New York City's Channel 13, a public television station. Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental educator at the Carnegie Corporation, was one of Cooney's guests and asked her the question: "Do you think [television] can teach anything?" That query was a all it took to get the ball rolling on what would become Sesame Street.

2. Sesame Street almost wasn't Sesame Street at all.

When the idea for Sesame Street was first being talked about, the original title being discussed was 123 Avenue B. Eventually, that title was nixed for both being a real location in New York City that would place the show right across from Tompkins Square Park, and also for being too specific to New York City.

3. Kermit the Frog was an original cast member.

Kermit the Frog
PictureLake/iStock via Getty Images

Before he became the star of The Muppet Show (and the various Muppet movies), Kermit the Frog got his start as a main character on Sesame Street.

4. Kermit was very similar to his creator.

Most people considered Kermit the Frog to be an alter ego of creator Jim Henson.

5. Carol Burnett appeared on Sesame Street's first episode.


BY CBS TELEVISION - EBAY, PUBLIC DOMAIN, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Guest stars have always been a part of the Sesame Street recipe, beginning with the very first episode. "I didn't know anything about [Sesame Street] when they asked me to be on," Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter. "All I knew was that Jim Henson was involved and I thought he was a genius—I'd have gone skydiving with him if he'd asked. But it was a marvelous show. I kept going back for more. I think one time I was an asparagus."

6. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange.

Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two. How did the show explain the color change? Oscar said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

7. Cookie Monster isn't Cookie Monster's real name.

During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

8. C-3P0 and R2-D2 paid a memorable visit to Sesame Street.

In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

9. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name.

It's Aloysius. Aloysius Snuffleupagus.

10. Ralph Nader appeared in an episode.

Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

11. Oscar the Grouch is partly modeled after a taxi driver.

A scene from 'Sesame Street'
Zach Hyman, HBO

Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

12. In 1970, Ernie became a music star.

In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

13. Count von Count isn't the only Count on Sesame Street.

One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

14. Afghanistan has its own version of Sesame Street.

Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover, and Elmo are involved.

15. Cultural taboos prevented Oscar and the Count from being a major part of Baghch-e-Simsim.

According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

16. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Gus Fring played Big Bird's camp counselor.

Giancarlo Esposito in 'Breaking Bad'
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

17. The big in Bird Bird's name isn't a misnomer.

How big is Big Bird? 8'2".

18. Being that big of a bird requires a lot of feathers.

Sesame Street Characters (L-R) Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and Abby Cadabby attend HBO Premiere of Sesame Street's The Magical Wand Chase at the Metrograph on November 9, 2017 in New York City
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images for HBO

In order to craft Big Bird's iconic yellow suit, approximately 4000 feathers are needed.

19. Cookie Monster has an British cousin.

His name, appropriately, is Biscuit Monster.

20. South Africa's version of Sesame Street features an HIV-positive Muppet.

In 2002, the South African version of Sesame Street (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

21. Kami has caused some political discord.

Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS's funding.

22. "Guy Smiley" is just a stage name.

Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

23. The Count is really, really old.

The Count was born on October 9, 1,830,653 BCE—making him nearly 2 million years old. Try putting that many candles on a birthday cake!

24. Bert and Ernie have spent years explaining, and defending, their relationship.

Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmire, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay."

A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

25. Sesame Street's first season had a few superhero guest stars.

In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what to watch on TV. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

26. Originally, only Big Bird could see Snuffy.

In Sesame Street's third season, audiences were introduced to Mr. Snuffleupagus, Big Bird's BFF. There was only one problem: Big Bird (and, by extension, the audience) were the only people who were able to see Snuffy, leading the show's human stars to believe that Snuffy was an imaginary friend. It was a running joke that went on for nearly 15 years.

27. The decision to stage an episode where everyone finally met Snuffy came from a somewhat dark place.


Sesame Workshop

After 14 years of nobody but Big Bird being able to see Snuffy, Sesame Street's producers were confronted with some rather surprising information: There was a growing concern that the adult humans on the show not believing Snuffy existed might lead some children to believe that adults, in general, didn't always believe kids. This was particularly concerning to the show's producers when it came to cases of child abuse, where kids might be afraid that telling their parents would solve nothing. And so, Snuffy was finally introduced to the world!

28. Telly wasn't always Telly.

Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

29. Sesame Street is home to the only non-human who has testified before Congress.

Photo of Elmo from 'Sesame Street'
iStock

According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

30. Rumors once circulated that Sesame Street was planning to kill off Ernie.

In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

31. The Count wasn't always so nice.

Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

32. Most Muppets only have four fingers.

According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

33. The episode featuring Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day for a very particular reason.

The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

34. Big Bird offered a gut-wrenching tribute to Jim Henson at the Sesame Street creator's memorial service.

Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

35. Israel's version of Sesame Street has its own version of Oscar the Grouch.

Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Cookie Monster evolved from a different snack-obsessed character.

Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

37. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster isn't into cookies at all.

Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

38. Roosevelt Franklin was disliked by some parents, so was fired from Sesame Street.

Sesame Street's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

39. Roosevelt Franklin wasn't the only Muppet to get the boot.

Roosevelt Franklin isn't the only Muppet living on Abandoned Muppet Island. Harvey Kneeslapper, Professor Hastings, Don Music, and Bruno the Trashman are a few of the others who didn't make the cut.

40. Don Music's head-banging tendencies led to some at-home injuries.

The aforementioned Don Music was a frustrated composer who never seemed satisfied with the tunes he composed. As such, his musical sessions often ended with him banging his head on his piano keys in frustration. "The character, played by Richard Hunt, was abandoned because of complaints about his alarming tendencies toward self-inflicted punishment," author David Borgenicht wrote in his book, Sesame Street Unpaved. "Apparently, kids were imitating his head-banging at home."

41. The puppeteers have a few standard rules.

Because Sesame Street's puppeteers work in very close quarters throughout much of the day, Carmen Osbahr—who operates Rosita—told The Hollywood Reporter that "We have a few rules here: Always deodorant, never onions."

42. Puppeteering can be a dangerous job.

Sesame Street puppeteer Caroll Spinney operates Big Bird
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

Legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who operated both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch from 1969 to 2018, has shared a couple of war stories about what it's like for the folks standing behind the boards. In a 2015 interview with Bullseye, he revealed that he cannot see out of Big Bird's costume (he has a monitor he watches instead). He also shared some tales about the one time he almost caught on fire ... and the other time he did. He explained:

"Suddenly I'm looking down inside [the costume] and I said, 'Something feels hot!' I looked down and I see an orange flame and it started getting long enough to go inside the suit, and I was like, 'Oh, my God.' I said, 'Hey, I'm on fire' ... One of the cameramen, Richie King, he saved my life. He went over and he patted the flame out with his hand."

43. The show has regularly tackled some touchy issues.

While Mr. Hooper's death is probably the most memorable incident of Sesame Street tackling a challenging issue for kids, it's hardly the only time. Over the years, the series has taught kids about racism, AIDS, and 9/11.

44. Sesame Street has inspired a lot of bizarre fan theories.

Sesame Street Muppets.
Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Kids are a curious sort, so it was only a matter of time before they started to ask questions about their favorite Sesame Street residents—like what kind of bird is Big Bird anyway? The invention of the internet, of course, has helped some of the more bizarre fan theories gain widespread interest and popularity. Like the rumor that the Count likes to snack on children.

45. There were never any plans to turn Cookie Monster into Veggie Monster.

In 2005, Sesame Street made healthy eating one of its main themes for the season—which led to some speculation that Cookie Monster might be trading in his cookies for something a bit more green and healthy. But these rumors were just that: rumors!

46. The show has racked up a ton of awards over the years.

Given the show's half-century of popularity, it's hardly surprising to learn that Sesame Street has racked up dozens of awards over the years. So far, it has earned 193 Emmy Awards, 10 Grammy Awards, and five Peabody Awards—and shows no signs of stopping there.

47. It's one of the America's longest-running scripted series.


Children's Television Workshop, Getty Images

At 50 years old, Sesame Street is one of the longest-running scripted series on television. Its main competition comes from soap operas like Guiding Light (which ran for 57 years before calling it quits in 2009), General Hospital (which has been on the air for 56 years, and counting), Days of Our Lives (55 years so far), and As the World Turns (which ended its 54-year run in 2010)

48. There are versions of Sesame Street all over the world.

According to Sesame Workshop, there are currently more than 150 different version of Sesame Street—in 70 different languages—being produced around the world.

49. Sesame Street is about to make history at the Kennedy Center Honors.

In December 2019, Sesame Street will receive a Kennedy Center Honor—making it the first TV show ever to earn the distinction.

50. Sesame Street is now a real street in New York City.

'Sesame Street' Muppets under a street sign that reads '123 Sesame Street'
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In early 2019, Sesame Street finally became a place in the real world. In honor of the show's 50th anniversary, and its impact on New York City in particular, the intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan was rechristened as "Sesame Street."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

David Hasselhoff's Strange Connection to the Fall of the Berlin Wall

re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
re:publica, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Americans might know David Hasselhoff best as the star of pre-peak television series Knight Rider and Baywatch. But in Germany, he’s been a popular singing attraction since 1985, when his album Night Rocker became a sensation. In June 1989 Hasselhoff released Looking for Freedom, an album with a title track that seemed to speak directly to citizens in European countries seeking democracy. That track had been playing since 1988 in anticipation of the album’s release.

On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Was it coincidence, or did Hasselhoff help incite a revolution?

In a new interview with Time, Hasselhoff takes no credit for that seismic change in Germany, despite the fact that some of the actor's fans have knitted the two memories—his popularity and the dissolution of the wall—together, leading some to believe he was partly responsible. Some of the same people who began chipping away at the wall dividing East and West Germany had been humming the song for months prior. Some have even told Hasselhoff his music helped inspire change. Others held up signs thanking him for the fall of the wall.

“You’re the man who sings of freedom,” a woman once told Hasselhoff, before asking for his autograph.

The wall, of course, came down rather abruptly, shortly after a premature announcement that East Germans could take advantage of relaxed travel restrictions, and Hasselhoff demurs when asked if he played a role. “I never ever said I had anything to do with bringing down the wall,” he told Time. “I never ever said those words ... There was the guy from Knight Rider singing a song about freedom. Knight Rider was sacred to everyone and hopefully we’ll bring it back as a movie. I was just in the right place at the right time with the right song. I was just a man who sang a song about freedom.”

After the wall fell, Hasselhoff was invited to sing on a crane hovering over its remains on New Year’s Eve in 1989, which you can witness in the video above. Hasselhoff recently returned to Berlin for another series of concerts to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the wall being torn down.

[h/t Time]

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