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, 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.

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.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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10 Words and Phrases That Came From TV Shows

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Image: iStock.

Television can be a hotbed of creativity (or mediocrity, depending on who you ask). But it's not just characters and storylines writers are coming up with—they also coin words. Here are 10 surprising words that were invented thanks to TV.

1. Poindexter

While this term for a studious nerd might seem very 1980s, it actually comes from a cartoon character introduced on TV in 1959. In the series Felix the Cat, Poindexter is the feline’s bespectacled, genius nephew, supposedly named for Emmet Poindexter, the series creator’s lawyer.

2. Eye Candy

This phrase meaning a thing or person that offers visual appeal but not much substance originally referred to such a feature of a TV program. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it first appeared in 1978 issue of a Louisiana newspaper called The Hammond Daily Star: “Sex … is more blatant ... ‘Eye candy,' as one network executive calls it.” Ear candy is slightly earlier, from the title of a 1977 album by Helen Reddy, while arm candy is later, from 1992.

3. Ribbit

Think frogs have always been known to say “ribbit”? Think again: According to the OED, this onomatopoeia might have originated on a TV show in the late-1960s. While we can’t say for sure that absolutely no one was making this frog sound before then, the earliest recorded usage found so far (according to linguist Ben Zimmer) is from a 1965 episode of Gilligan’s Island, in which Mel Blanc voiced a character called Ribbit the Frog. This predates the OED’s earliest entry, which is from a 1968 episode of the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour: “That’s right. Ribit! .. I am a frog.”

4. Sorry About That

You've probably used this expression of regret more than once in your life, but did you know it was popularized by Get Smart? It's one of the many catchphrases from the late 1960s TV show. Others include “missed it by that much” and “the old (so-and-so) trick.”

5. Cromulent

Cromulent is a perfectly cromulent word, as far as the OED is concerned. This adjective invented on The Simpsons means “acceptable, adequate, satisfactory.” Other OED words the denizens of Springfield popularized are meh (perhaps influenced by the Yiddish “me,” meaning “be it as it may, so-so,” from 1928 or earlier), d’oh (the earliest recorded usage is from a 1945 British radio show), and embiggen, which first appeared in an 1884 publication by English publisher George Bell: “Are there not, however, barbarous verbs in all languages? … The people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly.”

6. Five-O

The OED’s earliest citation of this slang term for the police is from a 1983 article in The New York Times, although it was probably in use long before that. The moniker comes from Hawaii Five-O, which premiered in 1968. In the show, five-o refers to a particular police unit and apparently was named in honor of Hawaii being the 50th state.

7. Gomer

While the word gomer has been around since the year 1000 (referring to a Hebrew unit of measure), the sense of someone stupid or inept comes from the inept titular character in the 1960s show Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. It’s also a derogatory name among medical professionals for a difficult patient, especially an elderly one.

8. Cowabunga

Sure, the 1960s surfing slang might have regained popularity in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s due to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series, but it originated way before then. Chief Thunderthud, a character on the 1950s children’s show Howdy Doody would use it as faux Native American language. After that, it somehow made its way into surfer slang, hence becoming a catchphrase of Michelangelo, the hard-partying, surfing ninja turtle.

9. Har De Har

The next time you want to laugh in a sarcastic, old-timey way, thank Jackie Gleason for popularizing har de har via his iconic 1950s show, The Honeymooners.

10. Spam

So how in the world did spam, originally the name of a canned ham, come to mean junk email or to inundate with junk emails or postings? Chalk it up to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The food Spam (which stands for either “spiced ham” or “shoulder of pork and ham”) was invented during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. Fast-forward 40-some-odd years and the British sketch comics were singing incessantly about it. This apparently was the inspiration for the computer slang that came about in the early 1990s.