It's hard to believe that some beloved films didn't find immediate success when they were released, but sometimes movies are just ahead of their time. Here are 11 famous examples of celebrated classics that were box office bombs.
1. It's a Wonderful Life
Budget: $3.18 million
Box Office: $3.3 million
While It's a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season, it received little attention from general audiences at the time of its release in 1946. This was mainly due to its dark narrative and subject matter. RKO Pictures lost $525,000 on the film, despite its five Academy Award nominations.
It's a Wonderful Life didn't become ubiquitously popular in the United States until 1974 when National Telefilm Associates failed to renew its copyright because it was considered a box office flop. Now in the public domain, TV networks gobbled up It's a Wonderful Life because they didn't have to pay royalties to air it. In the 1980s, hundreds of home video distributors released It's a Wonderful Life on videotape, which further expanded its reach around the world. Over time, it became a perennial holiday classic.
"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Frank Capra said of its success in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."
2. Blade Runner
Budget: $28 million
Box Office: $27.5 million
While Blade Runner is one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made, it was considered just another sci-fi flick when it was released during the summer of 1982. Theaters were saturated with iconic genre movies such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, and, most importantly, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was the highest-grossing movie of the year. Blade Runner only took in $6.5 million during its opening weekend.
Audiences re-discovered Blade Runner on VHS and later DVD throughout the '80s and '90s, as Warner Bros. re-released it with a director's cut and later a final cut, which Ridley Scott currently stands by as the definitive version. In 1993, the Library of Congress picked it for the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
3. The Shawshank Redemption
Budget: $25 million
Box Office: $16 million
Despite very positive critical response and Academy Award recognition in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption failed to find an audience in theaters. The general public started to notice The Shawshank Redemption when Warner Bros. released it on VHS the following year, and it quickly became one of the top video rentals across the country. In 1997, the cable network TNT bought the rights to air it, and this helped the film find a larger audience with frequent and repeated airings. The Shawshank Redemption is currently on the American Film Institute's best 100 movies of the past 100 years and is the #1 film on IMDb.com's Top 250 list.
Budget: $15 million
Box Office: $9.9 million
Terry Gilliam earned plenty of good faith from general audiences and movie studios after the success of the Monty Python films. However, after he finished Brazil in 1985, Universal Pictures refused to release the film because of its anti-corporate undertones and strange narrative. Terry Gilliam screened Brazil privately without Universal's approval and took a full-page ad in Variety to address studio chairman Sid Sheinberg that simply read, “When are you going to release my film, ‘BRAZIL’? After Universal re-edited Brazil and tacked on a happy ending, it came out to little fanfare and only grossed about $10 million.
Brazil remains a cult classic after Terry Gilliam's cut was released on home video. In fact, the Criterion Collection has released it five times on multiple formats since 1996.
5. Children of Men
Budget: $76 million
Box Office: $35.5 million
Before Alfonso Cuarón dazzled audiences with Gravity in 2013, his dystopian science fiction film Children of Men didn't make much of an impact on general audiences in the United States in 2006. Although it received positive reviews and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Children of Men didn't find financial success at the domestic box office, only taking in $35.5 million.
However, it eventually found moderate success on home video with an impressive $25.5 million to add to its overall gross profit.
6. Citizen Kane
Box Office: $1.5 million
Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane didn't perform well at the box office when it was released in May 1941. Along with its dark subject matter and narrative style, one of the reasons for the low box office numbers was media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst discovered that Charles Foster Kane's story was an unfavorable and loose adaptation on his life, he banned any mention of Citizen Kane and Orson Welles in all of his newspapers and radio networks across the country. This resulted in fewer theaters agreeing to screen Citizen Kane.
At the time, general audiences weren't keen on Citizen Kane's premise and themes (for example, that the American Dream was a lonely and cynical venture), and stayed away from the movie. However, it is now seen as one of the greatest films in history for its innovative structure and style. RKO Pictures lost roughly $160,000 on Citizen Kane, but managed nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Orson Welles.
Budget: $170 million
Box Office: $73.8 million
Although Martin Scorsese's Hugo didn't rake in the dough during its theatrical run, it stands as one of the director's most celebrated films with 11 Academy Award nominations in 2011. One of the reasons why Hugo is perceived as a failure is because of its box office competition. Paramount Pictures released Hugo a week after The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part One and during the same week as Disney's The Muppets, which were both strong performers with families and young adults, Hugo's key demographic.
8. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
Budget: $3 million
Box Office: $4 million
While Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is considered a family classic today, audiences didn't enthusiastically respond to it when it was released in 1971. Since the film wasn't profitable, Paramount Pictures decided not to renew its seven-year copyright, and Warner Bros. bought the rights for $500,000 in 1977. Under new ownership, Warner Bros. licensed Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory for TV broadcast where it found a widespread audience after repeated airings and further home video sales.
9. Fight Club
Budget: $63 million
Box Office: $37 million
Today, Fight Club is considered a modern-day classic and one of David Fincher's best movies. However, when it was released in October 1999, Twentieth Century Fox didn't know how to sell a movie about consumerism and misguided masculinity to general audiences. Fight Club's early reviews didn't help pack theaters either, as it garnered a mixed response from film critics.
Rosie O'Donnell hated Fight Club so much that she revealed its twist ending on her talk show. “It’s okay she hated it ... it struck some nerve for her whether she wanted to look at that or not,” Brad Pitt said on Fight Club's DVD commentary track, “but the deal was she gave away the ending on national television. It’s just unforgivable.”
Fight Club eventually found an audience on home video, and Fox sold more than 6 million copies and took in an additional $100 million.
10. Dazed & Confused
Budget: $6 million
Box Office: $7.6 million
Back in 1993, Richard Linklater released his sophomore effort Dazed & Confused to very little fanfare. While the film featured current-day stars such as Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey, its young cast weren't household names at the time. Gramercy Pictures and Universal Pictures didn't know how to market a stoner coming-of-age movie without raunchy sex scenes or gross-out humor to a general audience, so it wasn't as successful as it could've been when you consider its all-star cast and world-class director.
While Dazed & Confused was virtually forgotten in 1993, it survived and managed to eventually find an audience among cinephiles. When asked if a movie like Dazed & Confused could be made today, Richard Linklater told The Hollywood Reporter, "Hell no! No way. It was only a $6 million film, but it was made in a studio. They would never do this. They're not in that business anymore. It would be hard to get it made indie. It would be hard to raise the money and do it."
11. The Wizard of Oz
Budget: $2.7 million
Box Office: $3 million
Believe it or not, The Wizard of Oz was a box office bomb when it was released in 1939. At the time, it was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's most expensive film ever with giant sets and state-of-the-art special effects. MGM had high expectations for the film, however, audiences weren't keen on making the journey to the Wonderful Land of Oz.
In fact, MGM lost $1.1 million on The Wizard of Oz because of its high production and distribution cost. Despite its middling box office numbers, it garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and won two Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song for "Over the Rainbow."
Due to its critical success, MGM re-released The Wizard of Oz in 1949 for its 10th anniversary and it eventually became a profitable film for the studio, and it added $1.5 million to its box office. Throughout the years, MGM (and later Warner Bros, who now own the film rights) re-released The Wizard of Oz in theaters and home video, and it became an iconic piece of cinema and pop culture.