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Sometimes a genuinely good movie can still fail. The box office can be a ruthless and occasionally unpredictable place. And financial flops aren’t limited to just movies with poor reviews and Rotten Tomatoes scores. Even when a movie receives great reviews or good word-of-mouth, it can still fail to turn a profit. Maybe it was too weird or challenging to connect with audiences. Or maybe it was poorly marketed. Or maybe it got drowned out by the competition.
Regardless of why, the following movies are all definitely worth watching. And despite tanking at the box office when they were first released, they managed to turn things around and go on to become cult favorites or even just widely beloved classics; in fact, a few entries on this list might surprise you.
(Budgets and domestic box office numbers below provided by Box Office Mojo, the-numbers.com, and IMDb, and not adjusted for inflation).
10 Acclaimed Flops
‘Blade Runner’ (1982) and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ (2017)
‘Blade Runner‘ – Budget: $28 million | Box Office: $32 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
‘Blade Runner 2049’ – Budget: $150 million | Box Office: $92 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
The original ‘Blade Runner’, from director Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, is nowadays regarded as a masterpiece and heavily influential in shaping the visual and thematic language of countless modern cyberpunk works. And the follow-up from director Denis Villeneuve and starring Ryan Gosling is, in my opinion, one of the best sci-fi films to come out of a studio in years. And yet both films bombed. In fairness, at the time of their releases, both films also divided critics; and the films weren’t exactly crowd-pleasers, leaning more towards a cerebral tone, slow and deliberate pacing, and an emphasis on atmosphere. The original film also had the misfortune of competing against ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’, ‘The Thing’ (also on this list), and worst of all, ‘E.T’. Still, both films are now considered classics of their genre.
‘Children of Men’ (2006)
Budget: $76 million | Box Office: $35 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian thriller ‘Children of Men’, in which Clive Owen’s character is tasked with escorting the first pregnant woman in years in a world rendered infertile, is one of my favorite films ever. It boasts compelling themes, great performances, and some very impressive and intense action sequences. In a way, this is a precursor to the work Cuaron would eventually achieve with ‘Gravity’. It’s a shame the film failed at the box office: maybe the film’s bleak tone and the subject matter turned off audiences. It also probably didn’t help that the film was released on Christmas Day—not exactly the feel-good movie people were clamoring for. Still, it received a great deal of critical acclaim, awards nominations and also found its audience on home media. It also now routinely appears on many “Best of” lists.
‘Fight Club’ (1999)
Budget: $63 million | Box Office: $37 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 79%
‘Fight Club’ is nowadays considered one of the best and most iconic movies in the careers of director David Fincher and of stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. But that wasn’t always the case. At the time of its release, critics didn’t know what to make of the movie’s use of violence and its nihilistic humor, philosophy, and messages of anti-capitalism and toxic masculinity. And Fox executives back then were unsure as to how to market the film, so they played up the film’s “fighting” angle to draw male audiences, which Fincher worried would give audiences a wrong impression (and he was right). Yet despite underperforming at the box office, it would become one of the most influential, controversial, and talked-about films of the year and the ‘90s in general, with fans still debating its themes to this day. And that’s not getting into its real-world impact of inspiring actual fight clubs.
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‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993)
Budget: $28 million | Box Office: $39 million (original release) | Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
This one’s admittedly a bit of a cheat in that it wasn’t a critical success at the time of its release. As to why it flopped, Disney made the odd decision to release it in July to take advantage of kids being off school for the summer (despite its story) and released it the same weekend as ‘Free Willy’; it eventually fell out of the top ten after just two weeks of release. While it did make back its budget, not including marketing it still failed to turn a profit. Nevertheless, as we talked about in our profile the film endures as a modern Halloween classic thanks to strong word-of-mouth and annual showings on cable. The film’s camp charm, with its mix of dark and fun tones, is also bolstered by spirited performances from Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Budget: $150 million | Box Office: $73.8 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Not even Martin Scorsese is immune to box office flops in this, easily the lightest film he’s ever made. And it’s a shame as this is one of his more intriguing films, telling a fantastical yet subdued kids’ adventure story. Scorsese’s use of 3D is excellent, considering the film’s more modest scale; and the cast (which includes Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen) delivers strong work. The film’s failure at the box office can probably be attributed to competition against ‘The Muppets’ movie and ‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I’. And word-of-mouth probably tapered a bit as audiences discovered the film’s more meditative pace and real premise (an ode to classic cinema and the works of Georges Méliès). Still, give this one a chance.
‘The Iron Giant’ (1999)
Budget: $70 million | Box Office: $23 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Now this one hurts the most for me. From director Brad Bird, ‘The Iron Giant’—about a giant space robot (voiced by Vin Diesel) who befriends a young boy in 1950s Maine—is now considered one of the best-animated movies ever made. But it took time for the film to find its audience. Despite widespread acclaim, Warner Bros’ marketing campaign for the film was poor, with the studio reluctant after their previous animated film ‘Quest for Camelot’ failed at the box office. The film also struggled against the rising power of films from both Pixar and DreamWorks Animation. The studio did step up its marketing when it came time for the film’s home video release; reruns on TNT and Cartoon Network helped audiences finally discover this wonderful film.
‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ (2010)
Budget: $60 million | Box Office: $31.5 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Director Edgar Wright’s adaptation of the graphic novel series ‘Scott Pilgrim’ was, unfortunately, a box office bomb for Universal. Considering its odd premise—a video game and comic book-influenced story of a slacker (Michael Cera) forced to battle his girlfriend’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes—and genre-bending feel, it is a tough sell. And despite strong buzz from critics and the Comic-Con crowd, that didn’t cross over to general audiences. Still, the film has gained a huge cult following thanks to Wright’s stylish direction, a sharp script, a killer soundtrack, and an outstanding ensemble cast (just to name a few: Chris Evans, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzman, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, and Brie Larson).
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‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)
Budget: $25 million | Box Office: $28 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Strange to think that director Frank Darabont’s uplifting ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was a box-office bomb, considering how ubiquitous and beloved the Tim Robbins–Morgan Freeman drama is now: it’s often featured on many critics’ “Best of” lists, as well as being ranked #1 on IMDb’s Top Rated Movies chart for years now. There’s no one simple answer as to why it flopped: maybe the title befuddled people; maybe audiences at the time didn’t care for prison dramas. The movie also had the misfortune of being released close to two films that dominated the zeitgeist: ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. Still, it went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, which garnered some interest. And the film finally found its audience on cable repeats and home video, bolstering its reputation.
‘The Thing’ (1982)
Budget: $15 million | Box Office: $19.6 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
From director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell, ‘The Thing’ is a grim and terrifying exploration of paranoia and mistrust. At the time of its release, the film received very negative reviews for its cynical tone and violence (make no mistake: this is a very gruesome movie). Audiences also didn’t latch on to the film: it didn’t help that it was released just a few weeks after ‘E.T’, which offered a warmer feel-good take on alien contact. But over time critics began to reassess the film and it’s now seen as a straight-up sci-fi horror masterpiece. Its influences can be felt in works like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Stranger Things’, as well as the works of Guillermo del Toro, J.J. Abrams, and Quentin Tarantino (‘The Hateful Eight’ in fact closely mirrors ‘The Thing’).
‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ (1971)
Budget: $3 million | Box Office: $4 million | Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
It’s hard to believe now that the iconic family film from director Mel Stuart based on the beloved Roald Dahl novel, wasn’t an immediate hit. But it’s true: it actually finished 53rd in terms of the highest-grossing films of that year (this is a sadly common pattern: with the exception of Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, most Dahl adaptations disappointed at the box office despite strong reviews). Maybe it was too surreal or creepy at the time. Regardless, critics praised the film, singling out Gene Wilder’s iconic turn as Willy Wonka. And by the ‘80s, repeat TV broadcasts and strong home video sales cemented its reputation as a classic film for new viewers; one can argue that the key reason for the success of the Burton version was residual goodwill from this movie.
By Mario Yuwono
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