What makes cult classics? It takes a few years for films to find their place in pop culture history. While it may seem that opening weekends at the box office are everything, some films are better at the marathon than the sprint.
We look at a few films that were initial bombs at the box office but have since found their footing in history. How many times have you seen these cult classics?
Today, Heathers is often named as one of the best high school movies ever made. It was just one of the many old projects to earn the reboot treatment in 2018. But was it always so beloved by audiences? At the time, it only made $1.1 million at the box office – a third of its production cost! It took a few years for the film to find its audience, but is frequently quoted 30 years later.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
It’s hard to think of The Shawshank Redemption as anything other than what it is: one of the world’s greatest films and cult classics. The 1994 prison drama that introduced the world to Morgan Freeman’s narration failed to escape from bad box office number upon its release. The film made $16 million at the box office, far short of its $25 million budget. We’ve written more about some of the greatest films from 1994 here.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Amazingly, we’re writing about The Wizard of Oz’s failure at the box office in its 80th anniversary year – proving it recovered rather well! Even though the previous books and stage shows were runoff successes, the 1939 film resulted in a $1.5 million loss for MGM at the time. ‘Fantasy is always a risk at the box office,’ explained Christopher Finch. How times have changed!
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club is a film that invites multiple viewings, so it’s strange it didn’t make more of an impact upon its release. Weirdly, the action film starring two of the biggest Hollywood stars only made $37 million off of a $67 million budget. Fast forward 20 years and 20th Century Fox are reaping the rewards – what college student hasn’t got this poster on his wall? You can read more about Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in the film here.
Blade Runner (1982)
Younger audiences may know Blade Runner due to the extremely expensive and epic 2017 sequel. If only the original was so beloved! In 1982, Blade Runner failed to return its $28 million budget – even more bizarre when you consider how Harrison Ford was still running on the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It found its audience 10 years later through multiple VHS rentals and is now considered one of the best sci-fi films of all time.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Big Lebowski is still making its rounds in pop culture today, even getting a mention in this year’s Avengers: Endgame. However, in 1998 the reaction was a little different. The film peaked at sixth in the box office and it only made a profit of around $2 million. Home video rentals helped it find its audience and eventually the character found his fanbase. In 2019, Jeff Bridges reprised the character at the Superbowl. Cool, man.
What with the witty dialogue, multiple endings, and reference to the popular board game, it’s amazing Clue wasn’t more of a hit. Upon its release in 1985, the mystery film bombed at the box office. Overall, it made $500,000 less than its $15 million budget. Not all is lost, though! Over time, the film found a home among young fans who couldn’t remember its initial flop. Today, it is appreciated by a whole new generation.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Tim Curry is clearly no stranger to films that earn cult classic status later in life. As well as Clue, Curry experienced a box office bomb with this 1975 musical. The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t understood by audiences and fans, who failed to appreciate the humor and sexual themes. Today, the musical is a cult classic and shown twice a week in New York City. Don’t drop the bottle!
Donnie Darko (2001)
Even though it’s considered Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout film today, audiences were singing a different tune back in 2001. The supernatural drama was released shortly after 9/11 – not perfect since its whole third act revolves around a plane crash. Even after a five-month cinema outing, it made only $518,000. Today, Donnie Darko is essential viewing for any college student who wants to explore this esoteric trip. Today, it is one of the most famous cult classics.
Office Space (1999)
Today, Office Space is the quintessential film exploring office culture. The same cannot be said for its initial release, which flustered at the box office and hardly made its money back. Thanks to invaluable places like Blockbuster (for the early 2000s), Office Space garnered a cult classic audience and is still enjoyed by people 20 years later. While the office might look different today, the film transcends generations to explore the culture.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer had everything going for it to be a smash out success. With its popular cast and initial buzz at Sundance, it seemed unstoppable. Strangely, the summer camp spoof only made $295,000 from a $2 million budget. Fourteen years after its release, Netflix saw potential among young audiences and commissioned a prequel and sequel series. Today, the film is one of the cult classics with some of the biggest stars in the world.
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant is one of the most underrated animated films ever made, due mostly to poor marketing. The film marks the directorial debut for Brad Bird, who would go on to direct hits like The Incredibles. However, The Iron Giant only made $23 million from a $70 million budget. With home video, the film eventually found an audience and well-deserved praise was rewarded. The giant even made a cameo in 2018’s Ready Player One.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Weirdly, the 1971 film adaptation of the Roald Dahl book was a critical and financial failure. Critics called it ‘barely acceptable’ and ‘tedious’ at the time of its release – even earning an insult from Dahl himself. Paramount Pictures lost so much money on the film that they sold the rights to Warner Brothers. Today, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is the preferred version to its 2005 counterpart and is a large player in meme culture.
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