17 Movie Bombs That Became Cult Classics
Some films were simply born before their time.
Some movies manage to deeply connect with audiences right out of the gate. Whether it's a family classic like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, a space opera like Star Wars, or a romantic historical drama like Titanic, the choice few break box office records and capture hearts as soon as they hit theaters. But other iconic movies weren't built in a single opening weekend. In fact, some of the films that have changed cinematic history barely made a blip at the box office when they were first released. They were actually undisputed movie bombs.
But, whether it was through a favored position on the Blockbuster shelf, a TV re-airing that caught the eyes of eager channel-flippers, or a midnight interactive screening event, these films have built up a fandom over the years. They've all proven that slow and steady does sometimes win the race. Read on for the list of movies you won't believe were ever considered failures.
Today, Heathers is quoted on the regular. It even got a TV adaptation in 2018, was turned into a musical, and made Esquire's list of the best high school movies ever. It's the pinnacle of 1980s style and lingo ("gag me with a spoon," anyone?).
But when Heathers came out in 1989, the high school satire, starring a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, only brought in $1.1 million—which wasn't even half of its reported $3 million budget. Thanks to word of mouth and home video rentals, the box office bomb grew in popularity to become the legend it is today.
Shannen Doherty, who plays Heather Duke in the movie, told Entertainment Weekly: "It didn’t even dawn on me until people were like 'That’s my favorite movie!' Then you start realizing the impact that it had."
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
You'd be hard-pressed to make it through a weekend without seeing Shawshank Redemption on at least one cable channel. Today, the prison drama, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, sits proudly at the top spot on IMDb's poll of the greatest films ever made.“About everywhere you go, people say, ‘The Shawshank Redemption—greatest movie I ever saw,’ ” Freeman told Vanity Fair. Robbins added: “I swear to God, all over the world—all over the world—wherever I go, there are people who say, ‘That movie changed my life.’ ”
But when it opened in 1994, Shawshank barely registered. It failed to earn even $1 million on its opening weekend, coming in at the number nine spot behind a Rosie O'Donnell comedy called Exit to Eden. It eventually brought in $16 million at the U.S. box office during its initial release, falling very short of recouping its $25 million budget.
It was a slow and steady climb—much like Robbins' character's in the movie—that earned Shawshank such a prestigious place in cinematic history. After nabbing seven Oscar nominations, the movie became the most rented film of 1995. And thanks to re-runs on TNT in 1997, Shawshank became a staple in American households, bursting past cult classic status and becoming of a bonafide star.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz is one of the most classic American movies. It brought us “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” became the paramount example of good versus evil, and it inspired many Oz related spin-offs like, Broadway’s Wicked.
But when it first opened in 1939, it wasn’t even able to recoup its $3 million budget. According to Collider, The Wizard of Oz ended up being a $1.1 million loss for MGM, the studio that made it. "Fantasy is always a risk at the box office," wrote Christopher Finch, author of the Judy Garland biography Rainbow: The Stormy Life of Judy Garland. "The film had been enormously successful as a book, and it had also been a major stage hit, but previous attempts to bring it to the screen had been dismal failures."
Of course, The Wizard of Oz became anything but a "dismal failure." Yearly broadcasts on CBS in the 1950s and a few re-releases beginning in the 1940s cemented the musical's place is movie history. Again, this one is far more than a cult classic—it's a cinematic icon.
Fight Club (199)
Fight Club has become a dorm room staple. But when it was released in 1999, it was a movie bomb for 20th Century Fox. The Brad Pitt–Edward Norton starrer only pulled in $37 million on a $63 million budget, not including all the money the studio spent figuring out how to market this dark, twisty thriller.
Despite the lackluster returns in theaters, director David Fincher was determined to help Fight Club find a home. He was heavily invested in the movie's home release, including a specially packaged DVD with his commentary that shed light on the complicated film. And lo and behold, it worked. The movie earned the top spot on Entertainment Weekly's list of 50 essential DVDs and it soon became one of the biggest selling DVDs in Fox's history.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Based on the classic Roald Dahl novel and featuring Gene Wilder, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had a lot going for it, but it just did not capture theater-going audiences back in 1971, nor did it wow critics. The famed Gene Siskel called it "barely acceptable," and The New York Times panned it as "tedious and stagy with little sparkle and precious little humor."
Paramount Pictures was so disappointed in Wonka's returns—just $1 million—that the studio let go of the rights to the film in 1977. Warner Bros. swooped in to purchase it for a fraction of what it cost to make (a $550,000 deal for a $3 million movie). The new studio marketed the movie to television stations, and soon, repeated viewings turned Willy Wonka into the classic we now know and love.
Blade Runner (1982)
Yes, it's true. The 1982 movie that warranted an expensive, epic sequel decades after its release (2017's Blade Runner 2049), and stars arguably the most famous actor of the 1980s (Harrison Ford) was a box office bomb. The innovative neo-noir fell just short of breaking even on its $28 million budget.
Thanks to VHS and DVD rereleases throughout the 1980s and '90s, including a director's cut and final cut from Ridley Scott, the movie finally found its audience—and its place in history. In 1993, the Library of Congress picked it for the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." Today, it's known as one of the most influential sci-fi films of all time. Actually, according to The Guardian, it's the best sci-fi film of all time.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Coens Brothers have written and directed many critical and commercial hits. But even a film like Oscar winner No Country For Old Men hasn’t spawned its own annual fan festival the way The Big Lebowski has.
That said, when The Big Lebowski first came out in 1998, it placed sixth at the box office in its opening weekend. The movie ended up only making $2 million more than it cost to produce. Not cool man. Thanks to home video, Jeff Bridges’ the Dude finally resonated with audiences, so much so that he was even featured in a 2019 Super Bowl commercial.
The hilarious dialogue, the multiple endings, and the flames, flames on the side of Madeline Kahn’s face all have now established Clue as a legendary film. But that seemed far from possible in 1985 when it tanked in theaters, coming up $500,000 short of its $15 million budget.
Clue is another film that eventually found its fans on TV. It was constantly on in the 1990s, and young people who played the board game on which it was based and weren't old enough to remember how awfully the movie bombed just loved it. Star Lesley Ann Warren told BuzzFeed News: "All of a sudden, people in their twenties, wherever I would go, all they wanted to talk about was Clue."
Fellow Clue star Tim Curry added, “It's got a life of its own now, this movie. It's a bit of déjà vu for me, really, after Rocky Horror.” Speaking of….
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Tim Curry is really the king of box office bombs that've become cult classics. When The Rocky Horror Picture Show was first released in 1975, audiences were not exactly shivering with anticipation to run and see it in theaters. The musical, which only opened in eight cities, made $22,000 before being pulled from theaters.
It would only make a sweet transition to cult classic status when one theater in New York City in 1976 would play late-night screenings that became interactive, with the audience shouting lines at the screen. The dialogue-yelling screenings caught on in other major cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, and soon stars like Curry were showing up in full Dr. Frank-N-Furter grab. These screenings became so popular that they single-handedly revived Rocky Horror—and they still exist to this day.
Donnie Darko (2001)
While it is now considered Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakthrough film, the world wasn't ready for the bizarre supernatural drama Donnie Darko when it was released in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
The film stayed in theaters for five months, but only made $518,000 stateside with a budget of $4.5 million. Overseas, however, audiences were more game to embrace this esoteric movie, featuring one of the scariest bunnies of all time.
As with many films on this list, buzz about the Donnie Darko DVD and the director’s cut built in the U.S. It wasn't long before the film’s fandom started to grow, as did the star profile of a young Gyllenhaal. It didn't hurt that the movie's soundtrack featured a cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" that has become just as beloved as Donnie Darko itself.
Office Space (1999)
Office Space may now be the quintessential comedy that describes office culture, but when it made its way to theaters in 1999, it had almost as much trouble finding an audience as Milton had finding his stapler. The movie made only $800,000 more than it cost to produce.
When it was released on VHS, Office Space showed much more flair on Blockbuster shelves than it did at the box office. There were also repeated airings on Comedy Central in the early 2000s that helped, too. "I didn’t understand the scope of the office audience until about a year later when people started shouting Office Space dialogue at me," star Gary Cole told Entertainment Weekly.
Empire Records (1995)
However, when it was released in 1995, the slice-of-life style film set in an independent record store earned negative reviews across the board. It also only saw $273,000 at the box office, not even a tenth of its budget.
Besides the eventual success of its cast, the movie had staying power thanks to its storyline about superstar Rex Manning (Michael Caulfield). The character became an internet meme and the fictional holiday Rex Manning Day, celebrated on April 8, tends to trend on Twitter annually. In fact, the movie's become such a cult classic that an Empire Records musical is in the works for a 2020 opening.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Wet Hot American Summer was one of the biggest films at the acclaimed Sundance Film Festival in 2001, and it features some of today’s biggest stars like Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, and Amy Poehler.
When it finally hit theaters though, the 1980s-set camp comedy only made $295,000 on an already shoe-string budget of $2 million. The film has since taken on new life though, thanks to the growing popularity of its stars. After all, who doesn't want to see their favorite comedic actors donning awful perms and silly short-shorts?
Nearly 15 years after its initial run, Wet Hot's cult status earned it a prequel series and sequel series on Netflix, released in 2015 and 2017 respectively.
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Iron Giant is now ubiquitous enough to be one of the standout Easter eggs in the nostalgia-packed 2018 movie Ready Player One. But i’s been a long, rough road for this hard-bodied tearjerker.
While director Brad Bird followed this animated film with Disney hits like The Incredibles and Ratatouille, his first big effort only saw $23 million, when it cost $70 million to make. The movie's failure was largely chalked up to poor marketing. "It's hard to find someone who didn't love it the first time they saw the movie, but very few saw it in 1999 when it hit theaters," IGN wrote.
Eventually, a bolstered home video release and a special edition DVD in 2004 really sealed the deal for this adored animated family film.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
These days, even Urban Outfitters sells a T-shirt referencing this stoner comedy, which was considered a breakthrough for actor Matthew McConaughey. The film only made about $1 million profit when it was first released by Universal in 1993, again due to marketing struggles. According to MentalFloss, the studio "didn't know how to market a stoner coming-of-age movie without raunchy sex scenes or gross-out humor to a general audience"—which is what led to the flop.
Dazed and Confused would have to depend on home release and word of mouth to finally reach its status as one of the greatest teen comedies of the '90s. Today, McConaughey's "all right, all right, all right" is still one of the most quoted movie lines.
Director Paul Verhoeven’s colorful 1995 stripper melodrama is often metaphorically pushed down the stairs for having the nerve to be campy. No one really understood the racy movie, starring former Saved by the Bell actress Elizabeth Berkley. As a result, it bombed at the box office, only making $20.4 million on a $45 million budget.
But the film has become a certified cult classic, with defenses of it reaching levels of an actual published book called It Doesn't S***: Showgirls. With successful DVD rentals and interactive screenings, Berkley's Nomi Malone finally found stardom.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Director David Lynch’s modern classic Mulholland Drive was deemed the "best horror movie since The Shining," but it took the film more than a decade to find its audience. The avant garde 2001 release was initially intended to be Lynch’s second foray into television after the critical success of Twin Peaks, but when it didn't get the green light, Mullholand Drive became a feature length film instead.
The movie only made back half its budget (it cost $15 million to produce). But many of those who gave it a second chance on DVD have added it to Lynch’s growing list of successful trippy cult classics. And for more movies like Mulholland Drive, check out the 16 Best Ever Mystery Movies Every Crime Junkie Needs to See.
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