Not every film can be a hit. But for some movies, a disappointing run at the box office doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a failure. For whatever reason, be it mishandled marketing or poor timing in concurrence with world events, a great motion picture may find its success after it has left the theater.
Most of these flicks are critic-approved, but audiences didn’t appreciate them until they were available for home viewing. Some, however, didn’t get the greatest reviews, but have managed to gather a significant following among a particular crowd, often owing their appeal to the “so bad it’s good” factor.
Whether they were under appreciated or just ahead of their time, these are 15 of the most loved movies that tanked at the box office.
1. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Edgar Wright’s critically acclaimed genre-hybrid, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is now one of his best-known works. At the time, however, the comic book adaptation was “a major financial disappointment,” partially due to the cost of production. The film came in at No. 5 in the box office its first weekend, and No. 10 its second weekend.
But in the years since, it has become a cult favorite. People were “slow to discover” it, according to the film’s star, Michael Cera. It has an 81% certified fresh rating from critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Scott Pilgrim has also had significant lasting impact, with influence in Japanese culture and small anniversary screenings at theaters that embrace the “geek” demographic.
2. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
The film that sparked Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback has an intriguing origin story. Director Shane Black was trying to back up after a critical failure, and wanted to try something new. Thus Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, “half a romantic comedy and half a mystery thriller,” was conceived.
The movie first screened at Cannes in 2005, and opened only as a limited release. Black had a small budget, and managed to just make it back, with help from promising critical reviews. All in all, it was a good outcome for all parties involved.
An 85% critic’s score on Rotten Tomatoes gave Black more credibility, and Downey was cast in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man from his performance. Black and Downey then came together again on the third iteration of the Marvel franchise.
3. Fight Club
Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s dark novel, Fight Club had a bit of a rocky start. Though the author praised the adaptation, executives were not as pleased. Jim Uhls’ script underwent several revisions, and director David Fincher was tasked with obtaining complex shots, special effects, and excessive footage. Marketing was no picnic, either.
Because of this, though the film had top placement its first weekend, it failed to earn back high production costs. In fact, the box office numbers contributed to 20th Century Fox studio head Bill Mechanic’s resignation. The dark subject matter became a point of contention for critics, and many were fiercely divided in their opinions.
Fortunately, the passion of the creatives and actors involved (especially stars Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) were evident to its intended audience. Fight Club and its pivotal twist have achieved cult status, as well as a 79% critic’s score on Rotten Tomatoes.
4. Office Space
Mike Judge’s first live-action project, Office Space was an adaptation of a series of cartoon shorts he had created. Based on a temp job he held, Judge attempted to show the humor in white-collar America during the tech boom. Unfortunately, the studio execs were not understanding of his vision, and the marketing was off-base.
5. Donnie Darko
It’s hard to believe there was a time when Donnie Darko and its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, weren’t household names. But the film, which took less than a month to shoot, had only a screening at Sundance and a limited release in theaters before heading to DVD. Though low-grossing, the film did manage to make back its budget, but few could have predicted what came next.
Because it wasn’t advertised heavily due to poor timing with plane crash imagery around 9/11, it was likely surprising that the movie soon gained a cult following. In fact, it spawned a stage adaptation and a (poorly reviewed) sequel, S. Darko.
6. Wet Hot American Summer
Wet Hot American Summer is now known as a cult classic satirical comedy that has long endured. But in 2001, it was simply a low-budget labor of love for writers David Wain and Michael Showalter. Drawing from their combined summer camp experiences, the film was meant to mock everything from campy ‘80s horror movies to ‘90s teen sex comedies. The flick had a very small theatrical release, and did poorly with most critics.
But the film’s very specific humor began to draw a crowd. Though its critic’s score is 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 76% audience score. The young-ish, up-and-comers that starred in it are now some of today’s hottest talents, and all seem to remember the experience fondly. In fact, they returned for the prequel Netflix series in 2015, and are (hopefully) on board for the upcoming web series, Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later.
The horror B-movie Slither was unable to make back even half of its budget, but it wasn’t a total flop. It found the humor by mocking other horror comedies, and drew comparisons to alien invasion films of the past. Written and directed by James Gunn, the cult movie was one of his last projects before he achieved household name status with Guardians of the Galaxy.
Like others on this list, Slither’s box office failure was likely due to poor marketing. However, critics were quick to chime in with praise. Earning an 86% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, the flick is not for the weak of stomach.
8. The Boondock Saints
For crime thriller The Boondock Saints, timing was everything. The gun-heavy mob film had a sought-after script from novice screenwriter Troy Duffy, that was inspired by true events. But the culmination of a difficult production, high budget, and the lasting effects of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre lead to a brief theatrical run and less than half a million in sales.
Time also lent Duffy and compnay a hand. According to the writer and director, Blockbuster swooped in and bought the exclusive distribution rights, and the rest is DVD history. The Boondock Saints became a cult classic, spawning a 2009 sequel and the possibility of a third film.
9. Blade Runner
Another flick that may have come before its time was Blade Runner. Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi masterpiece is about a world where humanoid robots threaten the lives of Los Angelenos in 2019. It’s only with the help of specially trained cops like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard, that nuances of humanity are revealed.
Though it received mixed reviews and ticket sales were only OK, the movie has inspired recent shows like Westworld and films like Ex Machina, among many others that preceded them. Everything from the music and special effects, to the themes and noir style is culturally significant. And it continues to impact us today: A long-awaited sequel, Blade Runner 2049, comes out in 2017.
10. The Brave Little Toaster
Before Pixar made children’s movies about cars, toys, and sea creatures, there was The Brave Little Toaster. The 1987 animated classic brings life to kitchen appliances, and became a beloved classic to the millennial demographic. A limited theatrical release and lack of Disney clout behind it did no favors for ticket sales, but home video rectified this somewhat.
In fact, years later, two sequels were released. The film boasts a 75% critic’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and allowed its creators to grow in the industry: Many of those who worked on The Brave Little Toaster went on to have careers at Disney and Pixar animation studios.
11. Children of Men
Alfonso Cuarón’s sci-fi thriller, Children of Men, is a strange case. The film, which depicts a dystopian future where a world-wide epidemic of infertility leads to the destruction of society, has made several “top film” lists, was nominated for three Academy Awards, and boasts a 92% critic’s score on Rotten Tomatoes. Shouldn’t that add up to a box-office hit?
Unfortunately, the production costs for the movie were very high. This, coupled with a limited release, resulted in a failure to make back what they spent. One saving grace is the flick’s re-watch value, which led to decent home video sales.
12. The Shawshank Redemption
Another Oscar-nominated film that fared poorly in theaters is The Shawshank Redemption. The now-acclaimed drama from Frank Darabont tells the decades-long story of banker Andy Dufresne — who was falsely accused of murdering his wife. The story is told through the eyes of Red, a fellow prisoner at Shawshank State Prison. The flick went up against historical titles Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump, both of which share similar themes.
Fortunately, shining reviews brought The Shawshank Redemption more attention. The 91% “certified fresh” film gained viewership through its repeated airings on TNT, and has been deemed “culturally significant” by its inclusion in the National Film Registry.
13. Atlantis: The Lost Empire
Disney has made few missteps in the animated department, but not every film can be a hit. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was a deviation from the norm for the media giant, with a visual style that combined computer graphics with comic book stylings. Even the movie’s marketing was different, with Disney turning to web advertisements for the first time.
However, it may be Atlantis’ uniqueness that saved it from cultural obscurity in the end. The impressive artistry and complex themes have made it more popular with adults than children. Though it has only a mediocre 49% critic’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has developed a cult following in the years since its release.
Dark comedy is a difficult genre to tackle. Heathers has become a prominent example in the almost 30 years since its release, but it didn’t have the best start: The film’s ticket sales came in at scarcely over $1 million in the U.S.
But a very positive critical reception gave the movie new legs. Now a cult favorite, with a 95% Rotten Tomatoes rating, Heathers has been imitated, parodied, and built upon, most notably in the form of a musical. There’s also a TV show in the works, likely coming sometime in 2018.
15. The Chronicles of Riddick
When it comes to sequels, box office numbers can be hit or miss. Surprise sci-fi hit Pitch Black was action star Vin Diesel’s breakout role, and spawned the sequel The Chronicles of Riddick. Sadly, the sequel didn’t do as well as its predecessor, grossing just less than its production budget.
But fans of the series remained committed, and home video sales were solid. Though the critical consensus remained negative, the film’s cult following prompted another sequel, Riddick, in 2013. A fourth installment has been discussed, but little information has been released since its reveal in 2015. Since the franchise’s lead man, Diesel, is busy with a number of other popular franchises, its hard to speculate when we’ll hear more.
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