- Sometimes, the best movies fail at first.
- Some of our favourite movies in history were failures for whatever reason, but thankfully have stood the test of time.
- From “Heathers” to “Shawshank Redemption,” here are the 50 most iconic movies that didn’t perform when they were first released.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Sometimes it can be hard to explain why good movies fail. Whatever the reason, several financial and critical failures have endured the test of time to emerge as cult classics years later.
From “Rocky Horror Picture Show” to “Labyrinth,” here are 50 films that initially bombed but later developed a cult following.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” has a long legacy of theatre revivals and shadow casts.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” had a limited release to just eight cities when it premiered in 1975. Although critic reviews were favourable, the film was pulled early from theatres due to low ticket sales.
“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” became a cult classic through years of midnight screenings, with fans and audience members encouraged to interact with the film through call-outs, props, and sing-alongs.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” only became a holiday favourite when it entered public domain.
Although it’s now a staple in many holiday movie collections, “It’s a Wonderful Life” did poorly at the box office in 1946. The movie’s success took a turn for the better when it was picked up by TV networks in 1974 when the movie’s copyright expired.
Repeat viewings helped it get recognised as a warm, moving touchstone in American households each Christmas.
“Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” did poorly when it premiered in 1971.
The whimsical movie based on Roald Dahl’s classic novel has become a must-watch over time. It didn’t fare well at the box office when it first appeared,making only $US4 million, which was not much more than its $US3 million budget.
After Paramount Pictures failed to renew the copyright for “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” Warner Brothers bought the film rights and brought it to TV where it found new appreciation.
“The Room” later inspired “The Disaster Artist.”
Dubbed by many as the worst film of all time, the melodrama “The Room” initially only made $US1,800 off of a $US6 million budget.
Over time, word of mouth helped to make the film more popular and more and more people began attending midnight screenings through the years.
It later inspired the biopic “The Disaster Artist,” starring Dave Franco and James Franco, which detailed the making of “The Room.”
“Blade Runner” is now one of the most revered science-fiction films.
Although “Blade Runner” is a visually stunning film that inspired many films in the sci-fi genre, it barely made back its budget when it was released in 1982. However, critics and fans had a lot of positive things to say about the film.
“The Big Lebowski” couldn’t compete with “Titanic” when it first premiered.
Even though it’s now one of Jeff Bridges’ most notable films, “The Big Lebowski” finished sixth in its opening weekend because it was overshadowed by the massive successes of films like “Titanic,” “The Wedding Singer,” and even “Good Will Hunting.”
Love for the film has grown over time, with fans quoting iconic lines and even forming their own film-inspired religion of “Dudeism.”
“Troll 2” gained fans with it’s “so bad it’s good” reputation.
Like Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” “Troll 2” also found a cult following for its reputation as one of the worst films of all time.
The horror movie followed a family who is terrorised by goblins that turn their victims into plants before eating them. Fans found the accidental humour in the absurd goblin fest and still flock to screenings in the thousands to this day.
“Dazed and Confused” had a star-filled cast before they were famous.
Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Adam Goldberg may be huge film stars today but they were not as well-known when they starred in Richard Linklater’s irreverent stoner comedy in 1993.
Without marketability to mainstream audiences, it only made $US8 million from a $US6.8 million budget. As time as passed and the cast’s star power has grown however, “Dazed and Confused has become a classic in the coming-of-age genre.
“Heathers” initially only made back less than half of its budget.
“Heathers,” a dark comedy about a high school student (Winona Ryder) who murders her classmates, has gained a following over the years for its biting humour.
Unfortunately, with a budget of $US3 million, “Heathers” only made $US1 million domestically and was in theatres for only five weeks before being pulled. It gradually gained acclaim due to Winona Ryder’s rise to fame.
The film’s popularity has inspired a stage musical of the same name as well as a television reboot that premiered last year.
“Donnie Darko” was a complete flop.
“Donnie Darko” might not have been the easiest film to market- it centered around a teenager (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is stuck in a time paradox and suffering from psychotic episodes that feature a man in a rabbit suit.
It earned only $US100,494 on its opening weekend and wasn’t released internationally until a year later. Since its release, it’s gained success as a DVD rental and cemented itself as an iconic film in the indie horror genre.
“Fight Club” was panned by critics at first glance.
“Fight Club” may be constantly referenced today, but it didn’t initially impress many critics when it came out in 1999.
The Chuck Palahniuk novel-turned-film proved too dark for mainstream audiences, but it would go on to sell six million DVD copies when people gave it a second chance.
“Office Space” later found a niche audience.
The slice of life film “Office Space” perfectly captured the mundane nature of cubicle life but failed to capture the attention of filmgoers in 1999.
Just as raunchy comedies like “American Pie” were winning big at the box office, wry satires like “Office Space” fell through the cracks in the late ’90s.
Over time, the comedy has gone on to become one of the top films listed on many critics’ lists, allowing a new generation of fans to discover it.
“Citizen Kane” only found acclaim in the years after its release.
“Citizen Kane” has established itself firmly in film history as one of the most revered films ever made, but it only made $US1.5 million when it was released in 1941.
Historians have pointed to William Randolph Hearst as the man who impeded the film’s initial success, since its villain was blatantly inspired by Hearst himself. The influential newspaper tycoon forbade the press from mentioning it by name.
Now, the film has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, which is no easy feat.
“The Wizard of Oz” had a weak premiere in 1939.
Although the $US2.7 million budget of “The Wizard of Oz” seems low today, it was incredibly expensive back in 1939. When the movie premiered and generated just $US3 million in return at the box office, it was deemed a failure for the studio.
However, like other movies on this list, TV syndication would help “The Wizard of Oz” gain the adoration it deserved from film lovers and critics alike.
“The Shawshank Redemption” was overlooked during a year filled with cinematic contenders.
It goes without saying that 1994 was a big year for movies: “Pulp Fiction” and “Forrest Gump” both premiered to immense acclaim. Unfortunately, “The Shawshank Redemption” received less attention when it was released that same year.
The moving prison drama later found an audience on television and is now listed as the top rated film on IMDb by its users, topping films like “The Godfather,” “12 Angry Men,” and “Schindler’s List.” It also has rave reviews on Rotten Tomatoes from audiences and critics.
“Vertigo” was a flop compared to “Psycho.”
“Vertigo” is now regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films, but critics initially gave it mixed reviews, making it a box office failure.
Instead of blaming critical reviews, Hitchcock blamed lead actor Jimmy Stewart for being too old to play an appealing love interest in the film.
“Clue” was released in 1985 to lukewarm praise.
Although it is loved by fans today, “Clue” had a rough start when it opened in 1985. Made from a $US15 million budget, Clue only made $US14.6 million while airing in theatres. It wasn’t helped by indifferent and middling reviews from critics, including Roger Ebert.
Over time, however, the wonderful cast and fun concept of the film has won over newcomers and is another film on this list that has become a television staple.
“Brazil” flopped and couldn’t recoup its budget.
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” director Terry Gilliam has a slew of movies that gained recognition long after they were released and “Brazil” is one of them. “Brazil” had a $US15 million budget and only generated $US9.9 million domestically.
The political satire, based partially on “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” could not appeal to mass audiences.
Press reports also stated that Gilliam had to fight the studio on a final cut of the movie, which may have dissuaded the average moviegoer from attending the film. Now, “Brazil” is praised as a masterpiece in the science fiction genre.
“Harold and Maude” was a dark comedy that failed to impress critics.
“Harold and Maude” focused on a 20-year-old who falls in love with an 80-year-old woman. The non-traditional romance, filled with drama and dark humour, failed to attract crowds at the theatres. Many critics found it inappropriate and depressing and it ultimately was unable to break even at the box office.
Years later critics and film lovers would begin to reevaluate their harsh stances on the film and they eventually celebrated it for its artistic merit.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” had a controversial reception.
The absurd, dark adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” directed by Terry Gilliam, did not fare well in movie theatres. From an $US18.5 million production budget, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” grossed only $US10.6 million.
It was very polarising for critics and was generally viewed as a visual spectacle that was aimless and lacked drive. Today, the movie, which starred Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, is celebrated by fans for its bizarre and innovative style.
“Highlander” found success as a video rental.
The Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert fantasy film “Highlander” followed a Scottish Highlands warrior who is cursed with immortality.
The action-packed melodrama was plagued with conflicts on set and a weak box office debut that only managed to recoup a third of its $US16 million budget.
However, it still managed to become a cult hit in the ’80s as a video rental and garnered four sequels as well as two television shows. Today, “Highlander” fans still find charm in the cheesy special effects and bombastic plotting.
“The Boondock Saints” found fans as a Blockbuster exclusive.
Action crime thriller “The Boondock Saints” followed two devout Catholic brothers as they slaughter Boston criminals in God’s name.
The $US6 million budget only made back $US30,471 at the box office, but it found a second life as a video rental when the studio struck a deal with then-popular rental chain Blockbuster to promote the thriller as a Blockbuster Exclusive.
Although many audiences have since fallen in love with the film, most critics still rate the film poorly on Rotten Tomatoes.
“Event Horizon” lost over $US30 million when it flopped.
The late ’90s sci-fi thriller “Event Horizon” focused on a rescue crew in space that investigates a missing ship. The film, starring Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, and Kathleen Quinlan, was compared to other space horror movies like “Alien” upon its release.
Despite generating a gross $US27 million worldwide, the movie was considered a bomb since it cost an estimated $US60 million to make. Even though critics ran it through the mud, “Event Horizon” found fans as a niche sci-fi space thriller with surprisingly strong visual effects for its time.
“The Thing” was deemed a failure in 1982.
“The Thing” is now celebrated as one of the strongest entries in the horror genre, but the John Carpenter masterpiece was first viewed as a financial and critical dud. Filmed with a $US15 million budget, the sci-fi horror scraped by with $US20 million at the box office.
It was despised by many critics, including David Denby of New York magazine who said it was “more disgusting than frightening, and most of it was just boring.” Later, many critics would regret their first impressions as it gained acclaim over the years.
“Idiocracy” wasn’t marketed and fell through the cracks.
In “Idiocracy,” a soldier (Luke Wilson) is placed under hibernation for hundreds of years and he wakes up to discover he’s now the smartest man alive.
The Mike Judge satire cost $US4 million to produce and only generated half a million in worldwide ticket sales. A huge element of its failure was the complete absence of a marketing campaign: no movie trailers, ads, or press kits.
Eventually, “Idiocracy” recouped its budget in home video sales due to word-of-mouth and was finally recognised as the creative, biting satire it aimed to be, just like Judge’s “Office Space.”
It’s now one of Rotten Tomatoes’“100 Essential Comedy Movies.”
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” made its money in home video sales.
The slick, visually stunning “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” featured director Edgar Wright’s signature cinematic style and a talented cast but lost big at the box office. With a massive production budget of $US85 million,it only made $US47.7 million in theatres.
Like most flops on this list, the film was later helped by home media and streaming sales. As of 2019, the film has grossed more than $US30 million since bombing at the box office in 2010.
“Plan 9 from Outer Space” had a very limited release.
In “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” aliens conspire to raise the dead on Earth to save humans from themselves. The sci-fi B movie was sold as a double-feature until it moved to television.
“Plan 9” was relatively unknown until it gained notoriety as one of the worst movies ever made in the 1980s. As newcomers watched the film to see it for themselves, a cult following grew and fans saw the humour in the previously obscure sci-fi flick.
“Jupiter Ascending” was expensive to make.
“Jupiter Ascending,” starring Mila Kunis, Eddie Redmayne, and Channing Tatum, was an intergalactic sci-fi adventure directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
The film was unbelievably expensive to make with a production budget of $US176 million. It made $US47.4 million domestically and $US136.5 million worldwide, barely justifying its elaborate expenses.
“Wet Hot American Summer” was a hilarious film that went un-watched by many.
With big names like Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks, Bradley Cooper, Amy Poehler, and Molly Shannon, it’s a shame the film did so poorly at the box office.
At the time of its release however, most of the cast were still relatively unknown. The movie, which followed summer campers in 1981, was made with a $US1.8 million budget and it produced $US295,206 at the box office.
As the stars skyrocketed to success, the movie gained a cult following. Netflix has since produced both a prequel and sequel television series starring the original cast.
“The Iron Giant” was a commercial failure.
The sentimental and moving “The Iron Giant” has many admirers today, but under-performed in theatres due to a poor marketing campaign. Although critics loved it, not many saw it upon release, leading to $US31 million in box office sales out of an estimated $US70-$US80 million budget.
“The Iron Giant” follows a young boy as he tries to protect a space robot from government interference. It would later be praised by fans and critics alike, garnering a cult following in television syndication and home video sales. It was even re-released theatrically in 2015.
“A Christmas Story” didn’t gain fans until TV syndication.
The 1983 Christmas classic was initially a sleeper hit when it first premiered. Critics were not sure what to think of it upon release, and a particularly scathing New York Times piece called it less funny than a TV sitcom and “exceedingly busy.”
It has since found fans on TV over the years and is a must-watch for many families during the holiday season. It even has its own 24-hour marathon on both TNT and TBS.
“Dredd” couldn’t make back its initial budget.
The 2012 science-fiction action movie “Dredd” was based on the post-apocalyptic comic book series “Judge Dredd.” The film starred Lena Headey and Karl Urban and cost an estimated $US50 million to make, only garnering $US30.9 million in theatres.
Critical reviews were mostly positive, but “Dredd” only grew a following when it went to home video. Fans have pushed for a sequel, but it seems unlikely given the theatrical gross of the first.
“Slither” later found a following with fans of body horror.
The 2006 James Gunn flick “Slither” was a comedic body horror film starring Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks. It follows an alien parasite as it terrorizes a small town.
In total, “Slither” grossed $US12 million worldwide and couldn’t recoup its $US15 million budget. However,critics liked it for the low-budget horror homage it was.
“Dark Star” was marketed poorly as a generic action film.
The sci-fi comedy “Dark Star” was another John Carpenter vehicle that struggled to find its legs at the box office. It started as a student film and became Carpenter’s first theatrical debut in 1974.
“Speed Racer” opened the week after “Iron Man.”
The Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” was an action-packed spectacle based on the 1960s animated show of the same name. It was created on a $US120 million budget and made $US93.9 million at the box office, struggling to compete with Marvel’s “Iron Man” which was released the week before.
Critics generally panned it at first and it was even nominated for several Razzies. Since 2008, “Speed Racer” has popped up on many critical lists as an underrated and overlooked film.
“Death to Smoochy” was a miss for critics and audiences alike.
“Death to Smoochy” was a Danny DeVito-directed dark comedy starring Robin Williams, Edward Norton, Catherine Keener, and John Stewart. It focused on a children’s TV show host and the world of kids entertainment, in a dark light.
Its $US50 million budget made it lose big at the box office when it generated only $US8.3 million. The film has gained a small following of fans, especially since Williams’ passing in 2014.
“Newsies” is one of the lowest-grossing live-action Disney films of all time.
The 1992 film was deemed one of Disney’s lowest-grossing live-action films of all time. Starring Christian Bale, the movie musical cost $US15 million to make, but only grossed $US3 million.
“Hocus Pocus” later found fans through Halloween marathons on TV.
The cultural legacy of “Hocus Pocus” is huge now, especially during October. But when the witchy film debuted in 1993 it was not seen as a financial success. It was released the same day as “Free Willy” and dropped from the top 10 after two weeks.
It received mixed to negative reception at first, but fans came to enjoy it over time as a silly supernatural adventure. The movie got a second wind through DVD sales and TV syndication and is now a staple for Halloween movie marathons every year.
“Near Dark” was a hidden Kathryn Bigelow hit.
Kathryn Bigelow has earned immense acclaim for films like “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but her horror film “Near Dark” performed poorly in theatres when it premiered in 1987.
The low-budget vampire film only made $US3.4 million at the box office, even though film critics gave it fairly positive reviews. Today, it still stands as one of the highest-reviewed horror films of all time.
When “Labyrinth” flopped, Jim Henson was devastated.
In 1986, Jim Henson’s musical fantasy “Labyrinth” debuted to poor box office number. The creative film, which starred rock icon David Bowie, cost $US25 million to make and only made half of its budget back in theatres.
Despite low numbers, critics generally enjoyed the film, praising Bowie’s performance and Henson’s puppetry. Following Henson’s death, more critics and film-goers watched the film and fell in love with it.
“Empire Records” was panned by film critics.
Taking place over the course of a single day, the comedy-drama “Empire Records” detailed the lives of record store employees in 1995. It starred Renée Zellweger, Ethan Embry, and Liv Tyler.
“Can’t Hardly Wait” was described as “slapstick” and “cliche” by some critics.
Like “Empire Records,” “Can’t Hardly Wait” was another coming-of-age film that was lambasted upon release and adored in later years. The teen party flick starred Ethan Embry, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Seth Green.
It performed well at the box office but was both ignored and panned by many critics. In the decades since, many critics have returned to the film and reversed their negative rulings, recognising it as a fun high school film and a product of its time.
“Starship Troopers” was slammed by critics.
The 1997 sci-fi action film “Starship Troopers” followed a group of futuristic military soldiers and their space mission against aliens called the Arachnids. It had an expensive budget, but it made back its money at the box office. The film was lampooned by critics who thought it was gory and poorly plotted.
General audiences found the fun in it and praised the film, inspiring the filmmakers to create four more films, board games, and a video game.
“Dune” faced low ticket sales and negative reviews.
David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of the novel “Dune” was a sprawling sci-fi epic that failed to recoup its $US40 million budget with only a $US30 million gross.
Critics largely gave it negative reviews, with film critic Roger Ebert calling it an “incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
Plans for sequels were dropped upon its failure at the box office. However, many fans of the novel appreciate Lynch’s interpretation and still screen it today.
“Big Trouble in Little China” was rushed to its release date.
John Carpenter makes his third appearance on this list with the martial arts comedy “Big Trouble in Little China.” It starred Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong and involved bandits, sorcerers, and centuries-old curses.
It had an estimated $US19-25 million budget and only reaped $US11.1 million at the box office.Carpenter has referenced the success of James Cameron’s “Aliens” as a factor in his film’s box office failure.
Following its financial losses and a slew of middling reviews, Carpenter vowed to become an independent filmmaker. Like many of his other works, “Big Trouble in Little China” later found success with fans and critics alike when it was released for home video.
“Showgirls” was mocked by critics and filmgoers.
The erotic drama “Showgirls” was the first NC-17 film to be wide-released. It followed a woman’s journey from stripper to showgirl in Sin City. It grossed $US37 million from a $US40 million budget.
Its mature content proved too much for critics, but it lived a profitable second life as a video rental.
The graphic film has since been reevaluated as a satirical work of art and deemed a “gay cult classic” by some and a “trash cult classic” by others, even though many viewers and critics are still sceptical of the film.
“Mac and Me” was a called a knock-off of “E.T.”
Released six years after Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Mac and Me” suffered comparisons to the many themes the two sci-fi family films shared. It was also plagued with excessive product placement, which didn’t help the film’s case.
With a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Mac and Me” is regarded as one of the worst films ever made. Even still, it has gained cult status and become part of a running gag Paul Rudd does almost every time he’s on a talk show.
“Man on the Moon” won Jim Carrey a Golden Globe but was a miss for most critics.
In “Man on the Moon,” Jim Carrey famously went method for his portrayal of comedian and entertainer Andy Kaufman. The biopic also starred Danny DeVito, Courtney Love, and Paul Giamatti. From a budget that’s estimated to have cost $US82 million, it only generated $US47.4 million in theatres.
It wasn’t commercially or critically successful, but his performance granted Carrey a second consecutive Golden Globe award for best actor.
The film received renewed attention following its relevance to the documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.”
“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” was considered a flop by Disney standards.
Like most Disney films, animated features like “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” will always find its fans despite how well they fare critically. The fantasy adventure featured the voice talents of Michael J. Fox, Leonard Nimoy, and Claudia Christian, and followed a crew’s underwater voyage for the lost city of Atlantis.
Although it earned back its budget, and more, at the box office it was still considered a box office disappointment by Disney standards. It even had a pre-planned theme park attraction and television series cancelled due to its under-performance.
But, some fans say the classic Disney film deserved better.
Although it was successful at the box office, “Saw” was deemed too gory for most critics.
Unlike most movies on this list, “Saw” over-performed at the box office to a massive degree. The film made $US103 million off of a $US1.2 million budget and 18-day shooting schedule.
Despite its commercial success, critics couldn’t get on board with the film’s gore and torture, citing it as gratuitous. On the other hand, filmgoers enjoyed the thriller and a cult following spurred an eight-film franchise.
It was recently announced that “Saw 9 (The Organ Donor)” was in production, but Lionsgate declared it would stray from the usual plot and instead be a “reimagining and a spinning-off of the franchise.”
- Read more:
- What 21 actors took from movie sets
- 16 of Disney’s remakes of its animated classics, ranked
- 13 of the best and 13 of the worst movies of the decade, according to audiences
- 10 of the best and 10 of the worst Danny DeVito movies of all time
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.