If box office numbers have taught us anything, it’s that they don’t always reflect the true quality of every film. Movies with flat characters and cliche storylines can become the top-grossing features while others with a stellar cast, strong plot, and powerful message can wind up being huge flops. It’s so unfortunate, considering all the hard work (and money) that goes into making genuinely great films. But in many cases, these gems actually go unnoticed because of factors that have nothing to do with the films themselves, whether it be failed marketing or the fact that they got released during a time of tragedy or national crisis.
You’ll recognize some of these movies, since they became well-known classics over time. But quite a few might leave you scratching your head because you literally never heard of them before. Still, each of these awesome films goes to show that you probably shouldn’t rely on box office numbers when it comes to making the perfect choice for movie night.
16. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Budget: $3 million
Box office: $4 million
It’s hard to believe that this classic wasn’t an instant success. In fact, as kids, we used to watch this fantasy and wish that we lived in Mr. Wonka’s factory! But surprisingly, when it came out in 1971, it only made $2.1 million in its opening weekend and was the 53rd highest-grossing film… of the year, well below expectations. Even so, the critics still loved it, calling it “a genuine work of imagination” and “a rare breed.” And by the ‘80s, the movie had a huge spike in popularity because of video sales and television broadcasts.
15. Donnie Darko
Budget: $4.5 million
Box office: $7.5 million
A young teen gets manipulated into committing crimes by a huge rabbit that may or may not be real… So it’s safe to say that the plot is rather bizarre but still compelling. When the film had its limited release in 2001, it grossed only $110,494. And after its run in theaters, it made $7.6 million worldwide (with $4 million in the U.S.). This was largely because it came out soon after the September 11 tragedy, so the timing wasn’t so great. Still, the film attracted a lot more fans after it was released on VHS and DVD the following year.
14. Fight Club
Budget: $63 million
Box office: $100.9 million
Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s book of the same name, the movie centers on two men who start an underground fight club because they’re bored with their lives. It’s considered a classic now, but back when it was getting released, the marketing team found it challenging to sell. The director, David Fincher, came up with trailers that featured fake public service announcements by the main characters, but Fox didn’t think that they marketed the film well. So instead, they took things into their own hands and spent $20 million on the ad campaign.
Still, their efforts didn’t pay off because the film only grossed between $13 million and $15 million in its opening weekend. The film’s executive producer, Art Linson, claimed that it was because the marketing was “ill-conceived” and “one-dimensional.” But on a brighter note, the DVD release was much more successful.
13. The Fountain
Budget: $35 million
Box office: $16 million
If you’ve seen it before, then you already know how confusing and bizarre it truly is. Basically, it’s a magical realism romance that explores immortality and the death of a loved one. But audiences weren’t into it and it got a bunch of mixed reviews (It was met with several boos at one press screening and a 10-minute standing ovation at another).
Regarding all the negative responses, director Darren Aronofsky said: “The film’s about the fact that it’s OK that we die, and we should come to terms with it. But many, many people don’t want to think about that, so why pay money for a meditation on losing someone you love? Everything about western culture denies that.”
Budget $2-4 million
Box office: $495,303
If you haven’t heard of it, Idiocracy follows two people who find themselves stuck in a time where the average intelligence of humans plummet. It’s actually a clever concept and pretty hilarious. However, this is just another sad example of how bad marketing can destroy a film’s success. It turns out that 20th Century Fox never promoted the movie. There were no ads, trailers, or press kits, and the feature was never screened for critics.
As for why the film’s distributor kept so quiet about it, Terry Crews (who played the president in the movie), explained: “The rumor was, because we used real corporations in our comedy (I mean, Starbucks was giving handjobs), these companies gave us their name thinking they were gonna get ‘pumped up,’ and then we’re like, “Welcome to Costco, we love you” [delivered in monotone]. All these real corporations were like, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute’… there were a lot of people trying to back out, but it was too late. And so Fox, who own the movie, decided, ‘We’re going to release this in as few theatres as legally possible.’ So it got a release in, probably, three theatres over one weekend and it was sucked out, into the vortex.”
11. Steve Jobs
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $34.4 million
You’d think that a biographical drama about this genius entrepreneur would do extremely well. But despite the overall positive response from most critics, there were quite a few things that went wrong. People were actually turned off by the fact that the title role was played by an actor who wasn’t well-known (Michael Fassbender). Plus, the film was competing with other adult releases at the time, like The Intern and Black Mass.
10. Office Space
Budget: $10 million
Box office: $12.2 million
We’re pretty sure that this hilarious satire about work life in a corporate setting is relatable for almost everyone. But interestingly enough, not that many people cared to go see it. According to the director, Mike Judge, the movie poster and trailers were what turned people off. He said: “People were like, ‘What is this? A big bird? A mummy? A beekeeper?’ And the tagline ‘Work Sucks’? It looked like an Office Depot ad. I just hated it. I hated the trailers, too, and the TV ads especially.”
Tom Rothman, former CEO and chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, also seemed to agree: “Office Space isn’t like American Pie. It doesn’t have the kind of jokes you put in a 15-second television spot of somebody getting hit on the head with a frying pan. It’s sly. And let me tell you, sly is hard to sell.”
9. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Budget: $8 million
Box office: $9.1 million
The coming-of-age YA film was just as amazing as the book (which makes perfect sense, since the author also wrote the screenplay). It made its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and received a standing ovation. But when it was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures and re-released, it grossed way less than its overall budget. The critical response was mostly good, but it seemed like the film just didn’t have the same effect on mainstream audiences, compared to viewers from the Sundance Film Festival.
8. It’s a Wonderful Life
Budget: $3.18 million
Box office: $3.3 million
It’s an inspiring Christmas classic that families still enjoy to this day. But when it first came out in 1947, it placed 27th at the box office that year and only grossed $3.3 million with a recorded loss of $525,000. This was mostly due to the fact that it was in competition with several other films, including another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street. And apparently, people were convinced that the movie’s director, Frank Capra, had lost his touch. But considering the movie’s significance today, we’d say that Frank nailed it.
7. The Shawshank Redemption
Budget: $25 million
Box office: $58.3 million
The movie tells a compelling story about a man who gets convicted of a serious crime that he didn’t commit, but it seemed like viewers weren’t impressed enough with the trailers to go see it. At first, the film had a limited release and earned only $727,000 on its opening weekend. In fact, the director and one of the producers visited a theater on opening night to see how viewers would react to it, but they didn’t find anyone there (they sold tickets outside the theater and promised refunds if the viewers didn’t like it).
The movie finally got its wide release in 1994 and earned a total of $16 million on opening weekend, which was definitely a box office flop. But perhaps one of the main reasons it didn’t perform was because it came out in the same time that Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump was in theaters. Definitely tough to compete with that.
6. Bringing Out the Dead
Budget: $32 million
Box office: $16.8 million
The film focuses on a burnt-out paramedic who tries his best to get fired, but then he changes his perspective after befriending the daughter of a patient. It was generally praised by most critics, and the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes describes it as “stunning and compelling.” But unfortunately, it grossed only $6 million in its opening weekend. And overall, it generated a revenue of roughly half of the movie’s budget.
5. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $15 million
It’s a rather fascinating Western about a young man (Robert) who goes from idolizing an outlaw (Jesse) to resenting and killing him. The critics loved it and the film was actually nominated twice for an Oscar. It also won several awards, including the Chicago Film Critics Award for Best Cinematography and The San Francisco Film Critics Award for Best Picture. However, the film only grossed half of its budget, making it a huge box office bomb. It now has a total gross of under $4 million.
4. The Insider
Budget: $68 million
Box office: $60.2 million
Guys, this drama was nominated for over seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And according to the critics consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s “intelligent, compelling, and packed with strong performances.” The Insider, which follows a TV producer and former tobacco company executive who try to expose the truth about the tobacco industry, was a brilliant work of art. But unfortunately, it grossed a lot lower than its overall $90 million budget.
Joe Roth, who was Disney’s chairman at the time, said: “Everyone is really proud of the movie. But it’s one of those rare times when adults loved a movie, yet they couldn’t convince their friends to go see it, any more than we could convince people in marketing the film.”
Budget: $15 million
Box office: $12.8 million
The overall response to Slither, a film about a creepy alien that preys on people from a small town, was mostly positive. But even though most critics were impressed, it flopped at the box office. The film had a production budget of $15 million and a marketing budget of $14.5 million, which means that the movie grossed less than half of the film’s overall cost. Some critics believe it was because there was no interest in the horror comedy genre, and the film’s producer, Paul Brooks, seemed to agree. He said: “I think that because it was comedy-horror instead of pure horror is where the problem lay. It’s the first comedy-horror in a long time, and maybe the marketplace just isn’t ready for comedy-horror yet.”
Budget: $150-170 million
Box office: $185.8 million
The adaptation of Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret was actually well done. It stayed true to the adventures of young Hugo, who tries to unlock a secret that was left behind by his late father. Though critics sang its praises during its release in 2011, Hugo was considered one of the most notable box office flops that year. It had a net loss of over $100 million, and most believe that the film’s failure was due to highly-anticipated competition (including Breaking Dawn Part 1 and The Muppets).
1. The Wizard of Oz
Budget: $2.8 million
Box office: $3 million
To be honest, this one was a shocker because it basically defined our childhood, and the characters were just so lovable! Even though the film did get mostly positive reviews and earn a considerable amount at the box office, it actually recorded a loss of over a million because of the high production cost. Plus, when the film was released in 1939, the world was already on the brink of war (World War II began soon after The Wizard of Oz came out), so we imagine that this didn’t really help matters. But on a brighter note, it earned an additional $23.3 million after multiple re-releases in North America, and it currently has a 99 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Iconic.