Being a box office dud doesn’t always mean death for a film. In fact, many bombs have now become classics that will live on forever.
Here’s our list of 15 box office bombs that had had an amazing afterlife:
Table of contents
- 1. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
- 2. The Thing (1982)
- 3. Office Space (1999)
- 4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
- 5. Heathers (1988)
- 6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
- 7. Citizen Kane (1941)
- 8. Troll 2 (1990)
- 9. Donnie Darko (2001)
- 10. The Room (2003)
- 11. The Boondock Saints (1999)
- 12. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
- 13. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
- 14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
- 15. The Shining (1980)
1. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
The failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate is the stuff of Hollywood legend. The film, an epic Western inspired by the Johnson County war, grossed about $3.5 million on a budget of $44 million, helping to bankrupt United Artists. Reaction to the film was so negative it destroyed Cimino’s career to such a degree that it led critics to rethink The Deer Hunter, which had swept the Oscars. Part of the problem was that Cimino’s original cut of Heaven’s Gate ran for over five hours. After several rounds of edits, a shorter version 149-minute version was released.
This version bombed in theaters. Then in 1982, a 219-minute version of the film began circulating on cable, and a slow reassessment began. In 2011, Time Out London named it the 12th greatest Western of all-time, and by 2015 Nicholas Barber of the BBC declared it a “masterpiece.” The film, however, still has plenty of detractors, too.
2. The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing nearly ended his career. Critics savaged the film, which tells the story of an Antarctica outpost terrorized by a creature from outer space that can perfectly copy and simulate other life forms. The film grossed $19.6 million on a budget of $15 million. Roger Ebert’s two-and-a-half star review was relatively kind, calling it “a great barf bag movie,” and that was about as positive as it got. The Thing’s amazing practical special effects (which included a severed head sprouting legs and becoming spider) were a bit overwhelming in their intensity, causing many critics to overlook and dismiss the film.
However, instead of being forgotten, The Thing was reassessed in subsequent years. By the 2000s, the film was routinely placed on lists of the best horror and best science fiction films of all time. In 2002, a video game inspired by the film was released on Playstation 2 and Xbox. And in 2011, a prequel of the film that was something of a remake was released. The Thing is now widely considered a horror classic.
3. Office Space (1999)
Upon its release in 1999, Office Space, a satire of office work culture, was a disappointment grossing about $10.8 million on a budget of $10 million. Director Mike Judge, best known for the cartoons Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill, moved on to other projects. The film was on the path to being forgotten until Comedy Central aired it. Office Space garnered high enough ratings that the cable channel aired it again. And again. And again. By 2003, the film was a bonafide hit, generating millions of sales on DVD.
4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The musical’s initial release was a disaster. Panned by critics, it drew small audiences and quickly disappeared from theaters. A re-release targeted to college campuses also failed. However, the film had performed well in one place at one time – a midnight showing at the Rialto Theater in London. Fox executives convinced distributors to play the film as a midnight showing throughout the country, and it quickly became a phenomenon.
The campy musical, which features the bisexual crossdressing character Dr. Frank-N-Furter, became a cult hit. Audience members sang along with the film, acted out scenes, and came dressed as characters. To this day, midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show continue in arthouses around the country, and the film’s theatrical gross is now $113 million on a budget of $1.4 million.
5. Heathers (1988)
Michael Lehman’s Heathers, dark coming-of-age comedy, has proved an enduring success. In 2010, it became an off-Broadway musical and inspired a short-lived 2018 TV series. It’s a lot of attention and affection for a film almost no one saw in theaters. Heathers grossed just $1.1 million on a budget of $3 million, leaving theaters after just five weeks. The film’s unusual, darkly comedic tone effectively satirized the typical teenage coming-of-age movie. It quickly found an audience on VHS and cable, becoming a beloved cult classic.
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The Frank Capra classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, generated little buzz when it first was released in 1946. Although well-received by critics, the film lost RKO Pictures about $525,000 and quickly was forgotten. It wasn’t until repeated showings on TV began in the 1970s during the Christmas season that the film became regarded as a beloved classic and one of the greatest films ever made.
7. Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane, the story of a man who inherits a fortune and builds a media empire, wasn’t so much a box office bomb, as a victim of box office sabotage. William Randolph Hearst viewed the film as a thinly veiled portrayal of him and used his vast media empire to try and crush the movie. He barred his newspapers and radio stations from reviewing or even mentioning it. Some theaters, under pressure from Hearst, refused to show it.
As a result, the film underperformed expectations and lost money during its initial run, although later re-released eventually boosted its box office to $1.6 million against a $900,000 budget. By the 1950s the film’s reputation had grown, and it is now regarded by many as one the greatest film ever made – routinely ranking in the top five of such lists.
8. Troll 2 (1990)
Troll 2 is not considered a “great” movie by anyone. It is, however, a terrible film; a hilariously terrible film that has brought joy to many. The film’s original title was “Goblins.” The title was changed to “Troll 2” because there was a movie called “Troll” that made some money. There is no relation between the films, and there are no trolls in this movie! The film is squarely in the “so-bad-it’s-good” camp and built a cult following on VHS and cable. The movie became popular enough with diehard fans to spur occasional theatrical showings. In 2009, the documentary “Best Worst Movie” chronicled the film’s odd journey to a cult classic.
9. Donnie Darko (2001)
Although well-received by critics, Donnie Darko struggled to get into theaters largely because of 9/11. The film features a jet engine from an airplane crashing through the roof of a home – leading the distributor to greatly limit its release in the U.S. and delay its international release. Consequently, Donnie Darko, which follows its main character as he grapples with mental illness and tries to make sense of apocalyptic visions, only grossed $517,000 domestically. It did better overseas, finishing with a $7.5 million box office globally against a $4 million budget.
The film built a loyal fan base through VHS and DVD, and its reputation among critics continued to grow. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly named it the 14th best high school movie ever made, and Empire listed it as the 2nd best independent film of all-time.
10. The Room (2003)
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room has been described as the “Citizen Kane” of bad movies. The film initially grossed just under $2,000 on a budget of $6 million. During its initial release, it was noteworthy for walkouts. Poorly acted, bizarrely constructed, and oddly written – The Room proved to be uniquely hilarious. Wiseau began booking midnight showings, and the film quickly developed a cult following. Actor Greg Sestero, who played “Mark,” wrote The Disaster Artist in 2011, documenting the film’s production. In 2013, James Franco adapted the book into a movie, recreating many of the scenes from The Room and playing Wiseau.
11. The Boondock Saints (1999)
The Boondock Saints, a vigilante action movie, was dismissed by critics as a Quentin Tarantino wannabe. The film bombed badly at the box office, generating about $30,000 on a budget of $6 million. Released on video as a “Blockbuster Exclusive” the film began finding its audience primarily through word-of-mouth. It has now generated millions in sales through repeated releases on DVD and Blu-ray.
12. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai is a difficult film to explain. It’s best described as a sci-fi comedy action-adventure. The film is part of a much larger story, and we, the audience, are dropped into the middle of it. It’s offbeat, funny, and full of ideas. Some find the movie endearing; others find it totally off-putting. When it was released in 1984, it bombed, generating just $6 million in box office against a $17 million budget. The film became a cult hit and developed a loyal following on home video. Over the years, the film has prompted retrospective pieces, comic books, novelizations, and TV shows.
13. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory received positive reviews but disappointing results at the box office. Its theatrical run brought in $4 million against a $3 million budget – finishing as the 53rd highest-grossing film of 1971. Repeated showings on TV and video began to increase its popularity in the 1980s, and in 1996 it was popular enough to garner a theatrical re-release.
14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wizard of Oz was far from a smash hit upon its release. As Collider noted, the film earned about $3 million against a $2.7 million – which, when you add in marketing and distribution, means it likely lost money. Although critically well-received, the film was not embraced by audiences until CBS bought the broadcast rights and began regularly to show it around the holidays. The first time it was shown in the 1950s, The Wizard of Oz garnered monster ratings. In subsequent years its popularity grew, and it became the beloved classic we know it as today.
15. The Shining (1980)
The Shining wasn’t quite a box office bomb, earning $44 million on a $19 million budget, but it certainly wasn’t received as the horror classic it’s considered today. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s only film to receive zero Oscar nominations. Most reviews were tepid, and the film did mediocre business at the box office while earning a profit. Gary Arnold of the Washington Post called it a “ponderous, lackluster distillation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, looms as the Big Letdown of the new film season.
I can’t recall a more elaborately ineffective scare movie.” Over time, the film was critically reassessed. Many images from The Shining (twins in the hallway, the elevator of blood) have sunk into our collective cultural consciousness.