The Top 10 Great Films That Died at the Box Office

August 19, 2010

Over the years, a small number of films have somehow broken out of their cocoon well after their release to entertain audiences the world over. Sometimes a movie doesn’t have to make a billion dollars to be a success.


10. Donnie Darko

Source: Flower Films/Pandora/Newmarket Films

I still can’t believe that I’m like one of four people that actually saw this in the theater. I also find it funny that Donnie Darko was rereleased into theaters back in 2004 and still couldn’t make back its original budget. It’s only made $4,116,307 to date and Richard Kelly originally shot Darko for $4.5 million. Needless to say, it was a financial failure. It also didn’t help things that Darko’s limited release came during the month after the September 11 attacks. Talk about bad luck.

On the flipside, due to a mind-bending plot and a solid soundtrack filled with Tears For Fears classics, Donnie Darko took on a life of its own after failing out of theatres. When Darko dropped on DVD and VHS fanatics of the feature slowly grew like the Blob. Everywhere you turned people were going bonkers about how awesome of a film it was. Even though it may not be everyone’s bag, it’s nice to see a movie that actually lives up to the hype.


9. Office Space

Source: 20th Century Fox

Talk about a film with legs. When it hit theatres back in 1999, Office Space seemed to come and go completely unnoticed. Its tenure in theatres only saw the cult gem take in $824,921 in profit. As far as 20th Century Fox was concerned, they had a serious flop on their hands. What they didn’t know then was that Mike Judge’s masterpiece about cubicle life would shortly go on to become one of the most beloved comedies of all time. I’m not totally sure how this happened so effortlessly, but it proved that box office numbers don’t mean squat when it comes to what a dedicated a fan base can do to a movie once they're able to view it on repeat from the comfort of their own desk.


8. Rushmore

Source: Touchstone Pictures

The saddest thing about the movie business is the fact that it’s more business than art. Rushmore is a perfect example of this. The Wes Anderson masterwork that is Rushmore instantly proved that just because a film was critically acclaimed doesn’t mean it was a success by the studio’s standards.

Rushmore cost $20,000,000 to put together and only made a little over $17 million after a very generous indie release. By looking at how critics praised the film as well as the many award nominations it received, you would have thought that Rushmore was one of the highest grossing films of the late '90s. Sadly, it was not. I really wouldn’t be surprised if the soundtrack ended up making more loot than the film actually did.


7. Big Trouble in Little China

Source: 20th Century Fox

This is hands down one of my favorite action films of all time. John Carpenter’s directing really hit an all-time high and Kurt Russell’s portrayal of the legendary Jack Burton went on to become one of the most ridiculously awesome onscreen performances ever. So how did it all go wrong back in 1986?

Big Trouble cost an estimated $25,000,000 to make but only took in a measly $11,100,000 after all was said and done. Talk about a strikeout, people. That’s a pretty weak performance for a John Carpenter movie starring Kurt Russell in the 1980s. It’s not like the two didn’t have a solid track record leading up to the opening of the film. Escape From New York took in $50,000,000 just 5 years prior to BTILC. I’m not 100% sure why audiences and critics like Roger Ebert dropped the ball on this one, but thanks to numerous late-night reruns on TBS, the Pork Chop Express and Egg Shen forced their way into our hearts. I guess James Cameron's Aliens being released just sixteen days after Big Trouble might have had a little to do with it.

6.  Glengarry Glen Ross

Source: New Line Cinema

Easily one of David Mamet’s finest writing works, Glengarry Glen Ross is American cinema at its finest. With an all-star cast consisting of Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, and Alec Baldwin, it’s hard to see how GGR only made $10,725,228 when it was released in 1992.

Put together for around $12,500,000, it's sad to think that this gem almost got swallowed up by other movies that were more financially successful at the time. Thanks to real film fans and dedicated followers, Glengarry seemed to take on cult status pretty much overnight. Jack Lemmon’s portrayal of Shelley Levene is the stuff of legend, and Baldwin’s "brass balls" monologue could be the greatest of all time.



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5. The Big Lebowski

Source: Working Title Films/PolyGram

The Big Lebowski was made for $15,000,000 but only took in $5,533,844 during the film’s opening weekend. Lebowski went on to rake in a whopping $17,439,163 in the U.S. before dropping out of theatres for good.

With that said, people need to remember that this was the Coen brothers’ follow-up to the extremely successful Fargo. It was a flop to say the least. I vividly remember seeing this in the theater by myself because I couldn’t find anyone else that would go with me. During its time in theatres, The Big Lebowski was neither a financial success nor a critical one. These conclusions all gradually started to ring untrue when the film was finally released for home viewing. Somehow, The Dude began to infect anyone and everyone that decided to buy the ticket and take the ride. I could go on and on about why this is one of the greatest comedies off all time and how the script is near flawless, but I’ll let The Dude, Walter Sobchak, and Theodore Donald Kerabatsos do the talking for me on this one.


4. Fight Club

Source: 20th Century Fox

When taking it all in, it’s completely obvious that the $63,000,000 David Fincher used to make Fight Club was worth every single penny. Too bad U.S. audiences back in 1999 didn’t know that one of the most badass and creative films of all time had just been released right under their very noses. Maybe that’s why the movie only made a little over $37,000,000 during its theatrical release in the States. It's true that the film did see some very solid success overseas, but as far as the U.S. went, Fight Club was just another movie where Brad Pitt got to show off his ripped abs. How wrong we all were. If we only knew that this was going to be our generation’s A Clockwork Orange.


3. The Wizard of Oz

Source: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This may seem nuts to most, but MGM was none too happy after their $2.8 million investment into The Wizard of Oz barely took in $3 million at the box office back in 1939. The now-classic musical did gain an additional $1.5 million after a re-release in 1949, but Oz was not a blockbuster smash when first unveiled at the Strand Theatre in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.

Looking back now, it’s quite obvious that the Judy Garland classic had to be a little over everyone’s head. It's funny that one of the most iconic pieces of cinema Hollywood has to offer was initially a gigantic flop.    


2. Blade Runner

Source: The Ladd Company/Warner Bros.

For being one of the most beloved sci-fi thrillers of all time, Blade Runner was looking like a lost cause when first released back in 1982. Can you believe that a $28,000,000 movie like Blade Runner didn’t even break even after its initial release? Ridley Scott’s visionary film is such a staple in the genre that you would just assume that it’s easily one of the top-grossing films of all time. Wrong.

An obvious reason why it failed at the box office was that its release coincided with other sci-fi films such as The Thing and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both of these features are classics in their own right, but this is freakin’ Blade Runner we’re talking about here. I honestly have complete confidence when saying that, to me, the film is damn near perfect. It has everything you would want in a blockbuster feature and then some. Harrison Ford is also action’s greatest leading man.


1. Citizen Kane 

Source: Mercury Theatre/RKO Pictures

Most consider the 1941 landmark Citizen Kane to be the greatest cinematic feat of all time, but due to a beef with the man Charles Foster Kane was based on, William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles’ crown jewel didn’t make nearly as much of a splash as it should have.

Not only did publishing giant Hearst refuse to accept advertising for the film in his newspapers, it was reported that one chain controlling more than 500 theaters even refused to play Welles' Kane out of fear of what Hearst would do in retaliation. Citizen Kane lost $150,000 during its initial run due to these actions from Hearst. That’s some serious business, yo.

Shot for around $839,727, Kane was initially unable to make back its budget at the box office. This made people consider the film a flop. Kane did go on to nab nine Academy Award nominations, but its somewhat lackluster opening didn’t give it the true unveiling it deserved. What’s AFI's #1 rated film, again?



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