‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975)
After premiering in the U.K. and in a handful of cinemas in North America in 1975, “Rocky Horror” was panned by critics. The resulting low turnout for the movie led to it being pulled from screens during its initial release. It wasn't until New York City’s The Waverly Theater began holding midnight screenings in 1976 and encouraging audience participation that it gained the traction as the phenomenon it is today.
‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)
Now considered one of the greatest films ever made, Orson Welles’ epic didn’t fare so well at the box office. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whom the film was loosely based on, hated the movie so much he banned his newspapers from mentioning it. With a cynical view of the American dream, dark subject matter and complex narrative style, the film put RKO Pictures at a $3-million loss when adjusted for inflation, but still managed to nab nine Academy Award nominations and one win for Best Screenplay.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an indie flick about teenage murder and suicide wasn’t a huge hit. But with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater’s stars rising, “Heathers” became a bona fide cult hit once released on VHS. Endlessly quotable, “Heathers” spawned an Off-Broadway stage musical in 2014.
‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994)
“The Shawshank Redemption” may have held the coveted No. 1 spot on IMDb’s "Top 250 Movies of All Time" list for years, but in 1994, the movie casued little fanfare. The Stephen King adaptation premiered at TIFF in 1994 but, combined with a confusing title, faced competition from box office juggernaut “Forrest Gump” and “Pulp Fiction”. Grossing a disappointing $16 million, the film’s popularity grew based on word-of-mouth and an eventual seven Oscar nominations, which pushed the film to become the top-rented film of 1995.
‘Office Space’ (1999)
Director Mike Judge pinpointed “Office Space”’s failure on poor marketing, telling 'Entertainment Weekly' years later, "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." The office-life comedy eventually gained a second life when it became a top rental on DVD.
‘Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’ (2010)
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” was a box office bob-omb when it was first released. Barely making back half of its $60 million budget, Edgar Wright’s Toronto-set movie received positive reviews for its visual style and cast featuring pre-stardom performances from Chris Evans and Brie Larson. Thankfully, a dedicated fanbase found the film and helped propel it to its cult status, earning far more attention in 2020 on its 10th anniversary than it did at the time of its release. A theatrical re-release for the movie is currently planned.
Based on the popular board game, the campy slapstick comedy didn’t win viewers or critics over when it was released in theatres, failing to break even with ticket sales. With three different endings, “Clue” eventually became a cult classic known for its comedic cast, which includes Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Martin Mull and Michael McKean and now frequently appears on “best of” lists.
‘Fight Club’ (1999)
With a budget of $63 million, David Fincher’s “Fight Club” only made $37 million in ticket sales. With mixed reviews and a marketing strategy that didn’t quite know how to sell the film, “Fight Club” became a target of Rosie O’Donnell. The then-talk show host hated the movie so much she ruined the twist ending on TV. Brad Pitt addressed it on the DVD commentary, saying, “It’s okay she hated it ... it struck some nerve for her whether she wanted to look at that or not, but the deal was, she gave away the ending on national television. It’s just unforgivable.”
“Fight Club” went on to make over $100 million in home video sales.
‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946)
Now considered a Christmas classic, Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” was such a failure it bankrupted the director’s production company after losing millions at the box office due to its not-so-cheery holiday premise. It wasn’t until the film’s copyright lapsed in 1974 and it became part of public domain that it found new life in TV airings where broadcasters could repeatedly air the film for free on their networks.
‘Donnie Darko’ (2001)
Jake Gyllenhaal had only appeared in a handful of roles when he was cast as the lead in “Donnie Darko”. With a complicated plot involving time travel and a plane crash, the film had the misfortune of opening just after 9/11. It wasn’t until the film landed on DVD a year later that it began gaining its cult status, thanks to midnight theatre showings and word of mouth.
Fun fact: Seth Rogen makes his film debut as one of Donnie’s high school classmates.
‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993)
Releasing a Halloween movie in the middle of summer didn’t help “Hocus Pocus” find its audience. Add in a pretty dark narrative co-written by horror icon Mick Garris, the movie may have proven too scary for its intended viewers. Like so many other movies on this list, “Hocus Pocus” became a fan favourite after it was released on home video, becoming a nostalgia-filled favourite -- so much so that Disney+ has announced plans for a sequel.
‘Blade Runner’ (1982)
Production problems and a forced explanatory voiceover by Harrison Ford didn’t help the marketing of “Blade Runner” in 1982. Coupled with the fact that it opened one week after “E.T” hit theatres in a year that also saw “The Thing” (another flop) and “Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan”, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi epic just barely broke even during its cinema run. Now considered a sci-fi epic, the film gained footing with its VHS release and director’s cut. In 1993, the film was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry for being “historically, or aesthetically significant.”
‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998)
Hard to believe that a movie that has inspired its own festival, religion and way of life was a flop but the Coen brothers’ now-classic had the misfortune of being released while “Titanic” was still storming the box office. Mixed reviews didn’t help the Dude’s cause until years later when “The Big Lebowski” found its sweater-wearing fans on the internet who helped turn it into a phenomenon.
‘Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory’ (1971)
“Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory” wasn’t always a family favourite. The film barely broke even at the box office, leading Paramount Pictures to forgo the renewal of its copyright when it expired. Warner Bros. bought the film’s rights for $500,000 in 1977 and licensed it for TV broadcast where it finally found an audience, thanks to repeat viewings and eventual home video sales.
‘Dazed And Confused’ (1993)
With a young ensemble cast of then-mostly unknowns, including Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, “Dazed And Confused” was a niche Texas-set stoner coming-of-age flick largely ignored by audiences. The indie film, however, received glowing reviews and eventually achieved its "classic" status as members of its cast became household names.