Film Flops That Rose From the Ashes to Become Cult Classics

By Pete Johnson
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Photo Courtesy: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDb; Twentieth Century Fox/IMDb; Twentieth Century Fox/IMDb

The film industry is a cruel business, and chances are if a movie flops, that's the end of the story. But not always. Sometimes, a movie is resurrected down the road.

Through word-of-mouth recommendations, home video sales or online streaming, some films gain unlikely followings they never got in their initial box office runs. Films that flop their way to cult success are pretty rare, but they definitely happen. Here are a few of the very best.

Fight Club

It's hard to believe that Fight Club wasn't always a smash hit. Its punk sensibilities crashed like a brick through the window of a culture that the film accused of having grown apathetic and materialistic. But that message didn't exactly translate into blockbuster sales at the box office.

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On a budget of $63 million, Fight Club barely sneaked away with $37 million. But Fight Club eventually became profitable on home video, where it earned over $100 million, nearly tripling the earnings of its theatrical run. For many, the movie is a rite of passage into adulthood.

It's a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life will forever be considered a Christmas classic at this point. But this wasn't always the case. Released in 1946, just after the end of WWII, it failed to profit and ended up more than $500,000 in the hole. This bankrupted its production company, Liberty Films.

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Photo Courtesy: Liberty Films/IMDb

But just like the film's lucky protagonist, It's a Wonderful Life got a second chance. It was released into the public domain in 1974, which enabled providers to cheaply air it everywhere and win entire generations of new fans.

The Edge of Tomorrow

Virtually every sci-fi fan who finally gets around to seeing The Edge of Tomorrow has the same reaction: Why wasn't a movie this good a smash hit? Often described as "Groundhog Day meets Aliens," the film follows Tom Cruise as his character dies and comes back to life over and over again until he discovers a way to win a war.

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Though it eventually made its money back, it underperformed compared to the studio's expectations. The studio blamed this largely on marketing that failed to attract the sci-fi audience that would eventually come to love it.

The Wizard of Oz

How could a film like The Wizard of Oz, beloved by generations, not have been a top moneymaker in the year it was released? For whatever reason, filmgoers in 1939 barely bought enough tickets for the film to break even.

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But The Wizard of Oz finally followed the yellow brick road to profits when it was re-released in 1949 and 1955. Airing on cable for years, it eventually came out on VHS in 1980, proving there was "no place like home" to cement this film permanently in our pop culture universe.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Reviews for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on Hunter S. Thompson's book of the same name, were mixed. Though some critics lauded it as an entertaining adaptation of the novel, most found it excessive and overwhelming.

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Earning a little over $10 million on an $18 million budget, the story about a journalist's surreal drug-fueled trek across the Vegas landscape flopped. It finally found traction with new audiences after it was released to DVD, where it snorted up additional profits and was rumored to have eventually recouped its losses.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

It seems like every kid in America has seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, so how is it possible this movie flopped? Well, though young movie audiences are slightly more sophisticated now, audiences back then may have found the tale a little dark — remember that bizarre tunnel?

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Photo Courtesy: Wolper Pictures Ltd./IMDb

Kids drop like flies in Wonka's factory, which makes the casual songs celebrating their demise somewhat twisted. Nevertheless, like so many films that faltered at first, its release on video revived fan interest. Since then, both a remake and a broadway musical have been produced.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

If you've never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it's hard to know what to make of it. That’s how audiences in 1975 felt, so they barely coughed up $22,000 to see this film, making it a spectacular flop.

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But the musical was reborn in New York in the midnight movie market, spawning an audience-participation fanbase that made it a hit. Fans dressed in costumes, called out lines, threw toast and danced the "time warp," making the film more of a party than a screening. To this day, it's probably still playing somewhere.

The Shawshank Redemption

Based on a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Redemption did mediocre business when it was released in 1994, suffering mainly from stiff competition from films like Pulp Fiction. Though critics loved it, the movie still barely broke even.

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But fans eventually came around to the story about an innocent man in prison who found ways to "get busy livin' or get busy dyin'." After playing on nearly a continuous loop on cable through the 1990s and 2000s, The Shawshank Redemption redeemed itself and found legions of fans who loved it.

The Iron Giant

What went wrong with the release of The Iron Giant? It's still unclear exactly why this incredible movie wasn't a home run at the box office. Regarded today as one of the best animated movies ever, it totally tanked on its release, earning $23 million on a $75 million budget.

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It may have suffered as one of the last traditional 2D animated movie releases. Others blamed the lackluster marketing. But critics loved it, and fans have since made it one of the most popular and beloved children's stories of all time.

Blade Runner

In 1982, a sci-fi movie starring Harrison Ford must have seemed like a sure thing. Visually stunning and provocative, Blade Runner was a breakthrough. But it barely made its money back, earning $33 million on a $28 million budget.

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Blade Runner had the random misfortune of being released at the same time as E.T. and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, both incredible sci-fi smash hits. Luckily, the home video release resurrected Blade Runner's popularity and grew its reputation as a classic. A critically acclaimed sequel was released in 2017.

Vertigo

Hitchcock was a suspense hit-making machine back in the day, and anything attached to his name seemed destined for box office gold. But Vertigo underperformed and was one of Hitchcock's least successful films in his canon.

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Hitchcock later blamed leading man Jimmy Stewart for the film's tepid earnings, saying that he was probably too old for a romance with young Kim Novak, who was still in her twenties. But time was very kind to Vertigo, which is now regarded as a suspense masterpiece after several re-releases and availability on home video.

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko is not an easy film to digest or explain. Its gloomy plot relies heavily on surreal elements and confusing notions of time travel. A creepy, man-sized bunny is also thrown in the mix, lending a dose of the macabre.

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It totally crashed at the box office, grossing a little over $500,000 on a $4.5 million budget. Still, critics always loved it, and fans slowly discovered the film on home video. It has since earned cult movie status, with a director's cut re-release and brisk DVD sales.

Clue

It seems like a movie based on a board game can't be good. But Clue is a comedic classic, expertly melding cheesy mystery and campy characters along with a hysterical performance by Tim Curry. It was also released with several different endings, with different killers and scenarios in each one.

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But critics hated it, and it only made $14 million on a $15 million budget. Clue eventually recouped its money in VHS sales, where it was being offered at a heavy discount compared to other VHS offerings of the era.

Showgirls

Some movies are like bad car accidents — audiences will line up just to see the smoldering wreckage. Such is the case of Showgirls, a movie so awful it's actually kind of funny. Costing $45 million, it barely made back $20 million in its initial theatrical run.

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Still, it eventually found an audience that loved to mock it, and it later recouped $100 million in midnight releases and home video sales. An NC-17 rating with excessive nudity and garish melodrama proved to be a winning formula. Sometimes, bad taste just sells.

Slither

Horror comedies are tough to pull off, but Slither gets plenty of hysterical laughs to go along with its over-the-top gore. In the story, a small town is invaded by parasitic creatures from outer space that transform their unwilling human hosts into horrifying abominations.

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Unfortunately, it failed on the financial front, earning just over $12 million on a $15 million budget. But with an awesome sense of humor similar to Tremors, Slither found eager new fans on the home video market. It has since become a quirky underground hit.

Big Trouble in Little China

When a blue-collar trucker tries to rescue his friend's fiancee, he confronts supernatural forces in the caverns deep beneath Chinatown. It's a goofy premise full of cheesy special effects and hilarious one-liners, the kind of quirky story that could easily become an American hit.

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But Big Trouble in Little China faltered, grossing $11 million on a $30 million budget. Fans later theorized it suffered going head to head with Aliens. Regardless, it aged like a fine wine, with enthusiastic action-comedy fans gobbling it up on the home video market.

The Big Lebowski

The Coen brothers are known for their eccentric comedies, and The Big Lebowski has been proven to be a fan favorite. But it didn't start out that way. Despite the Coen brothers' name, the movie did only modest business, earning back its budget but vastly underperforming against expectations.

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But the movie was extremely quotable and found a cult following soon after it was released on home video. The story of a dude who gets unwittingly involved in a sinister plot while trying to get his rug back has become comedy gold.

Heathers

Not everybody knew how to take Heathers, a pitch-black comedy involving the heroine trying to kill the most popular girls in high school. It's hard to tell who’s more sociopathic: the good guys or the cliquey snobs who become the targets.

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Seen in retrospect as a genius comedy, its initial run saw it recoup only half of its $2 million budget. But the script was sharp and edgy for its time, steeped in great, cynical one-liners. Earning word-of-mouth popularity over the years, it has become a teen movie classic.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

It seems odd that this one was ever turned into a film in the first place. The source material comes from a black and white comic series of the same name, tracing the romantic misadventures of Scott Pilgrim as he battles his new girlfriend's seven exes.

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Scott Pilgrim lives in an altered comic book- and video game-heightened reality, where enemies turn into piles of coins when defeated. Stylistic and fun, the movie bombed on its initial release but had enough quirky staying power to find legions of home video fans down the road.

Brazil

Terry Gilliam has a reputation for taking on fantastical scripts, and Brazil is one of his masterpieces. The world of Brazil is a dystopian society, one ruled by a dark and inefficient bureaucracy that has total control over everyone's lives. Though critics absolutely loved it, moviegoers were a little unsure, delivering only about $9 million in ticket sales on the film’s $15 million budget.

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Filled with nightmarish images and disturbing sequences, it nonetheless earned massive popularity in the long run for being an anti-establishment film steeped in imaginative production design.

Office Space

An anthem for bored office workers everywhere, Office Space has become iconic in cubicle culture. With the help of hypnosis, the hero rebels against his corporate overlords and plots his revenge, starting with a public beatdown of a malfunctioning fax machine.

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Though it barely made back its $10 million investment, subsequent home video sales raked in an additional $7 million. It's evolved into a classic, and its smarmy boss has become the star of one of the internet's more popular memes. As long as people hate Mondays, they'll love Office Space.

Wet Hot American Summer

Wet Hot American Summer has one of the weirdest trajectories as a comedic franchise. Originally released in 2001, it follows the romantic misadventures of a group of campers and camp counselors in the summer of 1981. Though a critical darling, it earned an embarrassing $295,000 on a small $1.5 million investment.

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But comedy fans eventually discovered the film and glommed onto it. Fourteen years after the original’s release, it grew enough fans to inspire Netflix to produce a two-season television series based on the franchise starring the same actors.

Dredd

After the turkey that was the Sylvester Stallone version of Judge Dredd in the ‘90s, it's amazing anyone took a risk on a reboot. The story is based on a comic book about an officer in a dystopian future who serves as judge, jury and executioner.

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The 2012 version is a masterpiece of action and style, but that couldn't stop it from only earning $35 million on a $50 million budget. But, in the home video market, it earned $20 million more, meaning a sequel is a strong possibility.

Dazed and Confused

It's the last day of high school in 1976, and the kids of Dazed and Confused spend that day either avoiding painful initiations or chasing girls and contraband. There's not much of a plot as you follow different groups wandering from one place to the other.

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It had a lukewarm performance at the box office, barely earning its money back. But it also launched Matthew McConaughey into stardom and later earned cult popularity as a film celebrating vibrant and hedonistic youth culture. Director Richard Linklater considers his film Everybody Wants Some!! a "spiritual sequel."

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

There's weird, there's odd and then there's The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Buckaroo Banzai is a neurosurgeon, physicist and rock star who teams up with a motley crew to stop alien invaders.

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You must admit that that’s a confusing logline, and audiences seemed to avoid the quirky adventure. It earned back only about half of its $12 million budget. But time has been kind to this unique creation as it slowly gained popularity among sci-fi fans to finally reach cult status. Eccentric and earnest, it's worth a watch.

Boondock Saints

Chances are if you know any guys from Boston, they've definitely seen Boondock Saints. An unlikely hit, it follows the adventures of two devout Irish Catholic brothers who take revenge on the criminal underworld in Boston for murdering their priest.

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The business of this movie is bizarre, as it was screened for only one week in limited release, earning barely $30,000. But a genius deal with Blockbuster saved the film, earning it over $50 million in rental sales. Director Troy Duffy later created a sequel, which bombed miserably.

Empire Records

Empire Records is one of those movies that just makes you miss the ‘90s. The film portrays a young group of twenty-somethings as they work in an independent record store that’s threatened with a corporate takeover.

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Audiences weren’t kind in the beginning, ponying up a paltry $300,000 for a movie that cost $10 million. But you can't keep the legacy of a good movie down, and its anti-corporate messaging had staying power with film fans, particularly among teens. As a 1990s time capsule, it's hard to beat.

The Room

What can one say about (arguably) the best worst movie ever made? The irony is that The Room is so bizarrely written and so amateurishly produced that fans paid for tickets just to heckle it.

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In a bit of marketing sorcery, writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau screened the film in a series of limited releases to capitalize on its novelty, eventually earning over $5 million on a $6 million budget. Later, the story behind the movie was made famous in The Disaster Artist, a book and hit film starring James Franco.

Mallrats

Kevin Smith has a unique style, and although everyone is familiar with his films now, back in 1995 he was still establishing himself. Fresh off the success of Clerks, Smith tackled Mallrats, a film that shares the same universe and follows its young characters hanging out at the local mall.

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The critics savaged it. Ultimately, it only earned about $2 million on a $6 million budget. But because it’s part of the View Askew universe, both its characters and the movie itself have retained cult status over the years.

Citizen Kane

It's truly ironic that a movie hailed as one of the best films ever made struggled at the box office. Director and star Orson Welles' masterpiece is loosely based on the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.

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Hearst was largely responsible for its misfortune. He threatened many distributors with libel lawsuits if they screened the film and prevented many papers from advertising it. Ultimately the film earned about $1.5 million on a budget of just over $800,000. On many critics' lists, it's considered the best American film.