20 Brilliant Movies That Bombed At The Box Office

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A movie can flop at the box office for any number of reasons. It could, for example, have had a mismanaged marketing campaign that sold the audience short. Or maybe there were bigger, more mainstream offerings from rival studios released at the same time. But arguably one of the main factors for financial failure is that the movie is, well, simply not very good. Yet there have been some great movies with bad box-office receipts – and here are 20 to revisit.

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20. Donnie Darko (2001)

Cost to make: $4.5 million
Box-office takings: $517,375

Before director Richard Kelly had shot a frame of his cult classic Donnie Darko, he’d been told that the movie would be impossible to market. The logic here, as Kelly told Forbes in 2016, was that “it didn’t fit into any category.” In addition, the film came out less than a month after 9/11. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that its box-office receipts were poor. Still, the movie eventually found an audience who came to adore its bold and fearless storytelling.

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19. Fight Club (1999)

Cost to make: $63 million
Box-office takings: $37,030,102

According to IMDb users, David Fincher’s Fight Club is the tenth-best movie ever made. And on Rotten Tomatoes, the film scores a “certified fresh” rating of 79 percent among critics. So how did such a celebrated movie fail at the box office? Well, film critic Emanuel Levy reported in 2014 that Fincher blamed the advertising department. “Fox marketed Fight Club mostly on the World Wrestling Federation. That’s when I knew we were doomed,” the director reportedly said.

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18. The Iron Giant (1999)

Cost to make: $70 million
Box-office takings: $23,159,305

In 1999 The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called The Iron Giant a “wonderfully gripping” film that was “the height of animation.” What’s more, it seems that almost every other critic – and moviegoer – agreed with him. Yet Brad Bird’s science-fiction movie made little more than a third of its budget back at the box office. And in a behind-the-scenes documentary called The Giant’s Dream, Bird reportedly posited that unusual storytelling choices and a studio going bust were among the reasons for the feature’s failure to launch.

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17. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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Cost to make: $3.2 million
Box-office takings: $6.6 million

Don’t let the above box-office numbers fool you. Why? Because in 2016 the BBC reported that It’s A Wonderful Life was initially over half a million dollars away from breaking even. In this particular case, though, it seems that everybody’s holiday favorite was a victim of bad timing. Certainly, director Frank Capra believed a lull in post-WWII spending was partly to blame for its lackluster performance. However, the movie’s generally downbeat themes may also not have worked for contemporary audiences.

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16. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Cost to make: $150 million
Box-office takings: $92,054,159

Apparently, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 had to make $400 million to be deemed a success. As it turned out, though, the long-awaited sequel to the 1982 cult classic fell way short of this mark. In fact, according to The Hollywood Reporter, it could end up making a loss of $80 million. And apparently all because, as audiences generally agreed, the film is too long and too slow. That’s a shame, too, since the critics were overwhelmingly positive, and the movie even took home a pair of Oscars.

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15. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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Cost to make: $25 million
Box-office takings: $28,341,469

The Shawshank Redemption is sitting pretty as IMDb users’ favorite film of all time. And what’s not to love? It has great performances, a happy ending and a positive message. However, none of that could persuade audiences to come out and see it in theaters. In fact, the movie made less than $1 million in its initial opening weekend. Star Morgan Freeman blamed the film’s title. But director Frank Darabont told Yahoo! Movies that moviegoers likely felt they’d be depressed by a prison-based story.

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14. Children of Men (2006)

Cost to make: $76 million
Box-office takings: $35,552,383

In today’s political climate, many have argued that Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is among the most pertinent films of the 21st century. Perhaps, then, the reason the dystopian thriller didn’t connect with audiences in 2006 is that it was ahead of its time. Or, as website Vulture suggested, perhaps it was because the movie’s marketing was mismanaged. It could even boil down to the fact that the film’s biggest star died right at the beginning. Whatever the case, though, it seems that people are still talking about this underperforming movie over a decade later.

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13. Tomorrowland (2015)

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Cost to make: $190 million
Box-office takings: $93,436,322

The Iron Giant isn’t director Brad Bird’s only box-office failure; Tomorrowland has the dubious pleasure of sharing that honor as well. And according to The Hollywood Reporter, the futuristic fantasy’s poor performance could have resulted in a loss of up to $140 million. Once again, the marketers took some of the blame for audiences missing what Empire magazine called “something funny, surprising and packed full of wonder.”

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12. Colossal (2016)

Cost to make: $15 million
Box-office takings: $3,029,287

Director Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal scores a – ahem – colossal 80 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed, the site’s critical consensus states that the movie is “well worth the ride.” Yet the sci-fi comedy only just about made a fifth of its budget back at the box office. There’s no word on why this came to be, but perhaps the fact that the movie was only released in 327 theaters had something to do with it.

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11. Free Fire (2016)

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Cost to make: $7 million
Box-office takings: $1,799,312

Free Fire, directed by Ben Wheatley, was given a pretty decent release by its distributor, but it failed to do any serious business. Perhaps, though, this was because the action comedy was out at the same time as The Fate of the Furious. After all, the reviews for Free Fire were generally good, with movie site Little White Lies calling it “full-on fun.”

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10. Sorcerer (1977)

Cost to make: $22 million
Box-office takings: $5.9 million

In a 2016 article for Variety, director William Friedkin called Sorcerer “the film of which [he’s] most proud.” That’s quite a big statement from a man who brought us The French Connection and The Exorcist. Still, the thriller failed to find an audience on its release due in part, perhaps, to another 1977 movie. “An existential action film about futility, firmly rooted in reality, was no match for a galaxy far, far away,” Friedkin wrote.

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9. Heathers (1988)

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Cost to make: $3 million
Box-office takings: $1,108,462

The dismal box-office haul for Heathers is in direct contrast to the love that audiences feel for the dark high-school comedy 30 years after its release. Yes, people today adore Michael Lehmann’s cult classic for its ’80s style, seriously dark humor and endlessly quotable dialogue. So why was it missed first time around? According to The Week, “Blame New World Pictures, which failed to find its audience in theaters.”

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8. Grindhouse (2007)

Cost to make: $67 million
Box-office takings: $25,037,897

In 2007 directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez teamed up to bring the world Grindhouse. It was an exploitation double feature that achieved an 83 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes – but this didn’t help the horror movie attract a sizeable audience. Tarantino later reasoned with The Telegraph that “maybe a lot of people just didn’t want to see two movies.” He also told Vulture that the public were simply “uninterested” in the concept.

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7. Dredd (2012)

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Cost to make: $50 million
Box-office takings: $13,414,714

In 2016 Karl Urban pulled no punches when discussing Dredd’s box-office performance. “Dredd represented a failure in marketing,” the star said, according to Yahoo! “The fundamental problem was no one knew it was being released.” After the Pete Travis-directed thriller hit DVD, however, things started to pick up. “It sold 750,000 copies in the first week alone in North America,” Urban said. “It was very clear that the audience had discovered it.”

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6. Citizen Kane (1941)

Cost to make: $839,727
Box-office takings: $1,585,634 (1991 re-release)

When Citizen Kane came out in 1941, it was a dud. Indeed, according to Robert L. Carringer’s The Making of Citizen Kane, the movie made a loss of at least $150,000 at the box office. The potential reasons why Orson Welles’ masterpiece didn’t at first arouse public interest are twofold. For one thing, perhaps WWII audiences were not up for its serious subject matter. For another, William Randolph Hearst – the basis for the movie’s main character – refused to promote it in his newspapers.

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5. Beloved (1998)

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Cost to make: $80 million
Box-office takings: $22,852,487

If one person should have ensured butts on seats for Jonathan Demme’s Beloved, it was its star, Oprah Winfrey. But even Winfrey’s enduring popularity couldn’t convince people to turn out for what critics called a “powerful” and “emotional” movie. However, in a 2017 interview with Vogue magazine, Winfrey claimed that the hard-hitting film was too far ahead of the curve to find its audience. “When [12 Years a Slave] became a hit, I went, ‘Wow… The culture has shifted,’” she said.

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4. Blow Out (1981)

Cost to make: $18 million
Box-office takings: $12 million

Brian De Palma’s Blow Out was seemingly universally praised upon its release. Certainly, critic Roger Ebert loved it, and even the influential Pauline Kael had nothing but good things to say. The political thriller’s star, John Travolta, had had hits with Saturday Night Fever and Grease, so it should have been a box office triumph. Apparently, though, it was bad publicity about the movie’s downbeat ending that saw it falter.

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3. The Insider (1999)

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Cost to make: $68 million
Box-office takings: $28,965,197

Michael Mann’s The Insider got seven Oscar nods and holds a 96 percent “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But Al Pacino, one of the stars of the film, knew why it didn’t connect with the public. “The perception of the film… is that it’s about tobacco and it’s about TV,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1999. And it was this – rather than the movie’s long running time – that the actor believed turned audiences off.
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2. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

Cost to make: $20 million
Box-office takings: $9,496,130

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone, came to an abrupt halt at the box office in 2016. This was despite the boy-band spoof being labeled “an absolute blast” by Empire and receiving generally favorable reviews elsewhere. However, star Andy Samberg told USA Today in 2017 that the movie’s poor showing could have been down to a number of things, including timing and marketing.

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1. Steve Jobs

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Cost to make: $30 million
Box-office takings: $17,766,658

The Financial Times called Danny Boyle’s biographical drama, Steve Jobs, “loudly enjoyable,” and The Guardian said it was “exhilarating.” Unfortunately, though, that praise didn’t translate into box-office gold. But for Boyle, this was down to the release strategy. In fact, in 2015 he told the BBC that the distributors “released it too wide too soon” and “should have built more slowly.”

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