Legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said that in Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” That is — if something works, there’s no guarantee it’ll keep on working forever. Which is why we have infamous box office bombs.
A $120 million picture can receive all the rave reviews in the world. And yet it still might not manage to earn back the total cost of production. Conversely, an independent $13 million film can collect over $300 million at the box office. Not only that, but it could even become a larger discussion within pop culture, as 2010’s Black Swan did.
There used to be a time when attaching big stars to movies guaranteed box office success. These days, it’s much more difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes people race to their local movie theater and shell out the price of admission. Nowadays, perhaps it’s if the director is really famous. Maybe because Emma Stone is in it. Or quite possibly Goldman was right, and luck is behind it all.
Worry not, though: that’s for big shot movie executives to find out. The important thing to remember is that a film’s box office performance isn’t directly proportional to its artistic merits. Heck, Adam Sandler’s auter masterpiece Grown Ups enjoyed a payout of more than $270 million against a modest $80 million budget.
Below, we’ve compiled a list of movies that didn’t do so well upon their release but are still worth watching.
Blade Runner 2049
Even before its release, Blade Runner 2049 already had all the makings of a hit. Arrival and Sicario director Denis Villeneuve was going to direct; the film would serve as the much-awaited follow-up to Ridley’s Scott’s sci-fi cult classic Blade Runner, released in 1982 to modest financial success; and Harrison Ford was returning to reprise his role.
Sadly, Blade Runner 2049 still bombed at the box office despite having multiple ingredients for surefire success. Earning only $259.2 million against a dense budget of around $150 to 185 million, the film was an ROI disaster for Columbia Pictures and the other production companies who worked on the picture.
While its financial reaps was as bleak as the future it depicts, Blade Runner remains one of the best-reviewed sci-films, and films in general, of all time. As visually astonishing as its predecessor — the film won two Oscars: Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects — and as philosophically bold, Blade Runner 2049 borrows the very best elements from its source material and gives us an equally impressive and highly satisfying sequel.
Director: Denis Villeneuve – Screenplay: Hampton Fancher, Michael Green – Cast: Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas – Run Time: 2h 44m
A Cure for Wellness
Here’s a film that that defies easy categorization. It’s called A Cure for Wellness, released in 2017 and made by Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski , and it’s about, well, a spa treatment center?
There’s gothic twists, macabre imagery, and some fantastic underwater sequences in this novelistic tale about a young executive who gets sent to a wellness center in a Swiss Alps remote. The turns are a bit too scholocky for our taste, and the screenplay could have gone through a rewrite or two — but the visuals here are nothing short of solid, even darkly whimsical.
Unfortunately, a twist-heavy plot and spellbinding images do not account for a film that many audiences want to see. With a box office gross of $26.6 million, it barely recouped its $40 million budget, which was already pretty modest considering the scope and scale of its imagery.
Director: Gore Verbinski – Screenplay: Justin Haythe, Gore Verbinski – Cast: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth – Run Time: 2h 26m
The first thing you should know about Annihilation is that it’s gifted with one of the most eerily memorable scores of all time, care of Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. That alone is reason enough to make you press play on this trippy Alex Garland Alex masterpiece on Netflix.
While we’re on the subject of Netflix, it’s worth noting that video streaming likely killed any chance of overseas success Annihilation might have had.
Netflixed scooped this one up shortly after it premiered in U.S. theaters, which means two things: non-stateside folks only got to see it on the small screen — what a waste — and it’s difficult to tally what its exact earnings are, as Netflix doesn’t share viewership data.
That’s too bad, since this psychedelic monster-ish movie, adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s cult novel, is one of the most eccentric cinematic works in recent years. Annihilation follows a group of women as they investigate the highly mysterious “Area X” and discover bizzaro creature fusions, plant mutations, and all sorts of otherworldly phenomena.
With multi-dimensional characters, strong performances, visually striking images, and a complex existential question at its core, Annihilation seems poised to be crowned a cult classic in the years to come. You better watch it now before everyone finds out it’s cool.
Director: Alex Garland – Screenplay: Alex Garland – Cast: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson – Run Time: 2h 55m
Requiem for a Dream
Praised as one of the few films that don’t romanticize drug abuse, Requiem for a Dream now belongs to a canon of cinematic works that enjoy being the subject of dissertations, analysis, and case studies. But upon release, the film was largely ignored and ended up earning a grand total of $7.4 million, barely recouping its $4.5 million budget.
The film, which stars Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans, is a grimy and cerebral take on substance abuse, exposing the psychological turmoil of people fraught with addictions. Much can be said about this film’s artistic merits. From its downcast, depressing film score to its clipped, stutter-like splicing of macro shots to its terrific performances, it’s basically an auter’s lunch box.
Go see it now if you haven’t yet. Make sure to do it on a Friday — trust us, you’re going to need the rest of the weekend to decompress, as this film is super depressing the film is.
Director: Darren Aronofsky – Screenplay: Hubert Selby Jr. – Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly – Run Time: 1h 42m
Globally, Fight Club managed to earn a whopping $100.9 million, but domestically, it only collected $37 million, which is a shame against its $63 million budget.
Not too bad, though, all things considered. Especially considering that Fight Club has since become one of the most talked-about films of the last decade, which is really ironic because as we all know, the first rule of fight club is you do not talk about Fight Club.
Though now it consistently enjoys meaty discussion in the context of our current zeitgeist, Fight Club was a box-office disaster for director David Fincher and the movie’s distributor, 20th Century Fox. Fox pushed back the premiere date multiple times and struggled on a marketing campaign, blowing millions of bucks in the process.
Now, such woes are largely forgotten, with Fight Club firmly embedded in popular culture as the “edgy” film that’s required watching for bro-dude feeling the incipient pangs of an existential crisis.
Director: David Fincher – Screenplay: Jim Uhls – Cast: Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Meat Loaf – Run Time: 2h 19m
The Shawshank Redemption
Here’s yet another film that wasn’t recognized as a masterpiece in its time. Because this movie’s post-hype is so enormous, you’re probably surprised to know that The Shawshank Redemption actually didn’t do so well at the box office.
Despite its legacy, Frank Darabont’s picture was met largey with shrugs when it premiered in 1994. While Goldman says nobody knows anything in the movie-making business, Darabont thinks the film’s underwhelming financial performance stemmed from it being a prison story and people looking at the trailer going, “Oh, this is going to bum me out.”
“If it’s Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, then it looks like a spoonful of medicine. So people didn’t show up,” the director said in a conversation with Yahoo movies. Fair enough. Make sure not to miss this heartfelt adaptation of a Stephen King classic, though.
Director: Frank Darabont – Screenplay: Frank Darabont – Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton – Run Time: 2h 22m
The Tree of Life
Unlike the other movies in this list, the fact that The Tree of Life bombed at the box office is not at all surprising. Already the title portends to a two-hour mind-numbing adaptation of dense philosophical prattle about life and its origins, and who wants to watch that?
In reality, this Terrence Malick film is not at all mind-numbing. It’s still highly philosophical, sure, but in a way that prioritizes sensuality over symbolism, because cinema, no matter how you look at it, is more a medium of impression; of interpretation, less so.
Who cares if it only garnered $61.7 million against a budget of $32 million (actually not pretty bad, by the way)? The important thing is that we have this gem of a magnum opus for keeps. An understated dramatic work about past, present, and everything in between, The Tree of Life is a treasure chest brimmed with merriment, wonder, and infinite fascination.
Sad to say people didn’t turn out for this hours-long visual poem. But you can correct that error by watching it on Netflix this instant!
Director: Terrence Malick – Screenplay: Terrence Malick – Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain – Run Time: 2h 19m
Letters From Iwo Jima
Although it was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima failed to rake in significant numbers at the box office. Released two months after Flags of Our Fathers, Clint Eastwood’s World War II drama, this film acts as a companion piece that explores the Battle of Iwo Jima as the Japanese soldiers saw it.
Focusing on the Private First Class, the film paints the Japanese as nothing short of noble, heroic, and honorable as their American counterparts. Ken Watanabe, here playing the commanding general, is one of the film’s highlights — but the entire cast, with their humanistic portrayals, nonetheless shines and turns Letters From Iwo Jima into one of the most narratively thought-provoking war films in contemporary times.
Director: Clint Eastwood – Screenplay: Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis – Cast: Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyoshi Ihara – Run Time: 2h 21m
Children of Men
Children of Men, by Alfonso Cuarón, is a dystopian science-fiction film following one man’s mission to protect a woman. The plot seems simple enough, but note that the woman in question is no ordinary woman. She’s the first to bear a child in nearly 18 years.
Loosely adapted from the P.D. James novel of the same name, Children of Men is set in a future where decades of human infertility have left society on the brink of collapse. Theo (Clive Owen), an activist lured back into fighting against the British Army, must help Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) get away from all this tumultuous chaos.
Grossing $70 million globally, Children of Men barely made its $76 million budget back, a definite box office failure. Still, it’s one of the most enduring cinematic pieces in recent years, and with the help of artful iconoclast Cuarón, it also helped elevate the speculative sci-fi genre to new heights.
Oh, and did we mention it has one of the most tantalizing long-takes in the history of cinema? Watch out for it!
Director: Alfonso Cuarón – Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby – Cast: Julianne Moore, Clive Owen, Chiwetel Ejiofor – Run Time: 1h 49m
Dazed & Confused
In 1993, Richard Linklater was still years away from making the phenomenal Boyhood, which would eventually put him on the map as one of the most unique filmmakers we have in this generation. So, suffice it to say that in 1993, he was still a dear little underling making largely overlooked independent movies — great ones, though.
Just like the little-known Dazed & Confused, which, while a box office bomb, remains one of the most earnest, sincerest, and authentic coming-of-age comedies. It’s also fair to call it a springboard for actors who would later turn out to be massive stars.
Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, Parker Posey, and Matthew McConaughey, just to name a few, all starred in this film before going on to do career-making projects. While they’re all hot shots now, it’s always nice to return to humble beginnings. After all, Dazed & Confused is about the post-high school ennui teenagers face as they begin transitioning into adulthood.
Director: Richard Linklater – Screenplay: Richard Linklater – Cast: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey – Run Time: 1h 42m
Only Lovers Left Alive
Chances are you don’t know who Jim Jarmusch is, which most likely means you haven’t watched any of his unique movies. One of them is called Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire drama set in Detroit.
While the film starred two exceptionally gifted actors as leads, namely Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive still failed to make a splash at the box office. Hard to say why. Perhaps it’s just bad timing — there wasn’t really a rousing demand for vampire flicks in 2013. Maybe Jarmusch was too heavy-handed on the film’s main themes: love, death, and the passage of time.
Or maybe — just maybe — Goldman was right. Cinema is a risk, guys. Write that down.
Director: Jim Jarmusch – Screenplay: Jim Jarmusch, Marion Bessay – Cast: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska – Run Time: 2h 3m
Martin Scorsese’s love letter to cinema failed to attract massive audience turnouts, bringing in a lackluster $185.8 million gross against a budget of $150 to 170 million. In other words, Hugo was a box office disaster.
What a shame, especially since Scorsese did what everyone thought was impossible: take a break from mob violence to make a quieter movie of incredible sentimentality. Hugo is perhaps the most thematically removed film from the director’s canon — one about the titular kid (Asa Butterfield) tracing his own origin story and at one point uncovering early 20th-century movie history while at it.
Hugo was clearly Scorsese’s ode to moving pictures, his way of professing love to one of the greatest art forms of our time. Though audiences didn’t care enough back then to watch this while it was in theaters, it’s still as haunting, wonderful, and gut-wrenchingly heartfelt as it was on first premiere.
Director: Martin Scorsese – Screenplay: John Logan – Cast: Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Lee – Run Time: 2h 6m
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Before Scott Pilgrim vs. the World came out, no one had made anything like it before: a silly, offbeat, and cinematically clever movie that was no mere adaptation, but far and away the smartest graphic novel-to-film translations ever.
Here, instead of using tricks of the trade, Edgar Wright invents them. Quick succession of cuts superimposed with comic book-style text? Check. Rapid shots combined with succinct editing to evince a lively and supple narrative pace? Check. Visual gags on par with Charlie Chaplin’s antics? Check, check, check.
No other comic book adaptation even comes close to the brilliance of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Wright not only developed a visual style befitting the absurdist humor of the Scott Pilgrim graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley, he also did it in such a way that other comic book movies now just pale in comparison.
Only a handful of folks went to see it in the theaters, unfortunately, which explains why it only made $47.7 million against a budget of $85 to 90 million. Had it earned more, we probably would have gotten a sequel. How cruel is this world?
Director: Edgar Wright – Screenplay: Michael Bacall, Edgar Wright – Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin – Run Time: 1h 52m
David Fincher was supposed to direct this biopic about the late Apple co-founder but he bailed for reasons unbeknownst to us, so Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle, stepped in to save the day.
He did save the day, in fact. Steve Jobs, despite its early production woes, ended up being a smart and savvy film about the man behind the machines. It went to on to receive critical acclaim on top of everything, too, and it even enjoyed a successful awards circuit run. However, it seemed audiences didn’t care enough about the Mac maker to go and see it.
The film only earned $34.4 million against a budget of $30 million, which, if you include the costs involved in marketing it, basically means it was a box-office failure. Still, the film is an irresistible behind-the-scenes look at one of the most revered men on the planet, emboldened by a taut screenplay by Aaron Sorkin that captures the whiz-bang but illusory luster of Silicon Valley.
Director: Danny Boyle – Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin – Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen – Run Time: 2h 2m
In 1989, Michael Lehmann made Heathers, starring two of the most endearing stars at the time: Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.
Given that it centers on a teen suicide and murder set among a dysfunctional high school, this film would probably never get made in this and age. We don’t really need to, though, and we probably can’t make another movie just like it.
Heathers, on surface a somewhat silly film with hints of twee, is actually a stirring satire about how ridiculous cliques are. This was proto-Mean Girls, and it served as the template for all angst-themed high school flicks that would follow.
Heathers didn’t make any money, sad to say. But through word of mouth, VHS, and DVD, the film eventually found a cult audience: viewers who aren’t afraid to watch a compelling high school-themed drama that doubles as sharp social commentary.
Director: Michael Lehmann – Screenplay: Daniel Waters – Cast: Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Shannen Doherty – Run Time: 1h 43m
Big Trouble in Little China
This adventure film starring Kurt Russell was, well, an attempt. Mostly by John Carpenter, who clearly wanted to fuse all sorts of genres to make an action-packed, high-octane film. You’ll see touches here lifted from monster horror films, adventure stories, and even Kung Fu.
Sadly, the film never made a mark at the box office and remains largely forgotten today, although it has since been regarded a cult classic among fans.
Those who love post-Big Trouble in Little China John Carpenter has this film to thank for the director’s reinvigorated verve, by the way, as this was the film that, for Carpenter, crumbled his illusions of Hollywood grandeur and convinced him to return to independent cinema. That’s the reason we have the phenomenal cult classic They Live, so be gracious.
Director: John Carpenter – Screenplay: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter – Cast: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun – Run Time: 1h 39m
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Chances are you’ve never heard of this little independent darling, adapted from Jesse Andrews’ 2012 novel of the same name. It brought tears at the 2015 Sundance Festival, and even won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, but was forgotten shortly thereafter.
That’s a shame, since Me and Earl and the Dying Girl stands as one of the most poised, unsentimental, yet still deeply heart-wrenching films about dying. Whereas The Fault In Our Stars was too treacly and assiduous in its romanticism of cancer, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is ostensibly nonchalant about it, but never tactless.
Sadly it only managed to earn $9.1 million against a budget of $8 million. Even still, it remains as superbly written portrait of teenagers bound by genuine friendship. It’s that rare coming-of-age movie that feels made by people who are kids at heart, and thus, it doesn’t feel any bit condescending.
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – Screenplay: Jesse Andrews – Cast: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke – Run Time: 1h 45m
Try as you might, you probably will never find out just what Donnie Darko is about, and trust us, that’s a good thing. Dark, inexplicable eerie is this cult classic’s signature quality. Those searching for answers to this day are completely missing the point — Donnie Darko is all about letting mystery remain mystery.
Of course, seeking answers is a natural impulse, and perhaps it’s even Donnie Darko’s innate weirdness that put off people when it first came out in 2001. It’s generated a sizable cult following since, and is seen by many as a special piece of cinema that can’t be categorized easily. Oh, and did we mention it has a pretty excellent soundtrack, to boot? Tears For Fears, baby.
Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role, not to mention the creepiest bunny ever, Donnie Darko was maybe a bit too “out there” for its time. As such, the film performed poorly in America, but surprisingly almost made its budget back thanks to screenings overseas.
Director: Richard Kelly – Screenplay: Richard Kelly – Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Mary McDonnell – Run Time: 1h 53m