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Romantic Comedies That Bombed At The Box Office But Still Became Cult Classics

When they click with moviegoers, romantic comedies can be one of the most lucrative genres at the box office (via The Numbers). The combination of feel-good sentimentality and charming chemistry between attractive actors is one that's drawn audiences to movie theaters for almost a century, as the prototypes for romantic comedies — the silent films "Sherlock Jr." and "Girl Shy" — came out in 1924 (via The Fordham Observer).

The financial success of titles like the 2022 George Clooney Julia Roberts vehicle "Ticket to Paradise" suggests that this genre won't be slowing down anytime soon (via Variety). But of course, not every romantic-comedy movie is a massive box office success. 

Many romantic comedies fail to catch on with moviegoers for a number of reasons: Perhaps it was poorly marketed, maybe the lead actors weren't famous enough to bring in viewers, or the plot was at odds with the zeitgeist of the time. 

But just because a romantic comedy doesn't catch on in theaters doesn't mean it's doomed to languish in obscurity. On the contrary, many romantic comedies have proven to be beloved cult favorites long after their disappointing theatrical runs have come to a close.

The reasons why these titles eventually took off are as varied as the factors that can lead to one of these movies flopping at the box office to begin with. Often, though, these cult classics find such a big following because of a bold creative spirit that couldn't be stifled even by a lackluster theatrical run. That's the kind of element that always wins over the hearts of moviegoers in the end, so here are the romantic comedies that bombed at the box office but became cult classics.

Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais had his international breakout in the U.K. version of "The Office," so it's not surprising that Hollywood then tried its hand at turning him into a star of the silver screen.

His first turn as a traditional leading man was the 2008 rom com "Ghost Town." Bertram (Gervais) is a closed-off dentist, who can suddenly see ghosts after he briefly dies. He agrees to help the recently deceased Frank (Greg Kinnear) with his unfinished business, which is to break up the engagement of Frank's widow Gwen (Téa Leoni). Bertram gets closer to Gwen and soon discovers that perhaps there's some benefit to letting other people in.

This high-concept film failed to attract many moviegoers and only grossed $29.9 million on a $20 million budget (via The Numbers). Sometimes, it's as simple as the actors that people like to watch on television are just not the same kind of actors people like to shell out money to see on the big screen. However, there was a silver lining to "Ghost Town's" existence. 

It fared well with critics upon its initial theatrical release, which established a positive aura around the comedy that endures to this day. "Ghost Town" is still bringing in new fans, like Frank Cavillo of Cinapse, who notes that there's "a great amount of pathos" to the movie, which makes it "a Capra-esque experience."

Though Gervais couldn't make being a big-screen leading man work long-term — his last foray onto movie theater screens was 2009's "The Invention of Lying" — at least "Ghost Town" has secured some more fans in the intervening years.

So I Married an Axe Murderer

While audiences may have loved seeing Mike Myers play a British spy thrown out of time or voicing a petulant ogre, they weren't initially so enthusiastic when it came to his turn as a rom-com lead in 1993's "So I Married an Axe Murderer."

Charlie MacKenzie (Myers) has a passionate romance with butcher Harriet Michaels (Nancy Travis), which is thrown into chaos when his parents begin to suspect that she's actually an infamous serial killer known as Mrs. X. 

Perhaps it was always going to be difficult to get general audiences on board with such a dark premise, but nobody could've expected how poorly "So I Married an Axe Murderer" would do financially.

This comedy grossed just $11.5 million in its worldwide haul, which was a disastrous sum well beneath earlier Myers star vehicles like "Wayne's World" (via The Numbers). The combination of gallows humor with the wacky tendencies of Myers as an actor just wasn't exciting enough for most moviegoers at the time.

However, that wasn't the end of "So I Married an Axe Murderer." The film got a second life on home video and has endured as a cult classic, with publications like Spin noting that the movie goes against the grain of '90s rom-coms by "placing camp and dark humor at the forefront without sacrificing the endearing romance at its center."

A running gag in "So I Married an Axe Murderer" even helped inspire the 2022 Mike Myers Netflix show "The Pentaverate," an outcome nobody could've seen coming when those initial box office numbers for the film came in (via Distractify).

Long Shot

Seth Rogen has headlined many box office hits like "Neighbors" and "Knocked Up" (via The Numbers), while Charlize Theron has similarly anchored several profitable films like "Prometheus" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" (via The Numbers). So, putting them together in the 2019 romantic comedy "Long Shot" should've been a recipe for an instant box office smash. 

Instead, "Long Shot" was a surprising box office dud. Its worldwide haul sat at just $53.2 million, which was disappointing considering its $40 million budget (via The Numbers).

Fred (Rogen) is a recently unemployed journalist, who reconnects with his former babysitter and crush Charlotte (Theron), who's now running for president. Charlotte hires Fred to be her new speechwriter and despite their seemingly opposing social masks — he's a self-righteous, messy guy and she's a polished politician — they discover an unexpected connection.

Opening this title a week after the record-shattering box office run of "Avengers: Endgame" certainly did it no favors (via Deadline) and the movie's generic marketing didn't help either, as it masked the heart and humor that set this movie apart. 

Just because it didn't make much coin in theaters, though, doesn't mean "Long Shot" was instantly forgotten by the masses. Kelly Conaby of The Cut declared "Long Shot" as "the best romantic comedy of 2019," while The Ringer called it "a delightful place to be for two hours."

It's true that "Long Shot" didn't live up to the box office reputations of its stars, but its positive critical reception and cult following did ensure that it wasn't a poorly received aberration in Rogen and Theron's respective filmographies.

Joe Versus the Volcano

Like all great lighthearted romantic comedies, "Joe Versus the Volcano" begins with death. The film's titular lead, Joe (Tom Hanks), learns he's dying, which would hit harder if his existence hadn't already been so relentlessly shabby. However, he's given the chance to go out with a bang by a millionaire, who offers Joe a chance to perish by throwing himself into a volcano. 

This absurdist project, written and directed by "Moonstruck" screenwriter John Patrick Shanley, stands out in part as the inaugural collaboration between Hanks and Meg Ryan. The two stars later became an iconic romantic comedy pairing thanks to movies like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," but sadly, "Joe Versus the Volcano" was not one of their more lucrative ventures. 

The title grossed just $39.3 million on a $25 million budget (via The Movie Database), which is underwhelming, particularly compared to other Hanks-Ryan vehicles (via The Numbers).

However, a motion picture this enthusiastically oddball was bound to find an audience, even if it wasn't in its initial theatrical run. Roger Ebert originally gave the movie a glowing review, noting that he'd never seen a movie like this before — "new and fresh and not shy of taking chances" — and decades later, others have discovered the same.

In 2020, Collin Souter wrote an essay for Roger Ebert singing the praises of "Joe Versus the Volcano" and the way it smuggles in deeply relatable themes and emotions into such a ludicrous story. While Joe himself is grappling with the imminent prospect of death, the fanbase of "Joe Versus the Volcano" is alive and well.

Punch-Drunk Love

Part of why Adam Sandler developed such a large following as a leading man was due to his headlining typical romantic comedies like 1998's "The Wedding Singer" and 2004's "50 First Dates." With these films, he wasn't just attracting moviegoers looking for ribald laughs; he also proved he was capable of bringing a touch of sweetness to the humor.

However, his 2002 foray into this genre, "Punch-Drunk Love," was a much darker take on the romantic comedy from what fans of Sandler and the genre were used to. The dark approach isn't exactly a surprise, considering it was directed by "Boogie Nights" and "There Will Be Blood" helmer Paul Thomas Anderson.

Barry (Sandler) is a lonely bachelor, who's dealing with a toxic mix of seven overbearing sisters and his own anger issues. Everything changes for him when he meets his sister's coworker Lena (Emily Watson) and he experiences a relationship that he never imagined he could have.

The bleaker tone of "Punch-Drunk Love" combined with its R-rating helped keep many moviegoers away. "Punch-Drunk Love" only made $24.7 million worldwide, which was considerably below the box office hauls of typical Sandler star vehicles in the 2000s (via The Numbers). 

However, even if it wasn't a financial titan, "Punch-Drunk Love" has packed a mighty wallop in its post-theatrical life. In 2017, GQ named it Sandler's best performance, while outlets like Collider have praised the feature for the way it "transcends rom-com clichés" by subverting viewers' expectations for how a romantic comedy can operate.

Just Wright

Physical therapist Leslie Wright (Queen Latifah) has become disillusioned with the world of dating after hitting endless dead-ends on potential dates. Things take a turn when she lands a high-profile gig working with basketball legend Scott McKnight (Common). It's all going swimmingly until the normally cynical Wright starts falling in love with this sports star. McKnight, unfortunately, is not cognizant of Wright's affections and instead turns his attention to Wright's cousin Morgan (Paula Patton). 

"Just Wright" failed to produce a profit theatrically, as it grossed just $21.8 million worldwide on a $12 million budget in 2010 (via The Numbers). The title struggled to attract moviegoers looking for something romantic and sweet in part because it opened on the same day as the Nicholas Sparks adaptation "Letters to Juliet" (via The Numbers).

That kind of competition is hard to overcome, but that doesn't mean "Just Wright" has been forgotten. In recent years, the film has garnered some reappraisals appreciating its better qualities, with Refinery29 calling Latifah "the secret ingredient" of the movie, who is "everything you would want in a rom-com lead."

In 2022, Collider named "Just Wright" as an exceptional example of a romantic movie anchored by Black actors and singled out Latifah as "a leading lady who broke the mold of romantic film leads." It may have been throwing baskets in its theatrical run, but "Just Wright" has been scoring with audiences ever since.

Down with Love

In the early 2000s, Ewan McGregor and Renée Zellweger were at the top of their game in the romantic genre. McGregor had starred in Baz Luhrmann's 2001 musical period piece "Moulin Rouge!," while Zellweger had gotten Oscar nominations for her work as rom-com icon Bridget Jones in 2001's "Bridget Jones' Diary" and Roxie Hart in 2002's "Chicago." 

The two of them together in a romantic comedy should have been box office gold, but Peyton Reed's 2003 flick "Down With Love" turned out to be anything but.

Barbara (Renée Zellweger) is an author whose empowering feminist tome — "Down With Love" — is inspiring women to seek different relationships to men and themselves in the 1960s. She's the voice of independent women everywhere, but notorious playboy and journalist Catcher (McGregor) is determined to expose her for what she really is: a woman looking for love with a man, just like everyone else.

"Down with Love" grossed just $35.4 million worldwide and $20 million in North America (via The Numbers). Part of the problem was timing, as moviegoers looking for laughs went to see "Bruce Almighty" instead, while everyone else was off to see "The Matrix Reloaded." Both of these movies opened within a week or two of "Down With Love," which then didn't have a chance (via The Numbers). 

Since its release, "Down with Love" has garnered a sizable cult following. Its unique 1960s retro aesthetic and zippy atmosphere have made it irresistible to many. Sarah Paulson, who co-stars as Barbara's best friend Vikki, spoke to Vulture about her experience making the film, saying that she "love[s] the idea that the movie landed with the people that love the movie." 

They Came Together

"They Came Together" unites Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler for a rom-com, but this isn't just any entry in the genre. The premise of a sweets store owner (Poehler), who falls in love with a powerful candy company employee (Rudd) is the impetus for a wall-to-wall skewering of rom-coms. 

Director David Wain employs a star-studded cast to lend an absurdist vision of rom-com conventions. The result is a movie that lets everyone from Rudd to Michael Shannon engage with their weird comedy sensibilities. However, committing to this aesthetic didn't do much to boost "They Came Together" at the box office.

In its worldwide box office run, "They Came Together" only grossed a disastrous $82,780 on a $3 million budget (via The Numbers). However, "They Came Together" did have to deal with a decision to simultaneously release it on iTunes the day of its theatrical debut, which limited how many theaters could show it. 

Plus, the works of Wain — like "Wet Hot American Summer" — have always taken a while to gain appreciation from audiences. "We Came Together" has endured as a cult classic, with people like Nathan Rubin appreciating its insightful and subversive interpretation of staples of rom-coms.

Blast from the Past

Many of us feel like we don't belong in the era we live in. But for Adam Webber (Brendan Fraser) in "Blast from the Past," that sense of displacement is a bit more literal. After going into a bomb shelter in the 1960s, Webber has now emerged decades later and finds himself in a wildly different world. The 1990s are overwhelming, but he does find some joy in this new landscape, including a potential romance with Eve Rustikov (Alicia Silverstone).

This high-concept feature didn't make much of an impact at the box office despite opening just before Valentine's Day in 1999. Grossing only $40.3 million on a $35 million budget, "Blast from the Past" was an undeniable box office misfire (via The Numbers). 

This was especially disappointing given that Fraser was hot off the 1997 sleeper hit "George of the Jungle," though he'd regain his box office luster a few months later with "The Mummy" (via The Numbers). 

Though it wasn't initially accepted by audiences, "Blast from the Past's" easygoing and sincere atmosphere has secured it a noticeable fanbase with Podcasting Them Softly calling it a "brilliant, high concept farce ... that should be basking in notoriety to this day."

The resurgence of affection for Brendan Fraser in the modern cinema landscape (via GQ) has also ensured that "Blast from the Past" has secured a second wind that will go well into the future.

What If

Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) has already faced enough trouble grappling with the consequences of dropping out of medical school. But his life gets even more complicated when he strikes up a friendship with Chantry (Zoe Kazan). She's in a committed relationship, but alas, Wallace is also beginning to fall for her. From here, "What If" focuses on Wallace trying to just remain non-romantic with Chantry, a proposition that becomes more and more complicated every day.

Costing $11 million to make but grossing $9.8 million worldwide, "What If" wasn't able to get much of the kind of box office success that greeted Radcliffe's earlier "Harry Potter" movies (via The Numbers).

Dollars and cents weren't the beginning and end of "What If's" life in the pop culture zeitgeist, however. In the years since its debut, "What If" has garnered recognition as a standout film in Radcliffe's filmography, with Cinemablend calling it an "immensely likable, routinely funny and sweetly endearing entree into the lovelorn genre."

The film has found a second life as well on social media thanks to Adam Driver's supporting performance and love of nachos (via Twitter). It wasn't easy for Wallace to navigate his dynamic with Chantry, but it is easy to see why "What If" has managed to outlive its forgettable box office run.


Greg Mottola's "Adventureland" was marketed as something very specific. Its red-band trailer emphasized teenagers delivering sexually lewd one-liners in an attempt to mimic the then-fresh comedy style of Judd Apatow comedies. Riding the coattails of Mottola's directorial smash "Superbad" may have seemed like a good idea in a marketing meeting with studio executives, but it didn't do much to showcase the actual distinct personality of "Adventureland." A bittersweet story of two teens falling in love while working at an amusement park, this feature was so much more than just a knock off of popular late 2000s comedies.

Going this route in the advertising didn't do much favors for "Adventureland" at the box office. Even with a minimal $9.8 million price tag, it ultimately didn't even double its budget in its global theatrical run with a worldwide gross of $17.5 million (via The Numbers). Perhaps audiences felt that it looked derivative compared to other movies in pop culture at the time, so it wound up underperforming financially.

However, it didn't take long for "Adventureland" and its unique tone to garner a considerable fanbase. IndieWire called it a "new classic," noting that the movie has a "sharp sensitivity that makes such a small story feel larger than life." Plus, the presence of Kirsten Stewart in one of her first memorable non-"Twilight" roles further helped it stand out in people's minds. 

Something as unorthodox as "Adventureland" may not be immediately popular, but it's the kind of film that lingers on in the pop culture zeitgeist.