Box office bombs that somehow became cult classics

Every once in awhile, a movie comes along that slips under the radar, only to become massively popular with fans months (or even years) later. Some are critically acclaimed and others fall into the "so bad they're good" category, but there's one thing they all have in common: they bombed at the box office. Let's take a look back at some movies everyone thought were flops before they achieved cult classic status.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

It may be considered one of the all-time classic films today, but The Shawshank Redemption didn't attract much attention when it was first released. This wasn't due to bad reviews; on the contrary, Shawshank was praised by most contemporary critics. The main issue the film had gaining traction in theaters was due to the competition—it opened in only 33 theaters over its first weekend, and by time it had a wider release in its fourth week, it was pitted in a losing battle against more popular releases like Pulp Fiction, The Specialist, and The River Wild. It ended up only making $28 million in theaters, against its $25 million budget.

Although it was nominated for seven Academy Awards—without any wins—and it became a success in the video rental market, it wouldn't be until 1997 that The Shawshank Redemption really came into its own. That year, Ted Turner acquired Castle Rock Entertainment (and the rights to Shawshank), and subsequently started playing it almost daily on his flagship channel, TNT. Turner's marketing ploy worked, and the movie gained legions of fans. The Shawshank Redemption would eventually go on to earn recognition as an all-time great, consistently topping the IMDb "Top 250" list since 2008. It was added to the U.S. Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2015.

Highlander (1986)

While today it's considered one of the best sword-and-sorcery fantasy films of the '80s, Highlander wasn't terribly well-received when it premiered in 1986. Despite having a lot going for it—like Sean Connery's star power and a soundtrack provided by Queen—moviegoers and critics just didn't have many positive things to say about Highlander. It would earn $12.9 million at the box office, which didn't come close to recouping its production costs of $16 million. Once Highlander was released for the video-rental market, it did much better with viewers and eventually gained a cult following.

The fanbase grew so large that high demand eventually resulted in the creation of five sequel films, a live-action television series that ran for six seasons, a series of books, and even comics. That's not all—a new comic series based on Highlander is slated for 2017, and rumor has it that John Wick director Chad Stahelski will be taking the helm for a proposed Highlander reboot. While we have high hopes for the reboot, it's doubtful whether it will be able to beat the original. After all, there can be only one.

The Boondock Saints (1999)

If it hadn't been for now-defunct video rental chain Blockbuster, The Boondock Saints never would have stood a chance. The film did abysmally during its original theatrical run, primarily due to an extremely limited release. In the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, violence in films was a touchy subject in Hollywood and for theater owners. As a result, The Boondock Saints was only shown in five U.S. theaters upon its release, earning just $30,000 domestically. It did a little better internationally, but the total gross earnings of $411,000 didn't come anywhere close to recouping the $6 million budget.

Thankfully for the cast and for writer/director Troy Duffy, Blockbuster Video came to save the day, striking a deal with distributor Indican Pictures to distribute Saints on video as a "Blockbuster Exclusive." The movie soon gained a massive cult following, bringing in over $50 million in DVD/Blu-ray sales. It became so popular that it spawned a sequel in 2009, and rumor has it that a television series based on the Saints is also moving ahead—without the original stars, Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flannery.

Heathers (1988)

If you're a child of the '80s, you've likely seen this black comedy film directed by Michael Lehmann—but we can almost guarantee that you probably didn't see it in theaters. Heathers boasted some major young talent, including Winona Ryder and Christian Slater (not to mention future 90210 star Shannen Doherty), but in spite of the cast's efforts, it performed abysmally at the box office, only earning $1.1 million in theaters against a reported $3 million budget. After its VHS release in 1989, the home rental and sales market transformed Heathers into a cult classic, with multiple special edition DVD and Blu-ray versions released over the ensuing years.

Event Horizon (1997)

Not even the combined star wattage of Sam Neill and Laurence Fishburne could keep Event Horizon from sinking at the box office. This suspenseful sci-fi film received unfavorable reviews when it was first released, and earned an abysmal $26.7 million at the box office—losing over $30 million along the way. While theatrical audiences were turned off by the prevalent gore in the film, it eventually found its niche among sci-fi fans on the home release market. Our only regret is that we will likely never see the director's cut: the footage removed from the theatrical version was reportedly scrapped by the studio, and the only remaining copy is on VHS.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

When The Big Lebowski hit the big screen in the United States, it was met with a lukewarm response. The movie only grossed $17 million domestically, which barely covered the $15 million budget. However, the Dude went on to gross another $28 million internationally and grew into a legend after arriving on home video. It became a defining role for star Jeff Bridges, has been the focus of persistent sequel rumors, and even spawned its own annual festival, the Lebowski Fest.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter's The Thing faced an uphill battle: Steven Spielberg's E.T. had been released just two weeks before, and it debuted the same day as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. As a result, The Thing only made $3 million during its opening weekend and went on to gross only $19 million during its theatrical run. Compared with a budget of $15 million and poor contemporary reviews from critics, The Thing was a definite failure for Universal Pictures.

But as would later prove to be the case with Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China and They Live, a disappointing theatrical run wasn't the end for The Thing. It would eventually find a major following among horror fans, becoming yet another cult classic on Carpenter's resumé. It's been named among the scariest films of all time and has spawned numerous other works—including a novel, comic books, a video game, and an ill-advised 2011 prequel (directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.) that had no chance of standing up to the original.

Office Space (1999)

Office Space marked Beavis & Butt-Head creator Mike Judge's first foray into live-action film, and he had to contend with Fox studio executives trying to butt in on the production process. While the movie only barely recouped its budget at the box office, the home market was another story completely. As of 2003, it had racked up a whopping 2.6 million in combined sales between its VHS and DVD releases, and that number has only continued to climb.

Dredd (2012)

Even though it essentially had a built-in fanbase from the original Judge Dredd comic books and the 1995 film starring Sylvester Stallone, 2012's reboot Dredd didn't perform well at the box office. Overall, the movie managed to pull in just $41 million from theatergoers around the world, against a budget of $50 million. It's hard to understand exactly why Dredd bombed; the reboot had a positive critical reception, while 1995's Judge Dredd was panned by critics and still managed to earn over $110 million. It seems that at least some of the blame can be placed on the marketing for the movie. While reports indicate that over $25 million was spent to advertise Dredd, lead actor Karl Urban told Den of Geek that there was "zero audience awareness" about the movie when it was released.

Whatever the reasons for its theatrical failure, nothing could keep Dredd down once it hit the home market, where it became an instant success. Dredd sold 650,000 copies the first week it was available on DVD and Blu-ray. As of 2017, its total video sales earnings have climbed to top the $20 million mark. Now a cult favorite with sci-fi and action fans, Dredd may have finally gained the street cred it needed to get a sequel—which is reported to be in the works as a television show.

Fight Club (1999)

Based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club suffered from interference at the studio, where execs fretted over test screenings, bumped the release date repeatedly, and ultimately ended up tinkering with the marketing campaign over director David Fincher's wishes. After all that fretting, the results were a letdown for Fox: reviews were middling and against a budget of $63 million, Fight Club only earned $37 million domestically in theaters. While the losses were mostly made up by the international box office sales, it wasn't until the movie arrived on DVD that it really came into its own.

Donnie Darko (2001)

Filmed in just 28 days by debuting writer-director Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko is a psychological horror/sci-fi film that tells the story of the title character as he searches for the cause and meaning of his apocalyptic visions. Filmed with a small budget of only $3.8 million and nearly sent straight to home video by the distributing studio, Darko debuted with a limited theatrical release on only 58 screens domestically; its international release was delayed for almost a year because of the September 11 attacks. Theatrical audiences in the U.S. weren't quite sure what to make of the movie's odd aesthetic and mind-bending plot, but it found a more receptive audience overseas, and after its arrival on DVD, it gained cult status. (The sequel, however, is another story.)

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

In The Chronicles of Riddick, Vin Diesel returned to the silver screen as Richard B. Riddick, who first appeared in 2000's Pitch Black. After the success of the first film, Diesel jumped on board as producer for the sequel. Initially, Chronicles of Riddick was panned by most critics, and Diesel was even nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actor. The film made $115 million in theaters worldwide, which seems like quite a lot until you realize the budget was around $120 million. Despite the poor reception in theaters, Chronicles of Riddick latched on with home viewers, who helped the movie gain back some of that budget shortfall with DVD sales. The fanbase eventually helped a third sequel, titled Riddick, make its way to theaters in 2013—the latest installment in a once-unlikely franchise that's spread to encompass books, action figures, animated features and even video games.

Idiocracy (2006)

Mike Judge must have some sort of "cult movie" magic about him. Making his return to feature-film directing after the frustrations of 1999's Office Space, Judge used Idiocracy to show viewers a horrible (yet hilarious) vision of our future filled with massage-parlor coffee shops and an expletive-laced, monster truck rally-esque system of law. Unfortunately, the movie never had a prayer after the studio mothballed it for years, failed to market it, and only released it to 130 theaters. While Idiocracy only made $495,000 at the box office, it became another of Judge's home video sensations, earning another $9 million in DVD rentals alone.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

With Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Universal Pictures took a chance on an action-comedy adaptation of a graphic novel series about the romantic travails of the titular slacker musician (portrayed by Michael Cera) on his quest to defeat—video game-style—the former beaus of his would-be lady love. Despite mostly positive critical response and several accolades for the movie, Pilgrim faced an uphill marketing battle: the studio struggled to clearly communicate the storyline during its publicity campaign, and Cera's post-Juno hot streak had fizzled after a string of duds like the lethal Year One. As a result, Scott Pilgrim failed to earn enough money to recoup its production budget. Things changed on the home video market, however, where the movie went on to sell nearly 200,000 copies in its first week.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

It may be the movie with the longest-ever theatrical run, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show most definitely bombed during its initial release. Although it was based on a popular stage musical, the film adaptation only earned $21,245 in its opening weekend. Disappointed with the premiere, the studio pulled the movie from several other locations around the country. For most films, that would have been the end of the story. But one Fox advertising executive had a brilliant idea: start showing The Rocky Horror Picture Show at one of the popular "midnight shows" at the Waverly Theatre in New York City, where it proved an instant hit.

After several months of late-night showings with a party-like atmosphere, one of Waverly's TRHPS regulars—mild-mannered Kindergarten teacher Louis Farese—started to shout improvised lines back at the screen. The midnight showings soon spread to other theaters around the country, along with the habit of shouted audience "call-backs." Eventually, dedicated fans began to form "shadow-cast" performance troupes—acting out the film in costume on stage as the movie plays on the big screen behind them. Within a year, Rocky Horror went from a box-office bomb to a cult sensation that's still going strong more than 40 years later.