Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The Real Reason The Shawshank Redemption Flopped At The Box Office

Father's Day is near, and for many people across the U.S. that means one thing: it's time for a screening of your dad's favorite movie, The Shawshank Redemption. The film, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, isn't just popular among the dads of America — it's also perpetually at the top of IMDb's Top Rated Movies list and often features on critic's "Best Films Of..." roundups. If you've ever flipped through cable looking for a movie to watch in the last 20 years, there's a good chance you've seen at least part of it. In 2013, this one movie alone accounted for 151 hours of cable airtime (via Business Insider).

Considering how beloved and ubiquitous Shawshank is today, it's hard to imagine that when it released in 1994 the film was a box office bomb. According to Box Office Mojo, when the film got a wide release on October 14, it netted a measly $2.4 million from nearly 1,000 theaters, leaving it at #13 for the weekend box office. By the time it left theaters in November, the movie had only made $16 million, far short of recouping its $25 million budget.

The film was considered a huge flop, especially surprising because the early reactions from critics and test screenings were overwhelmingly positive (via Vanity Fair). That leaves us with the question: why did this critical darling turn into such a box office failure?

The Shawshank Redemption's name didn't do it any favors

There isn't one simple answer to why The Shawshank Redemption was a box office bomb when it initially released. That being said, one of the film's stars does have a theory that points to how one very important aspect of the film factored into its early financial failure.

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2019, Tim Robbins, who plays Andy Dufresne in the film, put some of the blame for the lackluster box office on the movie's title: "[F]or years after that film came out, people would come up to me and say, 'You know, I really liked you in that film Scrimshaw Reduction' or 'Shimmy, Shimmy, Shake' or 'Shankshaw' — you know, so many different ways that people got it wrong."

In a review from 1994, Duane Byrge of The Hollywood Reporter questioned the movie's ability to appeal to a mass audience, due in part to its "enigmatic title." It's clear that despite now being iconic, the film's name struggled to entice audiences at the time.

However, that's only one part of the story. When the film hit screens, it didn't do so in a vacuum. In fact, The Shawshank Redemption had the distinct misfortune of having its wide release the same weekend as one of the most popular movies to come out of the '90s.

The Shawshank Redemption got overshadowed by Pulp Fiction

When The Shawshank Redemption hit theaters across America on October 14, 1994, it wasn't alone. An indie flick from an exciting new voice in contemporary cinema that had wowed audiences at the Cannes Film Festival was also making its wide theatrical debut the very same day. That movie was Pulp Fiction, and it sucked most of the air out of the room when it was released.

Compared to The Shawshank Redemption's $2.4 million opening weekend, Pulp Fiction netted $9.3 million and remained #1 at the box office for two weeks in a row (via Box Office Mojo). Whereas The Shawshank Redemption had received positive notices from test screenings, Pulp Fiction had already won the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or, one of the most prestigious awards in cinema. As Todd McCarthy put it in his Variety review at the time, "Reviews, cast and heavy anticipation will make this a must-see among buffs and young male viewers."

Of course, one movie's success doesn't automatically result in another's failure. However, it's clear that when it came time to pick which of those two critically-lauded grownup dramas to see, audiences overwhelmingly chose Pulp Fiction. But that initial box office disappointment wasn't the end of The Shawshank Redemption's story.

How The Shawshank Redemption turned things around and became a classic

Despite its box office failings, The Shawshank Redemption went on to find success as a cultural stalwart. The movie, after all, was heavily praised by critics, and it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor for Morgan Freeman. This likely got initially reluctant viewers interested in checking out what they'd missed.

In 1995, Warner Bros. made the bold decision to distribute 320,000 VHS rental copies of the movie. Considering its lack of commercial popularity, this seemed like a gross overshoot at the time (via The Guardian). However, while The Shawshank Redemption flailed at the box office, it killed the home entertainment game. It went to #1 on Billboard's Top Video Rental charts, and when TNT began airing the movie regularly as part of it's "New Classics" film programming in 1997, its fate as a staple of home viewing was sealed (via The Wall Street Journal).

As for why the movie had much greater success at home than in theaters, Tim Robbins suggested the movie gets better the longer you sit with it. In his Entertainment Weekly interview, he said, "[T]he immediate reaction at that time wasn't as important as whether the film would have life in video and on cable. And when given a chance, when people actually started to see the movie, it became something that was a movie that people had to watch several times."