Late Bloomers: the screen classics that started out as box office bombs

Laura Macfehin delves into the world of film classics that started out as box office bombs.

It is hard to imagine a world where nobody gets the reference “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” or where someone hasn’t cornered you at a party to explain which cut of Blade Runner is the superior one.  And yet that world came close to existing.

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The Thing poster by David Moscati

Now hailed as one of the greatest sci-fi horrors of all time John Carpenter’s The Thing was a colossal bomb at the box office.  The amazing special effects by Rob Bottin are now considered some of the finest creature work ever done– Bottin worked so hard on them that he ended up in hospital with double pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer.  He had to ask Stan Winston to finish the work.  Winston did so but refused any credit because he didn’t want to distract from the work Bottin had done.

If anything the effects were perhaps too good– audiences found them, well, gross.  Roger Ebert even described the film as a ‘perfect barf-bag movie’.

It is also kind of dark, with an ambiguous ending that doesn’t offer much hope for the humans.  But probably its biggest assassin at the box office was a much friendlier little alien who came along at the same time.

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The Thing came out the same week as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial a film that also had great effects, a somewhat ambivalent view of humans but that also had cute kids, a cute alien and didn’t sound like a remake of a 50s B-grade pic that might scar your children for life.  E.T. cleaned up at the box office, leaving what ever was left over for another little space movie–Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.

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E.T. poster by Dean Walton

In June 1982 it seemed all the blockbuster movies were dealing with what makes us human in the face of aliens, androids and genetically engineered uber-mensch.  The ones that sold the most tickets were definitely the ones that had the most up-beat and triumphalist view of humanity.  Another casualty was the neo-noir Blade Runner.

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Blade Runner poster by Tracy Ching

Although a consistent presence in the ‘best movies ever made’ lists today on its release Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi was not a runaway hit.  Critics were divided over whether it was visionary or just boring.  Tickets sales were quickly eaten up by Khan, Conan the Barbarian and that pesky little alien of Spielberg’s. 

The 1980’s boom in home video are what saw Blade Runner develop a cult following, an interest that led to re-screenings of both the original cinema cut and the longer director’s cut, and critics also began to re-assess its impact on the wider culture and film history.

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Citizen Kane poster by Martin Ansin

Citizen Kane is often cited as the greatest movie ever made, but its number one spot on film history lists is largely due to the French.  The film, which is not very loosely based on the figure of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, managed to keep the storyline secret throughout production, even from Hearst’s chief Hollywood snoop Louella Parsons. 

Upon release however, an enraged Hearst declared a media ban on not just Citizen Kane but all pictures from RKO.  The media blackout, along with its somewhat bleak take on humanity meant that despite generally good reviews the movie did not make waves.  In the fifties French critics started re-assessing American cinema and their attention brought Citizen Kane back into the limelight.  It has topped ‘best film’ lists ever since.

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Wizard of Oz poster by Aaron Wells

It is hard to imagine a world without The Wizard of Oz— the film is so enmeshed in so many facets of our culture.  Amazingly, however, the film wasn’t a huge success when it came out.  The production was fraught with problems– chewing through directors and budgets alike so that by the time it came out there was little chance of re-couping the losses. 

Dorothy and Toto might have been a quirky footnote in cinema history had it not been for the magic of syndication.  MGM re-released the film in 1949 but it was when television started playing the film in regular rotation that the film started to pick up a following and now there are friends of Dorothy all around the world.

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It’s a Wonderful Life poster by Laurient Durieux

It’s a Wonderful Life is another holiday classic that owes its fame to the power of television syndication.  The film was planned to have a New Years release, but producers pushed the release date forward to qualify it for the Oscars.  

The strategy did not pay off– the film faced stiff competition in the 1946 awards and although it was nominated for six awards it only won for technical achievement.  It also got somewhat lost in the holiday rush and ended up returning a loss for RKO.  

Television syndication breathed new life into the film, largely thanks to the fact that by the seventies RKO had let its copyright lapse due to its ‘flop’ status at the studio. 

It has since become standard holiday programming even though Frank Capra didn’t even really consider it a Christmas film when making it.  “I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.” 

Although it may seem like the epitome of wholesome family fare, it wasn’t viewed as quite so innocent when it came out.  The FBI investigated Capra and his films as possible Communist threats and Ayn Rand singled the film out as a pernicious threat against Americanism.  Which is another great reason to rally around George Bailey and his family every Christmas.

Frank Capra Director For 'Mr. Smith Goes To Washington'
pernicious threat Frank Capra

If any film any honestly claim to have a bona fide cult following it is The Big Lebowski.  The Coen Brothers film was a box office disappointment with mixed to lousy reviews.  The Dude abided, however, and over time the film has developed a devoted following.

‘Dudeism’ also known as ‘The Church of the Latter-Day Dude’ was founded in 2005, and there are now over 220,000 ordained ‘Dudeist’ priests worldwide. The film has regular screenings and in San Francisco a whole festival in its honour.  

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The Big Lebowski poster by Matthew Griffin

In film at least at seems to be true – good things come to those who wait!  What have been your favourite films that others have panned?

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