9 Box Office Duds That Became Cult Classics
Morgan Freeman sitting outside with a hat and prison uniform on in a scene from the film 'The Shawshank Redemption', 1994. (Photo by Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images)
Castle Rock Entertainment/Getty Images

Box office debacles follow a predictable trajectory. They hit theaters, audiences aggressively steer clear of them and their studios hope ancillary markets can clean up the financial mess.

The following films didn’t break that template. They shattered it in epic fashion.

These flops found a stunning second life following their theatrical rollout. Some proved ahead of their time while others suffered from faulty marketing.

A few couldn’t live up to their pre-release hype but found a fresh audience seeking something different.

No matter the reason, these films became cult classics and we can’t stop watching them.

The Shawshank Redemption

Ask a friend what’s the one film they can’t stop watching once they find it on cable. Chances are this Stephen King adaptation will come up early and often.

Yet “The Shawshank Redemption” earned an ordinary $28 million back in 1994, a sign audiences didn’t want to see Andy Dufresne marinate in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

That changed dramatically over the years. It’s currently’s most popular film … ever, eclipsing no. 2 “The Godfather.”

Star Tim Robbins credits his characters’ bond with Red (Morgan Freeman) as a key driver of its enduring success.

“…there are very, very few films that are about the relationship, the friendship between two men that doesn’t involve car chases or being charming with the ladies and those kinds of buddy movies. This one is about a true, deep friendship that lasts. And part of me thinks that people want or need that kind of story to be told.”

Office Space

Mike Judge is no stranger to the pop culture zeitgeist. His MTV series “Beavis & Butt-head” became a sensation, making “stars” out of two dimwits rendered in impossibly crude animation.

His follow up, “King of the Hill,” expertly mined Texas tics for warm-hearted laughs.

You couldn’t blame Judge for trying to leverage that fame into a big-screen career, but his 1999 comedy “Office Space” managed a paltry $10.8 million haul. 

Back to the MTV salt mines for Judge, right? Not quite. “Office Space” took off on home video, with countless Nine-to-Five types relishing its anarchic spirit.

The film’s precious details, from Gary Cole’s unctuous boss to the mind-numbing TPS reports that keep the company afloat, made it a pure cult classic. The film had another impact on its audience. The story’s “Carpe Diem” spirit made plenty of people change their career paths, with often positive results.

“I haven’t had anyone say they quit their job after watching the movie and wound up on welfare,” Judge told Variety.


How crazy is Hollywood? So crazy that after Judge’s “Office Space” proved the ultimate slow-burn smash they all but buried his follow-up feature.

Today, movie goers adore 2006’s “Idiocracy’s” prescient look at our present world, one where rank stupidity yields instant fame and fortune. Take a gander at TikTok if you disagree. How many followers would the “Ow, My Balls” account have today?

Fifteen years ago, Fox sheepishly dropped the film into the marketplace with nary a support system in place. Naturally, it flopped hard, earning less than $1 million ($444,093, to be exact). Once again, Judge’s instincts were spot on. The film’s absurdist take on U.S. culture, as seen through the eyes of a dim Everyman (Luke Wilson) who wakes up 500 years in the future, became the director’s second straight cult hit.

Judge’s main regret? “I don’t know why I can’t make a movie that’s a hit when it comes out,” he cracked during a 10-year anniversary screening of the film.

Big Trouble in Little China

Kurt Russell probably swaggers in his sleep. The actor added a dash of John Wayne to his performance as trucker Jack Burton, a blowhard who gets mixed up with Asian mysticism on steroids.

The film still under-performed, big time, netting just $11 million in 1986. Years later, fans started to appreciate director John Carpenter’s quirky vision and humor.

Originally conceived as a western, “China” may have suffered from branding overkill. Carpenter himself dubbed it an “action/adventure/comedy/kung fu/ghost story/monster movie.“

That’s both a mouthful and brutal to market. It didn’t help that the publicity machine for the film played up the “Who is Jack Burton” question, one many audience members greeted with a shrug.

The romp needed time to marinate in the minds of movie goers. It did that and then some, sparking a sequel to star Dwayne Johnson. Just don’t expect to see Carpenter lining up to watch it.

“They want a movie with Dwayne Johnson. That’s what they want. So they just picked that title. They don’t give a s–t about me and my movie. That movie wasn’t a success.”

This Is Spinal Tap

Director Rob Reiner’s mockumentary, a term that didn’t exist at the time, might be the most quotable comedy of all time.

In 1984, that yielded a pedestrian $4 million box office haul and little career momentum for its talented cast.

And then rock fans got to know David St. Hubbins and the rest of Tap. It was love at 42nd sight. How could you not watch the comedy over, and over, again, picking up new nuggets each time?

Reiner’s current status as the premier Trump Derangement Syndrome victim makes it easy to forget how good his directorial debut proved at the time. It’s pitch perfect from start to finish, with amazing cameos (Billy Crystal! Fran Drescher!) and details that only grow funnier over time.

It helped that the songs, like “Big Bottom” and “Listen to the Flower People” were actually good, and silly, making the experience feel awkwardly real.

Flash Gordon

The minds behind this 1980 flop figured they had another “Star Wars” on their hands. After all, George Lucas himself tried, and failed, to snag the rights to the comic book hero. Everyone from Sergio Leone to Federico Fellini flirted with the project.

The overhyped sci-fi adventure, drenched in Queen harmonies and kitsch, earned just $27 million amidst withering reviews, although Roger Ebert sang its praises. 

Flash’s story didn’t end there.

The film’s cornball humor and gaudy FX eventually endeared itself to the masses. It was nothing like “Star Wars” or other sober sci-fi from the era, but that’s what made it so irresistible.

Decades later, star Sam Jones played himself in full Flash regalia in the 2012 comedy “Ted” (and its sequel), a loving nod to the film’s cult film status.


Why would anyone, let alone new kid on the block Christian Slater, attempt to out-jack Jack Nicholson on screen? Better yet, why would teens rally around a film following a budding serial killer? Black comedies are a tough sell at theaters anyway, but this seemed even darker than most.

All that logic held up as “Heathers” limped to a $1 million box-office run in 1989. 

The team behind the movie said “Heathers” offered a nasty retort to the John Hughes comedies of the era. Future stars Heather Graham and Jennifer Connelly declined to appear in the film due to its bleak spirit, but that sensibility connected it with audiences following its theatrical pratfall.

What’s the enduring appeal? Consider how the film cranked the style dial up to 11 and offered killer lines that people still drop with alacrity.

Today’s culture adores Hughes films as much as they did in the ‘89s, but there’s always room for a movie eager to zag while everyone else is busy zigging.

They Live

“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick a**, and I’m all out of bubble gum.”

Wrestler turned actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper croaked that corny line (which he came up with) in the middle of this John Carpenter attack on the Reagan era. Is it any wonder many movie goers heard that clunker of a line and said, “Yeah, no thanks?” The $13 million box office haul in 1988 says it all … for a while.

Taken as part of a ludicrous whole, the signature wisecrack feels just right. So does the rest of the film, which avoids lectures to tell the story of a regular Joe who runs head first into an alien conspiracy.

It’s the kind of movie you can’t take seriously but one that grows more entertaining with subsequent views. It also has a street fight for the ages, as Piper and co-star Keith David duke it out for what seems like an eternity (it’s actually five minutes and 20 seconds). And it’s glorious.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

The biggest head scratcher is saved for last.

Few films are as adored as Gene Wilder’s sour tasting treat, yet the film generated less than $1 million back in 1971. Sure, Wilder’s performance is far more nuanced, and twisted, than your average kiddie film. What about the songs, the Oompa Loompas and the lad who defied all the odds to snare that golden ticket?

Audiences didn’t care at the time, but that sure changed. Few films have enjoyed a robust after-life quite like “Wonka.” The movie inspired a remake by Tim Burton, a musical and, in 2023, a prequel story.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the film could have starred Peter Sellers or even one of the Monty Python players. Instead, Wilder snagged the role and made it as mysterious and bold.

Perhaps the most notable critic of the film was Dahl himself, who resisted any sort of Hollywood remake right up until his death in 1990.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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