Sometimes it's hard to believe, but some of Hollywood's greatest classic movies were box office flops when they were first released in theaters. While they have more than made up for the loss through DVDs and repeated showings on television, there are several all-time greats that you would be surprised to learn were initially dismissed by critics and audiences. Here are five such classics.
Yeah, this one caused me to scratch my head as well. How could one of the most beloved movies of all time be a box office flop? Truth be told, The Wizard of Oz did make money eventually – 10 years after its initial release. But in 1939, MGM’s musical fantasy barely broke even and wouldn’t make a profit until the 1949 re-release put it firmly in the black. The Wizard of Oz piled on the profits with a re-release in 1955 and airings on television starting in 1956. It was one of the first movies released on videocassette by MGM in 1980 and by the time of its 70th anniversary Blu-ray release in 2009, The Wizard of Oz had made money hand over fist while becoming one of the greatest classic movies ever made.
So why is the movie that tops most lists as the greatest film ever made also on this one? The answer would have to be newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who threatened and cajoled exhibitors while refusing to run ads in retaliation for director Orson Welles modeling Charles Foster Kane after him. Welles never confirmed that Hearst was the source for his character and even claimed that Kane was an amalgamation of different personalities. Still, the resemblance between Hearst and Kane is striking, which led the newspaper tycoon to wage a bitter personal battle to squash the film. Citizen Kane played well in some cities, but not others and ultimately recorded a loss during its initial run. Making matters worse, the film lost out at the Academy Awards after nine nominations, with Welles and co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz taking home a sole statue for Best Original Screenplay.
Yes, the single greatest and most inspirational Christmas movie of all time was also a box office dud. In fact, the film – now an all-time classic that stars James Stewart in his most iconic role – opened to mixed reviews and had its released date moved up to December 1946 in order to make it eligible for the Academy Awards. While it did earn nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, It’s a Wonderful Life was drowned out by William Wyler’s massively popular drama, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was widely praised by critics, became a huge box office hit and won seven Oscars. It’s a Wonderful Life limped into wide release in January 1947 and had to wait decades before becoming a perennial holiday classic on television.
This massively turbulent production has long been the poster child for box office flops thanks to its infamously overblown budget brought about by outrageously expensive sets, production delays and relocations, and the swelling salary of its titular star, Elizabeth Taylor. The movie was originally budgeted at a modest $2 million, but eventually ballooned to a whopping $44 million, making it then and now – when adjusted for inflation – the most expensive movie ever made. Adding insult to injury was the scandal ignited by Taylor’s affair with co-star, Richard Burton, which compounded the bad publicity for the troubled production. Ironically, it earned over $26 million in domestic box office and was the highest-grossing film of 1963, making Cleopatra the first-ever top earner to report a loss.
Ridley Scott’s classic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a dismal failure in its first box office release despite the enormous popularity of star Harrison Ford, who had by then already been in Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Maybe it was the dark, dystopian future world that served as its setting or its complex, almost impenetrable themes that turned audiences and critics away. Or perhaps its failure was due to the massive box office success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), both of which were released during the same month. No one will know for sure, but Blade Runner did manage to become a cult classic and eventually turned a profit thanks to numerous video, DVD and Blu-ray releases.