17 Great Movies That Flopped
The General (1926)

One of United Artists’ first box-office flops was Buster Keaton’s The General. Although the scale of its failure was not quite as spectacular as Heaven’s Gate, a $250,000 domestic deficit led to Keaton’s loss of control over his earlier films and forced him to sign a restrictive contract with MGM. Critics at the time called The General “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done” but it has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest of all silent comedies.

Keaton merges his trademark physical athleticism with emotional pathos as a train driver during the American Civil War, who rescues both his beloved, eponymous engine and his inamorata (Marion Mack) from Union forces. Keaton could never understand why his perfectly engineered masterpiece flopped – he often cited it as his favourite of all his films – but perhaps, as Pauline Kael pointed out, it was just “too perfect”.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Not many know that one of the most beloved films ever made was a big disappointment for MGM. It’s still mesmerizing viewers with its songs, visuals and message of friendship and loyalty. Margaret Hamilton is the only villain on screen to beat out Die Hard’s Hans Gruber.

“The Wizard of Oz” is a film that Hollywood studios have toyed with remaking for many years. The closest that audiences have come to revisiting that world has been a prequel called “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” which was directed by Sam Raimi of “Spider-man,” “The Evil Dead” and “Darkman” fame.

Citizen Kane (1941)

It’s considered the greatest film ever made. Period. It was based on magnate William Randolph Hearst and believed his influence led to the movie’s failure.
It’s still amazing to think this was Orson Welles’ first feature and he was only 26.

Not only was the film not a box office success when it was originally released, it wasn’t a critical success, either. Critics initially panned the film for being too dour and overly long.

The original reaction is about as far from the contemporary re-evaluation as you can possibly get considering that it is widely considered to be the best film ever made.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Now one of the most cherished of all American films, it’s hard to believe that upon release in 1946 – despite garnering five Oscar nominations – It’s a Wonderful Life failed to recoup its $3.7 million production cost. In the early 1970s, Frank Capra’s Dickensian masterpiece fell out of copyright protection and was picked up as a cheap network Christmas special by hundreds of local television stations, soon becoming a perennial holiday favourite.

It’s a success-out-of-failure story that mirrors the redemptive journey of the film’s protagonist, selfless good guy George Bailey (James Stewart), who finds himself deeply loved in snowy Bedford Falls after angel Clarence (Henry Travers) delivers him from suicide. This is Capra’s most winning vision of collective spirit working to help the fortunes of men whose morals are already made, and stands as a genuine American classic.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In 1955, The Night of the Hunter – the only film Charles Laughton ever directed – was a critical and commercial failure, consequently putting off the actor from directing for good, and perhaps depriving history of further works of greatness. In the years that have passed since, his film has earned a coveted place in American movies as perhaps the finest example of the Southern Gothic tradition in cinema history.

“A nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”, as Laughton put it, it’s equal parts Capra, D.W. Griffith and German Expressionism, the photographic play of light and shadow capturing the dread and the dream of the American pastoral. As notorious preacher Harry Powell (with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed across his knuckles) Robert Mitchum embodied, to use the words of critic David Thomson, ’one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema’.

The Chase (1966)

Just before Arthur Penn would change the landscape of the American film industry forever with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he directed The Chase. Derided at the time as an old-style Peyton Place-like potboiler, for contemporary American critics it threatened an unwelcome return to the classical Hollywood hegemony in an industry that was changing and evolving under the influence of the French New Wave.

What they failed to realise, and what some European critics picked up on at the time (including Robin Wood, who called it one of the best films he had ever seen), was that this was as stark a depiction of violence as had ever appeared on the American screen. A Lillian Hellman adaptation from a Horton Foote novel, Penn’s first masterpiece is also one of his darkest works, a portrait of small-town America as a festering backwater stagnant with avarice, jealousy and racism. Marlon Brando, in one of his great mid-period roles, is magnificent as Sheriff Calder, reluctantly assigned to capture escaped fugitive Bubber Reeves, played by future New Hollywood star Robert Redford.

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s postmodern blend of science fiction and gumshoe noir suffered at the box office from the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial two weeks earlier, with its more optimistic scenario of alien visitation (this also condemned the commercial prospects of John Carpenter’s The Thing, released on the same date as Blade Runner).

Fortunately however, like It’s a Wonderful Life and other sleeper hits like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Blade Runner was rediscovered on the video rental market and became one of the first films released on DVD. In all its shimmering incarnations (a Director’s Cut was released in 1992, followed by a 2007 ‘Final Cut’), it’s a spectacularly immersive and densely imagined vision of a decayed urban future. Scott is set to direct a sequel in the near future, with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, the hard-boiled cop who hunts down ‘replicants’.

One from the Heart (1982)

Francis Ford Coppola originally conceived One from the Heart as an antidote to the enormous cost, pressures and production setbacks of Apocalypse Now (1979). Coppola, however, has always been inseparable from turmoil, and predictably production costs ballooned from $2 million to $25 million after he insisted on constructing artificial sets on the sound stages of his own Zoetrope studios.

That artificiality, however unwise it proved financially, was crucial to Coppola’s vision of Las Vegas as a world of instant spectacle and private gratification. Coppola alternates between fantastical musical numbers – accompanied by a soundtrack written and performed by Tom Waits – and heavily staged personal encounters, creating parallels with Hollywood itself in this tale of the modest romance between Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr).

Once upon a Time in America (1984)

The only film on this list longer than Heaven’s Gate, and the only one to have also gone through a succession of bastardising cuts, which might account for the apathy with which Sergio Leone’s gangster epic was greeted at the box office. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in the 229 minute version available on DVD today, it was cut down to 139 minutes for US audiences, with the flashback narrative structure re-cut by the studio into chronological order against the director’s wishes. Pauline Kael famously complained: “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a worse case of mutilation.”

A misunderstood classic, which should have achieved the same adulation as The Godfather (1972) on initial release, the story of two betraying brothers (underplayed terrifically by Robert De Niro and James Woods) has begun to receive similar praise: as a haunting yet romantic paean to a vanished, idolised world. Thanks to Martin Scorsese, a newly extended 245-minute cut (Leone’s original was 269 minutes) premiered at Cannes in 2012, but has since been withdrawn from circulation pending further restoration work.

Brazil (1985)

Director Terry Gilliam is a former Monty Python player, which means pushing boundaries is standard.
This completely off-kilter and exceptionally smart exploration of our society through a fictional dystopian, totalitarian one will never be matched. “Brazil” has been released in a definitive DVD/Blu-ray collection by The Criterion Collection.

Most notably, the release features two different cuts of the movie. The first is Gilliam’s director’s cut, while the second is a shorter version with a happier ending that was created after Gilliam took his name off the film and was locked out of the editing room by Universal executives.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter proved he was far more than a horror movie maven.

No one cared. Big Trouble is great and bizarre and features Kurt Russell stomping around doing (a deliberately bad?) John Wayne.
There are some wonderful effects and good solid action. John Carpenter has made a career out of directing low budget genre fair that goes on to become cult classics.

In addition to “Big Trouble in Little China,” Carpenter also directed Kurt Russell in four other movies.

One was a television film based on the life of Elvis, one included “The Thing” and two more were part of the same franchise – “Escape from New York” and “Escape from L.A.”

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)

This is the bizarre story of a man who decides to kill himself for a good reason after he’s been scammed into thinking he’s going to die anyway.
It’s a bittersweet story with Tom Hanks doing what he does best, discovering what a wonderful life it is.
“Joe Versus the Volcano” would be one of the last films released before Tom Hanks would become an international sensation.

Just a few years later he won two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor for his roles in “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” in 1993 and 1994, respectively. He’s bit hugely successful ever since.

Strange Days (1995)

Directed by the now Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and co-written and produced by her ex-husband James Cameron, if Strange Days was released today, with those names attached to it, it would surely have recouped its $42 million production cost. Their competing visions are often cited as the reason for the film’s failure (it had grossed less than $8 million by the end of its run), but they also account for its blazing originality.

It’s an uncommon marriage of artistic sensibilities that works in the same way as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration on AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Cameron is a blockbuster director with a penchant for high-tech gadgetry and bulky romanticism whereas Bigelow, whose roots are in the New York art world, uses the action to explore wider themes of racial tension, feminism and vision. Ralph Fiennes is extraordinary as a former cop turned street hustler who accidentally discovers a conspiracy in 1999 Los Angeles.

The Insider (1999)

From the early career disappointment of Manhunter to 2006’s Miami Vice, Michael Mann – who, luckily for studios, has never been prolific – has rarely fared well at the box office. The Insider was no exception, and perhaps represents his most remarkable commercial failure, given its near-unanimous praise from critics and seven Oscar nominations.

Audiences, at first glance, might have been underwhelmed with its real-life story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who encourages Wigand to speak out on CBS’s 60 Minutes. But Mann suspensefully lays out the facts with his usual pulse-quickening panache, exploring again the situational professionalism of broken men against a backdrop of corporate guilt and paranoia.

The Iron Giant (1999)

People blame its failure on the studio. Warner Bros. didn’t take the film seriously. The result was a critically lauded film that’s been called warm, funny, original and heartbreaking that ended up not being noticed.

The film is notable for a variety of reasons, including for being the directorial debut of Brad Bird. Brad Bird would go on to direct Tom Cruise in the hugely successful fourth film in the “Mission: Impossible” film franchise, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.”

The film is also notable for starring Vin Diesel as the voice of the robot, though he only has a single line spoken at the end of the film.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)

After some personal setbacks, Robert Downey Jr. reminded everyone why he was a star long before Iron Man.
It may be a cult favorite now but no one went to see this clever, funny and rapid fire dialogue laced mystery on the big screen.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” would also not be the last time that Robert Downey Jr. and its writer/director Shane Black would team up.

Shane Black would later go on to take over for filmmaker Jon Favreau on the third film in the “Iron Man” franchise in 2013. Their second collaboration was infinitely more successful than the first.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

One of the most striking of recent commercial failures at the American box office stars Brad Pitt, one of the most bankable box office attractions, in what has historically been one of America’s most profitable genres. The western, however, has lost its popular appeal since Heaven’s Gate, with Disney’s latest The Lone Ranger (2013) once again calling into question its viability as a lucrative commercial form.

Although its cumbersome title, which divulges the ending, shares some of the blame for its failure, it was its promise of elegiac subversion – as opposed to the pulp revisionism of Django Unchained (2012) – that is likely to have turned off audiences. New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik brings an outsider’s sensibility to the boys’ bedtime Jesse James story (which has had more than 50 other screen adaptations), simultaneously revelling in and reimagining the myths of the quintessential American genre.