How The Shawshank Redemption Went from Box Office Bomb to Contemporary Classic

Castle Rock Entertainment
Castle Rock Entertainment

When The Shawshank Redemption opened on September 23, 1994, director Frank Darabont and producer Liz Glotzer decided to drop by the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Like many directors, Darabont was interested to see how his newest film was playing with general audiences.

The early buzz for the prison-set drama had been promising. The Shawshank Redemption cast included Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, and the movie had received positive notices from critics and during test screenings, which were some of the highest-scoring in the history of the film’s distributor, Warner Bros. While they likely didn’t expect the same sized crowds that had been flocking to Forrest Gump all summer, both Darabont and Glotzer knew they had delivered a good film.

Of the 900-plus seats in the theater at the Cinerama Dome, virtually all of them were empty. The scene was especially galling as the film had only opened in limited engagement, initially screening in just 33 theaters to help build word of mouth. While its per-screen average that weekend was actually impressive—the film took in roughly $22,000 per location, outperforming larger films like Quiz Show and Clear and Present DangerThe Shawshank Redemption failed to take off. When it expanded into wide release on October 14, it earned just $2.4 million at the box office; even the critically reviled sex comedy Exit to Eden earned more. By the time it left theaters in November, The Shawshank Redemption had earned just $16 million, failing to cover its estimated $25 to $28 million budget.

For people who have seen The Shawshank Redemption in the intervening 25 years, that failure may sound odd. Today it's played in heavy rotation on cable and is often found near the top of many well regarded best-movie-ever lists. How The Shawshank Redemption went from a largely ignored release to its present status as one of the most acclaimed films of the past 25 years is a story of hope and redemption that closely mirrors that of the film's central character, the imprisoned and imperiled Andy Dufresne, who endures a long period of purgatory before finding his happy ending.

 

The Shawshank Redemption grew out of Frank Darabont’s affection for the work of Stephen King. In 1980, when Darabont was just 21 years old and had no films to his credit, the future Oscar nominee wrote to King and requested permission to adapt one of the author's short stories, "The Woman in the Room." King fielded—and often granted—such requests from amateur filmmakers, allowing them to adapt his work for virtually nothing so long as they didn’t exhibit them commercially. He did the same for Darabont, who toiled for years on the short film, which he eventually finished in 1983. (It later aired on PBS.)

In 1987, Darabont had seen his first screen credit materialize as co-writer of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. This time, he wanted to approach King with a more ambitious plan to adapt The Mist, a novella first published in 1980 that chronicled the hidden threats of a strange fog that overtakes a small town in Maine. But then Darabont had second thoughts. Having just made A Nightmare on Elm Street movie, he worried that an adaptation of The Mist might typecast him as a horror filmmaker. So instead, he asked King for the rights to Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, a novella from the author’s 1982 book Different Seasons. King wasn't sure how well-suited the story was to a film adaptation, but Darabont wrote the author a check for a few thousand dollars to secure the rights to at least try.

In the novella, wrongly convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne spends time in a New England prison under the thumb of several wardens and mentored by an inmate named Red, all while plotting his eventual escape. A character piece written from Red's perspective, it was not inherently theatrical. But Darabont knew that expanding the story to illustrate more of Dufresne’s prison struggles and capturing his bond with Red would be fertile material for the kind of old-school filmmaking he enjoyed.

It was several years before Darabont got a chance to write the script. When it was finished, he sent it along to Castle Rock, the company behind 1986’s Stand by Me, Rob Reiner's Oscar-nominated adaptation of King’s story "The Body." Darabont and producing partner Kiki Marvin figured the company knew better than to classify King as strictly a horror writer. Executive Liz Glotzer read the script and loved it. So did Reiner, who wanted to direct the film with Tom Cruise as Dufresne. But Darabont was adamant. While he had no major feature films as director to his credit, he felt he knew the material. Cruise, however, preferred Reiner, whom he had worked with on 1992’s A Few Good Men. When Darabont insisted he remain in the director's chair, Cruise walked.

Darabont instead hired Tim Robbins to play Dufresne. Though Red was described as a white Irishman in the novella, Morgan Freeman was the director's preferred choice for the mentor role. Filming took place in the summer of 1993 at Ohio State Reformatory, which had been open from 1896 to 1990 and closed due to allegations of inhumane treatment of its inmates. Many of the actors found the environment oppressive, though Robbins wanted to go a step further and spend a week in solitary confinement to get into character. (The production refused his request.)

Based on an excellent script—Robbins has called it the best he has ever read—and with impressive footage coming in, it’s likely both Castle Rock and Warner Bros., which was set to distribute the film, were optimistic about its chances for success. But there were other factors to consider. For one, prison movies traditionally had limited appeal for filmgoers. King adaptations had also frequently descended into schlock, with many of them garnering mixed commercial receptions. While Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Misery was a hit, 1993’s The Dark Half and Needful Things were not.

Freeman had reservations, too: Specifically, he didn't like the film's title. While it had been shortened from the novella, The Shawshank Redemption was not a terribly descriptive title and was difficult for some to remember. Was it The Scrimshaw Redemption? The Shimshank Redemption? In their 1994 review, the Hollywood Reporter called the title “enigmatic” and presciently described the movie as difficult to market.

But the real problem for the film was not necessarily its title or pedigree. It was John Travolta.

 

When The Shawshank Redemption opened wide on October 14, 1994, it was competing for audiences' attention with Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's sophomore effort, which had taken the Cannes Film Festival by storm earlier in the year. The media ate up the comeback story of co-star Travolta, who led an all-star cast in a gritty crime anthology. Opening opposite Pulp Fiction relegated The Shawshank Redemption—already burdened by its seemingly morose premise—down to the bottom of the box office charts.

(L-R) Morgan Freeman, Frank Darabont, and Tim Robbins attend a 20th anniversary Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of 'The Shawshank Redemption' at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills in 2014
(L-R) Morgan Freeman, director Frank Darabont, and Tim Robbins attend a 20th anniversary screening of The Shawshank Redemption in Beverly Hills in 2014.
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

“It looked to the casual observer like a spoonful of medicine,” Darabont told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “One of those movies that just kind of looks like it’s going to be a difficult chore to sit through.”

For the remainder of 1994, it seemed as though The Shawshank Redemption would remain a film that had simply failed to resonate with viewers. Then the movie got a break: In 1995, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Freeman. While it didn’t win, it garnered many mentions during the March 27, 1995 broadcast.

“Nobody had heard of the movie, and that year on the Oscar broadcast, they were mentioning this movie seven times,” Darabont told the Los Angeles Times.

It was a start. On the strength of the nominations, Warner Bros. decided to re-release the film in theaters, where it collected another $12 million in revenue. The studio also issued 320,000 copies of the film on VHS in the spring of 1995, a move that was perceived as rather ambitious by many Hollywood insiders, considering how poorly The Shawshank Redemption had performed in theaters. But the risk paid off. The Shawshank Redemption became a success on the rental market, where it often outperformed the seemingly unstoppable Forrest Gump. Audiences were apparently more willing to take a chance on a funny-sounding prison picture at home.

The film's real breakthrough, however, came in 1997, when Ted Turner’s TNT network brokered the cable rights to the film. Studio movies often sell to broadcast and cable outlets for large amounts of money, but Turner’s deal for The Shawshank Redemption was somewhat unusual. The media figurehead had purchased Castle Rock in 1993, meaning he was really selling the film to himself—and for a very fair price. Free to play it as often as they liked, TNT made the movie a regular fixture on their schedule.

Once audiences finally got the chance to see the film, they quickly understood how they might have gotten the wrong impression when it was being marketed for theatrical release. While The Shawshank Redemption does indeed allow Andy Dufresne to wallow in misery for much of its running time—even his salvation involves crawling through a feces-filled sewer, which Robbins later said was filled with actual cow manure—Dufresne’s ultimate destination made it worthwhile. The movie’s messages of hope and persistence seemed to resonate.

 

For the film’s 25th anniversary, Warner Bros. and Turner Classic Movies are teaming to re-release The Shawshank Redemption theatrically via Fathom Events in select locations on September 22, 24, and 25. In August 2019, 30,000 people took a trip to the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, where the prison has been dressed to recreate locations seen in the film. (Yes, you can listen to music in the warden’s office.) For a film that once made less than $1 million its opening weekend, it now brings in an average of $15 million to the local Mansfield economy every year via tourism alone. Not bad for a film that Darabont optioned for only a few thousand dollars.

Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Warner Bros. via Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies

Technically, that amount was actually zero. Darabont said King never cashed the check, instead sending it back to him in a frame when the movie was finished. “Just in case you need bail money,” King wrote. “Love, Steve.”

16 Biting Facts About Fright Night

William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
William Ragsdale stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Charley Brewster is your typical teen: he’s got a doting mom, a girlfriend whom he loves, a wacky best friend … and an enigmatic vampire living next door.

For more than 30 years, Tom Holland’s critically acclaimed directorial debut has been a staple of Halloween movie marathons everywhere. To celebrate the season, we dug through the coffins of the horror classic in order to discover some things you might not have known about Fright Night.

1. Fright Night was based on "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Or, in this case, "The Boy Who Cried Vampire." “I started to kick around the idea about how hilarious it would be if a horror movie fan thought that a vampire was living next door to him,” Holland told TVStoreOnline of the film’s genesis. “I thought that would be an interesting take on the whole Boy Who Cried Wolf thing. It really tickled my funny bone. I thought it was a charming idea, but I really didn't have a story for it.”

2. Peter Vincent made Fright Night click.

It wasn’t until Holland conceived of the character of Peter Vincent, the late-night horror movie host played by Roddy McDowall, that he really found the story. While discussing the idea with a department head at Columbia Pictures, Holland realized what The Boy Who Cried Vampire would do: “Of course, he's gonna go to Vincent Price!” Which is when the screenplay clicked. “The minute I had Peter Vincent, I had the story,” Holland told Dread Central. “Charley Brewster was the engine, but Peter Vincent was the heart.”

3. Peter Vincent is named after two horror icons.

Peter Cushing and Vincent Price.

4. The Peter Vincent role was intended for Vincent Price.

Roddy McDowall in Fright Night (1985)
Roddy McDowall as Peter Vincent in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

“Now the truth is that when I first went out with it, I was thinking of Vincent Price, but Vincent Price was not physically well at the time,” Holland said.

5. Roddy McDowall did not want to play the part like Vincent Price.

Once he was cast, Roddy McDowall made the decision that Peter Vincent was nothing like Vincent Price—specifically: he was a terrible actor. “My part is that of an old ham actor,” McDowall told Monster Land magazine in 1985. “I mean a dreadful actor. He had a moderate success in an isolated film here and there, but all very bad product. Basically, he played one character for eight or 10 films, for which he probably got paid next to nothing. Unlike stars of horror films who are very good actors and played lots of different roles, such as Peter Lorre and Vincent Price or Boris Karloff, this poor sonofabitch just played the same character all the time, which was awful.”

6. It took Holland just three weeks to write the Fright Night script.

And he had a helluva good time doing it, too. “I couldn’t stop writing,” Holland said in 2008, during a Fright Night reunion at Fright Fest. “I wrote it in about three weeks. And I was laughing the entire time, literally on the floor, kicking my feet in the air in hysterics. Because there’s something so intrinsically humorous in the basic concept. So it was always, along with the thrills and chills, something there that tickled your funny bone. It wasn’t broad comedy, but it’s a grin all the way through.”

7. Tom Holland directed Fright Night out of "self-defense."

By the time Fright Night came around, Holland was already a Hollywood veteran—just not as a director. He had spent the past two decades as an actor and writer and he told the crowd at Fright Fest that “this was the first film where I had sufficient credibility in Hollywood to be able to direct ... I had a film after Psycho 2 and before Fright Night called Scream For Help, which … I thought was so badly directed that [directing Fright Night] was self-defense. In self-defense, I wanted to protect the material, and that’s why I started directing with Fright Night."

8. Chris Sarandon had a number of reasons for not wanting to make Fright Night.

Chris Sarandon stars in 'Fright Night' (1985)
Chris Sarandon stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

At the Fright Night reunion, Chris Sarandon recalled his initial reaction to being approached about playing vampire Jerry Dandrige. "I was living in New York and I got the script,” he explained. “My agent said that someone was interested in the possibility of my doing the movie, and I said to myself, ‘There’s no way I can do a horror movie. I can’t do a vampire movie. I can’t do a movie with a first-time director.’ Not a first-time screenwriter, but first-time director. And I sat down and read the script, and I remember very vividly sitting at my desk, looked over at my then wife and said, ‘This is amazing. I don’t know. I have to meet this guy.’ And so, I came out to L.A. And I met with Tom [Holland] and our producer. And we just hit it off, and that was it.”

9. Jerry Dandridge is part fruit bat.

After doing some research into the history of vampires and the legends surrounding them, Sarandon decided that Jerry had some fruit bat in him, which is why he’s often seen snacking on fruit in the film. When asked about the 2011 remake with Colin Farrell, Sarandon commented on how much he appreciated that that specific tradition continued. “In this one, it's an apple, but in the original, Jerry ate all kinds of fruit because it was just sort of something I discovered by searching it—that most bats are not blood-sucking, but they're fruit bats,” Sarandon told io9. “And I thought well maybe somewhere in Jerry's genealogy, there's fruit bat in him, so that's why I did it.”

10. William Ragsdale learned he had booked the part of Charley Brewster on Halloween.

William Ragsdale had only ever appeared in one film before Fright Night (in a bit part). He had recently been considered for the role of Rocky Dennis in Mask, which “didn’t work out,” Ragsdale recalled. “But a few months later, [casting director] Jackie Burch tells me, ‘There’s this movie I’m casting. You might be really right for it.’ So, I had this 1976 Toyota Celica and I drove that through the San Joaquin valley desert for four or five trips down for auditioning. And in the last one, Stephen [Geoffreys] was there, Amanda [Bearse] was there and that’s when it happened. I had read the script and at the time I had been doing Shakespeare and Greek drama, so I read this thing and thought, ‘Well, God, this looks like a lot of fun. There’s no … iambic pentameter, there’s no rhymes. You know? Where’s the catharsis? Where’s the tragedy?’ … I ended up getting a call on Halloween that they had decided to use me, and I was delighted.”

11. Not being Anthony Michael Hall worked in Stephen Geoffreys's favor.

In a weird way, it was by not being Anthony Michael Hall that Stephen Geoffreys was cast as Evil Ed. “I actually met Jackie Burch, the casting director, by mistake in New York months before this movie was cast and she remembered me,” Geoffreys shared at Fright Fest. “My agent sent me for an audition for Weird Science. And Anthony Michael Hall was with the same agent that I was with, and she sent me by mistake. And Jackie looked at me when I walked into the office and said, ‘You’re not Anthony Michael Hall!’ and I’m like ‘No!’ But anyway, I sat down and I talked to Jackie for a half hour and she remembered me from that interview and called my agent, and my agent sent me the script while I was with Amanda [Bearse] in Palm Springs doing Fraternity Vacation, and I read it. It was awesome. The writing was incredible.”

12. Evil Ed wanted to be Charley Brewster.

Stephen Geoffreys stars in 'Fright Night' (1985).
Stephen Geoffreys stars in Fright Night (1985).
Columbia Pictures

Geoffreys loved the script for Fright Night. “I just got this really awesome feeling about it,” he said. “I read it and thought I’ve got to do this. I called my agent and said ‘I would love to audition for the part of Charley Brewster!’ [And he said] ‘No, Steve, you’re wanted for the part of Evil Ed.’ And I went, ‘Are you kidding me? Why? I couldn’t… What do they see in me that they think I should be this?' Well anyway, it worked out. It was awesome and I had a great time.”

13. Fright Night's original ending was much different.

The film’s original ending saw Peter Vincent transform into a vampire—while hosting “Fright Night” in front of a live television audience.

14. A ghost from Ghostbusters made a cameo in Fright Night.

Visual effects producer Richard Edlund had recently finished up work on Ghostbusters when he and his team began work on Fright Night. And the movie gave them a great reason to recycle one of the library ghosts they had created for Ghostbusters—which was deemed too scary for Ivan Reitman's PG-rated classic—and use it as a vampire bat for Fright Night.

15. Fright Night's cast and crew took it upon themselves to record some DVD commentaries.

Because the earliest DVD versions of Fright Night contained no commentary tracks, in 2008 the cast and crew partnered with Icons of Fright to record a handful of downloadable “pirate” commentary tracks about the making of the film. The tracks ended up on a limited-edition 30th anniversary Blu-ray of the film, which sold out in hours.

16. Vincent Price loved Fright Night.


Columbia Pictures

Holland had the chance to meet Vincent Price one night at a dinner party at McDowall’s. And the actor was well aware that McDowall’s character was based on him. “I was a little bit embarrassed by it,” Holland admitted. “He said it was wonderful and he thought Roddy did a wonderful job. Thank God he didn’t ask why he wasn’t cast in it.”

7 Timeless Facts About Paul Rudd

Rich Fury, Getty Images
Rich Fury, Getty Images

Younger fans may know Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, one of the newest members of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, the actor has been a Hollywood mainstay for half his life.

Rudd's breakout role came in 1995’s Clueless, where he played Josh, Alicia Silverstone's charming love interest in Amy Heckerling's beloved spin on Jane Austen's Emma. In the 2000s, Rudd became better known for his comedic work when he starred in movies like Wet Hot American Summer (2001), Anchorman (2004), The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Knocked Up (2007), and I Love You, Man (2009).

It wasn’t until 2015 that Rudd stepped into the ever-growing world of superhero movies when he was cast as Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man, and became part of the MCU.

Rudd has proven he can take on any part, serious or goofy. More amazingly, he never seems to age. But in honor of (what is reportedly) his 50th birthday on April 6, here are some things you might not have known about the star.

1. Paul Rudd is technically Paul Rudnitzky.

Though Paul Rudd was born in Passaic, New Jersey, both of his parents hail from London—his father was from Edgware and his mother from Surbiton. Both of his parents were descendants of Jewish immigrants who moved to England from from Russia and Poland. Rudd’s last name was actually Rudnitzky, but it was changed by his grandfather.

2. His parents are second cousins.

In a 2017 episode of Finding Your Roots, Rudd learned that his parents were actually second cousins. Rudd responded to the discovery in typical comedic fashion: "Which explains why I have six nipples." He also wondered what that meant for his own family. "Does this make my son also my uncle?," he asked.

3. He loved comic books as a kid.

While Rudd did read Marvel Comics as a kid, he preferred Archie Comics and other funny stories. His English cousins would send him British comics, too, like Beano and Dandy, which he loved.

4. Rudd wanted to play Christian in Clueless. And Murray.

Clueless would have been a completely different movie if Rudd had been cast as the suave Christian instead of the cute older step-brother-turned-love-interest Josh. But before he was cast as Cher’s beau, he initially wanted the role of the “ringa ding kid” Christian.

"I thought Justin Walker’s character, Christian, was a really good part," Rudd told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. "It was a cool idea, something I’d never seen in a movie before—the cool gay kid. And then I asked to read for Donald Faison's part, because I thought he was kind of a funny hip-hop wannabe. I didn’t realize that the character was African-American.”

5. His role model is Paul Newman.

In a 2008 interview for Role Models, which he both co-wrote and starred in, Rudd was asked about his real-life role model. He answered Paul Newman, saying he admired the legendary actor because he gave a lot to the world before leaving it.

6. Before he was Ant-Man, he wanted to be Adam Ant.

In a 2011 interview with Grantland, Rudd talked about his teenage obsession with '80s English rocker Adam Ant. "Puberty hit me like a Mack truck, and my hair went from straight to curly overnight," Rudd explained. "But it was an easier pill to swallow because Adam Ant had curly hair. I used to ask my mom to try and shave my head on the sides to give me a receding hairline because Adam Ant had one. I didn’t know what a receding hairline was. I just thought he looked cool. She said, 'Absolutely not,' but I was used to that."

Ant wasn't the only musician Rudd tried to emulate. "[My mom] also shot me down when I asked if I could bleach just the top of my head like Howard Jones. Any other kid would’ve been like, 'F*** you, mom! I’m bleaching my hair.' I was too nice," he said.

7. Romeo + Juliet wasn’t Rudd's first go as a Shakespearean actor.

Yet another one of Rudd's iconic '90s roles was in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, but it was far from the actor's first brush with Shakespeare. Rudd spent three years studying Jacobean theater in Oxford, England, and starred in a production of Twelfth Night. He was described by his director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, as having “emotional and intellectual volatility.” Hytner’s praise was a big deal, considering he was the director of London's National Theatre from 2003 until 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER