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11 Beloved Movies That Were Box Office Flops

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getty images

It's hard to believe that some beloved films didn't find immediate success when they were released, but sometimes movies are just ahead of their time. Here are 11 famous examples of celebrated classics that were box office bombs.

1. It's a Wonderful Life

Budget: $3.18 million

Box Office: $3.3 million

While It's a Wonderful Life is a staple of the holiday season, it received little attention from general audiences at the time of its release in 1946. This was mainly due to its dark narrative and subject matter. RKO Pictures lost $525,000 on the film, despite its five Academy Award nominations.

It's a Wonderful Life didn't become ubiquitously popular in the United States until 1974 when National Telefilm Associates failed to renew its copyright because it was considered a box office flop. Now in the public domain, TV networks gobbled up It's a Wonderful Life because they didn't have to pay royalties to air it. In the 1980s, hundreds of home video distributors released It's a Wonderful Life on videotape, which further expanded its reach around the world. Over time, it became a perennial holiday classic.

"It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen," Frank Capra said of its success in 1984. "The film has a life of its own now, and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I'm like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I'm proud... but it's the kid who did the work. I didn't even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea."

2. Blade Runner

Budget: $28 million

Box Office: $27.5 million

While Blade Runner is one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made, it was considered just another sci-fi flick when it was released during the summer of 1982. Theaters were saturated with iconic genre movies such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, and, most importantly,  E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which was the highest-grossing movie of the year. Blade Runner only took in $6.5 million during its opening weekend.

Audiences re-discovered Blade Runner on VHS and later DVD throughout the '80s and '90s, as Warner Bros. re-released it with a director's cut and later a final cut, which Ridley Scott currently stands by as the definitive version. In 1993, the Library of Congress picked it for the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

3. The Shawshank Redemption

Budget: $25 million

Box Office: $16 million

Despite very positive critical response and Academy Award recognition in 1994, The Shawshank Redemption failed to find an audience in theaters. The general public started to notice The Shawshank Redemption when Warner Bros. released it on VHS the following year, and it quickly became one of the top video rentals across the country. In 1997, the cable network TNT bought the rights to air it, and this helped the film find a larger audience with frequent and repeated airings. The Shawshank Redemption is currently on the American Film Institute's best 100 movies of the past 100 years and is the #1 film on IMDb.com's Top 250 list.

4. Brazil

Budget: $15 million

Box Office: $9.9 million

Terry Gilliam earned plenty of good faith from general audiences and movie studios after the success of the Monty Python films. However, after he finished Brazil in 1985, Universal Pictures refused to release the film because of its anti-corporate undertones and strange narrative. Terry Gilliam screened Brazil privately without Universal's approval and took a full-page ad in Variety to address studio chairman Sid Sheinberg that simply read, “When are you going to release my film, ‘BRAZIL’? After Universal re-edited Brazil and tacked on a happy ending, it came out to little fanfare and only grossed about $10 million.

Brazil remains a cult classic after Terry Gilliam's cut was released on home video. In fact, the Criterion Collection has released it five times on multiple formats since 1996.

5. Children of Men

Budget: $76 million

Box Office: $35.5 million

Before Alfonso Cuarón dazzled audiences with Gravity in 2013, his dystopian science fiction film Children of Men didn't make much of an impact on general audiences in the United States in 2006. Although it received positive reviews and an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, Children of Men didn't find financial success at the domestic box office, only taking in $35.5 million.

However, it eventually found moderate success on home video with an impressive $25.5 million to add to its overall gross profit.

6. Citizen Kane

Budget: $839,727

Box Office: $1.5 million

Despite overwhelmingly positive reviews, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane didn't perform well at the box office when it was released in May 1941. Along with its dark subject matter and narrative style, one of the reasons for the low box office numbers was media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst discovered that Charles Foster Kane's story was an unfavorable and loose adaptation on his life, he banned any mention of Citizen Kane and Orson Welles in all of his newspapers and radio networks across the country. This resulted in fewer theaters agreeing to screen Citizen Kane.

At the time, general audiences weren't keen on Citizen Kane's premise and themes (for example, that the American Dream was a lonely and cynical venture), and stayed away from the movie. However, it is now seen as one of the greatest films in history for its innovative structure and style. RKO Pictures lost roughly $160,000 on Citizen Kane, but managed nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Orson Welles.

7. Hugo

Budget: $170 million

Box Office: $73.8 million

Although Martin Scorsese's Hugo didn't rake in the dough during its theatrical run, it stands as one of the director's most celebrated films with 11 Academy Award nominations in 2011. One of the reasons why Hugo is perceived as a failure is because of its box office competition. Paramount Pictures released Hugo a week after The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part One and during the same week as Disney's The Muppets, which were both strong performers with families and young adults, Hugo's key demographic.

8. Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

Budget: $3 million

Box Office: $4 million

While Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory is considered a family classic today, audiences didn't enthusiastically respond to it when it was released in 1971. Since the film wasn't profitable, Paramount Pictures decided not to renew its seven-year copyright, and Warner Bros. bought the rights for $500,000 in 1977. Under new ownership, Warner Bros. licensed Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory for TV broadcast where it found a widespread audience after repeated airings and further home video sales.

9. Fight Club

Budget: $63 million

Box Office: $37 million

Today, Fight Club is considered a modern-day classic and one of David Fincher's best movies. However, when it was released in October 1999, Twentieth Century Fox didn't know how to sell a movie about consumerism and misguided masculinity to general audiences. Fight Club's early reviews didn't help pack theaters either, as it garnered a mixed response from film critics.

Rosie O'Donnell hated Fight Club so much that she revealed its twist ending on her talk show. “It’s okay she hated it ... it struck some nerve for her whether she wanted to look at that or not,” Brad Pitt said on Fight Club's DVD commentary track, “but the deal was she gave away the ending on national television. It’s just unforgivable.”

Fight Club eventually found an audience on home video, and Fox sold more than 6 million copies and took in an additional $100 million.

10. Dazed & Confused

Budget: $6 million

Box Office: $7.6 million

Back in 1993, Richard Linklater released his sophomore effort Dazed & Confused to very little fanfare. While the film featured current-day stars such as Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey, its young cast weren't household names at the time. Gramercy Pictures and Universal Pictures didn't know how to market a stoner coming-of-age movie without raunchy sex scenes or gross-out humor to a general audience, so it wasn't as successful as it could've been when you consider its all-star cast and world-class director.

While Dazed & Confused was virtually forgotten in 1993, it survived and managed to eventually find an audience among cinephiles. When asked if a movie like Dazed & Confused could be made today, Richard Linklater told The Hollywood Reporter, "Hell no! No way. It was only a $6 million film, but it was made in a studio. They would never do this. They're not in that business anymore. It would be hard to get it made indie. It would be hard to raise the money and do it."

11. The Wizard of Oz

Budget: $2.7 million

Box Office: $3 million

Believe it or not, The Wizard of Oz was a box office bomb when it was released in 1939. At the time, it was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's most expensive film ever with giant sets and state-of-the-art special effects. MGM had high expectations for the film, however, audiences weren't keen on making the journey to the Wonderful Land of Oz.

In fact, MGM lost $1.1 million on The Wizard of Oz because of its high production and distribution cost. Despite its middling box office numbers, it garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and won two Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song for "Over the Rainbow."

Due to its critical success, MGM re-released The Wizard of Oz in 1949 for its 10th anniversary and it eventually became a profitable film for the studio, and it added $1.5 million to its box office. Throughout the years, MGM (and later Warner Bros, who now own the film rights) re-released The Wizard of Oz in theaters and home video, and it became an iconic piece of cinema and pop culture.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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