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11 Beloved Movies That Were Box Office Flops

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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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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
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Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars
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Winning an Oscar is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you’re Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you’d think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are, Colin Firth.

1. ANGELINA JOLIE

After Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world wrinkle their noses, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage with the rest of Marcheline’s belongings when she died in 2007, but it hasn’t yet surfaced. “I didn’t actually lose it,” Jolie said, “but nobody knows where it is at the moment.”

2. WHOOPI GOLDBERG

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. “Oscar will never leave my house again,” Goldberg said.

3. OLYMPIA DUKAKIS

When Olympia Dukakis’s Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. “For $78,” they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. MARLON BRANDO

“I don’t know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront,” Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. “Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared.” He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. “The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don’t know where it is now.”

5. JEFF BRIDGES

Jeff Bridges had just won his Oscar in 2010 for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the next year’s ceremony, where he was up for another one. He lost to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. “It’s been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now,” the actor admitted. “I’m hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven’t won a spare! But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better.” Which brings us to ...

6. COLIN FIRTH

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed the British actor as he said those words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. MATT DAMON

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn’t sure where his award went. “I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it,” Damon said in 2007.

8. MARGARET O'BRIEN

In 1945, seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O’Briens’ maid took the award home to polish, as she had done before, but never came back to work. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O’Brien’s mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There’s a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O’Brien. “I’ll never give it to anyone to polish again,” she said.

9. BING CROSBY

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944’s Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school’s library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a three-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. “I wanted to make people laugh,” the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. HATTIE MCDANIEL

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

An earlier version of this post ran in 2013.

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