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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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The Princess Ride: Here's What a Princess Bride Theme Park Attraction Might Look Like
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MGM

Do you fight the urge to say “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya” when introducing yourself? Have you spent the past 30 years mispronouncing the word “marriage”? If so, you may be a diehard fan of The Princess Bride. The cult film (and the book on which it’s based) has inspired board games, merchandise, and countless pop culture references. Now, two theme park designers from Universal have conceived the inconceivable. As Nerdist reports, Jon Plsek and Olivia West have designed the plans for a hypothetical attraction called “The Princess Ride.

Their idea follows the classic river boat ride structure and adds highlights from the movie around each corner. After watching Buttercup and Wesley’s love story unfold, riders are taken past the Cliffs of Insanity, through the Fire Swamp, and into the Pit of Despair. The climax unfolds at Prince Humperdinck’s castle and leads up to the two protagonists riding off into the sunset. The last thing the passengers see is Miracle Max and Valerie waving goodbye saying, “Hope ya had fun stormin’ the castle!”

The ride’s designers make a living turning stories into thrilling attractions. Plsek works as a concept artist for Universal Creative, the group behind Universal’s theme parks, and West works there as a concept writer. While The Princess Ride was just a fun side project for the pair, it isn’t hard to imagine their ride bringing Princess Bride fans to the parks in real life.

For more of Jon Plesk’s concept rides inspired by classics like Dr. Strangelove (1964) and National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), check out his website.

[h/t Nerdist]

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13 Great Facts About Bad Lieutenant
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Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Bad Lieutenant can be accused of many things, but one charge you can't level against it is false advertising. Harvey Keitel's title character, whose name is never given, is indeed a bad, bad lieutenant: corrupt, sleazy, drug-addled, irresponsible, and lascivious, all while he's on the job. (Imagine what his weekends must be like!)

Abel Ferrara's nightmarish character study was controversial when it was released 25 years ago today, and rated NC-17 for its graphic nudity (including a famous glimpse at Lil’ Harvey), unsettling sexual violence, and frank depiction of drug use. The film packs a wallop, no doubt. Here's some behind-the-scenes info to help you cope with it.

1. THE PLACID WOMAN WHO HELPS THE LIEUTENANT FREEBASE HEROIN WROTE THE MOVIE.

That's Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who starred in Abel Ferrara's revenge-exploitation thriller Ms. 45 (1981) more than a decade earlier, when she was 17 years old. She and Ferrara are credited together for writing Bad Lieutenant, though she always insisted that wasn't the case. "I wrote this alone," she said. "Abel is a wonderful director, but he's not a screenwriter." She said elsewhere that she "wrote every word of that screenplay," though everyone agrees the finished movie included a lot of improvisation. Lund was a fascinating, tragic character herself—a musical prodigy who became an enthusiastic and unapologetic user of heroin before switching to cocaine in the mid-1990s. She died of heart failure in 1999 at age 37.

2. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN WAS SUPPOSED TO STAR IN IT.

Christopher Walken had starred in Ferrara's previous film, King of New York (1990), and was set to play the lead in Bad Lieutenant before pulling out at almost the last minute. Ferrara was shocked. "[Walken] says, 'You know, I don't think I'm right for it.' Which is, you know, a fine thing to say, unless it's three weeks from when you're supposed to start shooting," Ferrara said. "It definitely caught me by surprise. It put me in terminal shock, actually." Harvey Keitel replaced him (though not without difficulty; see below), and the film's editor, Anthony Redman, thought Keitel was a better choice anyway. "Chris is too elegant for the part," he said. "Harvey is not elegant." 

3. HARVEY KEITEL'S INITIAL REACTION TO THE SCRIPT WAS NOT PROMISING.

"When we gave [Keitel] the script the first time, he read about five pages and threw it in the garbage," Ferrara said. Keitel's recollection was a little more diplomatic. As he told Roger Ebert, "I read a certain amount of pages and I put it down. I said, 'There's no way I'm gonna make this movie.' And then I asked myself, 'How often am I a lead in a movie? Read it, maybe I can salvage something from it …' When I read the part about the nun, I understood why Abel wanted to make it."

4. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUNNY.


Lionsgate Home Entertainment

"It was always, in my mind, a comedy," Ferrara said. He cited the scene where the Lieutenant pulls the teenage girls over as a specific example of how Christopher Walken would have played it, and how Harvey Keitel changed it. "The lieutenant was going to end up dancing in the streets with the girls as the sun came up. They'd be wearing his gun belt and hat, and they'd have the radio on, you know what I mean? But oh my God, Harvey, he turned it into this whole other thing." Boy, did he. 

5. THAT SCENE WITH THE TEENAGE GIRLS HAD A REAL-LIFE ELEMENT THAT MADE IT EVEN CREEPIER.

One of the young women was Keitel's nanny. Ferrara: "I said, 'You sure you want to do this with your babysitter?' He says, 'Yeah, I want to try something.'"

6. MUCH OF IT WAS FILMED GUERRILLA-STYLE.

Like many indie-minded directors of low-budget films, Ferrara didn't bother with permits most of the time. "We weren't permitted on any of this stuff," editor Anthony Redman admitted. "We just walked on and started shooting." For the scene where a strung-out Lieutenant walks through a bumpin' nightclub, they sent Keitel through an actual, functioning club during peak operating hours.

7. A GREAT DEAL OF THE DIALOGUE AND ACTION WERE MADE UP ON THE FLY.

The script was only about 65 pages at first, which would have made for about a 65-minute movie. "It left a lot of room for improvisation," producer Randy Sabusawa said, "but the ideas were pretty distilled. They were there."

Script supervisor Karen Kelsall said supervising the script was a challenge. "Abel didn't stick to a script," she said. "Abel used a script as a way to get the money to make a movie, and then the script was kind of—we called it the daily news. It changed every day. It changed in the middle of scenes." Ferrara was unapologetic about the script's brevity. "The idea of wanting 90 pages ... is ridiculous."

8. AND THERE WERE EVEN MORE IDEAS THAT THEY DIDN'T USE.

Ferrara said a scene that epitomized the movie for him—even though he never got around to filming it—was one where the Lieutenant robs an electronics store, leaves, then gets a call about a robbery at the electronics store. He responds in an official capacity (they don't recognize him), takes a statement, walks out, and throws the statement in the garbage. "And that to me is the Bad Lieutenant, you know?" Ferrara said. 

9. THE BASEBALL PLAYOFF SERIES IS FICTIONAL.

The Mets have battled the Dodgers for the National League championship once, in 1988. (The Dodgers beat 'em and went on to win the World Series.) For the narrative Ferrara wanted—the Mets coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win the pennant—he had to make it up. He used footage from real Mets-Dodgers games (including Darryl Strawberry's three-run homer from a game in July 1991) and added fictional play-by-play. But the statistics were accurate: No team had ever been down by three in a best-of-seven series and then come back to win. (It's happened once since then, when the 2004 Red Sox did it.)

10. THEY HAD HELP FROM THE COP WHO SOLVED A SIMILAR CASE.

The disgusting crime at the center of the film (we won't dwell on it) was inspired by a real-life incident from 1981, which mayor Ed Koch called "the most heinous crime in the history of New York City." The street cop who solved it, Bo Dietl, advised Ferrara on the film and had an on-screen role as one of the detectives in our Lieutenant's circle of friends.

11. THEY DESECRATED THE CHURCH AS RESPECTFULLY AS THEY COULD.

Production designer Charles Lagola had his team cover the church’s altar and other surfaces with plastic wrap, then painted the graffiti and other defacements on the plastic.

12. IT WAS RATED NC-17 IN THEATERS, WITH AN R-RATED VERSION FOR HOME VIDEO.

Blockbuster and some of the other retail chains wouldn't carry NC-17 or unrated films, so sometimes studios would produce edited versions. (See also: Requiem for a Dream.) The tamer version of Bad Lieutenant was five minutes and 19 seconds shorter, with parts of the rape scene, the drug-injecting scene, and much of the car interrogation scene excised.

13. THE "SEQUEL" HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, NOR DID FERRARA APPROVE OF IT.


First Look International

Movie buffs were baffled in 2009, when Werner Herzog directed Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, starring Nicolas Cage. It sounds like a sequel (or a remake), but in fact had no connection at all to the earlier film except that both were produced by Edward R. Pressman. Herzog said he'd never seen Ferrara's movie and wanted to change the title (Pressman wouldn't let him); Ferrara, outspoken as always, initially wished fiery death on everyone involved. Ferrara and Herzog finally met at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where Herzog initiated a conversation about the whole affair and Ferrara expressed his frustration cordially. 

Additional sources:
DVD interviews with Abel Ferrara, Anthony Redman, Randy Sabusawa, and Karen Kelsall.

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