The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Inspired by the books of L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz made a loss at the box office when it was first released in 1939. Following a re-release 10 years later though, MGM recorded a profit, and the film has gone on to be recognized as one of the most influential and beloved of all time. Cementing characters like the Munchkins, the Scarecrow, and the Wicked Witch of the West into the popular consciousness, and establishing tropes like the ruby slippers, the yellow brick road and the Emerald City, the unending production of adaptations, sequels, and interpretations since its release, both from MGM and not, including the phenomenally successful stage musical, Wicked, have secured the legacy of the film that made its star Judy Garland an icon.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971
An adaptation of British children’s author Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film was not a great success when it was released. Indeed, it was disowned by Dahl who distained the plot deviations, Gene Wilder, and what are now perhaps the film’s two most well-loved and covered songs, Pure Imagination and The Candy Man (which later became Sammy Davis Jr.’s only number one hit). Now a classic, and with the general consensus that it is also Wilder’s best work, the film has influenced a remake by Tim Burton starring Johnny Depp, and a stage production that is currently touring the U.S.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975
Based on the 1973 musical stage production, The Rocky Horror Show, this camp horror comedy romp was pulled from theaters on its initial release due to low turnout. Following 20th Century Fox’s midnight screening suggestion, the film quickly gained a cult following, with many attendees showing up as characters from the film. A counterpoint script evolved too, with (largely obscene) dialogue shouted back at the screen by the audience in unison, and eventually full-cast performance groups established themselves at every participating theater. The film is currently considered the longest-running in film history. Since its original release in 1975, it has never been pulled by Fox and continues to screen in cinemas.
Jim Henson’s rollicking puppet-filled fantasy was a box office bomb when it was released, which understandably depressed Henson immensely. Despite the star power of, and soundtrack by David Bowie (not to mention his leggings and expertly teased Tina Turner-esque hairdo), accompanied by an earnest Jennifer Connolly, and a mesmerizing bevvy of goblins and monsters marauding around mind-bending sets, the film grossed just over half its production budget. With strong DVD sales and explosive cult status over the following years, The Jim Henson Company and Sony Pictures discussed a sequel in the early aughts, and after more than a decade in what Hollywood calls ‘development hell’, director Fede Álvarez announced he had signed on to direct a sequel with a script completed in 2018. Henson’s daughter, Lisa Henson, and Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, will co-produce.
Although Heathers had precursors like Grease in 1978 and myriad “Brat Pack” comedy dramas throughout the Eighties that established the kind of cafeteria tribalism and hierarchies American high school movies are now well-known for, Heathers’ darker influence since is prolific. Cultural keystones like the satirical Mean Girls (2004) and cynical Gossip Girl (2007) are both heavily inspired by the dark Winona Ryder and Christian Slater-starring suicide fest, and although neither descendent offers its audience the scathingly social commentary of Heathers, there are vestiges in both. Heathers did not do well at the box office – perhaps audiences weren’t quite ready for the teen horror comedy drama genre – but following its 1989 VHS release, its fan base ballooned, leading to a TV spin-off and a West End musical.
Hocus Pocus, 1993
With all the elements of a cult classic – gaudy period costumes, catchy musical numbers, and wicked-cum-camp witches played by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker – it’s no surprise this bewitching flick has achieved transcendent status. Despite scathing critical reception at the time, and a box office loss of around $16 million, the film continues to draw huge viewer numbers whenever it’s aired, and it is regularly included in top ten lists of best Halloween movies ever made. The town of Salem where some of the film’s scenes were shot has seen tourism relating to the movie increase exponentially, and while a sequel has been discussed, the Disney Channel has definitively announced a remake.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, 1994
A film about two Australian drag queens and a transgender woman crossing the Outback in a silver Japanese tour bus called Priscilla, Queen of the Desert might not strike anyone as a blockbusting premise. Indeed, the film was barely even released in theaters in the U.S. or the U.K., but nevertheless, Priscilla went on to win an Oscar and a BAFTA, both for best costume design, and has secured itself as a staple of the LGBTQ genre. Before the film’s unexpected success, global audiences hadn’t been much exposed to sympathetic portrayals of drag queens and transgender characters, but a star cast including Hugo Weaving, Terrance Stamp, and a breakout performance by Guy Pearce offered tender portrayals embraced the mainstream.
Although this movie irreparably damaged the career of its promising star, Elizabeth Berkely, and consistently appears on Worst Movie lists to this day, it has gone on become one of MGM’s highest selling movies ever. Against a budget of $45 million, and despite fervent hype over the film’s explicit nature, it only grossed $37 million in theaters. But, thanks to $100 million from the home video market, the studio turned substantial profit, and through re-releases in movie theater midnight screenings, it is now the highest-grossing NC-17 production ever made, earning over $20 million at the U.S. box office so far. Further, the film has since undergone critical re-evaluation and is now hailed by many as one of the most poignant satires on exploitation ever made.
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