These movies, that have left lasting legacies and continue to impact both film culture and more around the world, were all initially box office flops.
The Wizard of Oz
Inspired by the books of L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz initially made a loss at the box office when it was released in 1939. However, following a re-release 10 years later, MGM recorded a profit and it has gone on to be recognized as one of the most influential films of all time. Cementing characters like the Scarecrow and the Wicked Witch of the West into the popular consciousness, the unending production of adaptations, sequels and interpretations since its release, including the 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
An adaptation of British children’s author Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the film was a flop when it was released. 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
Based on the 1973 musical stage production, this camp horror comedy romp was initially pulled from theaters 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.
Jim Henson’s rollicking puppet filled fantasy was a box office bomb when it was released. Despite the star power of, and soundtrack by David Bowie, accompanied by an earnest Jennifer Connolly and a mesmerizing bevvy of goblins and monsters, the film grossed just over half its budget. Yet strong DVD sales and an explosive cult status followed over the years, and in 2018, director Fede Álvarez announced he was signed on to direct a sequel with Henson’s daughter, Lisa Henson, and Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, co-producing. While there’s no release date, the script is apparently good to go.
Although Heathers had precursors like Grease in 1978 and myriad “Brat Pack” comedy dramas throughout the Eighties, Heathers’ darker influence has had lasting influence. Cultural keystones like Mean Girls (2004) and Gossip Girl (2007) are both heavily inspired by the dark Winona Ryder and Christian Slater starring suicide fest. It’s odd, then, that Heathers did not do well at the box office initially. 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.
With all the elements of a cult classic – gaudy period costumes, catchy musical number s, 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, the film continues to draw huge viewer numbers whenever it’s aired. The town of Salem, where some of the film’s iconic scenes were shot, has seen tourism increase exponentially, and while a sequel has been discussed, the Disney Channel has definitively announced a remake.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
This film, about two Australian drag queens and a transgender woman crossing the Outback in a tour bus called Priscilla, was barely released in theaters in the US or the UK, but nevertheless, Priscilla went on to win an Oscar and a BAFTA, both for best costume design, and is now a staple of the LGBTQ genre. Before the film’s release, global audiences hadn’t been 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 appears on Worst Movie lists to this day, it has gone on to become one of MGM’s highest selling movies. Despite fervent hype over the film’s explicit nature, it initially lost at the box office. But a series of re-releases in movie theater midnight screenings and jaw dropping profits from the home video market has since positioned the film as the highest-grossing NC-17 production ever made. It is now even hailed by some critics as one of the most poignant satires on exploitation ever made.
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