15 Movie Flops That Became Cult Classics

A cult film can be defined as a film that has acquired a staunch fan following over the years since its release. Cult films are usually films that failed to garner commercial and critical success during its release but with time and a more matured audience, the film tends to grow in stature. This happens when a film is bold and unconventional in its storytelling style or deals with themes that might be a bit too hard for the masses to stomach and are well and truly ahead of its time. Most cult classics have flopped at the box office and some of them even received highly negative reviews at the time of its release. This article takes a look at list of movie flops that would later go on to become cult classics. Here they are:

15. Office Space (1999)

Probably the most underrated film on this list, ‘Office Space’ captures the monotony of the corporate world at its heart. The film tells the story of three friends who are getting increasingly tired of their jobs as they concoct a plan and revolt against their boss. Despite critical acclaim, the film turned out to be a sad box office disappointment managing to just gross $12.8 million against its budget of $10 million. A DVD release, however, managed to turn things for the film and would later go on to sell around 6 million copies, attaining cult following among the IT industry and other corporate workers. The film now almost regularly appears in lists covering the greatest comedies of all time.


14. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Almost every single aspect of this film has gelled with American pop culture. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was pure cinematic bliss that revolutionised storytelling, visuals  and music and weaved magic with the medium. But the film was a near box office flop despite every single critic going crazy over its imaginative depth, creative vision and visual achievements. But redemption came for the film years later with a re-release in 1949 and a VHS release in 1980 which brought back the film to life and has since become one of the most popular films in the history of cinema.


13. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Terry Gilliam’s dark satire tells the story of a journalist and a lawyer who embark on a road trip to Las Vegas as part of their work but ends up exploring the city, revelling in psychedelic madness. The film was quite divisive on it and did not fare well at the box office. The film generated a significant amount of controversy and garnered the hate of some critics with some deeming it as self-indulgent mess. However years later, various screenings and its release on home media, made way for the film’s revival and has since been regarded as a cult classic.


12. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

One of the most memorable musical films ever made, ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ depicts the bizarre, eccentric adventures of its titular character who brings in a group of kids to his factory. Highly unconventional for its time, the film did not go well with the audiences with a slightly odd plot and ended up being a near disaster at the box office. Critical reviews, however, for the film were highly positive and over decades since its release, ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ has entertained and enthralled viewers with its strangely wrought narrative structure and the lead character has become one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable faces in cinema history.


11. Harold and Maude (1971)

A young man in his twenties caught up in a romantic relationship with a 79 year old woman. Not something that would go well with the viewers. And unsurprisingly, it didn’t. The film is a dark romantic comedy that explores the themes of life and death through people from seemingly different phases of life. ‘Harold and Maude’ was a critical and commercial failure during its time and was pushed to the forgotten corners of cinema only to be revived years later by cinema enthusiasts, developing a strong cult following years after its release. Many critics now have now re-evaluated the film and it has since featured in many “all time best” lists, most notably at number 45 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Funniest Movies of All Time.


10. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

‘It’s a Wonderful life’ is one of the most beloved films of all time but it endured a lot of pain and heartbreak during the time of its release. Surprisingly, the film failed to garner attention in the US and barely managed to gross around $3.3 million. Reasons for its epic commercial failure were mostly attributed to the production costs and early release in order to make it eligible for the Academy Awards but ultimately suffered from some tight competition that year. It has since greatly in stature and is a staple of the Christmas season around the world. Frank Capra himself has admitted that this was a deeply personal film for him and has lived to see it grow over the years.


9. Donnie Darko (2001)

Richard Kelly’s indie sci-fi fantasy drama chronicles the adventures of its titular character as he is led outside by a monster like figure whose name happens to be Frank and tells him that the world is coming to an end in 28 days time. The film was praised by critics almost unanimously with praise directed mostly towards the film’s originality, tone and structure. However, things weren’t so good at the box office. The film’s advertising and promotional strategies were affected because of the devastating 9/11 tragedy and its release was limited. However, the DVD release of the film after a year shaped things up and the film has since been a frequent visitor in lists including the best films of the century and has garnered a strong cult following.


8. Vertigo (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ smoked ‘Citizen Kane’ out in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll of the greatest films of all time, claiming the top spot. But things weren’t easy in the beginning as ‘Vertigo’ was one of Hitchcock’s lowest grossing films, earning just over $2.8 million. Apparently, staunch Hitchcock fanatics were displeased with the overall tone and storyline and many critics also criticised the pacing of the film. But ‘Vertigo’ is now widely regarded as Hitchcock’s greatest film and is considered a landmark achievement in the psychological murder-mystery genre. The film almost regularly features on numerous polls and critics lists of the best films ever made.


7. Blade Runner (1982)

Technically, ‘Blade Runner’ wasn’t a flop but couldn’t quite live up to its expectations. Rivalled at the box office by Steven Spielberg’s ‘E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial’, the film could only manage to just gross $32.9 million at the box office. Critics reviews were mixed to positive with Roger Ebert praising the visual aesthetics of the film but criticising its story-line. Several versions of the film were screened as a result of the alterations done by studio execs. The film has gone on to influence many filmmakers and numerous films of its genre and is now regarded as one of the greatest science fictions films of all time.


6. Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam is a maverick filmmaker who films are drenched in a sense of eccentricity and madness that you can’t help but be fascinated by its craft. His 1985 dystopian science fiction film, ‘Brazil’, tells the story of a worker in the ministry department craving for freedom and liberation from oppressive forces. Arguably Gilliam’s best work to date, ‘Brazil’ was, unsurprisingly, a commercial disappointment. After a long conflict regarding the final cut, Gilliam conducted separate screenings of the film for critics. The film failed to recoup its initial costs and ended up as a flop. But subsequent film enthusiasts and critics praised the film and admired it for its impeccable design, quality, well toned storyline and plot-twists and is now considered a seminal work of art in the science fiction genre.


5. The Big Lebowski (1998)

Coen Brothers’ trippy stoner comedy embodies every element of a cult classic. ‘The Big Lebowski’ is a testament to Coen Brothers’ brilliant writing abilities as you see these hilarious characters breath life on-screen in a an absurd story-line that follows a case of mistaken identity and a subsequent kidnapping plot that goes awfully wrong. ‘The Big Lebowski’, not only flopped at the box office but also received mixed reviews from critics during its time with criticism mostly directed towards the film’s ludicrous plot-line. But the caught the attention of many cinephiles years later and has since gone to become a crowd favorite among ardent movie buffs.


4. Fight Club (1999)

In retrospect, it astonishes me to think that a film with such searing audacity and daring ambition could turn out to be a box office disappointment. Studio executives had a tough time marketing the film. The major problem being the film’s apparent lack of appeal to a wider section of the audience. However, what ‘Fight Club’ managed to achieve was to trigger a controversy. The film received polarising reviews from critics, mostly for its fierce depiction of explicit violence and masculine overtones. But years since its release, a different generation of audience started appreciating the film for its visual, stylistic appeal and thematic boldness and has since gone to be regarded as one of the greatest American films of the 90s.


3. Dazed and Confused (1993)

I wasn’t aware of the fact that ‘Dazed and Confused’ was a commercial failure until I did some research as part of this article. Richard Linklater’s iconic teen drama follows a group of teenagers in Texas who celebrate the last of their high school by having a blast, indulging in drugs and through several other adventures. Faulty marketing strategies hampered the film from being a commercial success and ended up grossing just over $8 million in the US. The film has since gone on to feature in numerous lists covering the best coming of age dramas of all time and Matthew McConaughey’s  line “alright, alright, alright!” has become one of the most iconic catchphrases in cinema history.


2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

1994 was an year of American classics. While Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ rocked the box office, this Frank Darabont gem got stamped down and suffered from lack of effective promotion and ended up being a box office failure despite immense critical acclaim. However, repeated airings on TNT network and ever since its DVD release, the film has gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest films of the 90s and is perhaps the most beloved film of all time. It is now the highest rated film on IMDb and general masses consider it to be the best film ever made. The story of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ just tells you that numbers do not matter and ultimately a film resides in the hearts of people.


1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Yes, the greatest American film happens to be a famous box office failure. No film has ever managed to influence the art of cinema on nearly every aspect of filmmaking; from the acting, storytelling to sound, lighting, cinematography and make-up. But its profound influence wasn’t felt immediately upon. Unusual for a debut director, Orson Welles was given complete creative control over the film following the success of his previous ventures in theatre and was allowed to have his own cast and crew, structure his own storyline. Welles’ co-writer for the script, Herman Mankiewicz based the film on the life of William Randolph Hearst, a big shot newspaper publisher himself. Apparently the film angered him and deliberately thrashed and damaged any scope for commercial success. But ‘Citizen Kane’ lived to stand the test of time and since the years following its release, more number of critics have admired the film’s craft and consider it to be a major milestone in filmmaking.