Movie critics frequently predict which films will be winners at the box office, but they don’t always get it right. Sometimes movie reviews praise a film that generates dismal box office results.
Many of these films became cult classics, meaning the critics were right all along, but that doesn’t change the fact that the films failed to perform in theaters.
Last updated: March 5, 2021
1. ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
Box office: $28.3 million (domestic release only)
It received seven Oscar nominations, but when “The Shawshank Redemption,” starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, was released in 1994, fans didn’t exactly flock to theaters to see it. The film cost $25 million to make, but audiences showed little interest in it. Critics, however, knew the movie was brilliant.
“It is a strange comment to make about a film set inside a prison, but ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ creates a warm hold on our feelings because it makes us a member of a family,” wrote critic Roger Ebert. “It is deeper than most films; about continuity in a lifetime, based on friendship and hope.”
2. ‘Children of Men’
Worldwide box office: $70 million
Starring Julianne Moore and Clive Owen, the 2006 film “Children of Men” scored three Oscar nods, but at the box office, it failed to surpass its $76 million production budget. Although audiences didn’t embrace the movie, critics knew it was special.
“In the spellbinding ‘Children of Men,’ his best film to date, (Alfonso) Cuaron, 45, fills every frame with his passion and intellect,” wrote Peter Travers of Rolling Stone. “Here’s a movie that grabs you hard, pops your eyes, provokes your mind and ultimately lifts your spirits.”
3. ‘Man on the Moon’
Worldwide box office: $47.4 million
From a financial standpoint, the 1999 film “Man on the Moon,” starring Jim Carrey and Danny DeVito, was a disaster. Carrey’s previous successes and name power couldn’t bring in audiences, and the movie earned back only a little more than half of its $82 million production budget, which caused Universal Pictures to take a major hit. Despite its failure to deliver anything close to impressive box office results, it earned glowing movie reviews from critics in high places.
“A formidable piece of work,” wrote The New York Times’ Janet Maslin.
4. ‘Office Space’
Box office: $10.8 million (domestic release only)
It’s a cult classic now, but when “Office Space” was one of the new movies to hit theaters in 1999, it didn’t exactly draw a crowd. Starring Ron Livingston and Jennifer Aniston, the comedy barely earned back its $10 million production budget. It took fans a little time to realize its brilliance, but the film made highbrow critics laugh right away.
“A hilarious knockdown of corporate culture,” wrote Michael Sragow of The New Yorker.
5. ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’
Worldwide box office: $47.7 million
If you’ve never heard of the 2010 film “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” you aren’t alone. Starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the movie didn’t come close to earning back the $60 million Universal Pictures spent to make it. Despite the dismal box office results, critics considered the film a winner.
“‘Scott Pilgrim’ is a breathless rush of a movie that jumps off the screen, spins your head around and then stealthily works its way into your heart,” wrote Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.
6. ‘Steve Jobs’
Worldwide box office: $34.4 million
Released in 2015, “Steve Jobs” received two Oscar nominations, but it went largely unseen by moviegoers. Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen, the biographical drama barely earned back its $30 million production budget. Despite the lukewarm reception from fans, it garnered rave movie reviews from critics.
“The film is a tightly choreographed treat defined by clean lines both narrative and visual, a perfect synthesis of writing, performance and direction,” Mark Kermode wrote in The Guardian.
7. ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’
Worldwide box office: $9.1 million
Based on the novel by Jesse Andrews, the 2015 film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke, barely generated the box office revenues to surpass its $8 million production budget. Regardless, it won over the critics.
“Movies that explore the treacherous process of growing up are a dime a dozen, but few recent efforts encapsulate the layered fears that accompany the coming-of-age experience with as much wit and depth as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,’” wrote Anisha Jhaveri of IndieWire.
8. ‘A Simple Plan’
Box office: $16.3 million (domestic release only)
Released in 1998, “A Simple Plan,” starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda, was a major flop from a financial standpoint. The film’s $30 million production budget almost doubled its ticket sales, but critics still considered the movie a success.
“‘A Simple Plan’ is one of the year’s best films for a lot of reasons, including its ability to involve the audience almost breathlessly in a story of mounting tragedy,” wrote Roger Ebert. “The performances can be described only as flawless: I could not see a single error of tone or feeling.”
9. ‘The Insider’
Worldwide box office: $60.3 million
Starring Russell Crowe, Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer, “The Insider” had a $90 million production budget, which made it a major box office fail. Released in 1999, the film received a 96% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes despite its lack of appeal to the general public.
“‘The Insider’ had a greater impact on me than ‘All the President’s Men,’ because you know what? Watergate didn’t kill my parents. Cigarettes did,” wrote Ebert.
10. ‘Donnie Darko’
Box office: $1.5 million (domestic release only)
Unlike many other movies starring Jake Gyllenhaal, “Donnie Darko” didn’t exactly spark a sellout in theaters. The film, released in 2001, didn’t come close to having its ticket sales reach the film’s $6 million production budget, but it received surprisingly good movie reviews.
“The opening moments alone show the hand of a natural-born filmmaker,” wrote Todd McCarthy for Variety. “Michael Andrews’ original score and the song selections are outstanding. Steve Poster’s lensing is beautifully fluid, and all other tech work is of a high standard.”
Worldwide box office: $12.8 million
Starring Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks, moviegoers weren’t particularly keen to see the 2006 film “Slither.” The film cost $15 million to make, and its box-office results were far from making it one of the highest-grossing horror films. Although the film didn’t appeal to the masses, movie critics on Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 86% approval rating.
“Gross-out horror-comedy is my least favorite genre, but this movie’s so skillful, I have to take my hat off to it,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader.
Worldwide box office: $25.4 million
Released in 2007, “Grindhouse” was a terrible return on investment for The Weinstein Co., considering it had a production budget of $67 million. Fans weren’t exactly lining up to see the film starring Kurt Russell, Rose McGowan and Danny Trejo, but it impressed the more discerning film critic audience.
“The whole thing runs a bit over three hours, goes by swiftly, contains countless film references and includes hilarious fake trailers,” wrote Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal.
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13. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’
Worldwide box office: $15 million
A movie starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard might seem destined to become a box-office smash, but the 2007 release “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” garnered revenues that totaled just half of its $30 million production budget. Although the film didn’t generate impressive ticket sales, it did score favorable movie reviews.
“Awesome splendor and a striking essay on celebrity reward those who brave the 2 ½-hour run time,” wrote Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post.
Worldwide box office: $35.6 million
Lionsgate put $50 million into the 2012 sci-fi film “Dredd,” starring Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby and Lena Headey, but the box-office results didn’t deliver. Fans of the weekly British comic book “2000 AD” weren’t impressed, but critics liked the movie.
“I knew that the makers of ‘Dredd’ got the feel of the comic book ‘2000 AD’ right when its square-jawed authority, Judge Dredd, pulled out his lawgiver gun,” wrote Carol Pinchefsky of Forbes. “I liked ‘Dredd’ a lot because there were so many aspects to like.”
15. ‘The Iron Giant’
Box office: $23.2 million (domestic release only)
Released in 1999, the animated film “The Iron Giant” was voiced by a star-studded cast, including Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr. and Vin Diesel, but that wasn’t enough to fill theaters. The film cost $70 million to make, so it lost nearly $50 million for Warner Bros. But critics showered the movie with praise.
“It’s brilliantly animated, and like the masterpieces of its genre, it transcends age groupings,” wrote Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post. “Children will love it, and adults will be transfixed by its cleverness and its deft satire.”
16. ‘Bottle Rocket’
Box office: $560,069 (domestic release only)
Wes Anderson movies have become a household name for people who love artsy indie flicks. Anderson used a $7 million budget to direct Owen Wilson, Luke Wilson and Leslie Mann, but the film grossed only pocket change compared to the budget.
“A marvelous debut film for its director, writer and lead actors,” wrote David Hunter of The Hollywood Reporter. “The title refers to cheap, once-popular fireworks that were banned, symbolizing the short-lived but explosive motivations of the characters.”
Box office: $1.1 million (domestic release only)
Starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, this 1989 flop-turned-cult-classic movie was later adapted into a musical. The movie had a production budget of $3 million, but it never made a profit during its time in theaters.
“‘Heathers’ is not pretty in pink, all pompoms and puppy love, but bodacious in black, chalkboard noir, the dark side of the wonder years. A cracked satire of the teen genre, it’s slangy, raunchy and gutsy as a prom date with Carrie,” wrote Rita Kempley of the Washington Post.
18. ‘Requiem for a Dream’
Worldwide box office: $7.4 million
Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky — who went on to direct movies like “Black Swan” and “The Wrestler” — “Requiem for a Dream” stars Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Ellen Burstyn and Marlon Wayans, who play junkies who struggle with addiction. Although the movie only made single-digit millions in theaters, it has become a favorite of cinephiles.
“But no one interested in the power and magic of movies should miss it,” wrote Peter Travers of Rolling Stone.
19. ‘This Is Spinal Tap’
Box office: $4.7 million (domestic release only)
“This Is Spinal Tap” was a movie clearly ahead of its time. Released in 1984, it was one of the first films to popularize the mockumentary genre. When “This Is Spinal Tap” was first released, it wasn’t a huge success, but in 2002, it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
“‘This Is Spinal Tap,’ one of the funniest movies ever made,” wrote Roger Ebert. Jim White of The Telegraph called this movie “the fountainhead of so much modern comedy.”
20. ‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’
Box office: $4 million (domestic release only)
It is hard to believe that one of the most beloved family movies was also a huge flop initially. After Paramount let the rights expire, Warner Bros. bought the rights to the movie for only $500,000 and released it to television audiences, according to Business Insider. This brought the iconic movie loved by so many to cult classic status.
“‘Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory’ is probably the best film of its sort since ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ It is everything that family movies usually claim to be, but aren’t: delightful, funny, scary, exciting and, most of all, a genuine work of imagination,” wrote critic Roger Ebert.
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Priscilla Aguilera contributed to the reporting for this article.
Box office earnings were sourced through Box Office Mojo.