As hard as it is to imagine now, these iconic films were either not well-received by critics or not very profitable, or in some cases, both. The movie scene was decidedly different 70, 50, even just 10 years ago, but since their initial disappointing releases, each of these now classic films has gone on to develop massive amounts of fans, money, and prestige.
Yes, Citizen Kane, one of the longest-standing #1 movies of all-time on many lists including that of the American Film Institute, limped out of the blocks to start when it released in May 1941. Despite most critics praising the film, many people attribute its lackluster release to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, the immensely powerful newspaper mogul whose life Citizen Kane is modeled after.
Hearst despised the film as he felt it did not portray him in a good light, so he banned any advertising for, review of, or even any mention of the film from his hundreds of newspapers across the country. Additionally, he placed pressure on the movie studios and many theater houses to ban the film from showing altogether. His hatred for the film and efforts to suppress it are recorded in the documentary, The Battle of Citizen Kane. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the film gained major attention from airings on television that American audiences began to realize the genius that was Citizen Kane, quickly making it one of the greatest movies ever made.
How could such a well-known horror classic be considered a failure? Well, despite its cult following now, when Night of the Living Dead originally came out in 1968 it was panned for just being a “unrelieved orgy of sadism” that fueled the argument for censoring grisly scenes in movies. Yes, it terrified its viewers, but it was far from profitable in its first few years, so much so that it had to resort to becoming part of traveling live-action horror shows to make any money.
This all changed in the early 70s when the film took on new life during a horror movie boom and it resurged in movie theaters to become one of the most profitable horror films for decades, launching a whole genre of zombie movies.
It’s early lack of success is hard to believe after this trailer that painstakingly tells us the name of the movie about a dozen times.
Now one of the most popular movies adored by young men, upon its initial release, Fight Club divided critics and grossly underwhelmed at the box office pulling in just over half of its $63 million production budget. Many critics thought that it promoted anarchy and violence and would spur copycat vandals similar to what happened in Britain after A Clockwork Orange came out.
However, after its theatrical run, director David Fincher personally supervised the DVD production, earning it a number of DVD awards and praise from critics. This helped generate strong word-of-mouth prompting many young people to rent and purchase it in droves, generating more than $55 million in home video rentals and becoming one of the studio’s best-selling home media items. These rentals and sales led to Fight Club becoming the movie of choice for high school and college boys in the early 2000s.
Shockingly, one of the most beloved films of all-time was not deemed a commercial success when it was originally released in 1939. Being MGM’s most expensive production ever at the time, The Wizard of Oz didn’t quite see the box office returns studio heads were hoping for, only barely surpassing its production budget despite the largely positive reviews from critics.
It wasn’t until 1956 that The Wizard of Oz became a big hit, when it began to air on television re-introducing it to audiences across America. These telecasts became an annual TV tradition during the holiday season, making the Library of Congress declare it the most viewed motion picture on television syndication in history.
Everyone’s favorite dude was a complete dud upon release. Expectations were high for the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski after their Academy Award-winning success in Fargo. Unfortunately, it received mixed reviews and middling success at the box office pulling in only $5.2 million on opening weekend and then just $17 million during its domestic run, compared to its $15 million production budget.
However, just like its titular character, The Big Lebowski abides. And thanks to home video rentals and very strong word-of-mouth, it has become a bona fide cult classic spawning multiple Lebowski Fests across the United States since 2002 and even launching an online religion called “Dudeism” based on the philosophy and lifestyle of the film’s main character.