A movie's success depends on many factors: the story, the marketing, the cultural zeitgeist, and whether it has star power. But above all, timing is everything. For decades, movie studios tended to release their biggest films on the biggest weekends of the year, like Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Christmas. When more people have time off, more people have time to go to the movies. Problem is, there are only so many big weekends on the calendar, and how a movie performs in its first week can often make or break it.
A movie might be a potential hit, but if it premieres against a blockbuster, it can have a hard time generating any buzz. This is how many films wind up being cult favorites instead of hits. In more recent years, movie studios have specifically tried to avoid this problem by expanding their schedules and opening their biggest movies year-round.
But for most of Hollywood history, perfectly good movies have often been overshadowed by blockbusters - and solely because of the calendar. Here are some great movies that were overshadowed by box office juggernauts.
- Photo: United Artists
The summer of 1975 was the worst summer to release any film other than Jaws. Before Jaws, summer movies would usually get a limited release in a few major US cities, and movie studios would expand or contract based on the performance. But after Jaws received overwhelmingly favorable test screenings, Universal took a gamble and premiered Jaws in over 500 theaters nationwide. It paid off. Jaws wasn't the first movie to gross $100 million, but it did reach that number faster than any film up to that point. In 1975, Jaws literally invented the summer blockbuster.
The film's main competitor, Rollerball, had an action-packed script and Godfather star James Caan. It did gross $30 million (five times its budget), but it wasn't enough to overcome Spielberg and the shark. To be fair, Jaws beat out lots of other great movies that summer, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Nashville, and Love and Death.
- Actors: James Caan, Maud Adams, Ralph Richardson, John Houseman, John Beck
- Released: 1975
- Directed by: Norman Jewison
- Photo: Buena Vista Pictures
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids should have been the most talked-about movie of the summer of 1989, and the fact that it wasn't just goes to show how successful its main competitor, Batman, really was. Both movies opened on June 23, 1989. Honey came out of nowhere to take in $14 million on its opening weekend - at the time, Disney's biggest opening weekend ever. It would go on to gross over $200 million worldwide and spawn two sequels, a theme park ride, and a TV series.
All of this is definitely impressive in its own right, but it wasn't as much of a cultural phenomenon as Batman, which took in over $400 million and was the talk of Hollywood that year. Some of Honey's success was because it was effective counter-programming - it offered a kid-friendly alternative to the adult-oriented Batman.
On the other hand, Honey probably wouldn't have done as well as it did if not for the Caped Crusader, as many moviegoers who couldn't get a ticket to sold-out Batman showings opted for Honey, instead.
- Actors: Keri Russell, Allison Mack, Rick Moranis, Frank Welker, Marcia Strassman
- Released: 1989
- Directed by: Joe Johnston
- Photo: Warner Bros.
A movie's opening weekend can make or break its box office prospects. If a movie does well out of the gate, buzz and word of mouth can sustain that success for weeks or months. But if a movie underperforms, the public might decide it's better to wait until the film's available to watch at home. This is how it usually works. But if it worked that way every time, Superman II would be the only movie people remembered from the summer of 1981, and Raiders of the Lost Ark would be forgotten.
The smart money would have been on Superman II to be the highest-grossing movie of 1981. Superman II starred probably the most recognizable and beloved superhero of the 20th century. Even better, it was the sequel to Superman, the second-highest-grossing movie of 1978. Raiders of the Lost Ark, meanwhile, did have star power in director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford, but it was an unproven franchise based on a relatively unfamiliar formula: 1930s radio serials.
Raiders had a strong opening weekend with $8.3 million. A week later, Superman II debuted and not only bumped Raiders from the top spot, but also set the box office record for the highest opening day at that point, with $5.6 million. Observers predicted it would shatter the opening weekend record and take in $25 million. Instead, it topped out at just $14 million.
Films rarely retake the top spot at the box office after losing it, but Raiders defied the odds and became the highest-grossing film of the year with $389.9 million. In Hollywood, a film is said to have "legs" when it can sustain its box office success over a long period of time. Using the ratio of opening weekend versus overall gross, Raiders had more sustained success than any other film in Hollywood history, making it the leggiest film of all time.
- Actors: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Terence Stamp, Margot Kidder, Glenn Ford
- Released: 1980
- Directed by: Richard Lester, Richard Donner
- Photo: Universal Pictures
Everyone loves an underdog story, except for the favorite who loses to that underdog. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope is one of the most unexpected blockbusters of all time, but that came at the expense of Smokey and the Bandit. Coming into Memorial Day weekend 1977, the makers of Smokey had every reason to expect an overwhelming success. Burt Reynolds was the world's highest-grossing movie star at the time, and the film received a massive release in 386 theaters nationwide. Meanwhile, A New Hope had an unknown cast, only premiered on 43 screens, and was a space opera (sci-fi typically hadn't done well at the box office since 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968).
Smokey did well out of the gate. Its wide release helped it win Memorial Day weekend with an $11 million box office. But once A New Hope started generating buzz and got into more theaters, it surpassed Smokey and became the top earner of the year at over $500 million.
Smokey wasn't a flop. It took in about $300 million that year. Adjusted for inflation, Smokey earned more than Rocky, Lawrence of Arabia, West Side Story, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, any Hunger Games movie, and any Harry Potter movie. But in 1977, that still wasn't enough to be the top dog.
- Actors: Sally Field, Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, John Schneider, Jerry Reed
- Released: 1977
- Directed by: Hal Needham