Hugely Popular Movies That Originally Flopped

They were dismissed, overlooked, and unappreciated upon release, yet these now-hugely popular movies eventually made their way to classic status, their initially low box office numbers reduced to historical footnote status.

It can be difficult to understand why good films fail at first, but some of Hollywood's greatest movies and cult hits were once box office flops. Many have more than made up for their less-than-stellar start through online streaming, repeated showings on television, and DVD/Blu-ray sales.

No film is immune to bombing at the box office, and some of the greatest films created were greeted by empty theaters and poor reviews by critics. Plenty of great movies throughout Hollywood history have flopped only to see their initial failures get answered with long-term acclaim.

  • It's A Wonderful Life

    It’s A Wonderful Life follows George Bailey, a man overwhelmed with so many problems, he contemplates ending it all. An angel is sent down from heaven to show him what life would have been like if he had never existed.

    The film went from box office dud to Christmas classic, but not before it bankrupted its movie studio and ended its legendary filmmaker’s career. Perhaps, it would have done better at the box office if it was released a few years later, as Americans weren't going to the theater much in 1946 with WWII having just recently concluded.

    In 1974, the film's copyright expired, allowing distributors to virtually air it for free, turning this forgotten film into a Christmas classic, joining such films as A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and Christmas Vacation as holiday staples.

  • This 1975 musical comedy horror film is a parody to the sci-fi and horror B movies of the 1930s through the 1960s. The story follows a young engaged couple, and when their car breaks down near a castle, they seek to use the telephone to call for help. They discover the castle is occupied by people in elaborate costumes celebrating an annual convention. The strangers attempt to seduce the couple and are eventually released.

    The film was initially released in only one theater and after tickets sold out, it was released in another eight cities. However, after ticket sales plunged, the planned national rollout was canceled. 

    The Rocky Horror Picture Show replaced Night of the Living Dead at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theater in Manhattan in 1976. By the end of the month, patrons began showing up in costumes resembling those in film to view the movie again and again, thus beginning its cult following. 

  • Jeff Lebowski, a slacker and bowling enthusiast, is mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. The loafer Lebowski is assaulted as a result of mistaken identity. The millionaire Lebowski's wife is taken and he enlists the help of the other Lebowski, along with his bowling buddies, to free her.

    Its poor box office performance was attributed to timing, as it went up against the mega-hit Titanic.

    With strong performances from John Goodman and Jeff Bridges and a wide variety of memorable supporting performances, the movie prompted more than 90 festivals in 30 cities and even inspired its own religion

  • The Thing follows a group of Antarctic researchers who find themselves trapped with a shape-shifting alien that absorbs its targets. The Antarctic crew is unsure who they can trust, and the movie presents the feeling of paranoia punctuated with outbursts of especially gory aggression.

    The box office dud failed to meet financial forecasts, perhaps perpetrated by unfavorable critical reviews. New York magazine's review stated it was "more disgusting than frightening, and most of it is just boring." Timing was another issue, as it was competing against E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

    The very things that made The Thing flop are what made it appreciated later - wild special effects, absolute hopelessness, and the ambiguous ending. It simply just needed to sit for a while and wait for moviegoers to discover it on their own.