Many modern cult classic movies have earned a ton of money on home video, from both VHS and DVD sales or home rentals (remember those?). Some have become cultural institutions in and of themselves. However, most of these movies with devoted fan bases actually came from humble beginnings and bombed at the box office on initial release. Whether it was because the movie was misunderstood, faced stiff competition, or was initially savaged by critics, many beloved films that have achieved cult status started out their existence with the label “box office bomb.” Here are 10 cult classic movies that totally tanked.
10. Donnie Darko (2001)
Today there is a sizable cult following around the 2001 film Donnie Darko, which is about a troubled young man played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who has apocalyptic or doomsday visions that seems to be coming from a demented rabbit named “Frank.” Made on a budget of $6 million, the film grossed less than $1.5 million at the box office. This movie tested so poorly in advanced screenings that serious consideration was given to releasing it direct to home video before a theatrical attempt was tried. Critics lauded the movie’s dark tone and themes and praised the acting, but audiences found it to be too weird and stayed away from it in theaters. Fortunately, Donnie Darko found an audience on home video and ended up grossing more than $10 million in DVD sales. This movie has also been released on Blu-ray on three separate occasions, and is today viewed as a modern sci-fi masterpiece.
9. Office Space (1999)
Is there anyone who doesn’t love Office Space? The film by writer/director Mike Judge (of Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill fame) perfectly skewers the high-tech industry and general office culture that pervades in the 21st century. And while the film is almost 20 years old, it seems just as relevant and hilarious today as it did when it hit theaters at the turn of the century. However, while Office Space has garnered a sizable cult following on home video and influenced countless comedies that came after it, it was not a box office hit when released in 1999. Made for just $10 million, Office Space grossed $10 million at the box office – making it a break even proposition. The movie didn’t post a profit until it came out on home video – selling more initial DVDs than sizable box office hit movie There’s Something About Mary. In the past 10 years alone, Office Space has sold more than six million DVD and Blu-ray copies, making it one of the bestselling movies on home video since 2006.
8. Dazed and Confused (1993)
This movie about high school culture in the 1970s is a beloved classic for Generation X. However, the movie was not well-received when it was released in 1993. Made for a budget of just under $15 million, it grossed just under $8 million at the box office. The main problem was that director Richard Linklater opted to go with a then-unknown cast of actors for the film. Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and Parker Posey might be Hollywood stars today, they were complete unknowns when they starred in this nostalgia-filled movie back in the early 1990s. The best known actor in Dazed and Confused at the time of its release was model-turned-actress Milla Jovovich. Fortunately this movie has since made up for its poor box office showing with robust home video sales. The Criterion Collection released a two-disc boxed-set HD edition of the film in 2006. And notable director Quentin Tarantino included Dazed and Confused on his list of the 10 greatest films of all-time in a 2002 Sight and Sound magazine poll.
7. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! (1984)
Audiences just weren’t sure what to make of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension! when it was released in the summer of 1984. Was it a comedy? A sci-fi film? A romantic adventure? All of the above? The movie about a physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, and rock musician who saves the world from a band of inter-dimensional aliens called Red Lectroids was just too far out for people. Plus, this movie faced stiff competition at the box office from major sci-fi and adventure films such as Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Made for a budget of close to $20 million, Buckaroo Banzai grossed only $6 million at the international box office – making it a true box office bomb. Yet this film has received new life on home video having sold well in the VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray formats. In 2009, Wired magazine celebrated Buckaroo Banzai’s 25th anniversary. And Entertainment Weekly has ranked Buckaroo Banzai as #43 on its “Top 50 Cult Movies” list.
6. This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
The grandfather of mockumentary films, This Is Spinal Tap is widely viewed today as one of the funniest movies ever made. Many critics and cultists consider this movie to be a comedy classic, yet the mockumentary format wasn’t popular, widely used, or even understood when Spinal Tap hit theaters in 1984. As such, the movie that cost $10 million to make grossed only $4.5 million at the box office — a huge disappointment. Luckily, this movie became one of the very first hits on VHS back in the 1980s, and it has since gone on to achieve legendary status – even being re-released in theaters twice since its initial run. It has since been given a 25th anniversary edition Blu-ray disc release, a Criterion Collection DVD release, and the vaunted New York Times has named This Is Spinal Tap one of the best movies ever made – comedy or drama.
5. Repo Man (1984)
A lot of misunderstood cult movies seem to have been released in 1984. Another one on this list is Repo Man, made by avant-garde British filmmaker Alex Cox. Another poorly received sci-fi comedy, Repo Man stars Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton as a couple of small-time car repossession men who get caught up in a UFO and alien conspiracy. While praised by critics when it was initially released, this movie was yet another effort that proved to be just too strange for mainstream tastes. The Boston Society of Film Critics awarded it “Best Screenplay” in 1984, but that didn’t help it make a profit. Made for about $5 million, Repo Man earned only $129,000 at movie theaters. Truly disappointing. Since then, Repo Man has earned a massive cult following, holds a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Entertainment Weekly magazine has ranked it No. 7 on its list of “The Top 50 Cult Films.” Far out, man!
4. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Today, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a true cult classic — perhaps the cult classic. It continues to be re-released in theaters every year at Halloween so fans of the film can get together and do the “Time Warp” together. As a result, this movie has grossed $113 million at the box office over the past 42 years – more than recouping its initial budget of roughly $1.5 million. However, when first released in 1975, this movie grossed only $2 million. Many people were repulsed by the transvestite and/or cross-dressing characters in the film — plus to violent murder of Meatloaf with an axe! That changed over time, as The Rocky Horror Picture Show slowly gained a cult following and then became a cultural phenomenon. Today, it sells out movie theaters each Halloween. Plus, it has historically been one of the most expensive movies to buy on home video. A version of the film released on VHS in 1990 that included accompanying documentary footage retailed for $90.
3. Showgirls (1995)
Reviled by critics upon its initial release in 1995, Showgirls has gained a loyal cult following among people who appreciate its campiness and cattiness. About a streetwise drifter who ventures to Las Vegas and climbs the seedy hierarchy from stripper to showgirl, the movie stars former teen star Elizabeth Berkley (Saved By The Bell) and received a record number of Razzie Award nominations in 1995, which honor the worst movies every year. The nicest thing that critic Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film is that “it isn’t completely terrible.” Yet today, Showgirls is shown at midnight screenings around the U.S. for fans who can appreciate the “it’s so bad, it’s good” nature of the film. This movie has taken on a cult status with people who say they enjoy it ironically. Many fans of Showgirls call it one of the “best bad movies” of all-time. Initially grossing just $20 million on a $45 million budget, Showgirls has since generated more than $100 million from video rentals and become one of MGM’s top 20 all-time bestselling movies.
2. Withnail and I (1987)
In some circles, particularly in the United Kingdom, Withnail and I is the cult movie. The film about two ne’er do well actors in London, whose main preoccupation seems to be drinking and avoiding real work, is hilarious and chock full of classic lines that many can recite off the top of their heads. Yet when this movie came out in 1987, it bombed horribly – grossing only $1.5 million internationally. Time has been kind to the movie, though, and it is now viewed as one of the greatest black comedies of all time. A true cinematic classic. In 2000, readers of Total Film magazine voted Withnail and I the third greatest comedy movie of all-time. In 2004, the same magazine named it the 13th greatest British film of all time. And over the past 30 years, Withnail and I has earned more than $50 million on home video. It is also frequently shown at film festivals around the world. It has become the little movie that could. “Don’t mix your drinks!”
1. Heathers (1988)
The 1988 movie Heathers made a star out of Winona Ryder and effectively introduced the world to Christian Slater. It was also critically lauded when it came out and is today considered one of the best black comedies, and best comedies about high school, ever made. Period. About a clique of high school girls who are each named Heather, the movie is about how Christian Slater’s demented character systematically goes about killing the popular and feared clique of girls, Ryder’s character in tow. While critics praised Heathers dark themes and tones, as well as Slater’s performance, the subject matter proved controversial and the movie was largely ignored when released. It grossed just $1.1 million in theaters and was viewed as a failure. Time has rendered a different verdict though. Today, Heathers is regarded as one of the top cult movies of all time. In 2006, the movie was ranked No. 5 on Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the “50 Best High School Movies,” and in 2008, it was ranked No. 412 on Empire magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time.” Heathers has also been adapted into a stage musical and a television series based on the movie is currently in development.