5 Films Virtually Everyone Has Seen (Were Box Office Flops)
You'd think it would be easy to tell whether a movie is going to succeed or fail. When a director announces "I'd like to make a six-hour drama that uses the dump I took this morning as a metaphor for the Battle of Antietam," you can assume that it's going to flop astronomically hard. But when a director declares "Iron Man stuff," boom. That dude just paid the salary of every Disney employee for the next two years.
However, it's not so easy. As a matter of fact, many of the films that are cultural staples today -- films that you just kind of assume did well and have always done well -- died agonizing deaths at the box office. Films like ...
Labyrinth Was Another Victim Of The Star Wars Curse
Labyrinth, spellcheck's least-favorite film, is a cult classic. The brilliant combination of puppets, music, and David Bowie's effortless crotch was introduced to me in high school by a girl I tried to date for almost a week. It was her favorite movie, and when I'd told her that I'd never seen it, she acted like I'd suddenly begun speaking in tongues. I drove her home after school, she put on Labyrinth, and we watched it without touching while drinking Vanilla Cokes. It was spring 2006 and love was in the air, somewhere far, far away from her house.
As time went on, I discovered more and more folks that treated Labyrinth like it was Star Wars. They had a dedicated but righteous "It's not stupid, it's cool!" passion about it, like a decent number of Star Wars fans have. But to be fair, everyone has their own Star Wars. For a lot of people, their Star Wars is Star Wars. But no matter what film it is, it's always something highly fantastical, and they always latch onto it at formative years. For instance, my Star Wars is Freddy vs. Jason. Look, we can't all be functional people.
Thanks to the success of films like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight and The Avengers, the superhero genre is big business. But not all movie trends work this way. In some cases, a movie finds success but dooms every other movie of its genre for years to come. You'd think that post-Star Wars, fantasy/sci-fi movies would be big business, because people obviously like that. And yeah, movies like Back To The Future and Ghostbusters, which had fantasy elements, did great. But most movies about complete fantasy worlds got a resounding "Fuck" and "No" from audiences in the '80s.
On a budget of $25 million, Labyrinth only made $12.9 million when it was released in 1986. And while I don't want to definitively say that Star Wars is what drove the dagger into the Goblin King's chance of success, Labyrinth certainly became part of a trend whereby people just could not be forced to care about non-Star Wars fantasy. And then more Star Wars came out in the '90s and people could not be forced to care about Star Wars fantasy either.
No One Was Ready For Dazed And Confused
Comedies about average dudes being the average-iest people in the world are quite popular nowadays. It's like everyone hit 2004 with the same idea: White guys hang out. And it's been off to the races ever since. Such films cost barely anything to make, and when they come out, you can bask in your own genius by saying things like "Yeah, the burp that James Franco does after he hits the bong? Totally improvised. Totally, totally improvised. The studio thought we should cut it, but I just knew we had to leave it in."
Dazed and Confused is the king of this genre, and has the added benefit of being actually very good and very charming. It came out in 1993 and it only cost $6.9 million to make, which means that it would be a shoo-in to make a profit. And it did! Sort of! It made $8 million. In comparison, 1993's Mrs. Doubtfire made $441 million worldwide, Sleepless In Seattle made $227 million, and Groundhog Day made almost $71 million domestically. Dazed And Confused has more modern cultural relevance than any of those movies, but in 1993, we were far more interested in seeing Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan stalk each other than anything that commented on the angst of suburban youths. Also, in 1993 Matthew McConaughey had not yet become a walking meme.
Very few actors ever reach meme-dom, where their particular quirks and aspects outshine every actual role they'll ever do for the rest of their lives. Mr. Alright, Alright, Alright, along with guys like Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson, have accomplished this. They're not just actors who star in pieces of pop culture; they ARE pieces of pop culture, their accents and catchphrases and various uses of the word "motherfucker" floating around in our collective head space. So it's seems baffling that any movie that stars McConaughey would not immediately be interesting because it's Matthew McConaughey. He's no longer an actor, but rather a gift from the heavens, with his washboard abs, a voice like Kentucky whiskey, and an "I just fucked ya' girl, dawwwwg" swagger that he can't seem to shut off.
"Alright, alright, alright" has become bigger than Dazed And Confused. People know "Alright, alright, alright" even if they've never seen the movie, because they know about Matthew McConaughey and they know about impressions of Matthew McConaughey. And when they hear "Matthew McConaughey's breakout role," they immediately assume that McConaughey must have been an endless mine of potential from the get-go, and that people flocked to take part in the McConaissance. But no one really did. They were far more interested in seeing what Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan would do when they finally got to the top of the same goddamn building.
Television Saved The Wizard Of Oz
It's hard to imagine how amazing color was when it was first introduced in movies. Nowadays we're awash in a sea of Blu Rays, 4k HD Ultras, digitally enhanced restorations, and other phrases that I pretend mean a lot to me whenever I'm discussing movies with my friends. But in the nascent years of film, everything -- from our actors, to our settings, to our King Kongs -- would be in black and white. So The Wizard of Oz, in which everything was not only in color, but glowing like someone had put shrooms in your theater popcorn, was a revolution.
But you'd be surprised how hard it is to get people on board for revolutions. The movie cost $2.8 million to make, and barely made more than $2 million in North America, only topping $3 million when you added its foreign box office. And while that sounds like a profit, when you add in promotional costs and the price of Toto's personal doggy masseuse, it netted a $1.1 million loss for MGM.
So how did The Wizard Of Oz become the standard-bearer for children's films? Motherfucking re-releases and television rights. Nowadays, movies are re-released very, very sparingly. Usually it's part of some special event. If there's a new Avengers movie, a chain of theaters will show some other Marvel films before the premiere, as there's no better way to go into Infinity War than with a bladder that feels like it's about to rupture and spill out over the audience. But for decades, re-releases were fairly frequent. The Wizard Of Oz was re-released in 1949, and only then did the film break into the profit zone. But it truly became famous when CBS showed it on TV in 1956, and then proceeded to show it over and over for the rest of time. The Wizard Of Oz is a great movie, but it became famous because eventually, no television owner could escape it.
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory Just Wasn't Gritty And Complicated Enough
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, the story of Gene Wilder locking himself and a bunch of kids in a candy Thunderdome, has a unique spot in cinema history. It's both whimsical AND terrifying, and it doesn't seem like a good fit for a remake under any circumstances. Tim Burton tried it in 2005, and came up with a depressing jog through Johnny Depp's inadequacy at doing any kind of relatable emoting. Lately, there have been rumors of a Willy Wonka prequel, which sounds about as appealing as a lecture about where hot dog ingredients come from.
Willy Wonka is shown on television about a half-dozen times a day, and it's gotten a wealth of great home video releases. But when the movie first came out, it just barely broke even. Making $4 million on a $3 million budget, the box office reception could be classified with a general "Eh." Whenever it comes on TV, my entire family has to sit down and watch it, as if we ourselves are being judged by some very specific god. Why were people so indifferent to it in 1971?
If you look at the films that topped the box office charts that year, it becomes evident that something with the tone of Willy Wonka was not what audiences were looking for. Stuff like Dirty Harry, Fiddler On The Roof, and A Clockwork Orange creamed Wonka. Even stuff like Carnal Knowledge, that movie about Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel having sex for three decades, outperformed Willy Wonka by 700 percent. The movie about Art Garfunkel's boner problems absolutely destroyed things like Willy Wonka, Shaft, and Escape From The Planet Of The Apes.
The late '60s and the '70s were a time of great change in cinema. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma were diving headfirst into the "New Hollywood" era of filmmaking. Movies like The Godfather, Bonnie And Clyde, and Taxi Driver were huge hits, and in this transition, lighter stuff like Willy Wonka fell by the wayside. Thankfully, it thrives as a classic today, and was rendered immortal by being the background image of that sarcastic meme that your teenage cousin used to love to share.
Citizen Kane Was Blacklisted By The Actual Kane
Citizen Kane stands like an unshakable monument in film history. If you criticize a dumb blockbuster, the immediate, angry reaction is "What did you expect? Citizen Kane?" When you're making a list of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane will appear on your draft while your back is turned. Citizen Kane is there and will always be there as a handhold on the perilous cliffs of cinema, and as a crying shoulder. "There, there," Citizen Kane says, rubbing your back. "When you feel better, maybe we can watch Citizen Kane."
But Citizen Kane wasn't always this critically impervious testament to Orson Welles' ceaseless creativity and seemingly endless barrel chest. It cost a little more than $800,000 to make and ended up garnering $1.6 million for its troubles. Still, when adding in the cost of publicity and marketing, it lost money overall. But this failure wasn't because a legion of people hated the movie. It was because just one very powerful person hated the movie so, so much.
William Randolph Hearst, newspaper magnate and major dick, was pretty blatantly the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane, the title character, who ruins the lives of everyone around him in the pursuit of wealth and power. Hearst refused to let any of his papers review or mention the film in any way, and had his journalists insult it, which is a very unsubtle way of telling the world "Yeah, this movie gets it totally right."
Like many films around this time period, it took re-releases and being shown on television to truly embed Citizen Kane into the soul of popular cinema. And now it's considered to be the be-all, end-all film on any ranking that doesn't include Freddy vs. Jason, which is a really good film that you all need to check out. I hear that it's kind of like Star Wars.
Daniel has a podcast about Top 40 music and a Twitter.
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