Director Bong Joon-ho's intense, sci-fi adventure Snowpiercer seemed destined for box office doom when a behind-the-scenes feud resulted in a limited release for the film in only a few theaters around the country. However, rave reviews and an impressive word-of-mouth campaign may have given the film a second chance to avoid being labeled a “flop,” with more than 150 additional theaters now screening the live-action adaptation of award-winning French graphic novel Le Transperceneige.
While that's good news for Snowpiercer and its director, a poor showing in theaters – no matter how many of them it's screened in – isn't quite the death knell it might seem to be. Good movies have a habit of finding an audience (sometimes well after their run in theaters is over), and if Bong Joon-ho's postapocalyptic thriller manages to make the transition from disappointing big-screen performance to cult-classic cinema on any screen, it will find itself in good company.
After all, some of the greatest, geek-friendly films began as box office flops.
Don't believe me? Here are a few other films that underperformed in theaters, only to become must-see movies on every geek's shelf:
Ridley Scott's revered adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1993 and is widely regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, but its initial run in theaters was underwhelming (to put it mildly).
Earning only $6.15 million in its opening weekend, Blade Runner is believed to have suffered due to the glut of sci-fi films hitting theaters around the same time – including E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – many of which offered a far brighter, more mainstream-friendly take on far-future adventure. Unlike Snowpiercer, reviews didn't do much to help the film, with Roger Ebert writing at the time that Blade Runner is “a stunningly interesting visual achievement, but a failure as a story.” (He would revise and update his review years later, giving the recut “Final Cut” version of Blade Runner a positive appraisal.)
The Iron Giant
Before multitalented writer-director-animator Brad Bird won an Oscar for The Incredibles, he earned acclaim from critics for The Iron Giant, his 1999 animated feature about a boy who befriends a giant, alien robot during the height of the Cold War. The movie won a cornucopia of awards when it was released and was later named one of the American Film Institute's “Top 10 Animated Films” of all time.
It currently ranks among the most positively reviewed animated movies ever made (tied with The Incredibles, in fact). None of these accolades were reflected in the film's box office performance, however, as the film managed to earn only $5.7 million its opening weekend. Bird later said of the film's release that it was “a mismarketing campaign of epic proportions at the hands of Warner Bros.”
Big Trouble in Little China
Filmmaker John Carpenter has more than a few fanboy-friendly films on his resume, but not all of them found success at the box office when they initially hit theaters. His 1986 martial arts fantasy Big Trouble in Little China is the very definition of a cult classic, with its quirky, memorable and infinitely quotable spin on classic kung fu cinema adventures that blends Western themes with Oriental mysticism.
Still, despite Kurt Russell's hilariously overacted John Wayne impression and some wild, practical effects, the film earned only $2.7 million its opening weekend (and only $11.1 million overall). Carpenter and Russell later suggested that the film's failure at the box office could be blamed on the hype for James Cameron's Aliens that had dominated the media at the time of the film's release.
The Transformers: The Movie
Given how often people compare Michael Bay's live-action Transformers movies to the 1986 animated feature The Transformers: The Movie, you'd think the '80s film was a universally beloved, critically praised, bona fide blockbuster. While the movie that killed Optimus Prime, traumatized countless children, and introduced the world to the magic of musician Stan “The Touch” Bush opened with a relatively decent $1.8 million its first weekend, it failed to sell many tickets beyond that weekend, falling shy of covering its $6 million budget and making studios extremely nervous about feature-length spin-offs of popular animated series.
Even so, you'd be hard-pressed to find a child of the '80s that doesn't get a little misty-eyed at the sound of Peter Cullen saying, “One shall stand, one shall fall.”
The Wizard of Oz
Yes, you read that correctly. While the 1939 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's beloved novel was nominated for six Academy Awards, featured one of the most iconic theme songs in Hollywood history (“Over the Rainbow”), and is consistently ranked among the greatest movies ever made, The Wizard of Oz failed to turn a profit at the box office during its initial run in theaters.
Earning only $3 million in its first run, the film covered its $2.7 million production budget but went down as a $1.1 million loss for the studio due to various other costs (it was the most expensive film MGM studios had ever produced) such as distribution and marketing. Sure, the film went on to earn more than $22 million in subsequent theater runs, with the film rereleased in various forms over the years, but its debut certainly didn't mark it as the auspicious premiere of a Hollywood masterpiece that would go on to influence generations of fantasy films.
While it's a bit early to put Snowpiercer on a pedestal anywhere near the aforementioned films, the mix of box office disappointment, overwhelmingly positive reviews, impressive word-of-mouth support, and a sudden shift in the studio's treatment of the film makes it an interesting project to follow. And if nothing else, the histories of these five films should give fans of Snowpiercer some piece of mind – and some hope that there's a light at the end of the tunnel for Bong Joon-ho's dark, locomotive adventure.
Question of the Week: What's your favorite movie that failed to do well in theaters?
Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.
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