Anyone who’s ever taken the advice of a Yelp reviewer scorned knows critical and popular consensus don’t always equate to the truth. Hell, critics are just that and you could count on one hand the number of people you know who contribute Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes reviews - mom, dad, and uncle Steve. You get the picture.
Which is why box office takings and popular consensus can’t always be taken into consideration when picking which films to watch. And we’ve got the proof to back it up. For below are 10 of the biggest cult (and sometimes culture-defining) films of the past 20 years, all of which were box office flops but have since gone on to recoup their losses and then some.
Fight Club (1999)
It’s arguably Brad Pitt’s most memorable role, the 1999 David Fincher film that effectively turned Edward Norton into a superstar and was responsible for a surge in underground fighting the world over - largely on account of fed-up people challenging strangers, colleagues and friends alike to death matches upon hearing “what happens in (blank space) stays in (blank space)” for a 1000th time. It made just $37 million of its $63 million budget back at the box office, but has since made in excess of $100 million in DVD and streaming sales.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
No doubt John C. Reilly’s best work and one of writer/director Judd Apatow’s finest efforts, Walk Hard is a parody of every music bio pic ever - and how. Problem was, it was released within just a few years of both Johnny Cash and Ray Charles dying, and their respective biopics were still fresh in popular conscious. It copped some heat for bad taste as a result, which tempered it at the box office. But it skewers every and all biopics, genres, casting choices, and music periods, tastes and trends to provide near endless laughs. It’s purposely contrived. And the original music numbers, actually performed by John C, are world-class. It recouped just $20mil of a $35million budget at the BO in 2007, but has since raked in more than $20million in DVD and streaming sales.
Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Shannen Doherty, Joey Lauren Adams, Jeremy London, Ethan Suplee and the return of Jay and Silent Bob - what wasn’t to like? Apparently the whole teen angst, satire, wit, and sarcasm, according to the paltry $2million in BO takings. It was Kevin Smith’s second film after Clerks and though the story of two idiot friends at the mall scamming how to get their girls back bombed opening weekend, it became a smash hit at Blockbusters the world over, spawning endless merch, pop culture references and much more cash than the $6million budget. It was a generation-defining film and to this day, arguably Smith’s best.
Empire Records (1995)
The story of an indie record store run by horny teenagers set to be overtaken by a corporate giant didn’t strike a chord with cinemagoers, making just $300k. But kids under the age of 15 took to it like a Kardashian to a filler clinic to make it a DVD best seller. It’s an underdog story that introduced Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger to the word - girls wanted to be them, guys wanted girls just like them. The soundtrack was killer and the “f**k authority” theme continues to resonate.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
With the third most popular soundtrack of all time after Forrest Gump and The Big Chill, Richard Linklater’s second film plays just as well today as it did in the 1990s - largely for the fact it’s set in the 1970s with a stellar - then no-name - cast including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Mila Yovavich, Jason London and Joey Lauren Adams. Many of those names would go on to define 1990s coming of age films, but at the time could only muster enough to cover the film’s $7million budget. It continues to be discovered daily, with estimated profits in excess of $30million, and will forever be remember for McConaughey’s improvised line “Alright, alright, alright”.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
It’s basically a rite of passage for any college kid these days and spawned a Netflix spin-off series, but the spoof of every 1980s summer flick ever pulled in just a sixth of its budget at a poor $295,000. But through DVD sales and network syndication deals, it’s easily since surpassed the $1.8million it took to make. And just look at the talent - Cooper, Poehler, Rudd, Banks, Meloni, Marino, Garofalo and counting.
Willy Wonka (1971)
Who’d have thought a macabre comedy about kids spending time in an eccentric stranger’s candy factory and effectively tripping out - or so parents groups of the time would have you believe - wouldn’t go well with family audiences in 1971? It made just $4million at the box office, only $1million more than its estimated budget. But through frequent TV showings and home video, it’s become, well, arguably the most well known children’s movie of all time.
Scott Pilgrim v The World (2010)
If this had have been released four years later at the height of the vegan epidemic, Edgar Wright’s homage to the little known graphic novel series likely would have blown past its $85million budget. But even with Michael Cera coming off Superbad plus Jason Schwartzman, Chris Evans, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and Brie Larson to boot, this off-beat romantic action comedy couldn’t get past the $47million mark. But in its first week alone on DVD it sold more than 200,000 copies. And many more since. The satire follows bass player Cera, who has to fight off his new GF’s seven evil exes - including a dim-witted faux vegan who proclaims “being a vegan makes you better than most people” — to win her love and his own safety.
Office Space (1999)
Mike Judge can do no wrong. But his first foray into live action post King of the Hill and Beavis and Butthead, things got off to a shaky start - despite having Jennifer Aniston express herself wearing 15 pieces of flair. It only just matched its $10million budget in the American BO before taking another $2million internationally. It’s since sold more than $8million in DVD and streaming sales, thanks largely to memorable quotes making light of Michael Bolton, one’s “oh face”, and repeat viewings on Comedy Central.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
No movie on this list compares to Shawshank’s seven Oscar noms or its ability to captivate audiences as much today as it did in 1994, when it made only $3million more than its $25million budget. It’s the No.1 movie on IMDB and in the 22 years since the Morgan Freeman-Tim Robbins period prison drama’s release, it’s raked in more than double that and counting. And not a single cent from merch.