Some movies premiere to massive box office success, becoming global sensations or even massive franchises. Other movies, however, aren’t fully appreciated until years (sometimes decades) later. In some cases, audiences change. In others, a movie became more relevant as time went by. And in far too many cases, the film was great to begin with, but it didn’t align with what critics and the Hollywood machine wanted, forcing the movie into obscurity until it was later rediscovered in the rental and streaming markets.
Regardless of why they were initially overlooked, cult classics luckily found the audiences they deserved and were spared from dissipating into the abyss of Hollywood history. From a midnight movie mainstay about sweet Transylvanian transvestites to an all-too-real satire about white-collar drudgery, these movies started as box office flops but became beloved cult classics.
The Craft (1996)
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The Craft wasn’t necessarily the biggest box office bomb ever, but its box office gross of $24.5 million is nothing compared to the other ’90s horror movies of its day. For comparison, that same year Scream raked in over $173 million and the following year I Know What You Did Last Summer brought in over $125 million.
The Craft was just a so-so hit that luckily earned more than its budget…but only by about $10 million. It wasn’t until The Craft began airing on TV and hit the rental market that the movie started gaining a following. The story, about four teenage witches in Los Angeles who become immeasurably more powerful when they combine their energy, is technically an R-rated horror film, but instead feels more like Clueless with witchcraft. It’s fun, it’s campy, and it’s oh-so-totally ’90s. In the years since its release, it’s gained a massive queer following, and actress Robin Tunney, who plays Sarah in the film, even says that Natalie Portman has admitted the movie is her favorite guilty pleasure.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
When The Rocky Horror Picture Show premiered in 1975, it was an absolute failure. Critically panned and a box office bust, the movie was a disaster. Most people didn’t get it and many others found its themes of queerness, cross-dressing, and sexual promiscuity to be unholy and disgusting.
Robert Ebert’s original review of the film said “The Rocky Horror Picture Show would be more fun, I suspect, if it weren’t a picture show. It belongs on a stage, with the performers and audience joining in a collective send-up.” Little did he know that’s exactly what would happen. Word of mouth spread and people (generally outcasts) came to watch the film because, for the first time in Hollywood history, they were the ones on-screen. Rocky Horror celebrated the weird, the wild, the wrong, and the wondrous.
The film has become the longest-running theatrical release in history and, to date, has never ended its original run. It has continuously been played every week in some theater around the world and in many major cities it’s a monthly (or even weekly) affair. It’s since gone on to gross hundreds of millions of dollars and spawned a sequel, a TV remake, and it even got its own special episode on Glee.
Mike Judge’s Idiocracy was a polarizing film. The movie was set in the future, where radicalization, nationalism, militarism, capitalism, consumerism, and commercialization have ruined society, turning the population into a blubbering race of morons.
In recent years, as more and more Americans willingly fell victim to fake news, conspiracy theories, and bigotry, the movie has become depressingly prescient and has gained tons of attention because of it. In 2021 The Guardian even said, “This disturbingly hilarious film is as horrifying as 1984 or Brave New World, but takes a different route – emphasizing the dangers of collective incompetence rather than oppressiveness of the state.”
Making the movie even more unintentionally meta is the fact that its poor initial box office earnings of just $495,000 is directly due to the politics of capitalism that Idiocracy mocked. 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, was worried the movie would offend people and upset corporate Hollywood, so it stymied Idiocracy from the start, only releasing it in a few theaters. But in the rental and DVD market, the movie exploded in popularity and has become more and more relevant since its release.
Office Space (1999)
Idiocracy wasn’t Mike Judge’s first foray into cult classic territory. A few years beforehand, he made the movie Office Space about an overworked and underappreciated white-collar programmer in Texas who never stands up for himself. The movie was a commercial failure, earning only $10.8 million at the box office.
But the following year it began airing regularly on Comedy Central and then caught fire in the rental market. Suddenly, every overworked employee in America could relate to the movie. Ron Livingston, the film’s star, told Variety in a 2019 retrospective, “People come and tell me that the movie changed their life. It’s like after seeing the movie, it gave them the confidence to get out of whatever it was they were doing that was making them miserable and move on to something else.”
The movie also created real-world changes as well. An ongoing joke in the movie was the uniform of waitress Joanna (Jennifer Aniston). She worked at a restaurant that was blatantly making fun of TGI Fridays. After the movie, Friday’s employees began hearing so many jokes about their “flair” that the company actually changed the dress code, removing all the pins and lapels the servers previously had to wear.
Office Space even got Swingline to make a red stapler because, after the film, tons of people began asking the company for a red model — thanks to the character Milton, who guarded his treasured red stapler like Gollum holding onto his precious ring.
The Thing (1982)
This will come as a shock to many because 1982’s The Thing is now considered one of John Carpenter’s best movies and one of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time. But, it wasn’t always viewed in such a positive light. In fact, during its initial release, the movie only made $19 million at the box office. Even for 1982, that’s an incredibly unimpressive number, especially considering that Carpenter was able to rake in $47 million from his ’78 masterpiece, Halloween. Critics at the time bashed the movie, with The New York Times calling it “foolish, depressing, [and] overproduced.”
Luckily, in the decades since its premiere, audiences have come around and embraced the movie’s body horror and excellent ’80s-era practical effects (which actually make the movie scarier and totally gross). On top of its gory effects, the movie’s remote Antarctic location adds a sense of isolation and paranoia, making it a truly terrifying sci-fi classic. It’s an absolute must-watch for genre fans.
Despite receiving mostly positive reviews upon its initial premiere, Grindhouse massively underperformed at the box office. The movie was a throwback to the days of double features and consisted of two movies – Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror and Quentin Tarantin0’s Death Proof – both broken apart by a few minutes of fake trailers for hilariously awful movies like Werewolf Women of the S.S. and Hobo with a Shotgun.
But with a total runtime of over 3 hours, the movie was way too long for audiences to watch all at once, and many were confused by Grindhouse, Planet Terror, and Death Proof, not fully understanding if there would be one, two, or three movies and which was which. When speaking to The Guardian back in 2007, now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein said, “The audience didn’t get the idea that it was two movies for the price of one. I don’t understand the math, but I do want to accommodate the audience.”
Luckily, the movies found better success in the rental market after they were sold and rented out as two separate DVDs. Plus, many of the fake trailers from the movie, like Machete, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Thanksgiving all became or will become actual movies, with Machete becoming so successful it even earned a sequel. For a box office flop, Grindhouse has created an impressive cinematic legacy.
Sordid Lives (2000)
It’s a cult classic that’s so cult many people have probably never heard of it but it’s the ultimate #iykyk movie. Released in 2000 and based on Del Shores’ play of the same name, Sordid Lives centered on a colorful, trashy Texas family who must prepare for the funeral of their elderly matriarch who had quite a few skeletons in her closet.
The movie was an instant queer classic and starred tons of notable gay icons like Olivia Newton-John, Leslie Jordan, and Delta Burke, among others. In an interview with IndieWire, creator Del Shores recalled the film’s surprising success within the LGBTQ community, saying, “It played theatrically for about a year in Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Laguna Beach, and Provincetown, and it still holds the record forthe longest running film in the history of Palm Springs – 96 weeks.”
Despite only having a box office gross of $1.1 million, the movie struck a chord in the communities where it was shown and became a hit. In 2008 the movie got its own series adaptation on Logo called Sordid Lives: The Series. Joining Jordan and Newton-John in the cast were even more gay favorites like Rue McClanahan and Caroline Rhea.
In 2017 the movie then received a sequel, A Very Sordid Wedding and even more celebrities joined the cast like Whoopi Goldberg and Alec Mapa. Despite never achieving widespread acclaim or massive box office success, Sordid Lives has a legacy that keeps on living thanks to its devout cult following.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Earning only $7.5 million at the box office, Donnie Darko didn’t find true success until a few years later. Audiences needed time to sit with the movie and absorb its nonsensical plot before they could properly embrace and enjoy it. It didn’t help that the movie involved a plane crash and was released just a few weeks after 9/11. In the film, Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly finds himself walking in and out of a time disturbance, ultimately learning of his upcoming death.
The movie is weird and certainly has some plot holes, but its undeniably grim and haunting premise keeps you hooked. And thanks to ongoing midnight screenings and the rental market, the movie built momentum and for a period during the mid and late 2000s, it had become a bona fide hit, even getting ranked #2 on Empire‘s list of the Best Indie Films Ever in 2012.
Event Horizon (1997)
Event Horizon, the movie about a spaceship that accidentally jumps through a wormhole straight to Hell, has one of the most unbelievable histories ever, making it the ultimate underdog film. Upon release, the movie was despised. The film raked in a scrawny $27 million at the box office and received scathing reviews from critics like CNN, which said, “A lot of first-class actors wasted a few months of their lives working on this, so there must have been something interesting about the original script. Too bad that part didn’t make it into the film.”
But, flash forward a decade, and the tides begin to change. After regularly airing on television and being available in the rental market, Event Horizon had started developing a growing fanbase who loved its dark, twisted sci-fi story. It even inspired the hit video game Dead Space, which got remade this year. Years later, the film would inspire another video game, Destiny 2’s Season of the Haunted.
In 2017, a full 20 years after the movie’s premiere, it was even written about in the high-brow literary journal The Paris Review. And within the last few years, Event Horizon has been dissected, critiqued, and praised in virtually every entertainment publication imaginable, from Variety to Entertainment Weekly, Collider, Nerdist, and even at Digital Trends. Think what you want about Event Horizon, but the movie has an enduring legacy and only seems to be getting even more popular with age.
Shot in black-and-white with a budget of just $27,500, Clerks became a surprise hit, earning over $3.1 million at the box office despite only screening in 50 cities. The movie was sort of a Seinfeld-style “show about nothing” and followed the rambling lives of a group of people in New Jersey, all anchored by a carry-out. The movie became so successful it received two sequels, Clerks II in 2006 and Clerks III in 2022.
But more importantly, Clerks introduced the world to Jay and Silent Bob. Not only has the duo starred in all three Clerks movies, but they’re also a staple in many of Kevin Smith’s other movies, like Chasing Amy, Mallrats, and Dogma. In 2001 the pair even got their own spin-off movie, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which itself received various sequels throughout the years, including 2019’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. Considering the original Clerks film had a budget of under $28,000, it’s wildly impressive that its popularity created its own cinematic universe, dubbed the “View Askewniverse.”