Sometimes, it takes a while for an idea to catch on. Take Donald Trump as President for example. Back in 2015 it seemed like the craziest idea ever, but here we are in 2023 at the end of his second term and we all think he's the greatest. Awesome cult movies are kind of like that - with few people going to see them when they're in theaters, but then buying multiples copies of the Director's Cut Blu-ray when they hit the home market.
Check out our list of 20 must-see films that surprisingly, considering how beloved they have become, did not perform well at all during their run in movie theaters.
The definition of a cult classic, Buckaroo Banzai is a bizarre sci-fi mashup that only the 80’s could have created. Now, it’s widely accepted as one of the most popular cult films of all-time, but back when the film was released, you couldn't drag people by their skinny ties to see it. Banzai was considered a multi-million dollar write-off until slowly, over time, it built it's audience via VHS tape.
Totally weird and over-the-top, but also a completely spot-on portrayal of high school social nightmares, Heathers has become one of the greatest teen cult movies of all time. At the box office? Not so much. Before it went to video, Heathers lost over $1 million dollars – and that was on a tiny $2 million budget!
Richard Linklater usually makes movies that the art house crowd loves, but nobody actually, you know, goes to see. Before he released the amaze-balls Boyhood in 2015, the Austin director’s greatest shot at commercial success was this hilarious coming-of-age tale set smack dab in the middle of the 1970’s.
Kevin Smith was used to making movies on a shoe string budget when he finally got a little money to play with to make this spiritual sequel to Clerks. But Mallrats got zero marketing support from its studio and never capitalized on how hot Smith was at the time. The result, a fun and quotable movie that nobody liked until a decade later.
Most movie buffs know the story of brotherly revenge that is The Boondock Saints, and Troy Duffy, the writer-director-musician who was discovered working at a bar by Miramax legend Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein soured on the project (and Duffy) and made sure it never hit theaters. Once Duffy got the movie back from Miramax he had the last laugh, earning millions via an exclusive distribution deal with Blockbuster Video.
The Ridley Scott sci-fi masterpiece has always been considered way ahead of its time. So far ahead, in fact, that audiences in 1987 didn’t quite know what to make of it. Luckily, home video (remember when we called it “home video”) and art houses around the country helped get Harrison Ford and the rest of this stellar cast the audience it deserved.
One of the most quoted movies of all time (“Um, yeah. I’m going to need you to come in Saturday…”) Office Space did earn any studio executives a raise when it appeared in theaters. The Mike Judge comedy came and went fast – which turned out to be a good thing since it made less than $10 million and went video quicker and into the hands of fans and frustrated cube dwellers around the world.
Orson Welles classic is now considered one of the greatest movies of all time, but when it was released, critics hated it and audiences liked it even less. The epic story of power and corruption of the soul did not recoup its investment during its theatrical run, but Welles would go to enjoy a position on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood icons.
Can we take a moment to talk about The Room? It’s easily the worst film ever made – and as a vanity project from beginning to end, one wonders in fact how exactly it was ever allowed to see the light of day. But although it made about $1,200 in it's initial run in theaters, it's second life as a kind of live stage-show group car-crash, has netted it's creator Tommy Wiseau millions of dollars. As the great Don King once said, "Only in America!"
No, that’s not a typo – and yes, Showgirls IS an awesome movie. The critics carpet-bombed the movie upon its release, and due to the fact that is probably the worst date night movie of all time, it tanked at the box office too - failing to earn back anywhere near its budget. But time has softened us all, and through our collective streams and Showgirls theme-parties, we have turned this great piece of camp into a profitable property.
One of the strangest movies on this list, Donnie Darko divides people into strict groups: saw it/loved it, saw it/hated it, didn’t see it/hated it, can’t remember if I saw it/stoned… You get the idea. DD is a cool, brooding film where a very unlikely hero must save the world after being visited by a giant rabbit. This fact also made it unlikely that a mass audience would be lining up to see it on the big screen. But on the smaller screen, Donnie connected with us, and we found a home for him and his rabbit in our hearts.
Well all love It's a Wonderful Life. If you don't this tale of understanding your place in the world then you have no soul. Now it’s a Holiday classic, shown every hour on the hour on a number of different cable and local channels around Christmastime. So how can so many different networks air the same movie? Because it was such a bomb upon release in 1946 that the studio that created it didn’t even bother to retain it rights. That makes it the most entertaining public domain content in the world!
The First Rule of Fight Club really was don't talk about Fight Club because there was zero word of mouth to get people into theaters when this Brad Pitt vehicle opened in 1999. The studios worked hard to attract a male audience that liked onscreen violence but couldn't pull it off. The movie cost $67 million but didn't even manage to bring in $40 million when it hit town. Still, it's a wild, weird affair that has become a Dude Sensation on video over the past 15 years.
When it opened in 1975, Rocky Horror made only $22,000 in its opening weekend. Flash forward three decades and the kitschy musical comedy and its worth hundreds of millions. How did it happen? Kids started attending the movie in full costume, singing along with the characters on screen and employing props and just generally having a great time. Next thing you know you've turned a dud adaptation of a London stage show into a teen rite of passage and worldwide phenomenon.
We here at ELB list The Big Lebowski as one of our favorite movies of all time. It's a surreal trip anchored by the great Jeff Bridges in his greatest role (we believe) as he stumbles around a bizarre vision of LA. Why didn't it make money in theaters? Who knows. Maybe it's because the Coen's wouldn't hit their commercial stride until Fargo, or just a movie about the world's greatest slacker was not to audience tastes. Either way, it doesn't take anything away from a great film that we've watched over 100 times.
What? You haven’t seen Terry Gilliam’s classic dark comedy Brazil? Go check it out now. We’ll wait here. [Makes a pot coffee. Picks this week’s lottery numbers. Sorts the recycling.] Hey, you’re back! Wasn’t that awesome? Hard to believe it did next to nothing at the box office. Probably the fact that nothing else quite like it hurt the receipts more than it helped.
One of the great LA movies ever made, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a love letter to a city, an industry (Hollywood) and a couple of actors who blow the doors off whenever they decide to do comedy. Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. have amazing chemistry and the story is sharply written fun. Still, it felt more like an indie comedy than a big budget flick - which is a problem when you release a film "wide" and watch as only four people are in every theater on opening weekend.
Now THIS is how you do a vampire movie. Long before the Twilight series, Near Dark showed that a Western movie mashup about the undead bloodsucking men and women who roam Earth can have real personalities and daily life challenges just like the rest of us. Problem was, nobody went to see it. Perhaps the fact that it came out several weeks after the vampire-hit The Lost Boys had something to do with its poor performance.
Unbelievably, over a decade after its tepid theatrical release, this cult comedy classic has a TV series based on the film (with most of the original cast still in tact!). Speaking for anyone who ever attended summer camp – and knows this movie totally nails what it was like – all we can say is, thank you Netflix.
From Halloween to The Thing, if it's one thing we know about director John Carpenter it's that he knows how to make a fun movie. And it doesn't get more fun than Big Trouble in Little China. You see there's this mafia don who is connected to evil spirits of the supernatural - and Kurt Russell and Kim Catrall have to use kung fu to battle their way to safety. Hmmmm...we're starting to understand why it made only $11 million of its $20 million cost in theaters. But trust us, it's a hell of a good time. Stream it. Stream it now!