You know what? The real story behind John Carter isn’t its box office failure. Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s iconic pulp hero cost $250 million to produce and opened to an anemic $32 million domestically, with a somewhat less distressing $103 million worldwide. It may not make its money back for a long time. To the industry, that matters. To audiences – that's all of us – it means jack squat. Certainly not that John Carter is “bad,” since obviously most of the film’s potential fans haven’t even seen it yet.
This week on Five Great Movies we’re taking a look at five films that failed to turn a profit, but were eventually embraced by a devoted audience. Box office success has very little to do with a movie’s actual quality. Great films sometimes tank and awful films sometimes break records, but great films are eventually discovered and awful films are eventually discarded from the public consciousness. Here are just a handful of great movies, not necessarily the very best, that overcame their financial woes to find appreciative audiences who don’t give a rat’s ass about that kind of thing.
Did we leave out your favorites? That's what the comments are for.
Freaks (dir. Tod Browning, 1932)
After the monstrous success of Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, Tod Browning could have made any movie he wanted. He wanted to make Freaks, a strange drama/horror hybrid that starred genuine circus sideshow performers – like Johnny Eck, the famed “Half Boy” and Renaissance Man, who was missing the lower half of his torso – as heroic figures enduring the jibes and Machiavellian machinations of the outwardly attractive, ultimately exacting their iconic, horrific revenge. Test audiences found the film too frightening (one woman supposedly claimed Freaks gave her a miscarriage), so MGM cut the film by half an hour and tacked on a happier denouement. It didn’t help. The film tanked, and was even banned in Britain for decades. Browning was able to get a handful of films made afterwards, but Freaks essentially ended his longstanding career. Nowadays, even the re-edited version is considered a genuine classic, and the film’s climactic chant, “One of us! One of us!” is well known to folks who haven’t even seen it. Alas, Browning’s original director’s cut has never been recovered.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1988)
“Monty Python” alumnus Terry Gilliam had already run into trouble with Brazil, a beautifully realized dystopian fable that found critical acclaim but little financial success. His follow up, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only cemented his reputation as a visionary director who couldn’t manage the scale of his own productions. The budget allegedly ballooned to over twice its size (an accusation Gilliam disputes), and the film made only $8 million at the American box office, but that probably had more to do with the fact that it was barely released than its quality. Time has proven The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to be a fantastically inventive fantasy about, fittingly, the constant battle between dreamers and glorified accountants. John Neville plays an aging fairy tale figure who desperately tries to save his city from an invading army by engaging in flights of fancy frowned upon by conventional logic, kind of like making The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In both the film and real life, the dreamers win in the end. Gilliam’s film lost money, but gained a devoted fan base who don’t give a damn about box office success.
Man on the Moon (dir. Milos Forman, 1999)
Milos Forman may or may not care about such things, but Universal probably thought it had a pretty sure thing on its hands with Man on the Moon, a film about a famous comedian, starring the world’s most popular comedian, from the director and writers of The People vs. Larry Flynt. The biography of “Saturday Night Live” star Andy Kaufman, whose humor was so based on audience deception that nobody believed him when he announced he was dying, won deserving accolades for its tender portrayals and sensitive storytelling. Entertainment Weekly even called it the best film of the year. But for whatever reason, audiences stayed away despite Carrey’s incredible streak of box office successes. The film grossed half of its (admittedly surprising) $85 million budget, but remains one of the high points in Carrey’s career, and a respected entry into the canon of Forman, whose credits also include One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus.
Zathura (dir. Jon Favreau, 2005)
After the success of Elf, and before the astronomical success of Iron Man, actor-turned-director Jon Favreau had himself a bona fide flop called Zathura. Josh Hutcherson, Kristen Stewart and Jonah Bobo play siblings who get trapped inside a sci-fi board game that rockets their house into space where they have to fight lizard-like aliens. Favreau directed the film with class and wonder, but maybe audiences thought it looked too much like Jumanji, a very similar film based on a very similar book by Chris Van Allsburg, who wrote and illustrated Zathura as well. It’s a shame that audiences stayed away since the film is actually a minor sci-fi classic, entertaining, intelligent and heartfelt in equal measure. Zathura grossed barely half its budget domestically, and less than that internationally. Like audiences care.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (dir. Edgar Wright, 2010)
Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s comic book series Scott Pilgrim had everything going for it: exceptional source material, the perfect director, a strong supporting cast, original songs by Beck, and a finger firmly on the pulse of popular culture and the modern youth experience. So it should come as no surprise that Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is an exceptional piece of cinema that was embraced by critics and audiences alike. It’s a little more surprising that it was a box office bomb, grossing only $31 million domestically, and barely half of that internationally, from a budget running $60 million. Wright’s film finds wonder and also culpability in the gamification of social interaction, vividly realized in bravura action sequences and incidental flights of fancy that blend gamer culture and conventional twenty-something romances. It’s found its audience on home video, and frequently sells out at midnight screenings. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World will live on long after Universal’s financial losses become a distant memory.