“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That – with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success – is our national disease.”

William James’ quote is perhaps even more relevant today than when he first coined it during a conversation with H.G. Wells back in 1906. We live in a commercially driven society where money equals prosperity, bankers receive bonuses the size of a small country’s GOP and people will fork out hundreds if not thousands of pounds on clothing, just because it brandishes a particular logo. The film industry is far from an exception; producers desperately seek commercial success to repay investment, in particular at the box office. This box office prosperity is a phenomenon, elusive to so many deserving candidates, yet easily achieved by others seemingly less worthy. Throughout the history of film, there have been several gems that have slipped under the commercial success radar, largely ignored by the general viewing public. These films may now be regarded as ‘classics’, but were not considered by a large majority of moviegoers to be worthy of the admission fee. This article not only provides homage to three particularly stark examples, but also briefly muses on the secrets behind box office success.

If you hark all the way back to 1947, you find one of the most prolific examples of a film that flopped at the box office, but is now regarded amongst the elite. Frank Capra’s feel good Christmas tale It’s a Wonderful Life is now a regular in most homes over the holiday period. The film was nominated for five Oscars and was also named in the 100 best American films ever made by the American Film Institute. Despite these plaudits, the movie was not a commercial success; it placed 26th in box office revenues for 1947. Its budget of three million USD was only comparable with one other film of 1947, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case, coincidently another box office flop. In fact, It’s a Wonderful Life did so poorly that the studio that produced it, Liberty Films, founded by Capra himself, faced bank foreclosure and was sold to Paramount Pictures.

Go back even further, to 1941, and you’ll find a second well-known example. Citizen Kane, now often regarded as one of the best films of all time, was another commercial failure. Made for $1 million, the film failed to recoup its costs at the cinema. In fact, despite a strong critical reception, the film faded from the public domain and was largely ignored for a decade. Kane is a unique example as William Randolph Hearst, the man the film was allegedly based on, largely influenced its poor box office performance. Hearst detested Welles’ depiction of his on-screen persona and ran a smear campaign in the newspapers he owned in an attempt to get the film pulled from theatres. His grumblings were heeded; Hollywood executives offered to reimburse the production costs of Kane to RKO, if they destroyed the film reels. Thankfully, they refused. The film was released, but to great public discontent. It was expected to clean up at the Oscars, but only took home one of its nine nominations and at the ceremony itself, every mention of Citizen Kane was booed heartily by the audience.

A more modern film that followed similar lines was David Fincher’s Fight Club. The film performed underwhelmingly at the US box office, grossing only just over half of its estimated budget. This can largely be attributed down to poor marketing. The advertising campaign was aimed at promoting the idea of the fighting being the films main attraction, running television adverts during broadcasts of the World Wrestling Federation. Fincher protested this strategy, but to no avail, and the film went on to perform poorly.

It seems inexplicable that these incredible movies did not receive the commercial success that they deserved. The stark truth is, it is easier to make a commercially successful film that it is to make a brilliant one. Relating back to William James’ quote, assessing a films ‘success’ relies heavily on your interpretation of the word. However, in an industry driven by commercial imperatives such as the film industry, money is above all else. Sure, Oscar nominations are great, but, unless they’re backed up by strong box office takings, there’s no complete satisfaction for the producers. This topic could be explored much further, but to draw a conclusion; artistic merit and pure quality do not guarantee you commercial success, even less so when you have an angry news tycoon on your case.

Tom Grater

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4 Comments

  1. Any Non-Film Editor
    January 22, 2011 at 06:26 — Reply

    Another Film article, another reference to Fight Club. Kudos. Wouldn’t The Hurt Locker be a more relevant example of what you’re arguing Tom?

  2. Tom Grater
    January 22, 2011 at 23:21 — Reply

    ‘The Hurt Locker’ would not be a more relevant example, no. First and foremost, number-crunching. ‘Fight Club’ took in just over half its production budget at the US box office. The ‘Hurt Locker’, meanwhile, recouped its production budget and took a small profit at the US box office. In terms of Worldwide box office, both movies slipped into profit. ‘The Hurt Locker’ made an overall profit of about 230% on its original invesment. ‘Fight Club’, on the other hand, made a profit of about 50% on its original investment.

    While you could argue that the two overall, worldwide profits are similar, take into account the drastic difference in initial budgets. Clearly, ‘Fight Club’ was the film expected to make far more money, and was backed accordingly, making it far more disappointing for the producers behind it.

    Looking at it another way, the article is strictly about films that are now regarded as ‘classics’. Sure, ‘The Hurt Locker’ may have been a big success at the Oscars, but a classic? I don’t believe so. It’s the public who get the final say on what films are given classic status or not, if they stop watching/talking about the film, it’s popularity will decline into relative obscurity. Have a look at imdb.com for all the evidence you need that ‘Fight Club’ is held in higher regard than ‘The Hurt Locker’, holding a rating of 8.8 (making it #14 on the ‘250 greatest films of all time), compared to 7.8 for ‘The Hurt Locker’.

    Feel free to double-check the numbers at http://www.the-numbers.com/

    Also, briefly scrolling through the last few pages of film articles on this website, I can spot one other article that talks about ‘Fight Club’, that being the David Fincher article… In both articles ‘Fight Club’ is a particularly relevant case study, don’t you think?

  3. Adam Dawes
    January 23, 2011 at 13:17 — Reply

    Tom, I think that’s a really interesting article, and the response to the comment shows that you really put in the effort researching it too, which is very impressive. I was amazed to learn that It’s A Wonderful Life was such a flop, and as a film student, it goes to show that sometimes the public isn’t always right!

  4. Tom B
    April 16, 2011 at 03:27 — Reply

    Fight Club did not make a profit at the box office as the production budget was $63m and made $100m worldwide. That is not including the adverting or print costs. As you may know, the studio take approximately half of the cinema takings after the initial opening weekend, which shows that it did not make a profit at the box office, as you have tried to argue.

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