Next week, I'm starting a new marathon that looks at some of the most notorious flops from movie history. The films on this list don't fall into that category, but they all had disappointing box-office results. I've chosen this Top 5 topic as a way to spotlight their greatness, not deride them for failing. We live in an era where people obsess over each movie's financial results, and each weekend feels like a sporting event. It's difficult to separate the creative success of a film from its ticket sales. I try to avoid thinking too closely about the box office when considering a movie, but I'll admit this approach doesn't always succeed. Loving a movie and then seeing it draw small crowds is disheartening, particularly while mediocre work sometimes draws huge results. It's the nature of an industry that still mostly focuses on the opening weekend to gauge success. Regardless, these films remain some of my favorites despite their inability to make significant profits at the start.
Honorable Mention: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)
Budget: $60 million
Domestic Box Office: $31 million
This is the most obvious pick because there's a major disparity between the adoration for this film and popular interest at the theaters. This is a case where a niche movie received a budget on par with a more generic film. Edgar Wright did an excellent job adapting the graphic novels and bringing old-school video game elements to the story. It's a charming little fantasy that never takes itself too seriously. Everyone involved seems to be having a great time, and that tone carries over into the movie. Its lack of box-office success isn't that surprising, but I expect it's earned back its money with massive DVD and Blu-ray sales.
5. The Last Days of Disco (1998)
Budget: $8 million
Domestic Box Office: $3 million
Although it had a modest budget, Whit Stillman's third film received a considerable marketing push in art-house theaters. The Last Days of Disco is a dialogue-heavy look at yuppies struggling to figure out their lives. The disco setting provides a fun background, but it isn't really the focus of the story. Another factor in its performance was the imminent arrival of 54, a far inferior and more generic look at the famous '70s nightclub. This film is a witty, often hilarious look at characters who aren't so likable but are trying their best. Stillman has a unique voice that isn't for everyone, but he remains one of my favorite directors.
4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002)
Budget: $25 million
Domestic Box Office: $18 million
Although the performance of Paul Thomas Anderson's fourth feature is fairly respectable, it's frequently called out as a misstep in Adam Sandler's career. This might be the case if you focus on the box office, but this approach ignores the charms of this inventive film. Anderson pulls from Sandler's comic persona and delves into the rage that lies beneath many of his goofball characters. The bright colors and Jon Brion's score sell the positive romance between Sandler's Barry Egan and Lena Leonard (Emily Watson). He's a messed-up guy but finds a new lease on life through her. While Punch-Drunk Love stands apart from the rest of Anderson's filmography, it's also a truly original movie that deserves more acclaim.
3. Licence to Kill (1989)
Budget: $32 million
Domestic Box Office: $33 million
It did well around the world, but Timothy Dalton's second effort as James Bond is known as a failure because it fell short of previous efforts in the United States. The summer of 1989 was very crowded and included Batman, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This wasn't the best timing for a more serious, unconventional take on the franchise. It pains me to hear so many people dismiss Dalton's tenure and praise Brosnan's sillier work. Licence to Kill ranks among the best from the entire series because it doesn't fall into the standard mold. Sending Bond on a nasty quest for revenge is thrilling and sets up the more serious take of the Daniel Craig films. Dalton brings a realism and grittiness to the character that was missing from the later Roger Moore pictures.
2. Almost Famous (2000)
Budget: $60 million
Domestic Box Office: $32 million
Considering all the acclaim that it received upon its release, I was surprised to discover that Almost Famous was such a financial disappointment. Cameron Crowe's personal story of a boy (Patrick Fugit) traveling with a band in the '70s hits all the right notes for me. It's sentimental but never feels effortless because we're connected to the characters. I'm a huge music fan, so a story about true love of that art is right up my alley. It's my favorite Crowe film, which is saying a lot from the guy who did Say Anything. It's easily re-watchable and includes classic scenes that feel timeless. The $60 million budget is surprisingly high for this type of intimate film, which isn't designed to draw huge crowds at the box office.
1. Serenity (2005)
Budget: $40 million
Domestic Box Office: $25 million
It feels like I can't get through a podcast without talking about Serenity at some point. I didn't watch Firefly during its original airing but caught it on DVD a few years later. This wonderful series was fresh in my mind when I first saw its theatrical follow-up. The fact that this movie actually exists is a miracle considering the brief run of the TV show. Joss Whedon creates a movie that connects well to the series without alienating new viewers. The massive DVD sales easily covered the budget, but the box office wasn't strong enough to continue the series. I love all of the characters and would join them for future adventures, but there's something magical about having limited hours with them.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. What are your favorite movies that fell short at the box office? You should also check out past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.