A few of those movies—let’s call them “flopbusters” for want of a better term—stick in my mind so powerfully that I was certain, before I went looking for more, that there’d be absolutely scads of them. Certainly there were many, many worthy films, blockbuster-esque and not, that earned embarrassingly little during their theatrical runs, yet have gone on to develop either a widespread fandom or a cult following on home video. It seems, however, that the studios and indie distributors have learned to keep out of the way of the summer juggernauts, releasing movies that might get steamrolled by them in the spring or fall instead.
But there are still a few flopbusters worth talking about. The one that I recall most vividly is 1999’s Mystery Men, released on Aug. 6 of that year and was hopeless to compete against the likes of Star Wars: Episode I, The Sixth Sense and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Perhaps the funniest superhero parody ever made, it nevertheless earned only $29.7 million—against a budget of $68 million. Ouch. Just a few days earlier, on Aug. 3, The Iron Giant was released. One of the most exquisite animated movies ever, it crashed anyway, earning only $23 million, a mere fraction of its $70 million budget. Director Brad Bird would go on to well-deserved blockbusters at Pixar with The Incredibles and Ratatouille.
Finding other movies that fit that precise qualification—a good film that shoulda been a blockbuster, but wasn’t—is unexpectedly tough. It’s easy to see why Run Lola Run flopped. Though it’s one of the best riffs ever on the action movie, it was also released in that extraordinary year of 1999, and earned only a little over $7 million even with a plum June 18 release date. Plus, it was in German, and subtitled, and never played in more than 172 theaters. Four summers later, in 2003, the ultra-low-budget indie Open Water opened on Aug. 6, and looks, at first glance, like a flop, with a total haul of only $30.5 million. Except the film—which could be considered a sort of philosophical response to the very first summer blockbuster, Jaws—cost a paltry half a mill to produce, which makes it very much not a flop by any definition of the word.
The Frighteners, a 1996 summer release, qualifies as a flopbuster, earning a smallish $16.8 million. A comedic tale of ghostbusting from future blockbuster director Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), this was, technically, a wide release, playing at 1,675 venues, but never had a real chance to compete against that summer’s megahits: Independence Day, Twister and Mission: Impossible, all of which played in approximately 3,000 theaters. I also like, from that same summer, Joe’s Apartment, a delightfully twisted fantasy comedy about singing bugs, which couldn’t scrape up more than $4.6 million.
I’m surprised, too, that The Great Raid, released on Aug. 12, 2005, didn’t make a bigger splash than a pathetic $10.2 million (it cost $80 million to produce), because it’s a rousing war movie with a feel-good ending. I’d have thought the same about last year’s Death at a Funeral, one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, which opened on Aug. 17 and grossed, in the United States, $8.5 million. But that one, a British production, serves as an excellent reminder that the U.S. market is not the only game: Funeral, which cost $9 million to make, might be considered a flop only on American soil. It earned another $37 million around the world, which says ka-ching! in any language.