This entry is trivia, which is cool and all, but not a trope. On a work, it goes on the Trivia tab.
Once in a while, some works leave a big mark in the mind of audiences. The reviewswon't give it a grade under 9/10, those who saw/read/played it almost unanimously love it, everywhere the work is acclaimed for its originality, unique artistic touch, beautiful soundtrack and so forth. Everything is perfect except… few people actually buy it. Despite its huge critical success, the work is snubbed in the stores or cinemas and only avoids fading away from public view entirely by virtue of its acclaim.
Maybe it was too original, too unique, or too controversial to appeal to a large base (and maybe deliberately so), or maybe it lacked the advertisement that big and long-installed licenses or blockbusters get. Or just got a very clumsy marketing campaign. It can also be a consequence of The Firefly Effect for a series. But as a result of its glowing reputation, it will usually be sought out like a treasure several years later by many people who overlooked it at the time, and be all the more difficult to find in shops.
Note this is not about works that you personally liked but didn't get much attention. It's about those that were generally acclaimed and positively left their mark on the media, despite poor sales when they came out.
They are often Cult Classics, but a Cult Classic isn't necessarily successful critically and can keep a very limited fanbase.
Compare Vindicated by History when the quality of the work is only generally acknowledged many years after it came out. Also see Needs More Love. Critical Dissonance is for when the opinions of critics and viewers don't match. Contrast Critic Proof, where the work is commercially successful despite negative critical reception.
Contrast Sleeper Hit, a work that no-one was expecting much from but ends up being a commercial success despite unfavorable odds.
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Films - Animated
Many of Disney's animated films released during their Dark Age (early-1970s to mid-1980s), and during the early 2000s (the villains of those films are the only characters from them to still appear in the merchandise). The exception is Lilo & Stitch in the case of the latter era, due to that film being the only true success at the time. The Black Cauldron, Home on the Range, and Chicken Little are considered by some as "the Bottom Three", and have little to no merchandise at all (although the Horned King is often marketed in the merchandise).
Cats Don't Dance. Critics loved it, and it even won an Annie Award for Best Animated Film of 1997, but box office numbers were very poor. This is because Warner Bros. acquired Turner after production was completed, and chose to give it no promotion outside of toys from Subway and a few children's storybooks, and gave it a very small release too. The movie would later go on to being Vindicated by History, thanks to the movie airing on Cartoon Network several times during the early 2000s.
It's become a measurable trend that Oscar nominees are grossing less and less. Part of this is because the general public has come to perceive Oscar nominees as being only artistic fare without much wider appeal. Also, now that there are nine or ten nominees for Best Picture each year (previously it was only five), you'll frequently find nominees that only sold two or three million worth of tickets.
No one was yet calling it the greatest movie of all time, but Citizen Kane opened to glowing reviews and a disastrous box office. It didn't win "Best Picture" that year, but it was nominated for it and it did win for "Best Screenplay". A lot of its early misfourtune is probably due to with William Randolph Hearst's Executive Meddling.
The Monkees' film Head was the last thing anyone expected from the group: a surreal, deliberately plotless satire of their journey through the Show Business meat grinder. It failed at the box office, but got a lot of good reviews, and today it's fondly remembered as an Unintentional Period Piece of the psychedelic era.
Tucker The Man And His Dream failed to recoup its production costs and prompted director Francis Ford Coppola to take time off from the Hollywood system. However, critics credit the film for renewing interest in Preston Tucker's cars.
The Shawshank Redemption did very poorly in the box office but nonetheless received glowing reviews. The Academy also recognized it and led to its vindication as everyone wanted to know what was that film with quite a few Oscar nominations. It's also the highest-rated movie on IMDB with a score of 9.3.
Ed Wood is one of Tim Burton's most acclaimed films, even giving one of his stars an Oscar...and is the director's only box office failure with a mere $5.8 million domestically.
Almost Famous was one of the best reviewed films of 2000 (Roger Ebert called it the best film of 2000) and even today is considered a benchmark of making films about rock music. Financially, the film barely made half its $60 million budget (even after foreign totals, it still failed to break even), due to a misleading print campaign that put Kate Hudson's supporting character front and center and possibly due to handing director Cameron Crowe such a large budget for a niche-appealed premise.
Mike Judge's Idiocracy was well-reviewed by critics and is widely considered a clever comedy (although Americans of a certain stripe consider it verySerious Business), but due to poor marketing, it did badly box office-wise. Limiting initial release to only 7 cities and capping out at 130 theaters didn't help.
The few that have seen the 2007 movie Rogue, starring a then-unknown Sam Worthington, claim that it is surprisingly good for a movie about a giant crocodile and a fine horror/adventure flick in its own right. Poor advertising and the craptacular nature of every other killer crocodile movie made it bomb at the box office though.
The Hurt Locker was one of the most acclaimed movies of the year... and before the Oscar victory brought it back to theatres, its total gross was $12.6 million, less than its $15 million budget (it ended with $17 million domestically and $49 million worldwide, still the lowest-grossing Best Picture of all-time).
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World received universal acclaim for its unique approach; internet buzz prior to its release predicted a blockbuster and a summer comedy champion. The film tanked next to the guy-centric The Expendables and the girl-centric Eat, Pray, Love. both of which were mostly panned especially the former.
The Tree of Life failed to make its budget back (grossing just $12 million domestically on a $32 million budget) but won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and won much acclaim from critics (even becoming a top awards contender).
Hugo won five of the eleven Academy Awards for which it was nominated, tying it with Best Picture winner The Artist for the most of any 2011 movie. And its $185,770,160 gross would also have made it a net commercial success — had its budget not clocked in at $190 million.
Warrior, Gavin O'Connor's ambitious sports drama, followed on the heels of similarly-themed The Fighter and got strong critical reviews, especially for the lead performances. This strong point was also its undoing: the stars (Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton) were still niche supporting/character actors who had not yet headlined many flicks of their own and were only gradually building a bigger reputation. The film was dropped in a September release by Lionsgate, and lost money.
Dredd has been critically praised but failed commercially, losing its place in the top 10 within just two weeks and not recouping its modest $45 million budget.
The Master was the kind of film that had the makings of a hit: hot-button topic as its premise, strong cast of leads (led by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman), a director with a strong track record in Paul Thomas Anderson and a large scale that rivals any big studio tentpole. But despite strong reviews and having the publicity that most films could wish to have, The Weinstein Company saw different and basically left it for dead in September (despite having had the biggest opening weekend per-theatre average ever for an R-rated film) in order to push Oscar Bait titles Silver Linings Playbook and Django Unchained. The final result failed to make its budget back and proved to be another casualty in making ambitious fare in Hollywood (even leading Anderson to consider making more mainstream fare in the wake of its box office failure).
Pacific Rim in the US. It opened to positive reviews, but only came in #3 at the box-office in its opening weekend, experiencing the indignity of losing to the far worse-received Grown-Ups 2. It experienced a 57% drop in its second weekend as well. It has proven to be a different story in China, though.
The Cuckoo's Calling was this at first. Upon release, it got critical praise, but only sold a few copies. When the author's real identity was revealed, however, it received a lot more attention.
Live Action Television
Firefly was loved by viewers, but got cancelled after eleven episodes due to FOX screwing with it. A letter campaign led to a movie sequel, Serenity, which was just as acclaimed...and bombed just as much due to incoherent advertising. After that though, the series got a long healthy life of spin-offs and DVD releases.
The miniseries King was nominated for nine Emmy awards and won much acclaim for its star Paul Winfield but was a ratings disaster when first aired (the first part finishing in dead last in the weekly ratings).
The Fox show 24 started this way at first, possibly because it came on so soon after 9/11 and no one really wanted to see a show like that on the wake of a real terrorist attack. However, word of mouth eventually made it a popular series.
Arrested Development consistently garnered just enough audience to keep it afloat, but barely managed to raise itself above the bottom of the ratings ladder for three straight seasons. It was a critical darling from the word "Go", and its core fanbase is rabid. The American Dad! episode "With Friends Like Steve's" lampshaded this when Francine compares Steve's boredom with Stan to America's reaction to Arrested Development: it's not bad, but it failed because it wasn't universally loved like The Simpsons.
The Wire was virtually ignored on its first broadcast. It's a freaking miracle it got up to five seasons.
Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season. It was beloved by those who saw it from the beginning. TV critics were so engaged with it they often ranked it highly in their "best of the 00s" lists, with only 12 of its 18 episodes airing in that decade.
Awake suffered truly abysmal ratings, even for NBC, but was endlessly praised by TV critics, and unlike earlier shows with similar ratings in its time slot, aired its entire season.
Star Trek: The Original Series was almost cancelled after the end of the second season, actually was cancelled after the third, and didn't gain massive popularity until it was syndicated. The first Star Trek convention was in 1972, three years after its cancellation.
My So-Called Life was critically acclaimed and is remembered for poignantly capturing the zeitgeist of teenagers in The Nineties, but didn't last past a season.
30 Rock had a much, much lower viewship than its vast stockpile of Emmys would predict. It got to the point where Tina Fey began to take a perverse pleasure in her failure at the ratings game. She once noted with particular glee at how the premier on the show in Germany generated an unprecedented 0.0 (fewer than 1000 viewers in the entire country) rating.
Elvis Costello's Imperial Bedroom is considered one of his best, but all of its singles flopped.
See also Hitless Hit Album for examples of albums that caught on despite producing no hit singles.
The Roots are this trope. Except for their 1993 debut and 2004's "The Tipping Point", just about every one of their albums has garnered rave reviews from both critics and fans (not to mention numerous Grammy nominations). And yet, thus far, the only album they've released that has achieved Platinum certification is 1999's "Things Fall Apart.", and even that took nearly fourteen years after release to reach that platitude. Meanwhile, except for 2002's "Phrenology", none of their other albums have even reached Gold certification yet.
The Golden Apple was well-reviewed when it was first produced in 1954, and in retrospective histories is often hailed as an refreshingly original work of musical theatre. The original production closed in a few months and the show has only been infrequently produced since.
The original 1957 production of Leonard Bernstein's Candide closed after running for a mere 73 performances on Broadway. The cast album it produced sold much better.
Sleeping Dogs was met with lukewarm sales taking a year to reach one million only after the game was heavily discounted, but was hit among critics. Most who hadn't played it saw it as Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong but the game is more Grand Theft Auto, Batman: Arkham City, Assassin's Creed and Infernal Affairs rolled into one. The game focuses more on martial arts rather than gunplay and features light free-running through the city. However sales weren't so bad for Square Enix to rule out a potential sequel.
EarthBound, possibly the most egregious example in the history of gaming. Long story short, it didn't catch on when it came out in America, but the cult following grew greatly since. Most dedicated fans have played the game on emulators, since official copies are both rare and expensive, and several legal issues prevented the game from being re-released outside of Japan until 2013, when it was announced that it's coming to the WiiU Virtual Console.
God Hand, the earliest listed of their titles here.
Ōkami sold so badly that it led to the dissolution of Clover Studio (though not for long), and yet the game is considered one of the best the PS2 has offered. So much that it later got a sequel, sort of by another studio on the Nintendo DS and remade for the Wii, as well as being put on the PS3 in HD.
Bayonetta, despite being one of the very few games to get a 40/40 on Famitsu and considered one of the best action games of the last decade, didn't sell all that well in its Xbox360 version. However, it sold quite well on the PS3, despite that version being considered the inferior version.
Madworld was loved by critics, but had terrible sales. The fact that it was a violent, M-rated game exclusive to Wii, and the fact that it came hugely under fire from Moral Guardians and Christians were huge causes for its demise.
Kya: Dark Lineage got some pretty good reviews, but for most people not that many knew about it. For those who got it, it's a shame it's widely unknown. Doesn't help either that it ended on a cliffhanger.
Klonoa for the Sony Playstation received glowing reviews from critics, but bombed at retail for being mistaken as kiddy. The game would go on to become a cult classic, fetching over $60 on eBay at its peak. Same went for its Even Better SequelKlonoa 2: Lunatea's Veil. History repeated itself with the Wii remake, which Namco hoped would sell greatly and regain interest in the franchise, especially since most Wii owners like cutesy games, but the remake sold poorly too, and the planned Klonoa 2 Wii remake was cancelled.
Suikoden II, the Even Better Sequel to the first Suikoden, was also a bomb, but certainly not for lack of quality; it is considered by many who have played it to be one of the finest examples of the RPG ever. Rather, it came at the worst possible time: the week before one of gaming history's most anticipated sequels, Final Fantasy VIII, not to mention the Sega Dreamcast launch. Speaking of the former, Final Fantasy VII had stylistically redefined the genre with its big-budget, cinematic 3d visuals just two years earlier, and Suikoden II, which stuck to the isometric 2d of its predecessor, looked extremely outdated by comparison, as practically every other major RPG was following the charge lead by the new generation of Final Fantasy. The game did become a Cult Classic within the next couple of years, and would fetch massive sums on eBay. To this day, there has not been a rerelease, save for a Japan-only PSP re-release of I and II. Also, the English version was horribly translated.
Valkyrie Profile was also an initial stateside flop, having to do with a late era PS One release, meager marketing push from Enix, and just being too unique for its own good. It did gain a following, and similar to Suikoden II above, become valuable on the aftermarket, but thankfully it received a port on the PSP and two follow-ups.
Planescape: Torment made very little money, despite being named game of the year by multiple review organizations.
Shantae sold poorly and and its sequel sold modestly, but both received very favorable reviews.
The Neverhood, an adventure game animated entirely in claymation, was released around the time adventure games were going out of style.
Conker's Bad Fur Day, due to limited advertising and late arrival to the Nintendo 64, didn't sell as well as hoped. But it gained critical acclaim and a cult following among fans regardless.
Little King's Story received critical acclaim, many reviewers considering it to be on the same level of quality as some of Nintendo's first party titles, yet nearly no one brought it. The kiddy presentation didn't help despite the game actually being quite dark in places. The developers seem to have realized this, because the sequel for Vita (which can be purchased on PSN) uses a typical RPG/anime artstyle.
BattleZone (the 1998 FPS/RTS version) was loved by videogame magazine critics, but failed to make an impression in the marketplace. The sequel, Battlezone II: Combat Commander, likewise failed to sell, though it was received less warmly partly because its Scenery Porn was the cause of poor performance and partly because the gameplay was slowed down in favor of more RTS elements
Cornerstone, Infocom's attempt to enter the business-software market, generally got good reviews, but sold very poorly, in part because of a general economic-downturn at the time of release.
The Panzer Dragoon series, especially its RPG one, Panzer Dragoon Saga. Being released on the doomed-from-creation Saturn (which has proven nigh-impossible to emulate) sent it straight into obscurity.
Same goes for Burning Rangers, another Saturn exclusive. It was released when the console was nearing its end (in America and Europe). While it was a success in Japan, it was a commercial failure in other countries. American or European copies usually go for $75-100 on eBay, while Japanese copies can be found for about $15-30.
Kingdom Of Paradise, despite gorgeous graphics and relatively high ratings by critics, faced underwhelming sales. It remains a hidden gem in the world of gaming.
Steel Battalion was a game which was produced with skepticism and launched with little advertising. Simply put, the controller used made the game economically unviable due to the 200$ price tag plus the fact the game was made for Japan but released on an American console (the Xbox). However, the game was groundbreaking in terms of its simulation abilities, easily well ahead of its time, and certainly superior to the Kinect which was used for the game's sequel. So much so that a cult following still apparently maintains the multiplayer expansion even after Microsoft ended Xbox Live.
Ultimately, the game basically broke even when it came to the market, with the producer having said the game was made more as a statement for what could be done in the gaming industry that other industries couldn't do.
The Legendary Starfy in America. It got very good reviews and has a dedicated following, but sold poorly. In Japan, it sold better, but not as well as the other 4 Starfy games, which are Japan-exclusive.
Gladius was universally praised at release it was even called the best Xbox game nobody played.
Shenmue. While the first one sold okay, the sequel didn't. This is mainly because Sega released it as an Xbox exclusive outside of Japan and Europe, since video game developers ended production on Dreamcast games in America at this time. Most Xbox owners only cared about shooters and sports games, and Shenmue 2 was neither of those, thus the sequel suffered from horrible sales, and it ended on an unresolved cliffhanger that was never resolved due to Yu Suzuki leaving Sega, and Sega not having enough of a budget to make a third game due to losing so much money on both games.
No More Heroes was adored by critics, but lacked in sales. It sold 40,000 in Japan, and 208,000 in America. Preceding Madworld, it was an M-rated Wii exclusive, and came under fire from Moral Guardians. Despite lackluster sales, it ended up getting a sizeable cult following and a sequel, and was later ported to the PS3 in hopes that it would sell much better on there. It... didn't.
Recent Square Enix IPs/critical darlings Sleeping Dogs and Just Cause seems destined for this trope due to low, disappointing sales figures.
Elite Beat Agents: Praised by critics for its tight, challenging, and unique gameplay and amazing atmosphere, it even won GameSpot's Nintendo DS Game of the Year award in 2006, beating out front-runners like New Super Mario Bros., but was panned commercially because it was perhaps just a little too weird for most gamers' tastes (not to mention that said atmosphere let to a very jarring case of Surprise Difficulty). This has, unfortunately, effectively quashed any hopes of an official sequel ever being released in the West.
Perimeter. While the game had pretty good reviews, it flopped spectacularly... and yet for some reason both an Expansion Pack and a sequel were created.
Due to very poor marketing Cold Fear was largely unheard of by gamers, and most who did hear about it were very quick to dismiss it as a rip off of Resident Evil 4. However, those who actually play it love it, and many of these people have actually declared it better than the game it rips off.
Subverted by Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. While it was one of the biggest Metal Gear games and received glowing reviews, it didn't sell so well due to the fact that it was a PSP exclusive. Once it appeared on the HD collection for the Xbox 360 and PS3, it sold much better.
"When great movies fail at the box office, other movies will suffer because of it."
Sym-Bionic Titan was beloved by critics and fans on the internet, but lasted only one season.
Invader Zim gained a massive and loyal fanbase for it weirdness and Black Comedy that hadn't been seen since Ren and Stimpy. But ratings didn't justify the cost for the animation, as well as the fact Nickeloden was rather uncomfortable with some aspects of it, and was axed after three seasons.