The Stephen King Classic That Tanked At The Box Office

The Shawshank Redemption was a box office failure when it was released in 1994.

By Douglas Helm | Published

The Shawshank Redemption is a classic movie that is beloved by many, even its author Stephen King who doesn’t always like adaptations of his books. Which makes it even more surprising that the film was considered an absolute box office bomb when it left theaters in 1994. The film only managed to bring in a meager $16 million, not even recouping its $25 million budget.

It’s hard to say why The Shawshank Redemption tanked so hard at the box office. One reason might be that they didn’t push the Stephen King angle enough. The author was (and still is) extremely popular, so marketing his name more might have put more butts in seats.

The competition in theaters for The Shawshank Redemption was pretty heavy at the time too. It was directly competing with Quentin Tarantino‘s Pulp Fiction, which has become a beloved classic in its own right. Forrest Gump was still blazing through theaters at this time too, so The Shawshank Redemption had quite a few things working against it.

Fortunately, time has been kind to The Shawshank Redemption. It’s often considered one of the best films of all time and there are plenty of people who would put it on their favorite-film lists. As mentioned, Stephen King even thinks it’s the best adaptation of one of his works along with Stand By Me.

shawshank redemption
Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

A relatively untested Frank Darabont directed the film, along with adapting the novel for the screen. Though Darabont is a respected name now, he had only directed some shorts and a TV movie at the time. This was his big debut and while he didn’t stick the landing from a box office standpoint, it’s undeniable how great the film is and what a long-lasting impact it’s had.

Darabont wasn’t the only factor that contributed to the longevity of The Shawshank Redemption. The film was led by a dynamite cast that included Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. It also had the distinct benefit of having the legendary Roger Deakins on board as cinematographer.

Although it would be hard imagining anyone but Tim Robbins in the role of Andy Dufresne, he was far from the first choice for the role. Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall were at the top of the list, but they had no availability at the time. Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, and Charlie Sheen were also considered, though none of those castings came to fruition.

While all of those choices would have surely brought a powerhouse performance to the table, Tim Robbins brought a quality that made Dufresne a likable protagonist that was easy to root for. And while the choices for the cast and behind-the-scenes may not have led to box-office gold, the Academy certainly enjoyed The Shawshank Redemption that year. Though it didn’t take home any of the trophies, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for Morgan Freeman, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Original Score.

So, how did The Shawshank Redemption go down in history as an iconic classic rather than be forgotten as the box office bomb it was? Well, we can likely thank Blockbuster (and the other ill-fated video rental chains) for that. According to Variety, Warner Home Video shipped over 320,000 copies of the film to rental chains in 1995, leading it to become one of the top rented films of the year.

While distributors have it a little easier these days, as they’re able to send their films to streaming services instead, the distribution costs of sending out that many physical rental copies had to be pretty risky. But the sky-high rental numbers weren’t the last factor that led to The Shawshank Redemption‘s cultural staying power. The film had one last trick up its sleeve.

Since The Shawshank Redemption performed so poorly at the box office, TNT was able to air the film on cable for low prices, while still charging high prices for ad spots. This meant TNT wanted to air the movie a lot. This worked in its favor, as the airings of the movie reached record-breaking numbers.

It’s always interesting to look back at the history of films that are now considered cultural touchstones. Most people have at least heard of the Shawshank Redemption. It’s funny to think that at one time it was a box office miss that almost nobody knew about.