This Is Why The Shawshank Redemption Bombed In Theaters

Entropy is inevitable and all things must return to the void, but The Shawshank Redemption will live on for as long as there are white guys between the ages of 30 and 55. It's the eminently quotable tale of camaraderie in a broken justice system. It's a classic of contemporary cinema with a regular spot in any given "Top 100 Movies Of All Time" list. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, two Golden Globes, and a pair of Screen Actors Guild Awards.

And it was a flop. Variety reports that Shawshank opened ninth at the box office, coming in behind Exit to Eden, a film belonging to that most timeless of genres, the Rosie O'Donnell-Dan Aykroyd sex comedy. At the end of its inauspicious 10-week run, the story of Andy Dufresne and Ellis "Red" Redding had earned back just $16 million of its estimated $25 million budget. What went wrong?

Well for one thing, nobody seemed to know what the hell a Shawshank Redemption was.

The Shawshank Redemption, just like it says on the box

"...for years after that film came out, people would come up to me and say, 'You know, I really liked you in that film Scrimshaw Reduction' or 'Shimmy, Shimmy, Shake' or 'Shankshaw,'" said Tim Robbins in a 2019 Entertainment Weekly interview, and it's a fair point. Going in cold, The Shawshank Redemption isn't a title that gives the audience much to go on, and it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

There was also the competition to consider – Shawshank received its wide release on October 14th, 1994, the same day as Quentin Tarantino's largely self explanatory Pulp Fiction. Zed, Zed's Chopper, et al had just won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Also in theaters: Forrest Gump, not yet halfway through its 42 week theatrical run, Forrest, run.

In the end, it was video, perhaps feeling a tinge of guilt for what it did to the radio star, that saved the day. Warner Bros made a leap of faith, shipping 320,000 copies of Shawshank Redemption at the time of its home release. Word of mouth brought the film back into the public eye, and it became the most rented video of 1995, according to Variety, eventually inspiring a theatrical re-release and a seemingly perpetual status as one of the best selling DVDs and Blu-Rays on the market.

Basically, The Shawshank Redemption crawled through a river of unspectacular box office returns and came out clean on the other side.