Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson in the movie "Match Point"

Top-grossing movies that never got a wide release

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July 13, 2022

Top-grossing movies that never got a wide release

Once a movie is completed, studios have a laundry list of things to consider when deciding how and when to release it. Is it a possible awards contender? Is the subject matter something that will appeal to a wide audience or a more select group of moviegoers? Are the tone and style easily palatable, or are they too heavy and artsy for the average viewer? Is there enough room in the budget to market and distribute it at a high level? The list goes on and on.

In the end, the various factors coalesce and the studio makes one of two decisions: either give the film a wide release or allow it a more limited run. A movie that gets a limited theatrical release only plays in 600 theaters or less. Sometimes, if it's successful on that scale, it will get a wide release (aka appear in more than 600 theaters). Other times it won't. Generally speaking, films that play on more screens will earn more—after all, there's more opportunity for ticket sales—but again, that isn't always the case.

Stacker consulted box office data on The Numbers and ranked the top 50 highest-grossing movies that never got a wide release, despite their success. Ties are broken by digits of box office data that are not shown. IMAX-only releases, one-time releases, and special event nature documentaries were not considered. We're diving into some of the reasons why these films didn't get a wide release in the first place, and looking at how they managed to succeed anyways.

Read on for a closer examination of some of Hollywood's biggest theatrical underdogs.

#50. House of Sand and Fog

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 19, 2003
- Box office gross: $13 million
- Max theaters: 598

"House of Sand and Fog" is a grim movie about a young, drug-addicted woman and an Iranian family who find themselves locked in a life-destroying conflict over the ownership of a house. Starring Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, and Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, the indie film (which likely didn't get a wide release because of its bleak storyline) relied on awards season chatter and international film festivals to gain the attention of a wider audience.

#49. Religulous

- Theatrical release date: Oct. 1, 2008
- Box office gross: $13 million
- Max theaters: 568

It's not hard to see why "Religulous," a documentary that challenges established, organized religions of all types, wouldn't get a wide release. Despite its incendiary subject matter, the film fared well during its first two weekends at the box office, drumming up enough interest among viewers who both shared and reviled its views that it eventually brought in an impressive $13 million.

#48. 25th Hour

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 19, 2002
- Box office gross: $13.1 million
- Max theaters: 495

In the wake of 9/11, many audiences weren't eager to see films that reminded them of the national tragedy, especially if those films were as bleak and depressing as "25th Hour." This Spike Lee joint is based on a book by David Benioff and follows a man as he spends his last 24 hours of freedom wandering around the broken city before starting a seven-year jail sentence. Critics, however, loved the moody drama and sang its praises enough to draw in decently sized audiences.

#47. Whiplash

- Theatrical release date: Oct. 10, 2014
- Box office gross: $13.1 million
- Max theaters: 567

A young and talented jazz drummer (Miles Teller) is pushed to his limit by his abusive instructor (J.K. Simmons), in this psychological drama. "Whiplash" won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and that attention helped the intense film move from a very limited, festivals-only release to a much-wider theater run.

#46. Les Intouchables

- Theatrical release date: May 25, 2012
- Box office gross: $13.2 million
- Max theaters: 194

A French film about a quadriplegic aristocrat who hires a young man from the projects to be his aide, "Les Intouchables" was a bona fide cultural event in its home country. Following its immense success overseas, a handful of American theaters decided to show the film, although, like many non-English films, it didn't get a wide release. Still, the impressive numbers it managed in only 194 theaters are a testament to its powerful, emotional message.

#45. Enchanted April

- Theatrical release date: July 31, 1992
- Box office gross: $13.2 million
- Max theaters: 274

In the 1920s, four English women set out to vacation alone at a castle in Italy and find the freedom of being removed from their restrictive society (and the presence of men) left them completely transformed. A British production, "Enchanted April" used the fact that it opened the London Film Festival to attract a respectably sized audience in the U.S.

#44. The Tree of Life

- Theatrical release date: May 27, 2011
- Box office gross: $13.3 million
- Max theaters: 237

It's hard to imagine anything starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn would get anything but a wide release, but this art film, directed by Terrence Malick, played in less than 250 theaters. In reality, it likely only snagged that many theaters because it won the top prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, as its pace is too slow and its story too laborious to appeal to the average viewer. "The Tree of Life" attempts to capture the meaning of life through the story of a single family living in 1950s Texas.

#43. De-Lovely

- Theatrical release date: June 25, 2004
- Box office gross: $13.3 million
- Max theaters: 410

"De-Lovely" is a musical biography that explores the life and times of composer Cole Porter, including his relationship with his wife, socialite Linda Lee Thomas. The artsy film premiered at Cannes, where critics loved it, before making a tour of the requisite festivals and beginning a limited U.S. theatrical run.

#42. Bullets Over Broadway

- Theatrical release date: Oct. 21, 1994
- Box office gross: $13.4 million
- Max theaters: 530

Woody Allen's film "Bullets Over Broadway," about a playwright who gets involved with the mob to get his new show produced, largely flew under the radar until it was nominated for seven Academy Awards at the 1995 Oscars. Following the awards season buzz, audiences began lining up to see the black comedy, which is now considered one of the famed director's best works.

#41. Secrets & Lies

- Theatrical release date: Sept. 28, 1996
- Box office gross: $13.4 million
- Max theaters: 296

When a middle-class Black woman decides to track down her birth family, she's surprised to learn her mother is a working-class white woman with a dysfunctional home life. "Secrets & Lies" is a British film that won the Palme d'Or, an accolade that signaled to audiences around the world that it was worth a watch, regardless of its emotionally complex themes.

#40. The Tailor of Panama

- Theatrical release date: March 30, 2001
- Box office gross: $13.5 million
- Max theaters: 441

This atmospheric spy thriller, about a convict-turned-tailor who is coerced into becoming a spy for the British government, features a handful of high-profile actors: Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Daniel Radcliffe in his film debut. It's this star power that elevated the film from festival darling to box office smash.

#39. The Namesake

- Theatrical release date: March 9, 2007
- Box office gross: $13.6 million
- Max theaters: 335

Based on a novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri, "The Namesake" tells the story of Gogol, the American-born son of Indian immigrants who struggles to find his place between his two worlds. It's possible that the studios worried the immigrant story wouldn't resonate with audiences, which is why they only gave the film a limited release. In the end, they were wrong and the box office take was almost double the movie's budget.

#38. Y Tu Mamá También

- Theatrical release date: March 15, 2002
- Box office gross: $13.6 million
- Max theaters: 286

A coming-of-age story about two teenage boys who take a road trip with a 20-something woman, "Y Tu Mama Tambien" set a box office record when it opened in theaters in Mexico. The movie had such a successful run there that it managed a limited opening in the U.S.

#37. Broken Flowers

- Theatrical release date: Aug. 5, 2005
- Box office gross: $13.7 million
- Max theaters: 433

Another road trip drama, "Broken Flowers" follows an aging Lothario as he travels across the country visiting former lovers and searching for an unknown son. Initially released at the Cannes Film Festival, the meandering movie attracted more mainstream attention thanks to its cast (Bill Murray, Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, and Chloë Sevigny star) and the fact it won the Grand Prix.

#36. The Long Walk Home

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 21, 1990
- Box office gross: $13.8 million
- Max theaters: 333

When the indie film "The Long Walk Home" hit theaters in 1990, it had a tough go of it for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that a former Newsweek correspondent wrote an article challenging the authenticity of the film's Montgomery bus boycott storyline. While the accusations seemed like a death sentence for the film at first, the controversy ultimately ended up drumming up more interest in the Whoopi Goldberg-starring film.

#35. Monsoon Wedding

- Theatrical release date: Feb 22, 2002
- Box office gross: $13.9 million
- Max theaters: 254

A Hindi-language film, "Monsoon Wedding" was always going to struggle in the U.S. because of the language barrier. Thankfully, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and snagging a Golden Globe nomination encouraged moviegoers to see the rom-com centered around a Punjabi Hindu wedding anyways.

#34. The Commitments

- Theatrical release date: Aug. 14, 1991
- Box office gross: $14.0 million
- Max theaters: 560

Movie musicals can be a tough sell, which is why when 20th Century Fox released "The Commitments," they decided to do so on a smaller scale. What the studio didn't account for was how much awards committees would love the amateur-acted story about an Irish boy who puts together a soul band comprised of working-class members. BAFTA wins and an Academy Award nomination likely helped this movie to make as much as it did.

#33. Jackie

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 2, 2016
- Box office gross: $14 million
- Max theaters: 508

A biographical drama about Jackie Kennedy, "Jackie" stars Natalie Portman as the former First Lady, with Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, and John Hurt in supporting roles. Its niche subject matter convinced the studio a wide release wasn't in the cards, but its raw star power and rave reviews ensured audiences sought it out regardless.

#32. Tea with Mussolini

- Theatrical release date: May 14, 1999
- Box office gross: $14.4 million
- Max theaters: 284

All told, "Tea with Mussolini" lacks an obvious plot. On the surface, it's about a young boy in fascist Italy who is sent off to be raised by a dynamic group of British and American women, but when it comes down to it, nothing really happens—it's entirely uneventful. Knowing this, Universal Pictures released it to less than 300 theaters, but fans, drawn in by a cast that included Judi Dench, Cher, Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, and Joan Plowright, went to see it anyways.

#31. Wild at Heart

- Theatrical release date: Aug. 17, 1990
- Box office gross: $14.6 million
- Max theaters: 532

Initial test screenings of the David Lynch gangster road-trip film saw mass walkouts, which led the studio to believe it was doomed to fail. So they set it up for a limited release, only to have audiences flock to the Palme d'Or-winning film anyways. It seems a little star power (Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern) and some positive critical reviews can go a long way in turning a film's fortunes around.

#30. The Madness of King George

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 28, 1994
- Box office gross: $15.1 million
- Max theaters: 464

Adapted from a play of nearly the same name, "The Madness of King George" tells the true story of King George III's mental health breakdown—not exactly the most cheery (or universally appealing) subject matter. However, an impressive cast that included Helen Mirren and Nigel Hawthorne, a host of BAFTA wins and Academy Award nominations, and decidedly positive critical reviews helped it to bring in over $15 million at the box office.

#29. In America

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 26, 2003
- Box office gross: $15.5 million
- Max theaters: 403

A semi-autobiographical film from Jim Sheridan, "In America" deals with the difficulties immigrant families face when attempting to begin a new life in the United States. The small-budget indie film had a limited release so that it could be considered for awards, and made the rounds at various film festivals. The nominations and reviews it received from these showings enticed moviegoers to give it a try.

#28. Far From Heaven

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 8, 2002
- Box office gross: $15.9 million
- Max theaters: 291

Julianne Moore stars in this indie romantic drama about a 1950s housewife who shares a flirtation with a Black man while coming to terms with her husband's homosexuality. Despite lacking the budget necessary to facilitate a wide release, the film fared incredibly well in the roughly 300 theaters it was screened in, especially once critics and awards committees started highlighting it.

#27. Mo' Better Blues

- Theatrical release date: Aug. 3, 1990
- Box office gross: $16.2 million
- Max theaters: 572

The second Spike Lee joint to make the list, "Mo' Better Blues" is about a jazz trumpeter whose unwavering focus on his career throws his personal life into jeopardy. A small budget (just $10 million) may explain why the movie only got a limited release, but the big-name actors who worked on it (Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes) explain why so many fans wanted to see it on the big screen anyways.

#26. 21 Grams

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 21, 2003
- Box office gross: $16.2 million
- Max theaters: 411

"21 Grams" utilizes an experimental method of storytelling, a fact that almost certainly led studios to question whether or not it would be something audiences would actually want to see. The gripping story about a hit-and-run accident and packed cast list proved the movie could be a moneymaker regardless of its unique artistic bent.

#25. Trainspotting

- Theatrical release date: July 19, 1996
- Box office gross: $16.5 million
- Max theaters: 357

The subject matter of "Trainspotting," a film about a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, is probably what prompted its limited theatrical release (after all, that's what kept it from the Cannes Film Festival). It was the success of director Danny Boyle's previous film, "Shallow Grave," that almost certainly enticed audiences to see it anyways.

#24. The Motorcycle Diaries

- Theatrical release date: Sept. 24, 2004
- Box office gross: $16.8 million
- Max theaters: 272

Based on the written memoir of Ernesto Guevara, "The Motorcycle Diaries" is part a coming-of-age story, part a biopic of the revolutionary leader Che Guevara. A Spanish-language film, the movie was never going to get a full release in the U.S., but its success at various film festivals and the awards chatter that surrounded it drove a larger than normal crowd to seek it out in theaters.

#23. The Hurt Locker

- Theatrical release date: June 26, 2009
- Box office gross: $17 million
- Max theaters: 535

The first Best Picture winner to be directed by a woman, "The Hurt Locker" is a war film that deals with the stress soldiers face in combat situations. An independent project, it lacked the budget for a widespread release, but after generating buzz for its thrilling story and incredible acting at the Toronto Film Festival the studio decided to release it in a handful of American theaters where it proved massively successful.

#22. Free Solo

- Theatrical release date: Sept. 28, 2018
- Box office gross: $17.5 million
- Max theaters: 533

One of the few documentaries on our list, "Free Solo" follows one man's journey to solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot monolith in Yosemite National Park. Generally speaking, documentaries don't get wide releases, as their subject matter tends to be niche enough that they won't draw wide audiences. This 2018 release was no exception to the rule, though its thrilling story attracted more viewers than usual.

#21. The Last King of Scotland

- Theatrical release date: Sept. 27, 2006
- Box office gross: $17.6 million
- Max theaters: 540

"The Last King Of Scotland" follows the dictatorship of Ugandan President Idi Amin, who is widely considered to be one of history's most brutal despots. The film likely didn't get a full-blown release because of its dark tone and explicit torture scenes (something that wouldn't appeal to most moviegoers), but when Forest Whitaker began generating awards talk for his portrayal of the aforementioned dictator, ticket sales soared.

#20. Best in Show

- Theatrical release date: Sept. 27, 2000
- Box office gross: $18.6 million
- Max theaters: 497

A mockumentary-style film about a competitive dog show, "Best in Show" is largely improvised and stars big names in comedy like Fred Willard, Catherine O'Hara, and Jennifer Coolidge. Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, the movie had a small budget (hence, the limited release), but it quickly developed a bit of a cult following, which helped drive ticket sales.

#19. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

- Theatrical release date: April 28, 2017
- Box office gross: $19.0 million
- Max theaters: 425

The conclusion to the "Baahubali" duology, the epic action film "Baahubali 2: The Conclusion" is the second highest-grossing Indian movie of all time. As with many other foreign-language films, the project didn't get a wide release, but its status in the South Asian country incentivized American moviegoers to see it.

#18. Hamlet

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 19, 1990
- Box office gross: $20.7 million
- Max theaters: 525

Given the sheer number of Shakespeare movie adaptations out there, it's not shocking that the 1990 version of "Hamlet" didn't get a budget for a wide release. Despite hitting only about 500 theaters, the movie still managed to sell more than $20 million in tickets thanks to its star-packed cast which featured Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Alan Bates, and Helena Bonham Carter.

#17. Whale Rider

- Theatrical release date: June 6, 2003
- Box office gross: $20.8 million
- Max theaters: 556

With a budget of just $4.3 million, "Whale Rider," a movie about a young Māori girl who fights to fulfill her destiny in the face of her grandfather's disapproval, had very little to allocate for a widespread publicity and distribution plan. However, positive critical reviews, alongside Keisha Castle-Hughes' Academy Award nomination (at the time, she was the youngest person to earn a Best Actress nom), more than made up for it, ultimately bringing it $20.8 million in ticket sales.

#16. Bowling for Columbine

- Theatrical release date: Oct. 11, 2002
- Box office gross: $21.6 million
- Max theaters: 248

When he released "Bowling for Columbine," a documentary that examined the motivations and causes behind school shootings, Michael Moore was a relatively unknown filmmaker. His status, as well as the film's difficult and often controversial subject matter, likely played a major role in the decision to give it a more limited theatrical release. However, the movie quickly garnered a lot of positive critical attention (and several major award nominations, like the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature), which boosted ticket sales dramatically.

#15. Like Water for Chocolate

- Theatrical release date: Feb. 17, 1993
- Box office gross: $21.7 million
- Max theaters: 172

Hugely popular in its native Mexico, "Like Water for Chocolate" is a magical realism film about a young woman who discovers her otherworldly talent for cooking after being forbidden from marrying the man she loves. When the movie finally came stateside, it got a very limited release, but its bittersweet and imaginative storyline helped it become the highest-grossing foreign film of all time, until other contenders beat its record.

#14. The Player

- Theatrical release date: April 10, 1992
- Box office gross: $21.7 million
- Max theaters: 452

"The Player," a black comedy about a Hollywood studio executive who kills a screenwriter he believes is sending him death threats, was director Robert Altman's return to prominence. The studio's lack of faith in him likely had something to do with the limited theatrical release the movie was given, but the insane cast list, which includes actors like Tim Robbins, Whoopi Goldberg, and Peter Gallagher, as well as cameos from more than 50 celebrities, was enough to make it a mainstream hit.

#13. The Postman

- Theatrical release date: June 14, 1995
- Box office gross: $21.8 million
- Max theaters: 430

An Italian-language film about a postman who falls in love with poetry after developing a friendship with the real-life poet Pablo Neruda, "The Postman" was well received in Italy, which led to a small run in the United States. Here, the film benefited from positive critical reviews as well as the premature death of its writer and primary actor Massimo Troisi, whose fatal heart attack, which occurred the day after filming wrapped, was global news.

#12. Billy Elliot

- Theatrical release date: Oct. 13, 2000
- Box office gross: $22.0 million
- Max theaters: 510

Made on a shoestring budget, "Billy Elliot" is an indie coming-of-age drama about a working-class English boy who dreams of becoming a professional ballerina. While there wasn't much money available for distribution, the movie got stellar early reviews from critics, which helped it gross an eye-watering $22 million at the box office.

#11. Much Ado About Nothing

- Theatrical release date: May 7, 1993
- Box office gross: $22.5 million
- Max theaters: 201

As discussed with "Hamlet," most Shakespeare adaptations don't get wide theatrical releases because there are simply so many versions of the same story already in existence. That being said, the jam-packed cast in this one, which included actors like Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Michael Keaton, and Imelda Staunton, helped make this version of "Much Ado About Nothing" a box office smash.

#10. The Remains of the Day

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 5, 1993
- Box office gross: $23.0 million
- Max theaters: 517

It's unclear why "The Remains of the Day," a film set in post-WWII England about a butler who realizes his loyalties may have been misplaced, didn't initially get a wider release. It is, after all, based on a Booker Prize-winning novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and has a stellar cast that includes actors like Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Christopher Reeve, and Hugh Grant. But once it got eight Academy Award nominations, and earned $23 million at the box office, it became clear that it probably should have.

#9. Match Point

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 28, 2005
- Box office gross: $23.1 million
- Max theaters: 512

The second Woody Allen film to make the list, "Match Point" follows a married tennis pro whose affair with his soon-to-be sister-in-law threatens his social status. The 2005 film came after a string of box office bombs for the director (things were so bad he had to search for funding overseas), and the studio's lack of faith in Allen may have been behind the movie's limited release. In the end, the switch in setting (from Allen's typical NYC backdrop to London) might have been the thing that actually encouraged fans to see the film, and bumped up box office sales.

#8. An Inconvenient Truth

- Theatrical release date: May 24, 2006
- Box office gross: $24.1 million
- Max theaters: 587

Adapted from a PowerPoint presentation that former Vice President Al Gore gave, "An Inconvenient Truth" is an educational film about the realities of global warming. As noted before, documentaries don't often get wide releases as they typically draw in much smaller audiences than action movies or rom-coms. However, rave critical reviews and dozens of editorial hot takes about the subject matter helped launch this particular movie into record-making territory.

#7. Waking Ned Devine

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 20, 1998
- Box office gross: $24.8 million
- Max theaters: 540

Set in a small Irish village, "Waking Ned Devine" centers around an elderly man who dies of shock after winning the lottery, and the small village who tries to claim the prize anyways. The indie comedy was made on a small budget, which explains its limited release, but as reviews came out (both word of mouth and official critical takes) the number of theaters playing it expanded rapidly.

#6. In the Name of the Father

- Theatrical release date: Dec. 29, 1993
- Box office gross: $25.1 million
- Max theaters: 495

A fictionalized retelling of the story of the Guildford Four (a group of individuals who were wrongly accused of bombing a pub in an act of domestic terrorism), "In the Name of the Father" did so well in its home country of Ireland that it received a small U.S. release. Positive critical reviews, seven Academy Award nominations, and plenty of public controversy over how far it strayed from reality all helped the movie earn much more than anyone expected.

#5. Memento

- Theatrical release date: March 16, 2001
- Box office gross: $25.5 million
- Max theaters: 531

"Memento" follows a man with anterograde amnesia who is struggling to solve his wife's murder. The movie uses some highly experimental methods of storytelling and isn't easily followable for the casual viewer, which likely explains its limited, arthouse release. Positive reviews, as well as director Christopher Nolan's emerging reputation, helped to drive up ticket sales anyways.

#4. Howards End

- Theatrical release date: March 13, 1992
- Box office gross: $26.1 million
- Max theaters: 547

An adaptation of E.M. Forster's classic novel, this period romance explores changing class relations in the early 20th century through the lens of the Schlegel sisters. A smaller budget and a slower pace both worked against "Howard's End" when it came to securing a wide release. Fortunately, the film generated plenty of awards season buzz, which helped ensure a large box office take regardless.

#3. Menace II Society

- Theatrical release date: May 26, 1993
- Box office gross: $27.7 million
- Max theaters: 581

A grim look at the realities of teenage crime, "Menace II Society" is about a young boy who gets wrapped up in nefarious activities that may end up claiming his life. Violent and depressing, the movie was also the Hughes Brothers' directorial debut, and those things combined explain the limited release. Positive reviews and some smaller awards wins did their part in turning the fate of the film around.

#2. Amélie

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 2, 2001
- Box office gross: $33.2 million
- Max theaters: 303

Now a cult classic, "Amélie" is a French-language film about a young woman who decides to deal with her isolation by making the lives of those around her better. After making its way to the U.S., the arthouse movie, which had done well at festivals, managed to become an American media darling, which helped drum up huge audiences despite its very limited release.

#1. The Piano

- Theatrical release date: Nov. 12, 1993
- Box office gross: $40.2 million
- Max theaters: 523

"The Piano" is an indie drama about a Scottish woman with a speech disability who travels to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. The winner of the Palme d'Or and three Academy Awards, the movie was destined to be a box office hit, even while its budget didn't allow for a grand release.

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