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Ten Critical and Box Office Hits That Almost Went Straight-to-DVD

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | August 12, 2013 |

By Dustin Rowles | Box Office Round-Ups | August 12, 2013 |

It was a big weekend at the box-office overall, but because of the wide release of four new movies, the receipts were split among newcomers. Elysium led the way over the weekend with $30 million (down from the $37 million opening of District 9. It’s a decent but not great opening, especially considering that Elysium cost $115 million to make, while District 9 costs $30 million to make, making Elysium yet another casualty of the studios problematic budgeting system.

That makes We’re the Millers the box office winner of the weekend from a financial perspective, as it put up $26 million over three days, and $37 million since its Wednesday release. The film only cost $37 million to make, so it is clearly another hit for Jennifer Aniston, and puts Dodgeball’s Rawson Thurber back in the game as a director capable of generating good bang for the buck. Meanwhile, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters opened with a weak $14 million weekend, and $23 million over the five days, but like the original movie, the sequel is expected to make most of its money internationally. With a $90 million budget, it has a long road to travel.

Finally, the other new release was Planes, Disney’s Cars spin-off, which came in at number three with a $23 million opening. That’s a far cry from the usual opening for Pixar films, but considering Planes was meant to be released straight to DVD, and that its $50 million budget is quarter of the $200 million budget for Cars 2, Disney has to be feeling pretty good about its decision to release it theatrically.

In fact, Planes is not the first movie originally slated to go straight to DVD only to turn a solid profit in theaters. Here’s nine other examples of critical and box-office hits that were originally set to go straight to DVD.

1. Slumdog Millionaire — Originally acquired by Warner Independent Films, Slumdog was nearly released straight to DVD after Warner Independent shut down. However, Fox Searchlight stepped in and absorbed half the distribution costs. Good thing, too: Slumdog won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2008 Oscars, and made $377 million worldwide.

2. Taken — There wasn’t a serious threat that Taken would go straight-to-DVD, but when Liam Neeson signed on to the film, he wasn’t the resurrected box-office star that Taken has made him, and when he read the script, he thought, “It was a very simple story of a guy trying to look after his child, but I did think it was going straight to video.” Neeson was wrong: It made $226 million worldwide and spawned a sequel that would make nearly $400 million worldwide.

3. Donnie Darko — Not exactly a huge box office hit, Donnie Darko did nevertheless make $7.5 million on a $4.5 million budget, although most of that came from worldwide box-office, since the movie wasn’t released internationally until a year later (it was released in the U.S. a month after 9/11). Drew Barrymore’s company stepped in a released it to save it from a direct-to-DVD fate, although ironically, the film quickly made $10 million in DVD sales once it was released, and is a much bigger hit on DVD than it ever was in theaters.

4. Fast and Furious — After the lackluster $62 million performance of the third Fast and Furious installment, Tokyo Drift, the studio planned to turn the franchise into a direct-to-DVD one (similar to the American Pie, Bring It On, and National Lampoon’s straight-to-DVD series. However, after convincing Vin Diesel to return to the franchise, they changed their mind, getting a huge bounce with Fast and Furious ($155 million domestically) and two giant hits in the two subsequent sequels.

5. Toy Story 2 — Originally envisioned as a direct-to-video sequel to Toy Story and in fact worked on in a separate facility from the main Pixar offices (where everyone was working on A Bug’s Life), Disney/Pixar quickly changed their mind and released it theatrically after early reels proved promising. John Lasseter actually redeveloped the entire plot over a weekend and upgraded the movie for theatrical release. It made $485 million worldwide.

6. Crazy Heart — Cliche in its storyline, Fox Searchlight nevertheless pulled it from its originally slated direct-to-DVD release and put it into theaters because it had a solid soundtrack, and because of Jeff Bridges stellar performance. The film would go on to make $47 million (on a $7 million budget) and fetch Jeff Bridges as Oscar for Best Actor.

7. The Tigger Movie — Originally slated for a direct-to-DVD release, Disney CEO Michael Eisner changed his mind and released it theatrically after hearing the Sherman Brothers score. The film would make $96 million (on a $30 million budget). It is also the most successful theatrical releases of the Winnie the Pooh franchise.

8. Puss in Boots — Originally put into production after Shrek 2 as a direct-to-DVD spin-off Puss in Boots: The Story of an Ogre Killer to be released in 2008, DreamWorks changed their plans when subsequent films made Puss in Boots an even more popular character. It was reconfigured, released in 2011, and made $554 million worldwide.

9. Saw — Lionsgate had originally planned to release the first Saw film straight-to-DVD, but after it played well with Sundance audiences, the studio decided to take a chance on it and release it at Halloween. Seven movie later, and the franchise has made $873 million worldwide.

10. Planes — Originally planned as a direct-to-DVD spin-off of Cars set to be released later this year, Disney was impressed enough with the animation to release it theatrically during the summer. The gamble paid off: It opened with $21 million.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.