Every year we see some great movies debut in theaters, but few ever have the opportunity to become genuinely legendary. The Shawshank Redemption is one of those lucky few. That said, despite the legacy of Frank Darabont's iconic film, Shawshank was not a success at the box office by any metric. According to Morgan Freeman, part of the reason the film tanked was that the title made it impossible to properly market. Freeman explained:
Tanked at the box office. And the reason for that, of course, is that... the only real marketing movies get, I think, is word of mouth. You can promote it all you want. But if the first few audiences come back and can't say, 'I really saw this great film,' then you're not going to go very far. So people went to see The Shawshank Redemption, and they came back and said, 'Oh, man. I saw this really terrific movie. It's called, um... uh, Shank sham? Shim shock.' One lady saw me in the elevator and she went, 'Oh, I saw you in The Hudsucker Production.' So if you can't get word across, then it just doesn't do well.
Morgan Freeman's recent comments regarding the financial performance of The Shawshank Redemption on The Graham Norton Show (alongside Going In Style co-star Michael Caine) reveal a harsh truth about filmmaking: it is not always a meritocracy. You may have a fantastic movie that's packed to the brim with outstanding talent, but if the title does not pop, then nobody will go to see it. Word of mouth hype was even greater in 1994 (before the internet became such a vital marketing tool), and a six syllable title to a film is not exactly tailor-made to go viral. As Caine pointed out later in their interview, that is why Alfie was so successful back in 1966. Its title was short, sweet and to the point.
Of course, that is merely one hypothesis for why The Shawshank Redemption did not perform well at the box office. Frank Darabont was asked a very similar question last year, and he responded with the notion that -- regardless of the amount of talent associated with the project -- people did not want to see a slow-paced prison movie in 1994. The film was not sold as an action movie or an intense thriller, and that ultimately proved to cast a smaller net than your average blockbuster. There seems to be merit to this argument as well, as The Shawshank Redemption (despite its optimistic tone and message) seems like a very depressing prison movie at first glance.
Regardless of its initial financial shortcomings, The Shawshank Redemption has evolved into a film that needs no introduction. As for Morgan Freeman? You can catch him and Michael Caine together with Alan Arkin in Going In Style, which is now in theaters.