When the independent film Donnie Darko was released in 2001, it recouped less than an eighth of its $4.5 million budget at the box office.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. The film centres around a jet engine falling off an aircraft, and the picture was released a month-and-a-half after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Yet, when it was released on DVD, it began to develop a cult following despite flopping at the cinema and despite the format still being in the early-adopter stage. To date, the film has recouped all its costs, plus about half as much again.
It should have been the case that Donnie Darko was forgotten about. Just like those comedies that never make it past series 2, or the countless Top-10 singles heard everywhere for six weeks then never played again.
But there are other examples of where entertainment has taken a while to gain traction.
A recent example is the BBC drama series Line of Duty, with the first episodes broadcast in 2012 to a reasonable 3.8 million people, but seven years later, that figure has more than tripled. The audience of Love Island also turned an audience of barely 600,000 into nearly ten times that figure between 2015 and 2019.
Of course there isn’t a formula for this, or the examples quoted above wouldn’t be such rarities, but there is good advice. A phrase often attributed to PT Barnum is, ‘Always leave the crowd wanting more.’ It’s advice that often works.
Indeed, in a case of art imitating life, The Greatest Showman – based upon his life story – never rose higher than fourth place in the chart, but had a cinema run spanning several months.
Just don’t leave the crowd wanting too much without delivering it. Fans of the sci-fi TV show Firefly were left hanging when original run was abruptly cancelled after its debut in 2002. It took until 2005 to complete the narrative.