How ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Went From a Box-Office Flop to a Christmas Staple

by Josh Lanier

Practically everyone has watched It’s a Wonderful Life. The Jimmy Stewart classic is synonymous with Christmas and is required viewing in most homes. But when the movie came out in 1946, no one saw it. It bombed hard at the box office and nearly bankrupted the production company that bankrolled the Frank Capra film. So how did this forgettable flop turn into a holiday hit?

Based on a Philip Van Doren Stern short story, It’s a Wonderful Life tells the story of George Bailey, a businessman who believes he’s a failure in life and attempts suicide. His guardian angel saves him by showing Bailey what life would be like for his loved ones if he’d never been born. Bailey realizes he’s led a rich life and runs home to be with his family on Christmas.

It’s a classic tale that no one wanted to see when it hit theaters. The production was a nightmare also. Capra and crew blew through the $2 million budget and ran up a tab of nearly $4 million by the end of filming, Mental Floss notes. Liberty Films borrowed heavily to fund the production and needed the film to be a hit. But It’s a Wonderful Life was far from it. The movie pulled in just under $4 million, well below what producers needed to break even. The movie failed to register with critics either.

Liberty Pictures, which Capra founded with several other famous directors at the time, couldn’t handle the loss. They sold the company to Paramount.

Audiences didn’t care about It’s a Wonderful Life, and the producers tried to forget about it. Then everything changed 30 years later.

In 1974, Republic Pictures forgot to refile for copyright protection on the movie. This meant TV stations could broadcast It’s a Wonderful Life for free.

Like George Bailey, It’s a Wonderful Life got a second chance. The movie that no one wanted to watch in theaters was now a hit on television.

Frank Capra couldn’t believe it.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud, … but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Broadcasters would play the movie on multiple networks since it was free to play. It’s a Wonderful Life became synonymous with Christmas through volume and repetition. That lasted for nearly two decades until Republic Pictures eventually sued to regain control of the copyright.

Now, only NBC can broadcast It’s a Wonderful Life every year, but that doesn’t seem to have hurt the film’s staying power. It remains one of the most enduring Christmas classics on television. And 75 years after it debuted in theaters, the themes of hope and family still ring true today.