Here's Why The Holiday Classic Movie 'It's A Wonderful Life' Was Initially A Flop



It's the holiday season, and you know what that means...

That's right––it's time for another viewing of It's a Wonderful Life, the bonafide Christmas classic starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, and Henry Travers.

The story of a warm, loving businessman who finds himself in the throes of a terrible existential crisis, it's a heartwarming tale that mixes drama, romance and fantasy effortlessly.

The film is also one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made: It received five Academy Award nominations the year after its release. It also holds the top spot on the American Film Institute's list of most inspirational films of all time.


But did you know that the film was not always so highly regarded? In fact, the film was a flop in its day––it was a wonder that it received any acclaim at all. At the time of its release, it faced stiff competition financially; its high production costs doomed it. But it also had the misfortune of coming out at the wrong time––as film critic Lee Pfeiffer puts it:

Capra’s film initially failed to connect with audiences that were used to his prewar movies known for their snappy dialogue and light comedic touches. Postwar moviegoers were in the mood for joviality, so despite being a critical success, the film was a box-office disappointment.

But the film found another life on the small screen after dozens of local television stations played it between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. A clerical error in the copyright office of National Telefilm Associates (NTA)––which then held the rights––the movie's copyright wasn't renewed in 1974. The film then entered the public domain; anyone who wanted to play a copy of the film could do so without paying royalties to NTA. Stations ran the film for free (and only paid for the cost of station overhead). As a result, It's a Wonderful Life became a holiday staple during the 1980s.

In the 1990s, a series of court battles with Republic Pictures, NTA's successor, resulted in the studio retaining the rights to the film as it still owned the rights to its source material, a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," and the score; plaintiffs were able to argue successfully that the film is a derivative work of a work still under copyright. NBC exclusively rebroadcasts the film at least twice annually during the holiday season.


H/T: IMDB, The Economist