Theories as to why the movie bombed vary. Freeman believed it was because of the title.
“What sells anything is word of mouth. Now, your friends say, ‘Ah, man, I saw this movie,
The . . . what was it? Shank, Sham, Shim? Something like that. Anyways, terrific.’ Well, that doesn’t sell you,” he told Vanity Fair.
Darabont disagrees. In an interview with Yahoo News, he noted that “‘Forrest Gump’ is a worse title, except it was a very successful movie, because everyone went to see it, so nobody questions that title.” Darabont believes that “Shawshank” couldn’t lure viewers because people thought it was going to be a prison movie, and they would think, “this is going to bum me out.”
Which also brings up the issue of competition. “Forrest Gump” was the highest-grossing film of 1994 and held a spot in the box office’s top 10 for 19 weeks straight. “Pulp Fiction” also took a sizable share of the box office when it released in mid-October.
And then there’s the movie’s disjointed trailer, which blends uplifting orchestral music with prison brutality.