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Ten Memorable Box-Office Bombs

Ten Memorable Box-Office Bombs

To have one giant money losing tentpole is unfortunate. To have two starts to look careless, and that’s what’s happened to Taylor Kitsch. The actor, who broke out on TV’s “Friday Night Lights,” was seen as Hollywood’s next great hope, picked out to star in two great big blockbusters with a combined cost of half-a-billion dollars. But when “John Carter” arrived in March, the film wildly underperformed, with Disney taking a hit of at least $100 million on the project. And after this weekend, it looks that his other film, “Battleship,” is going to lose similar amounts.

The film, Universal and Hasbro‘s adaptation of the board game and directed by “Hancock” helmer Peter Berg, had taken the unusual step of opening everywhere else in the world six weeks ahead of the U.S., in the hope of bagging lucrative foreign coin and building buzz for the U.S. release. But while the film did OK abroad, it’s only $15 million ahead of “John Carter,” and opened with a mere $25 million on its opening weekend in North America, $5 million less than the Disney picture. While “Battleship” likely cost a little less than Disney’s hugely expensive sci-fi film, the company will still likely write off close to nine figures on the project. And, while we never root too hard for a film to fail, it’s hard not to feel a little gratified when audiences reject a film as thoroughly rotten as “Battleship.” 

Of course, the pair are far from the first films to end up in the red: there’s a long, glorious tradition of flops that have lost eye-boggling amounts of money. In honor of the miserable failure of “Battleship” (and the fact that we got through this whole pre-amble without a single nautical pun), we’ve picked out ten of the most memorable flops in Hollywood history. They’re not all terrible films, and they’re not necessarily the ten biggest money losers, but they’re some of the most interesting, and for the most part still proved to be more expensive than setting fire to a bank. Take a look below. 

“Cutthroat Island” (1995)
What It Cost:
$115 million
What It Made: $18 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $148 million
Why It Flopped: Few films can claim to have entirely bankrupted the studio that produced them, but then few films can claim to be the Guinness Record Holder for the biggest flop of all time, and to have lost more money than any film in history, taking back only $18 million on a $115 million budget, equivalent to $147 million when adjusted for inflation. Over a decade before Disney brought back the swashbuckler with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” Carolco Pictures, who’d become a major force in independent film thanks to the success with films like the “Rambo” series and “Terminator 2,” decided they’d bring back the pirate genre, with a script (eventually credited to six different writers, including Robert King (“The Good Wife“) and Marc Norman (“Shakespeare in Love“)) entitled “Cutthroat Island,” and attached Michael Douglas to play the lead role. For the director, they picked out Finnish helmer Renny Harlin, who’d just had a blockbuster hit for the studio with Sylvester Stallone vehicle “Cliffhanger.” Harlin had recently married actress Geena Davis, and persuaded the studio to let him cast his wife as the love interest in the project, and given that she’d starred in hits like “Thelma & Louise” and “A League of Their Own” in recent memory, it seemed like a fair move. But Harlin reworked the script to make Davis’ character a co-lead, and Douglas, who was promised $15 million to make the film, bailed.  Virtually every actor in town was offered the gig, including the unlikely likes of Charlie Sheen and Tim Robbins, and it got far down enough the list that it was Matthew Modine, who wasn’t that much bigger a star then than he is now, that got the gig (Frank Langella would play the bad guy). All of this because Carolco head Mario Kassar had begun construction on sets after the first draft of the script was handed in: the boulder had already started rolling downhill, and there was no way of stopping it. Carolco were already said to be in financial troubles, and even Harlin claims he knew it was a bad idea, saying in an interview last year “At that point I was left there with my then-wife, Geena Davis and myself, and a company that was already belly-up. We begged to be let go. We begged that we didn’t have to make this movie. And I don’t think I’ve ever said this in any other interview. We begged that we not be put in this position.” Carolco couldn’t really afford to make the movie, but they certainly couldn’t afford to market it, and combined with rightfully eviscerating reviews, the film was an absolute trainwreck when it opened on December 22nd, 1995: it took only $2 million, opening in eleventh place, behind “Dracula: Dead and Loving It,” and only just above what “The American President” (starring Douglas) made in its seventh week. The fim would eventually crawl to $10 million domestically, and another $8 million abroad, but that still left a deficit of cool hundred mil. Given that it came hot on the heels of another disaster, “Showgirls,” it was the final straw for Carolco, and they declared bankruptcy soon after.

Mars Needs Moms” (2011)
What It Cost: $150 Million
What It Made: $29 Million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $121 Million
Why It Flopped: Disney might have had a Martian-themed film money loser earlier this year with “John Carter,” but that film (which has at least taken $272 million worldwide) was a positive triumph compared to the one they had last year. After the success of “The Polar Express” over at Warner Bros, Disney became the home for Robert Zemeckis and his Imagemovers Digital banner, which was dedicated to the 3D performance capture animation that Zemeckis was convinced was the future of filmmaking. But 2009’s expensive “A Christmas Carol” was a disappointment, and it was announced that the company would be wound down only a few months later, in March 2010. As it turns out, however, it wasn’t the Jim Carrey vehicle that caused it solo: new studio boss Rich Ross had screened the company’s next film, “Mars Needs Moms,” directed by Simon Wells, and had clearly decided that he no longer wanted to be in the mo-cap business. Clearly there was little confidence in the film, based on Berkeley Breathed‘s book and following a pair of kids who set out to rescue their mother from aliens, but even Disney weren’t expecting it to do as badly as it did: the film, which the studio admitted cost $150 million (which likely means it cost significantly more) even without marketing, made only $6.9 million in its opening weekend. Things didn’t pick up, either; the picture topped out at 21 million in the U.S, and only managed 39 million worldwide. Even given that the studio had cut back on marketing, that’s still probably a loss of at least $150 million. So, what happened? Some put it down to 3D fatigue, but it’s more likely that the never-hugely-popular motion-capture technology looked especially creepy here, and the title and premise were both potentially terrifying for kids, and supposedly off-putting to boys (leading to Disney idiotically concluding that it was the ‘Mars’ putting off their audience, rather than ‘Moms,’ and taking the ‘Of Mars’ off “John Carter”). A cast led by the not-exactly-megastar likes of Joan Cusack and Dan Fogler, and tough competition from “Rango” and “Hop” around the same time likely didn’t help. In the end, it sealed the coffin for ImageMovers (Disney cancelled Zemeckis’ “Yellow Submarine” soon after, and even the director seems to have given up on his baby as a result: his next film, November’s “Flight,” is in good old live-action.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities” (1990)
What It Cost: $47 million
What It Made: $15 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $55 million
Why It Flopped: Putting together a big-budget adaptation of an era-defining novel by one of America’s best-known writers, with an A-list director and an all-star cast, would seem on paper to be a recipe for box-office returns and awards, but Brian DePalma‘s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” an adaptation of Tom Wolfe‘s novel (originally serialized in Rolling Stone) received neither of those things. It’s not the biggest money-loser of all time — it cost $47 million, and took back around $15 million, which, adjusted for inflation, works out as a loss of about $55 million. But it has become enshrined in history thanks to one of the greatest movie books ever: Julie Salmanon‘s “The Devil’s Candy.” Wall Street Journal writer Salamon had been given unprecedented access to every area of production, and documented how the process went wrong from the start, causing the poisonous reviews that sunk the film. Unusually, DePalma takes the blame himself, rather than putting it to studio interference; he’s honest about his attempts to soften the material to let it appeal to a wider audience, leading to a finished product that doesn’t really work (although he does defend elements of the film — and indeed, there are terrific scenes and shots in there). But ultimately, miscasting was the biggest issue. After Jack Nicholson and John Cleese turned down the role of journalist Bruce Fallow, Bruce Willis got the past, performed the whole film on auto-pilot, and clashed frequently with DePalma and the crew. Meanwhile, DePalma wanted his favorite John Lithgow to play banker Sherman McCoy, but ended up going with the bigger name, Tom Hanks, who feels hopelessly adrift. And Morgan Freeman was cast as Judge White as an attempt to stave off criticism about racial stereotyping, but made the character fatally too sympathetic and even-handed, in a way that original choices Walter Matthau or Alan Arkin may not have. DePalma clashed with his actors, and set up elaborate, expensive shots (a 10-second clip of Melanie Griffith arriving at an airport cost at least $80000), sending the film wildly over budget, and when the reviews turned out to be hostile, the film became a serious flop. DePalma says afterwards :”The initial concept of it was incorrect. If you’re going to do ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ you would have to make it a lot darker and more cynical, but because it was such an expensive movie we tried to humanize the Sherman McCoy character – a very unlikeable character, much like the character in ‘The Magnificent Ambersons.’ We could have done that if we’d been making a low-budget movie, but this was a studio movie with Tom Hanks in it. We made a couple of choices that in retrospect were wrong.” And it’s hard to disagree…

Raise The Titanic” (1980)
What It Cost: $40 million
What It Made: $7 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $93 million
Why It Flopped: It’s safe to say that we’re unlikely to see any films starring Clive Cussler‘s Indiana Jones-style adventurer hero Dirk Pitt on the screen any time soon. In 2005, “Sahara,” which starred Matthew McConaughey as the character, had gone wildly over-budget in the hands of first-time director, and ended up losing $120 million ($140 million when adjusted). And yet, remarkably, a film starring the same central character had become a mega-flop 25 years earlier: 1980’s “Raise The Titanic!” had ended up costing $40 million, and took back only $7 million — adjusted for inflation, that adds up to $93 million.  The book was Cussler’s first best-seller, involving a race between teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R to retrieve a rare mineral crucial to a new defense program from the sunken wreck of the Titanic — with an audacious plan to bring it to the surface, rather than dive down. It was an inherently silly idea, but British TV legend Lew Grade (“The Muppets“) optioned the novel, and hired veteran Stanley Kramer to direct the film, although he quit after a couple of weeks, and was replaced by Jerry Jameson (“Airport ’77”). It was planned as an all-star affair in the mold of the 70s disaster movies, but much of the budget went on converting a Greek cruise liner to look like the famed ship of the title, so while the film managed to get the services of Alec Guinness and Jason Robards, the project was led by the less than A-list Richard Jordan (“Logan’s Run“) as Pitt, with the then-unknown Anne Archer in support, so really no one involved were major box-office draws. As was the case of most films set at sea, the production was troubled: it shot in 1978, but only made it to theaters in August 1980, where it proceeded to be eviscerated by the critics and flop at the box office. Grade would later comment wryly “Raise the Titanic? It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,” and combined with the disaster “Saturn 3” convinced Grade to leave the movies (although his company backed “Sophie’s Choice” and “On Golden Pond,” which were released afterwards).

Doctor Dolittle” (1967)
What It Cost: $18 million
What It Made: $9 million
What It Lost: $62 million
Why It Flopped: In the 1960s, the big-budget musical was sort of the equivalent of the superhero film today: Giant tentpoles — often released as epic roadshows — which made enormous amounts of money, films like “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Sound of Music,” the latter of which was, at the time, the biggest-grossing film of all time. But as the zeitgeist started to move away from Rodgers & Hart towards Woodstock, the genre started to bomb, and bomb heavily, bringing the studios to their knees, and no film indicated that better than “Doctor Dolittle,” a film that was entirely mismanaged from the start. 20th Century Fox had acquired the rights to Hugh Lofting‘s books, about a wacky doctor who can converse with animals, with the intention of making it into another smash hit musical, and hired “My Fair Lady“‘s Alan Jay Lerner to write the script & songs. But Lerner was an inveterate procrastinator, and never delivered, which lost the project their attached star, Rex Harrison. Christopher Plummer was hired, with Leslie Bricusse writing the film, but Harrison decided he wanted in after all, meaning the producers had to pay Plummer off with his full salary. However, it may have been a blessing: as detailed in Mark Harris’ exceptional book “Scenes From A Revolution,” the production was a disaster on almost every level. Harrison was consistently drunk & belligerent, the production were sued for plagiarism after Bricusse accidentally borrowed ideas from an unused draft by writer Helen Winston and locals in Saint Lucia formed a mob to attempt to destroy the model of a large snail, which they took as an insult. It was the decision to film in picturesque Castle Combe in Wiltshire, England that proved the biggest mistake; the weather was disastrous, residents were angered to the point of blowing up the set with explosives, and the animals who’d been trained for months were held in quarantine for six months by the British government. Fox eventually decided to rebuild the sets back in California, by which point the budget had tripled, to a then-enormous $18 million, equivalent to $120 million today. Previews proved disastrous, and the film opened against “The Jungle Book,” which crushed it at the box-office; “Doctor Dolittle” only recoupled $9 million, half of its production budget. One small victory was won, however: producer Arthur P. Jacobs mounted an expensive campaign to get the film Oscar nominations, and it eventually got seven, including Best Picture, up against “In The Heat of The Night,” “The Graduate” and “Bonnie & Clyde.”

The Alamo” (2004)
What It Cost: $145 million
What It Made: $25 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $146 million
Why It Flopped: With the success of “The Avengers,” Disney have now had five billion-dollars hits, thanks to Joss Whedon‘s film, “Toy Story 3,” “Alice in Wonderland” and two “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. No other studio has more than two. Which is fortunate, as the studio seem to have had more high-profile bombs than any other as well. Before “John Carter” there was “Mars Needs Moms,” and before that was 2004’s “The Alamo,” which still ranks as the second-biggest money-loser of all time, behind only “Cutthroat Island.” Inspired by the then-trend for historical epics, the studio intended to team up with Ron Howard and his Imagine entertainment banner, with Russell Crowe as Sam Houston and Ethan Hawke as William Barret Travis, but Howard wanted a $200 million budget, and Disney balked, replacing him with John Lee Hancock (who would go on redeem himself, commercially at least, with “The Blind Side“), with Dennis Quaid and Patrick Wilson stepping in for Crowe and Hawke (Billy Bob Thornton remained on board as Davy Crockett throughout). The budget was halved, but it was still a hefty $100 million for a film that now was star-free. Originally pegged for a Christmas release in 2003, the film was delayed, seemingly because it wasn’t ready, as late as two months before release, with half-an-hour trimmed from the original two-hours-and-45-minute running time. Not that it helped: however, when it opened, on April 9th 2004, it landed in fourth place, behind the fifth week of “The Passion of the Christ,” the second week of “Hellboy” and “Johnson Family Vacation,” which was on half the number of screens. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t do any better, taking in only $22 million in total in the U.S, and a miserable $25 million worldwide (unsurprising, given that the subject matter was never going to have huge international appeal). Given that the studio spent at least $40 million on the marketing, few films will ever manage to lose quite such an impressive cash sum. All is forgiven, though: Hancock is gearing up to direct “Saving Mr. Banks” for Disney right now.

Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
What It Cost: $44 million
What It Made: $3 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $114 million
Why It Flopped: How do you go from the hottest director in Hollywood to one of film’s great cautionary tales in one simple step? Well, you do what Michael Cimino did, and make “Heaven’s Gate,” a film that still numbers among the all-time money losers, that brought down an entire studio and genre, and arguably ended the 70s era of auteur-driven Hollywood. Cimino had found success with screenwriting, and with his directorial debut “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” in 1974, but it was 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” that really put him on the map: his Vietnam tale might have gone over-budget, but it was a box-office hit and won Cimino Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (as well as another three for the film. As such, the filmmaker had the cache to get anything he wanted made, and contacted United Artists, who’d bought an epic Western script of his back in 1971. The film, originally titled “The Johnson County War,” but soon renamed “Heaven’s Gate,” had been languishing in a drawer ever since, but Cimino could now name his terms, and the film was swiftly greenlit, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges and Isabelle Huppert. Things went swiftly downhill from there, however. Cimino was both a perfectionist and power-mad: an entire street was constructed, but the director thought it didn’t look right, and it was torn down and rebuilt to be six feet wider (it was suggested that only one side be moved, but Cimino insisted on both). Furthermore, he’d seemingly set out to beat Francis Ford Coppola‘s record on “Apocalypse Now,” and eventually shot as much as 1.3 million feet, equivalent to 220 hours of footage. United Artists were obviously distraught, and tried to replace the helmer with Norman Jewison (who turned them down), but there was nothing they could do about the spiraling costs: Cimino’s contract meant that he essentially had carte blanche to spend as much as he liked, so long as he hit the December 1979 release date. Of course, he didn’t, but by that point it was too late. Cimino eventually showed United Artists a five-and-a-half-hour work print to his bosses in June 1980, telling them that he was willing to cut out another 15 minutes. The studio put their foot down, and eventually a 219 minute cut premiere in one theater in Los Angeles for a week in November 1980. It was critically savaged, and United Artists yanked the film from theaters, eventually coming back with a 149 minute cut, but the reviews didn’t improve, and the film went on to gross a mere $3 million worldwide, on a $44 million budget. The sheer financial loss (the equivalent to $114 million today) and the bad publicity caused owners TransAmerica to sell United Artists to MGM, ending the company founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford in 1919 as an independent studio. Still, unlike most of the films on this list, its critical reputation has been restored among cinephiles, even if “Heaven’s Gate” is still a euphemism for a financial disaster.

Ishtar” (1987)
What It Cost: $55 million
What It Made: $14 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $83 million
Why It Flopped: If you’re a child of the ‘70s who grew up in the eighties like this writer, “Ishtar” is notable for the first box-office bomb that this generation became aware of as a young pre-adolescent (we were slightly too young for “Heaven’s Gate“). An needlessly expensive comedy shot on location in places like far-off Morocco about two inept lounge singing musicians who travel to Northern Africa looking for work, and stumble into a four-party Cold War standoff, Elaine May‘s “Ishtar” became one of  the most expensively produced comedies of its time ($50 million) and grossed a pitiful amount ($14 million overall). Additionally, like “Apocalypse Now,” which was in the media for a year as a would-be turkey before it was released, thanks to its public production problems and delays, the picture’s lavish budget, outrageous cost overruns (it originally was budgeted at $27.5 million) and in-fighting (between Warren Beatty and director Elaine May) all became public a year before the film was released  — and many charged producer David Puttnam, who became the studio boss midway through production, of sabotaging the film and leaking the problems to the press to spite the notoriously control-happy Beatty. While mathematically there are far greater box-office flops (things like “Green Lantern” “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” and even “Gigli“), “Ishtar” is still relatively known as one of the biggest turkeys in box-office simply because of all the unfortunate media attention. It didn’t help that it was the first pairing between box-office A-listers Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty and not only were audiences indifferent, but critics roasted the film (Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful”). Shot by the great Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now“) and an expensive Italian cinematography crew, including songs written by then, in-demand musical star Paul Williams, something like $12 million was spent against the film before even a frame of celluloid was shot, making the film the poster boy for fiscal irresponsibility. Curiosity seekers lead many (like us) to seek out this comedy on VHS the moment it became available and discover a peculiar, oddball comedy rife with dry deadpan humor that many critics didn’t find remotely funny. “Ishtar” has developed a cult following and rightly so –it’s slow, strangely paced and not as funny as even the average comedy, but damn if it’s doesn’t come with a distinctively peculiar tone that it commits to fully, for better or worse.

Speed Racer” (2008)
What It Cost: $200 million
What It Made: $93 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $114 million
Having produced  a warmly received and surprisingly profitable adaptation of Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta,” (the film grossed just about three times its $54 million budget) the Wachowski siblings turned their eye to an arguably more mainstream property in “Speed Racer.” Based on the manga and then anime series that debuted stateside in the late 60s and became something of a minor cultural staple, the Wachowskis and compatriot Joel Silver must have hoped that the picture would reach a broader, more family-friendly audience than the R-rated “Matrix” trilogy. With a hefty budget of $200 million, Speed and co. clearly needed a strong push to excite filmgoers who didn’t grow up with the cartoon (mainly, the kids whose interest might translate into major vs. minor profits), with Variety reporting on an aggressive marketing campaign that included General Mills, McDonald’s, Target, Mattel, Lego, Topps and even Esurance. Perhaps you may remember Wachowskis unveiling a full-size model of Speed’s iconic Mach 5? Alas, it was not to be – the picture opened against “Iron Man” in its second week and immediately hit a speed bump, grossing only $18.6 million on a whopping 3606 screens. As Marvel’s surprise hit stayed strong, “Racer” eventually came to a stop with a haul of only $94 million, with a net loss of $106 million ($114.5 when adjusted). In part critically savaged, the picture simply didn’t grab hold of the public interest, all trinkets aside. Recently some cult interest has swirled about it (and this writer loved it), but “Speed Racer” ended up as a major disappointment for Warner Bros. That said, the Wachowskis clearly worked their magic in the wake, heading to Germany and co-directing (with “Run Lola Run” helmer Tom Tykwer) a less expensive but considerably more ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s period-hopping “Cloud Atlas”, which Warner Bros. recently bought for a cool $20 million, planning to open it in December of this year. Whether it proves to be a runaway hit or not, the studio stands to lose less since they steered away from initially banking the picture – a lesson learned after “Speed Racer,” perhaps?

The Avengers” (1998)
What It Cost: $100 million
What It Made: $48 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $69 million
Why It Flopped: What’s that you say? “The Avengers” has made a billion dollars, and is now one of the most successful movies of all time? Well, yeah, but an earlier film of the same name, a misguided feature-length adaptation of the 60s British spy series, was a pretty major disaster. Considering the stars attached and the studio behind the project (Warner Bros.), the expectations were definitely aligned for a hit. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery,  all still hot properties in the late 90s, and poised for a June 1998 release, “The Avengers” was what the studio hoped would become the next “Mission: Impossible,” helmed by “Benny & Joon” director Jeremiah Chechik. But by the time it was finished, Warner Bros. chose not to screen the film for critics (fourteen years ago, it was not yet the norm to dump expensive disasters unceremoniously in theaters, so the move actually made news) and bumped its release date up to August, a month that until recent years has been a dumping ground no less toxic than say, February. The version that found its way onto approximately 2,400 screens is…well, butchered for one, seemingly whittled down from a longer cut at the expense of any kind of coherent plotting. Fiennes and Thurman are pretty unimpressive while Connery gnaws on scenery, and who could blame him? It’s an absurd affair that isn’t sure how reverently to treat its material and at the same time indulges in camp that may be self-aware, but isn’t any funnier for it. Its first weekend, “The Avengers” grossed $10.3 million. The second weekend – $3.7 million. The third – $1.4 million. For a film that cost at least $60 million, with probably another $40 million for marketing, that’s pretty disastrous. Chechik ended up in director’s jail, with no credit for another six years, and no one’s tried to make Ralph Fiennes an action hero ever since.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Mark Zhuravsky, RP

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