Movie-making is a risky and expensive business. There’s a lot that goes into movie-making than most people realize. It’s more than just hiring actors, directors and producers. There’s a lot more than that. You have to rent equipment, hire costume designers, location scouts, catering, music, and sound design among other many small details. These smaller details can actually add up to a lot of overhead, sometimes causing a movie to lose money, despite how much it may earn at the box-office. That’s part of what I’m here to discuss. I’m here to discuss some of the biggest box-office flops of all time and I’ll explain why. Just to let you know, I will be talking about big-budget movies with some of the biggest names in the industry. I will prove to you that despite having a massive budget and big names, your movie can still bomb at the box office. Just so you are aware, not all of these movies are necessarily bad, some of them are actually rather good movies that just failed for a number of reasons. In order for a movie to be considered successful, it has to make back more than twice its budget. That being said, these are the biggest box-office disasters. Side-note: currency devalues over time, so one has to adjust for inflation. Also: These are going to be ones that I’ve seen.
Let’s start with something relatively small here: Krull. Krull is a fantasy film that takes place on another planet that’s being conquered by a mysterious being known as The Beast. Initial budget was about $27 million at the time. Kind of mid-range fare if you ask me. However, the domestic gross of the film was approximately $16.5 million dollars. I grew up watching this one, so I have a fondness for the film. It’s not actually a horrible movie. It’s mediocre at best, but was not the worst film that year. So….why did the film bomb? One reason and one reason only: Bad timing. See, the movie was released during the summer, in which the big blockbusters where coming out. So, the film was going to have trouble finding an audience anyway, but there was one movie that the makers of Krull failed to take into account: Star Wars. The third and final entry in the Star Wars trilogy ended up being one of the highest-grossing movies of 1983. THAT was the movie that people wanted to see, not Krull.
Cowboys & Aliens
This one kinda hurts. I really enjoyed the hell out of this one. It combined two of my favorite genres: Westerns and Science Fiction. It was an interesting combination, that while it had its issues, was a thoroughly entertaining romp. Alas, the critics and the audiences didn’t really see it that way. Despite having an ensemble cast that included Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Clancy Brown, the film brought in a paltry $175 million on a $163 million budget. Despite strong acting from nearly everybody on the cast, the film failed to resonate with audiences and critics world-wide. Personally, I loved the film, but a lot of people didn’t and it’s a shame.
The Chronicles of Riddick
Oh, here’s another painful entry. This is another of my favorites. I loved David Twohy’s Pitch Black which featured the series main character, Riddick, played by Vin Diesel. While the first movie was a low-budget film that was set on planet of perpetual darkness surrounded by flesh-eating beasts, the follow-up film expanded Riddick’s universe exponentially. We traveled to more worlds and faced a massive enemy force known as the Necromongers. With a budget between $105-210 million, Chronicles of Riddick brought in a grand total of nearly $116 million. What went wrong? For one, the tone of the film was completely different from that of Pitch Black. Instead of a close-quarters claustrophobic struggle for survival, Chronicles opts for a more space operatic along the lines of Star Wars. It’s not a bad idea, and the execution was mostly okay. The problem is that David Twohy didn’t have the experience necessary to craft a story on that level. I loved what I saw, but I could definitely see why people didn’t like it.
How many movies do you know of that have actually sent the production company into bankruptcy? There aren’t a whole lot. There was another movie that was notorious for shuttering United Artists: Heaven’s Gate but I haven’t seen that one, so I’ll go with the next most notorious film: Cutthroat Island. Renny Harlin’s pirate epic was released in 1995 to mostly negative reviews. The film was made on a $98 million dollar budget and failed to recoup even $20 million. While it was known that the production company, Carolco Pictures was in a state of ruin already, Cutthroat Island was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Carolco filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was shuttered shortly thereafter. What contributed to the film’s failing was a number of reasons. One: Geena Davis was NOT a convincing pirate captain and the chemistry between her and Matthew Modine was completely absent. Two: There were a lot of problems during production, before the movie even started shooting. The situation was really, really bad. Renny Harlin did the best he could with what he had, but it wasn’t enough to save the movie or the movie studio. Personally, I had fun with it, despite its problems.
Is there anybody out there who thinks that the Wachowskis are anything more than a one-trick pony? They really aren’t. While I don’t necessarily think they’re bad directors, they are terrible writers. The only thing significantly good that they have ever done was The Matrix, and only the first one, really. Why? Each of their movies has a kind of Wizard of OZ kind of vibe to it that gets old. Jupiter Ascending had the potential to be something truly great. It had a great visual style with some really amazing set-pieces and action sequences. There’s a problem: The movie is boring. There’s too much space between action scenes. There’s WAY too much exposition for a movie that’s barely over 2 hours long. The audiences and critics responded accordingly. The film’s production was an estimated $175 million, and only brought in $184 million. It has some good things going for it, one of them with Sean Bean not dying at all, which must be a first in his career. Visually, this is a stunning film, with some really outstanding visual effects and CGI shots. But THAT’S where the budget seems to go, instead of character and story development.
Now we’re really getting into the big bruisers here. John Carter was released in 2012 to mixed reviews across the board. I didn’t really think too much of the film after I saw it, but a number of people seemed to like it. My dad loves the hell out of it, so there must be some value to it. However, this film demonstrates how bad of an idea it is to push a movie based on a book that not many people have read or heard about. The movie was based on A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burrows. There’s no getting around it: John Carter failed and failed HARD. With a massively bloated budget of $263.7 million, the film needed to break the $600 million mark just to break even, and it only got back $284 million. Let’s forget the fact that the film is based on a book that few people have read nowadays. The massive budget was due to the fact that the director had to do massive re-shoots. In fact, Andrew Stanton nearly re-shot the entire film, which is unheard of. Re-shoots are just a part of the film-making process, but not to this degree. When word got out that these re-shoots were happening, people stayed away fearing that the movie had some massive problems. It did. The film lost nearly $125 million. It also caused the then-CEO of Disney, Rich Ross, to resign.
The Lone Ranger
One major flop wasn’t apparently enough for Disney, so they ended up with two in a row. First was John Carter, and now, The Lone Ranger. The movie was based on the television series from the late 40s and 50s. It had Johnny Depp in the film and Gore Verbinski directing, you know, the guy who directed Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. The film was released to mostly negative reviews. I’m not entirely sure what movie THEY saw, but the movie that I saw was a very entertaining Western that had the right amount of camp, humor and excitement thrown into the mix. I thought it was fun. I think people targeted the movie because it ended up getting shut down at one point, because it went over-budget. Speaking of which, the budget fell between $225 and $250 million. But you could tell where the money went, to try and make the action as believable as possible without using CGI. In that regard, it succeeded. The final train sequence was brilliant. Unfortunately, audiences and critics were less than forgiving. The film’s final take-home was about $260.5 million, give or take.
Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Not even Ed Wood set out to make a bad movie, he just wasn’t any good at it. But sometimes the film-makers end up biting off more than they can chew, and the final result is a movie that tanks both critically and financially. As I said before, not all of these movies are bad, it’s just that the circumstances are really unfortunate. Now, Disney being as big as they are could weather two massive flops, whereas most film studios would probably collapse. Thankfully, Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and Marvel Studios has put them in a position where they can really do some amazing things. Not a lot of movie studios have that kind of leeway.