Everyone loves a disaster, except when you’ve paid fifteen bucks to sit in an uncomfortable room with too much trash on the floor and too many people eating too much popcorn. If you want to know the top ten box office bombs, check out Wikipedia, they even have the contentious box office revenue formula that means a film loses money if it takes in more money than it cost.
Unfortunately for films, the bottom line is the dollar sign. There are few other art forms when the revenue made is such an important sign of success or failure. It is only really films where profits are advertised so freely. Books can be bestsellers and music top of the charts without specific details of profits being advertised.
As a concept, the blockbuster throws millions of dollars at a movie with the expectation that a mere 25% profit will run into hundreds of millions of dollars. When that profit doesn’t appear we have some of the most interesting cultural and creative scenarios around. We have Disney disasters, good ideas poorly delivered, comic book catastrophes, Tarantino pet-projects and supernatural martial art KOs.
47 Ronin (2013)
A big budget supernatural martial arts film set in the time of the samurai starring Keanu Reeves. What is most interesting here is the box office fluctuations of Keanu Reeves. The year before 47 Ronin, Reeves starred in the smaller budget Man of Tai Chi which only took in a fifth of its budget. The next year, the budget of 47 Ronin was ten times Man of Tai Chi. The year after 47 Ronin, Reeves starred in John Wick. Obviously someone learned a lesson and with a budget a 10% the size of 47 Ronin and John Wick made double 47 Ronin.
Treasure Planet (2002)
An aberration in the world of Disney, a film that a high budget ($150 million) and did not even cover the budget. How could Disney lose over 50 million with one animated film? They were aiming for a pre-teen male market with sci-fi pirates. There were no princesses. The setting was not the usual contemporary or vague fairy tale setting. And really pre-teen boys…robots and pirates are a little beneath them.
In terms of blockbusters $67 million is a modest budget. However, when Rodriguez (Planet Terror) and Tarantino (Death Proof) were making B-movies, it was way too much. The films were too mainstream to be indie and too indie to be mainstream and unlike other films that might fall into a cult following, they didn’t. Barely making half of the budget, the two films end up looking like self-indulgent pet projects rather than films that someone might enjoy watching all the way to the end.
The Invasion (2007)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a undisputed B-movie classic of 70s and pulp fiction classic of 50s. Aside from the narratives, a slew of academics have discussed the significance of both the novel and the fiction as a reflection of 50s fear of Communism. Unfortunately, the 80 million that was ultimately thrown at The Invasion along with the talents of the Wachowski brothers and V for Vendetta director James McTeigue was not enough to save the film from box office failure. And I haven’t even mention Nicole..oh shoot.
The Spirit (2008) and Catwoman (2004)
You can’t turn around at the movies without bumping into a comic book box office success, but that wasn’t always the case. The brilliant Will Eisner character directed by Frank Miller barely covered a third of its budget and despite the presence of some great characters and actors, the film was pretty terrible. Catwoman was worse. Not even Halli Berry in leather could save this. I don’t think there were any characters or a script. Although apparently 28 writers will contest to fact they wrote something. Did the actors know there was a script or which one they were supposed to be using? The result? A 100 million film that you can’t even give away on DVD.
The Wolfman (2010)
Ok, so remaking a werewolf B-movie might have been the best idea, but this had Anthony Hopkins, Benicio del Toro, Hugo Weaving and great Victorian atmosphere. Sorry, not good enough if you want a blockbuster that is going to make the $150 million budget count.
Cowboys vs. Aliens (2011)
Despite great in comic book form, this movie did not make it as it tried to make audiences accept the concept of aliens arriving during the wild west. What I find most interesting here is you have Indiana Jones and James Bond directed by Iron Man’s director. How could it not succeed?
What now? Did you even know that James Spader (before he restarted his career with The Secretary) starred in a science fiction film that combined sex, sci-fi and horror (think a soft-porn version of Event Horizon)? Probably not. With cheesy music and the tag line “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the universe” this was a 80s film made in 2000. After a shocking badly release, this imploded and disappeared, very much like a….you get the idea.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel is an undisputed classic that is misrepresented as the story of a child molester. Let’s not get into that now shall we. What we can say is the controversy around the novel and the Stanley Kubrick version meant that this film was never going to make to general release. Despite being an astoundingly good film, this film is probably the biggest loser, not even making 1% of its budget. What is interesting is how they spent 62 million on this film. I mean, 62 million. If you get a chance, watch the film and see if you can see where the money went.
And finally, the box office mega disasters that cannot be avoided:
Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Probably the most surprising big loser because you will have only heard of this movie unless you attended the free Saturday morning kids movie. With a budget of $150 million, this film lost over $100 million.
The 13th Warrior (1999)
Losing just under $100 million dollars, The 13th Warrior comes in a close second. Starring Antonio Banderas when he was a big box office draw and written by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. Made only half a dozen years after after the Jurassic Park film, this film struggled to $50 million at the box office.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)
Eddie Murphy, what happened? This was in Murphy’s transitional stage between being the street wise Beverley Hills cop and the family friendly donkey. Pluto Nash cost 100 million to make and after no one but Murphy’s family went to watch the film (repeatedly), it barely made 7 million.
A big budget ($130 million) about three pilots and a self-aware fighter plane. It probably sounded like a good idea went it was being pitched.
A Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges team-up as supernatural action-comedy. Think a buddy cop Beetlejuice meets Ghostbusters with terrible jokes and no real sense of urgency. I can’t think why it did make any money.
There are others. If I’d subscribed to the Hollywood profit/loss accounting system, I might have also included The Lone Ranger, Cutthroat Island, John Carter and Jack the Giant Slayer.
What is most interesting here is apart from one film, all the films are post-200. What is happening in the movies that such huge movies are being made so badly? I would suggest it is the money culture. We are now measuring more carefully in terms of profit/loss rather than quality and studios are producing the fiscal balancing that looks for high returns requiring high costs, making them all too happy to throw away millions of dollars on movies no one wants to see because most of them break even or in some cases make returns of hundreds of millions. Forget the ‘adjusted for inflation’ nonsense, look at when the highest grossing films have been made. Unsurprisingly you’ll find they were made at the same time as these movie disasters.