Box office bombs: 5 more financial disasters from the film world
We round up some of the biggest movie flops to date, some of which did indeed literally destroy the studio that produced them
Valerian isn't the first film to financially cripple a well-known studio, and it probably won't be the last. Some were simply ahead of their time and found themselves re-branded as classics in future years (Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, for example, was a commercial failure on its original theatre release, though it found a large dedicated audience on its DVD release and recouped its costs many times over through sales of the various cuts of the film, so doesn't make it onto our list here).
Some overran, overspent and negated all realistic possibilities of ever recouping their costs. Others, like Valerian simply gave too big a budget to a film with limited appeal, however well-made that film may (John Carter would be another prime example on our list). Some suffered bad marketing. Yet others still are simply bad films. Here are some of the biggest movie flops to date, some of which did indeed literally destroy the studio that produced them.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra’s festive tearjerker starring James Stewart may be seen as a Christmas classic today thanks to repeated holiday TV screenings, but when it was released in 1946, it put producer Liberty Films out of business. A large part of the reason for this can be pinned on the bizarre nature of the film’s release. Christmas 1946 saw a particularly strong line-up of festive fare in cinemas, so
Liberty decided to give it only a limited release in cinemas, then resuscitated it for a general release in the summer of 1947. Unsurprisingly, audiences showed little appetite for a Christmas movie in the middle of summer and the film only took about half of the $6.3m it needed to break even. It was only in the 1980s, when the film entered the public realm and became a festive TV staple, that It’s a Wonderful Life became the classic we know today.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
The granddaddy of cinematic disasters. In 1979, Michael Cimino was the hottest property in Hollywood after his Best Director and Best Film Oscars for The Deer Hunter. Studios were falling over themselves to work with him and Cimino persuaded United Artists to hand him an initial $11.6 million (Dh42.6m) budget to make his epic Western Heaven’s Gate. That budget came with a virtual carte blanche on top ups. Cimino shot a total of 220 hours of footage, eventually submitting a cut that ran to five hours and 25 minutes. The studio refused to release it, so Cimino spent the summer of 1980 re-editing and delivered a cut of three hours and 39 minutes for release in November. By then the
budget had risen to more than $44m and critics hated it. It was pulled from theatres after two weeks having earned only about $1m
Cutthroat Island (1995)
Renny Harlin’s pirate adventure once held the title of biggest box office flop in the Guinness Book of Records, costing about $115m to produce and banking less than a 10th of that when it was released in the United States. Michael Douglas quit his lead role because he was not being given enough screen time and leading lady Geena Davis also tried to walk out at the same time, despite then
being married to the director. Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe and Liam Neeson were among the names attached to being the replacement for Douglas. Matthew Modine landed the role, but Harlin had spent so long searching for his man that many sets and props had been built in his absence. He demanded they were rebuilt. By the time the film was finally released in December 1995, producer Carolco Films had declared bankruptcy.
The Golden Compass (2007)
In 2007, New Line Cinema was riding high on the success of The Lord of the Rings and an all-star adaptation of the first novel in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy seemed to be the logical next step for the kings of the genre. The film was a visual treat, winning an Oscar for its visual effects. They didn’t come cheap, however, and at $180m the film was New Line’s most expensive. It took only $70m at the US box office. The good news for New Line was that its performance globally was “stellar”, according to Variety, adding another $302m to the coffers. But New Line had sold off most of the international rights, so none of that money found its way back. New Line survived the ordeal in name, but was merged into Warner Bros on the back of the losses.
John Carter (2012)
It would take a flop of truly epic proportions to bankrupt a media giant such as Disney. John Carter wasn’t that much of a disaster, but the 2005 film certainly gave Disney’s board a headache. The film actually took a reasonable $284m at the global box office, including setting a new opening day record in Russia. That would have helped, were it not one of the most expensive films ever made with an estimated total budget of
about $350m. Director Andrew Stanton came from Pixar and had never made a live-action film. He ended up reshooting virtually the entire movie not once but twice, and regularly sought guidance from his Pixar colleagues rather than experienced professionals on set. It proved a recipe for disaster and Disney incurred a $200m write-down against the film. Disney survived the ordeal. The previously planned John Carter trilogy did not.
Updated: June 3, 2019 07:36 PM