Hollywood accounting being what it is, there are many ways to calculate a box-office bomb. A movie can gross hundreds of millions of dollars while still losing money; just ask Cleopatra, which was so expensive to produce that it lost money despite being the highest-grossing film of 1963. And because studios are quick to tout successes but loath to share details of their failures, precise figures can be hard to come by. Even so, some movies fail so spectacularly that it’s impossible to hide. Here are five of the biggest box-office bombs, some of whose stories didn’t truly begin until after they left theaters.
Cutthroat Island (1995)
Lots of movies lose money, but not many destroy an entire genre for nearly a decade. Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island — which holds the Guinness World Record for largest box-office loss, though their numbers are only current as of 2012 — did just that to pirate movies in 1995. Starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine, the film's protracted production included delays, recasts, and the replacement of a cinematographer who fell off a crane and broke his leg; it cost a total of either $98 million or $115 million to make, depending on whose accounting you believe, and grossed just $10 million. (It also got horrible reviews, as you might have guessed.)
With losses of $147 million when adjusted for inflation, the aftermath was disastrous. Carolco Pictures, the production company behind Cutthroat Island, never made another film again. As for pirates, it wasn’t until Johnny Depp put on eyeliner for a certain adaptation of a theme-park ride that the swashbuckling genre was revived.
Mortal Engines (2018)
Remember Mortal Engines, that strange post-apocalyptic movie in which entire cities battle each other on massive wheels? Neither do most other folks, which is exactly the problem. Written by the same trio responsible for Lord of the Rings (including director Peter Jackson), this adaptation of the novel of the same name bears a unique premise that simply didn't connect with audiences — and, when a movie costs as much as $150 million to make, that’s an expensive problem indeed.
Mortal Engines grossed $83.7 million, meaning it lost an estimated $174 million. (When calculating box-office returns, a movie’s marketing costs are taken into account alongside the production budget; because these numbers are more closely guarded, coming up with exact numbers can be especially difficult.) That was more than enough to make it the costliest box-office failure of 2018, and one of the biggest ever.
Given the talent involved, Ishtar should have been a sure thing. Starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman at the height of their fame, the comedy about two hapless musicians who find themselves in the middle of a Cold War standoff after traveling to Morocco was directed by Elaine May (who had previously helmed The Heartbreak Kid in addition to co-writing Reds and Tootsie). In a recurring theme for box-office disappointments, however, the movie was troubled long before anyone actually saw it.
Shot in Morocco when political tensions in the region were reaching a breaking point, the production became infamous for the problems that plagued it. One of the more entertaining flubs was the animal trainer's unsuccessful attempts to find and purchase a blue-eyed camel, while May's dissatisfaction with all the sand dune shooting locations and the numerous on-set feuds were covered regularly by Hollywood trade publications.
Ishtar went far over budget, and news reports of its troubled development process preceded its theatrical release by many months. It made just $14.4 million against a budget of $51 million, becoming synonymous with the very term box-office flop. It also quickly earned a reputation as one of the worst films ever made; May once went so far as to say, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.”
For all that, it has since become a cult classic. Many consider Ishtar misunderstood or under-appreciated, including directors Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
Johnny Depp may have saved the pirate genre, but he didn’t do much for Westerns. Case in point: 2013's adaptation of The Lone Ranger, which grossed $260.5 million worldwide. That would qualify as a massive success for many films, but not one that cost between $225–250 million to produce before promotional costs are taken into account. The film was based on the 1930s radio and 1950s TV series of the same name, and it reunited Depp with Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski. Armie Hammer nabbed the title role.
Depp's casting as Tonto, a member of the Comanche nation, was problematic from the beginning. Though long considered one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood at the time, the fact that he was playing a Native American elicited controversy. This was nothing new in the film industry — John Wayne once played Genghis Khan, for example — but concerns over “whitewashing” have since become more pronounced among audiences and critics, with films like Aloha, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Ghost in the Shell also being criticized for engaging in the practice. The biggest problem for The Lone Ranger, however, was that audiences simply didn’t respond to it. The film’s total losses are calculated between $160–190 million.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
From the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, the American film industry was in the grips of a movement known as New Hollywood. Led in its early years by such exemplars as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Midnight Cowboy, this era saw studios take a step back and grant directors an unprecedented level of control over their creative vision. For a time, this was as financially successful as it was artistically fruitful — movies like Easy Rider, The Godfather, and countless others were enormously popular with audiences and critics alike, not to mention the Academy. The longer this went on, the more freedom filmmakers had.
Michael Cimino was one such filmmaker, and he reached the apex of his career with 1978’s The Deer Hunter. Starring Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and Christopher Walken, the Vietnam War drama won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in addition to grossing $49 million against a $15 million budget; it’s understandable, then, that Cimino grew even more ambitious with his next project.
Too ambitious, some might say. The epic Western was initially given a budget of $11.6 million, a number that ballooned to $44 million due to a tortured production process: Cimino shot more than 1.3 million feet of film, reshot many scenes, and clashed with studio executives. Heaven’s Gate premiered with a running time of 219 minutes and was almost immediately considered one of the worst, most disastrous films ever made; it grossed just $3.5 million dollars, losing the equivalent of $144 million when adjusted for inflation.
This led to the demise of both United Artists and (alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s One From the Heart) the director-driven New Hollywood era itself, though the story of Heaven’s Gate doesn’t end there. There are several versions of the film, ranging from runtimes of 149 minutes all the way to 325, and the 2012 director's cut is considered by many to be a genuine masterpiece. Heaven's Gate has been so reassessed, in fact, that it placed 98th on the BBC's list of the 100 best American films ever made. Money isn’t everything, as they say.
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