More often than not, we’re rooting for films to be artistically sound because, hey, we’d rather spend our time wisely. And if they’re artistically sound, they’re usually commercially successful as well, right? Wait, that doesn’t hold water at all. The truth is, we started writing an overall box-office recap piece, but it ballooned so big, it only made sense to chop it up thematically. Which leads us to the biggest box-office flops of 2011.
Better luck next time? And yes, while it’s easy to judge from afar, ultimately, it’s really hard to predict what audiences are going to connect with and what they’re going to outwardly reject (though, this writer had been saying that "Cowboys and Aliens" fit together like nuts and gum for over a year now). Either way, these are the big turkeys of 2011.
There are the big, loud, splashy flops that get a lot of media attention, and then there are those that fly under the radar, but whose failure has wide ranging repercussions other than the box office report on Monday morning. One of the quieter, but more significant flops of the year was the 3D mo-capped "Mars Needs Moms.” Budgeted in the neighborhood of a ridiculous $150 million, and grossing a pitiful $39 million worldwide after a few weeks in release, it effectively killed Robert Zemeckis' ImageMovers production shingle at Disney and therefore shuttered a few of his projects there, like his remake of The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine." (Though the studio claimed it had nothing to do with "Mars Needs Moms" or his dead-eye image capture technique -- yeah, right). While Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s 3D mo-capped “The Adventures of Tintin” looks like it will do just fine (thanks to the international tally which has taken over $230 million), Zemeckis’ ImageMovers proved their storytellers are woefully out of touch with both audiences and studio types.
Summer 2011 wasn’t quite the bloodbath that Jon Favreau predicted, but two films that took blows straight in the teeth include Favreau’s own genre mish-mash “Cowboys & Aliens.” With a production budget of $163 million (not counting P&A) and a worldwide total of only $178.8, this was easily Universal’s biggest disappointment of the year. It also proved you can put both James Bond and Indiana Jones in a movie, but if it looks silly (and it did) and the genre confusion works against it (and it did), you’re going to have a big turkey on your hands. It also didn't help that it had to be a four quadrant movie to be a success in two genres that typically only engages males, and have a history of underperforming films. Any surprise that Universal spent much of 2011 canceling any other project that even smelled risky?
But they weren't alone in nursing some wounds. Although the final ‘Harry Potter’ and “The Hangover II,” slowed the bleeding, Warner Bros. had a rough year of flops. What was meant to be a new “Iron Man”-like franchise (taking a similar B-level character and moving him up to the A-list), “Green Lantern” was met by derision, even by the geek faithful. With an outlandish $200 million budget (and that's just the figure they released!), the film pulled in $219 million worldwide and just over $116 million domestically. Subtract $60 million (give or take) in worldwide promotion and advertising (at least) and you’ve got a stinker in your lap. What “Green Lantern” was supposed to do was vault Ryan Reynolds to the A-list and get a sequel prepared asap (it was already written). Instead, Warner Bros. went back to the drawing board, and even though they’ve registered a domain name for a sequel, it’s conceivable it could take years to get this would-be franchise back on track.
While everyone quickly declared March the new tentpole season based on the release calendar, "Battle of Los Angeles," "Red Riding Hood" “Beastly,” and “Sucker Punch” pretty much revealed it for what it was, at least qualitatively: a season of B-list event pictures not actually good enough to be released in the summer. Though some of these films weren’t flops -- "The Lincoln Lawyer," "Limitless," "The Adjustment Bureau," and “Battle: Los Angeles” all did well commercially -- the season proved that audiences will still flock to mediocre genre-like pictures if you give them half a story. Especially around March, when they’re restless and want to leave the house after two months of terrible movies...
Snyder’s Feminist Fantasy Has No ‘Punch’
Another WB bust was Zack Snyder’s feminist/misogynist fantasy “Sucker Punch,” which was made for $82 million and tanked with only $89 million worldwide. Domestically, audiences barely cared, with a platry $36 million in ticket sales. Still, Christopher Nolan and Warner Bros (who surely saw a rough cut of the film before they decided this) thought Snyder was the right man to get “Man Of Steel” off the ground. Whether that was a smart move or not, we won’t know until summer 2013, but those who were unfortunate enough to witness “Sucker Punch” are already worried, and with good reason. All flash, no substance, and running completely counter to the intelligence of Nolan's Batman franchise, here's hoping there is one helluva script for Snyder to work with. And hopefully Nolan's godfather status on the project is more than just a brand stamp on the movie to appease fanboys.
Another early genre-y spring flop was Universal’s and David Gordon Green’s ambitious medieval stoner comedy “Your Highness.” Budgeted just under $50 million, audiences did not understand it one bit and it flopped at $24 million worldwide. It only made $3 million dollars internationally, demonstrating that American stoner fratboy comedy is only understood by American stoner fratboys. And they prefer their boobs and bawdy talk to be contemporary, not Arthurian.
Some ‘80s Remakes Falter: “Arthur,” “The Thing”
The ’80s were all the rage this year, with remakes of “Footloose,” “Fright Night” and '80s-centric brands like “Transformers,” “The Smurfs” and “The Muppets,” but two such remakes, “Arthur” and “The Thing” fell on deaf ears. While Russell Brand is a big star across the pond, his U.S. appeal seems limited without the help of someone like Jonah Hill. His Dudley Moore remake about a spoiled, rich, drunken manchild cost $40 million to make and only grossed $45.7 million worldwide, leaving Warner Bros. in the red once again. Seems a country struggling with economic woes didn't want to watch a movie about a guy who has it all and gallavants around Manhattan. Who knew!?
Produced for $38 million and delayed for almost two years, audiences didn’t respond to Universal’s remake of “The Thing” either. It only grossed $27.4 million worldwide and showed John Carpenter’s horror brand wasn’t as strong as they thought. Once again, it's a case of a fanboy specific brand/franchise being treated as a possible mainstream programmer and failing on both ends. We'd like to think studios will learn, but they won't.
Another ‘80s remake that dropped with a big thud was Lionsgate’s tone deaf version of “Conan.” Curiously not produced by Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes shingle, the film was nonetheless directed by Dunes alum Marcus Nispel and therefore was equally gratuitous, graphic and joyless as that vile brand. Constructed for $90 million, it could only muster $48.8 million across the entire globe. No wonder Lionsgate has reportedly been wanting to merge and consolidate with their counterparts at Summit Entertainment. Kind of makes giving Jason Momoa the Rising Star Award at CinemaCon in March -- months before the release of the movie -- even more ridiculous in hindsight.
But when the maker of "2012," "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" tries to make a Shakespearean drama? Audiences could barely care less. It surely doesn't help that the cast, including Rhys Ifans, Rafe Spall and David Thewlis, aren’t exactly stars and the title surely does the picture no favors either, even if it does fit the film quite well. Budgeted at $30 million, the movie grossed a pitiful $14.8 million worldwide, and only $4.4 million of that figure came from domestic audiences. At one point, Sony was hoping some kind of Oscar talk would coalesce around the movie, but that moment faded fast.
Eddie Murphy’s Comeback Is Not So Mighty
Word on the street is that after years of making shitty films for nobody (“Pluto Nash”) or children (“Imagine That”), Eddie Murphy is back. Almost two months before Murphy’s supposed return-to-form film “Tower Heist,” Murphy is selected by its director Brett Ratner to host the Oscars. But while critics are kind to the film, regarding it rightfully as a decent slice of entertainment, audiences only connected with it so much. Domestically, it stalled at $76 million, while globally it grossed $126 million, with Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda and Tea Leoni to pay, the film wasn’t cheap and cost $75 million to make. Count in P&A costs domestically and worldwide -- plus whatever backend tallies Stiller and Murphy are getting -- and this is a film that’s barely broken even.
George Miller’s animated “Happy Feet” film was a big hit, grossing $384 million when it was released in 2006. But five years later is a totally different story. The film cost $135 million to make and it’s pretty much cooked already, with a low $59 million haul domestically and $121 million worldwide. Released mid-November, it if was going to see a family-friendly Christmas spike, it would have already happened. Rumors abound that this major WB loss could affect the budget on Miller’s “Mad Max” film.
“The Big Year” Is Oh So Ironically Titled
Here’s what can be considered one of the biggest flops of the year. Because it stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, the bird-sighting-for-sport comedy, “The Big Year” -- from the director of “Marley & Me” -- cost $41 million to produce. It grossed a staggeringly flat $7.1 million in its lifetime. It’s foreign total, $244,000, might be the smallest foreign gross all year. Then again, it did so poorly that the film was barely shown outside of the U.K. market. It’s a tax write-off for 20th Century Fox, but maybe someone should ask themselves who greenlit this project and who thought anyone would be interested?
Other flops included the Weinstein's lame romantic comedy "I Don't Know How She Does It," which only made $6 million more than it cost ($24 million), which probably paid for about 30% of its P&A budget at best. It demonstrates that outside of the “Sex And The City” brand, audiences will not tolerate Sarah Jessica Parker’s trademark voice-overs in mediocre laughers intended for women with upper class problems. While they started the year extremely strong with “Insidious” (one of the year’s most profitable films because of its low, low cost), Graham King’s GK Films is ailing. After non-hit after non-hit (including “Drive”), the “The Rum Diary” was possibly the nail in the company’s coffin (they’ve already lost a key personnel head and made measure to have their films distributed by Sony Pictures next year). It cost $45 million to make, and even with a dapper Johnny Depp in the lead with no pirate make-up to distract from his looks, it could only haul in $21.6 million worldwide. In the U.S., it could barely conjure $13 million. What looked like a promising new indie distrib essentially placed its tail between its legs and ran for cover. Meanwhile, Universal couldn’t even cover its costs with the overly expensive comedy “The Dilemma” (which somehow cost $70 million – that’s Adam Sandler money). It grossed $69 million worldwide and is probably another small reason why Uni’s “At The Mountains Of Madness” shuttered. Will we see an end to the Gary Marshall-driven “holiday franchise” that so far includes a bunch of actors bumping into each other in “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve”? It’s possible. Budgeted at $56 million, ‘NYE,’ has stalled domestically at $36 million. International audiences have made that number rise to a $81 million worldwide gross, but that’s hardly a success story.
As of right now it’s a little too early to tell how December’s movies are going to shake out, but whether 'Tintin' connects with U.S. audiences remains to be seen (so far it’s soft), but if it can take in $30-$40 million, considering its already hefty international haul, it should be sitting pretty and a sequel likely won’t be put into question (currently they’re over halfway there with $24 million). As of right now, a third “Sherlock Holmes” film seems to be somewhat doubtful. Warner Bros. have not released the budget, which likely means the Euro-trotting adventure cost more than the $90 million original. While it opened soft domestically, it has grossed $138 million worldwide so far. Still, it probably needs to do at least double that to be considered a success. These films aren’t cheap to make or market, and the first one made a rather astounding $524 million worldwide. “We Bought A Zoo” should have proved to be a long-term family hit (not flashy opening numbers, but strong shelf life ones), but with only $14 million accumulated thus far, unless it picks up soon, it’s going to end up deep in the red. Our guess was no one was going to turn out for Steven Spielberg’s Family Channel equine film “War Horse,” but since Christmas day it’s already grossed $14 million, which isn’t too shabby. Yet, it wasn’t cheap to make either, so unless it’s got strong legs to get into January (and it’s not going to get a lot of Oscar play), it could end up a dead duck.
Somewhat worrisome? “The Muppets.” Sure, it’s only been in theaters since November 23, but the $45 million-dollar-costing Jason Segel-created ‘Muppet’ movie has only grossed an unimpressive $76 million so far in the U.S. Yes, it still has to open up internationally in several markets, but are those audiences going to care? The U.S. is where the ‘Muppets’ should have truly shone, and the fact that the holidays are coming to a close and “The Muppets” hasn’t surpassed the $100 million mark is a very bad sign for a company (Disney) that paid a hefty chunk of change to own the rights to this brand and franchise.
That's a wrap. See you next year.