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As 'Battleship' Flops: Ten Other Memorable Box-Office Bombs

by Oliver Lyttelton
May 21, 2012 1:43 PM
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Bonfire of the Vanities

The Bonfire Of The Vanities” (1990)
What It Cost: $47 million
What It Made: $15 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $55 million
Why It Flopped: Putting together a big-budget adaptation of an era-defining novel by one of America's best-known writers, with an A-list director and an all-star cast, would seem on paper to be a recipe for box-office returns and awards, but Brian DePalma's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," an adaptation of Tom Wolfe's novel (originally serialized in Rolling Stone) received neither of those things. It's not the biggest money-loser of all time -- it cost $47 million, and took back around $15 million, which, adjusted for inflation, works out as a loss of about $55 million. But it has become enshrined in history thanks to one of the greatest movie books ever: Julie Salmanon's "The Devil's Candy." Wall Street Journal writer Salamon had been given unprecedented access to every area of production, and documented how the process went wrong from the start, causing the poisonous reviews that sunk the film. Unusually, DePalma takes the blame himself, rather than putting it to studio interference; he's honest about his attempts to soften the material to let it appeal to a wider audience, leading to a finished product that doesn't really work (although he does defend elements of the film -- and indeed, there are terrific scenes and shots in there). But ultimately, miscasting was the biggest issue. After Jack Nicholson and John Cleese turned down the role of journalist Bruce Fallow, Bruce Willis got the past, performed the whole film on auto-pilot, and clashed frequently with DePalma and the crew. Meanwhile, DePalma wanted his favorite John Lithgow to play banker Sherman McCoy, but ended up going with the bigger name, Tom Hanks, who feels hopelessly adrift. And Morgan Freeman was cast as Judge White as an attempt to stave off criticism about racial stereotyping, but made the character fatally too sympathetic and even-handed, in a way that original choices Walter Matthau or Alan Arkin may not have. DePalma clashed with his actors, and set up elaborate, expensive shots (a 10-second clip of Melanie Griffith arriving at an airport cost at least $80000), sending the film wildly over budget, and when the reviews turned out to be hostile, the film became a serious flop. DePalma says afterwards :"The initial concept of it was incorrect. If you're going to do 'The Bonfire of the Vanities,' you would have to make it a lot darker and more cynical, but because it was such an expensive movie we tried to humanize the Sherman McCoy character – a very unlikeable character, much like the character in 'The Magnificent Ambersons.' We could have done that if we'd been making a low-budget movie, but this was a studio movie with Tom Hanks in it. We made a couple of choices that in retrospect were wrong." And it's hard to disagree...

Raise The Titanic

Raise The Titanic” (1980)
What It Cost: $40 million
What It Made: $7 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $93 million
Why It Flopped: It's safe to say that we're unlikely to see any films starring Clive Cussler's Indiana Jones-style adventurer hero Dirk Pitt on the screen any time soon. In 2005, "Sahara," which starred Matthew McConaughey as the character, had gone wildly over-budget in the hands of first-time director, and ended up losing $120 million ($140 million when adjusted). And yet, remarkably, a film starring the same central character had become a mega-flop 25 years earlier: 1980's "Raise The Titanic!" had ended up costing $40 million, and took back only $7 million -- adjusted for inflation, that adds up to $93 million.  The book was Cussler's first best-seller, involving a race between teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R to retrieve a rare mineral crucial to a new defense program from the sunken wreck of the Titanic -- with an audacious plan to bring it to the surface, rather than dive down. It was an inherently silly idea, but British TV legend Lew Grade ("The Muppets") optioned the novel, and hired veteran Stanley Kramer to direct the film, although he quit after a couple of weeks, and was replaced by Jerry Jameson ("Airport '77"). It was planned as an all-star affair in the mold of the 70s disaster movies, but much of the budget went on converting a Greek cruise liner to look like the famed ship of the title, so while the film managed to get the services of Alec Guinness and Jason Robards, the project was led by the less than A-list Richard Jordan ("Logan's Run") as Pitt, with the then-unknown Anne Archer in support, so really no one involved were major box-office draws. As was the case of most films set at sea, the production was troubled: it shot in 1978, but only made it to theaters in August 1980, where it proceeded to be eviscerated by the critics and flop at the box office. Grade would later comment wryly "Raise the Titanic? It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic," and combined with the disaster "Saturn 3" convinced Grade to leave the movies (although his company backed "Sophie's Choice" and "On Golden Pond," which were released afterwards).

Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle” (1967)
What It Cost: $18 million
What It Made: $9 million
What It Lost: $62 million
Why It Flopped: In the 1960s, the big-budget musical was sort of the equivalent of the superhero film today: Giant tentpoles -- often released as epic roadshows -- which made enormous amounts of money, films like "West Side Story," "My Fair Lady," "Mary Poppins" and "The Sound of Music," the latter of which was, at the time, the biggest-grossing film of all time. But as the zeitgeist started to move away from Rodgers & Hart towards Woodstock, the genre started to bomb, and bomb heavily, bringing the studios to their knees, and no film indicated that better than "Doctor Dolittle," a film that was entirely mismanaged from the start. 20th Century Fox had acquired the rights to Hugh Lofting's books, about a wacky doctor who can converse with animals, with the intention of making it into another smash hit musical, and hired "My Fair Lady"'s Alan Jay Lerner to write the script & songs. But Lerner was an inveterate procrastinator, and never delivered, which lost the project their attached star, Rex Harrison. Christopher Plummer was hired, with Leslie Bricusse writing the film, but Harrison decided he wanted in after all, meaning the producers had to pay Plummer off with his full salary. However, it may have been a blessing: as detailed in Mark Harris' exceptional book "Scenes From A Revolution," the production was a disaster on almost every level. Harrison was consistently drunk & belligerent, the production were sued for plagiarism after Bricusse accidentally borrowed ideas from an unused draft by writer Helen Winston and locals in Saint Lucia formed a mob to attempt to destroy the model of a large snail, which they took as an insult. It was the decision to film in picturesque Castle Combe in Wiltshire, England that proved the biggest mistake; the weather was disastrous, residents were angered to the point of blowing up the set with explosives, and the animals who'd been trained for months were held in quarantine for six months by the British government. Fox eventually decided to rebuild the sets back in California, by which point the budget had tripled, to a then-enormous $18 million, equivalent to $120 million today. Previews proved disastrous, and the film opened against "The Jungle Book," which crushed it at the box-office; "Doctor Dolittle" only recoupled $9 million, half of its production budget. One small victory was won, however: producer Arthur P. Jacobs mounted an expensive campaign to get the film Oscar nominations, and it eventually got seven, including Best Picture, up against "In The Heat of The Night," "The Graduate" and "Bonnie & Clyde."

The Alamo

"The Alamo" (2004)
What It Cost: $145 million
What It Made: $25 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $146 million
Why It Flopped: With the success of "The Avengers," Disney have now had five billion-dollars hits, thanks to Joss Whedon's film, "Toy Story 3," "Alice in Wonderland" and two "Pirates of the Caribbean" films. No other studio has more than two. Which is fortunate, as the studio seem to have had more high-profile bombs than any other as well. Before "John Carter" there was "Mars Needs Moms," and before that was 2004's "The Alamo," which still ranks as the second-biggest money-loser of all time, behind only "Cutthroat Island." Inspired by the then-trend for historical epics, the studio intended to team up with Ron Howard and his Imagine entertainment banner, with Russell Crowe as Sam Houston and Ethan Hawke as William Barret Travis, but Howard wanted a $200 million budget, and Disney balked, replacing him with John Lee Hancock (who would go on redeem himself, commercially at least, with "The Blind Side"), with Dennis Quaid and Patrick Wilson stepping in for Crowe and Hawke (Billy Bob Thornton remained on board as Davy Crockett throughout). The budget was halved, but it was still a hefty $100 million for a film that now was star-free. Originally pegged for a Christmas release in 2003, the film was delayed, seemingly because it wasn't ready, as late as two months before release, with half-an-hour trimmed from the original two-hours-and-45-minute running time. Not that it helped: however, when it opened, on April 9th 2004, it landed in fourth place, behind the fifth week of "The Passion of the Christ," the second week of "Hellboy" and "Johnson Family Vacation," which was on half the number of screens. Unsurprisingly, it didn't do any better, taking in only $22 million in total in the U.S, and a miserable $25 million worldwide (unsurprising, given that the subject matter was never going to have huge international appeal). Given that the studio spent at least $40 million on the marketing, few films will ever manage to lose quite such an impressive cash sum. All is forgiven, though: Hancock is gearing up to direct "Saving Mr. Banks" for Disney right now.

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  • Jimmy W | July 23, 2012 12:35 PMReply

    Rihanna is going to kick ass and save the World! Need I say more? Hollywood is patronizing its audience and I'm not buying.

  • Michael Passe | July 22, 2012 8:03 PMReply

    I wonder how many big-screen TV adaptations were bombs, at least relatively so (Dennis the Menace? Get Smart?). Many of these might have made some bucks on their first weekend and then went away. Re-making old TV like "The Avengers" or "Speed Racer" doesn't really work, despite a few exceptions like "The Adams Family," because they are products of their time. Trying to re-invent them misses the point. How would audiences today be able to grasp the psychedelic, everything-English-is-cool zeitgeist of programs like "The Prisoner," or "The Avengers?" It also smacks of exploitation. Fans old enough to recall the shows may stay away for that reason, while younger viewers attracted by the camp value of laughably-innocent shows like "Leave it to Beaver" know full well the re-make won't have such charm. And to re-make already-dumb shows like "Get Smart" is just pointless. This seems like a losing gambit, but studios still try it. Why, when the results, despite a few successes, are far more hit than miss?

  • michael passe | July 22, 2012 8:06 PM

    That is, of course, "far more miss than hit."

  • Fairlington Blade | June 5, 2012 8:54 AMReply

    An interesting list, but I'd add Waterworld to the list. The Kevin Costner vehicle memorably earned the nickname Fishtar. Evidently it made up most of the losses with world wide sales. Still, it's pretty bomb worthy.


  • Zippy | May 27, 2012 9:37 AMReply

    "...while we never too hard for a film to fail, it's hard not to feel a little gratified when audience reject a film as thoroughly rotten as "Battleship."

    Need an editor much? This kind of amateurish writing doesn't even belong in a high school newspaper. Don't you hacks ever proofread a thing you write?

  • Brian Hutton | May 24, 2012 5:22 AMReply

    The truth is this....the studios need to wake up....they have spent the past 40 years or more treating audiences like idiots. And the audience have said we are not morons ..I dont care if its 3D..I dont care how good the CGI us a plot, an intelligent script and people who can act. There is market for smart indies and smart Blockbusters....look at the director, smart script, character based story that works along with the CGI action.

  • testington | May 23, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    As much as people hate to say it, I do think Taylor Kitsch is a major reason these films didn't make money. Audiences do not like it when the industry tries to declare that people are stars before they've eared it. Anybody with a few big films under their belt could have made these films succeed. It's like a few years ago when Sienna Miller had several starring roles that all flopped in a row, you can't just say somebody is a lead if they haven't proven it. In contrast look at the success of The Hunger Games, which stared Jennifer Lawrence who had already earned her critical cred with Winter's Bone and played a supporting role in a block-buster with X-men: First Class.

  • Mariah | May 23, 2012 3:15 PMReply

    Interseting article, but I thought the same thing the other poster did. Who edits these articles? I found multiple grammatical errors.

    Here are just a few samples:
    1) ..."while we never too hard for a film to fail..." This makes no sense.
    2) "An needlessly expensive comedy." The word "an" only goes before vowels.

  • tom | May 23, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Having seen John Carter (of mars)a few weeks aog,to a packed house in dublin,i cannot see how it was preceived as a America the "of Mars" part of the title was omitted..why? plus in was badly marketed..i belive it will do well on DVD..the film itself,well made,good special effects,good character actors essentially playing julius caeser,with a leading man who acted quite well..being familiar with burroughs works,and the john carter of mars books,i was hopeful that this would have been the start of a series...Disney,fire whoever handles Marketing,and replace them with someone who isnt afraid to aim for a demographic who has some intelligence..

  • gwen killerby | May 23, 2012 5:30 AMReply

    I have always liked Cut Throat Island a LOT, idk why it flopped, it's a Female Hero swashbuckler, with very good action scenes, nice story, good balance between overly complicated and boring.

  • scrnwrtr17 | May 22, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    For anyone interested, one of the best insider books about the disaster that was 'Heaven's Gate' is former UA exec Steven Bach's excellent "Final Cut". I believe it was first published in 1986, and later reissued in '96 and then '99. It may no longer be in print, but if you can find it, it's well worth a gander.

  • scrnwrtr17 | May 22, 2012 5:02 PM

    I see someone made almost the exact same comment earlier. Point well taken and happily reiterated.

  • OldFart | May 22, 2012 3:59 PMReply

    I enjoyed the article, but does no one edit these things? The piece is a series of ridiculously long run-on sentences, and there are numerous typos, redundant word choices, and basic grammar mistakes. Sheesh!

  • Cde. | May 22, 2012 11:34 AMReply

    Speed Racer is a great film. I'm always heartened when I hear someone else loved it.

  • Huffy | May 22, 2012 1:17 AMReply

    Anyone interested in the history of American film should check out Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven's Gate. It's a documentary available on Youtube and it really goes in-depth into the film's production. Fascinating stuff, both on the creative side (Cimino's method was absolutely insane) and the business side. It's also got Willem Dafoe narrating and goddamn does he do a good job.

  • Stevo the Magnificent | May 21, 2012 10:18 PMReply

    Always had a soft spot for 'The Avengers' (1998), it had a wonderfully surreal, esoteric, and oh-so-very British sensibility to it, but the trouble that ultimately sunk it was; firstly, director Jeremiah Chechik never wanted Uma Thurman but rather Nicole Kidman (she was unavailable due to 'Eyes Wide Shut'), there was a personnel change at Warner Bros and the person who hated the project became head of production, a test screening before a mainly Hispanic audience - who thought it "too British" - led to the film being butchered by the studio from an original 115-minute cut to the eviscerated cut we have today, and then they pushed it back to August to basically let it die a death, and so it did, but it could have been a decent little movie if things had been different...

  • jimmiescoffee | May 21, 2012 6:23 PMReply

    yeah, i was serious. very fucking serious. its already made about $50 million over its reported budget and likely will do another $150 ww. believe me, they'll be OOOK. so, how much does a translation cost these days? thanks for the info though.

  • Truth | May 22, 2012 1:12 AM

    No, they won't. Studios see less than half of box-office receipts from theaters. Battleship cost about $220 million not counting marketing. This means it needed to gross roughly $500 million to break even and start making money (and that's probably low balling it) and that ain't happening. It's already lost its momentum worldwide thanks the The Avengers and things are only going to get worse when MiB3 hits. Anyways you slice it Universal and Hasbro are both taking big hits with this.

  • cirkusfolk | May 21, 2012 4:44 PMReply

    One flop that has always boggled my mind is Town and Country. I'm not sure why a dramedy starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling cost 90 million to begin with (or who was stupid enough to finance it) but apparently it only made back 10 million worldwide. Ouch. Or what about The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Cost 100 mil. and made back a whopping 7 mil worldwide!!!

  • bob | May 21, 2012 3:37 PMReply

    "Pictures at a Revolution" is a great book.

  • So You Know | May 21, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    210 + domestic P&A, plus international P&A, plus splitting costs with theaters (studios dont get the net of what they gross)... lots to go... to break even.

  • jimmiescoffee | May 21, 2012 2:04 PMReply

    defining a flop is an inexact science nowadays considering that 'battleship' has already made back its budget globally.

  • Huffy | May 22, 2012 1:03 AM

    As others have said generally a film needs to make twice its budget at the BO to be considered profitable since theatres take a percentage, not to mention various other distribution costs. In actuality most movies nowadays actually lose money at the box office given the massive costs of marketing but BO runs are good indications for a film's success on DVD (where the real profit is made) and studios use fancy bookkeeping so they still end up making money.

  • Really? | May 21, 2012 2:58 PM

    Yes, because movie theatres don't keep any of the BO gross, distribution costs nothing, translation costs nothing, voice actors and dubbing cost nothing...
    Oh, wait, you were being serious? I wasn't.

  • KT | May 21, 2012 2:42 PM

    No, it hasn't. There's regular math and then there's movie math.

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