By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 21, 2012 at 1:43PM
“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” (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” (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" (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.