By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com May 21, 2012 at 1:43PM
"Heaven's Gate" (1980)
What It Cost: $44 million
What It Made: $3 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $114 million
Why It Flopped: How do you go from the hottest director in Hollywood to one of film's great cautionary tales in one simple step? Well, you do what Michael Cimino did, and make "Heaven's Gate," a film that still numbers among the all-time money losers, that brought down an entire studio and genre, and arguably ended the 70s era of auteur-driven Hollywood. Cimino had found success with screenwriting, and with his directorial debut "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" in 1974, but it was 1978's "The Deer Hunter" that really put him on the map: his Vietnam tale might have gone over-budget, but it was a box-office hit and won Cimino Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (as well as another three for the film. As such, the filmmaker had the cache to get anything he wanted made, and contacted United Artists, who'd bought an epic Western script of his back in 1971. The film, originally titled "The Johnson County War," but soon renamed "Heaven's Gate," had been languishing in a drawer ever since, but Cimino could now name his terms, and the film was swiftly greenlit, starring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges and Isabelle Huppert. Things went swiftly downhill from there, however. Cimino was both a perfectionist and power-mad: an entire street was constructed, but the director thought it didn't look right, and it was torn down and rebuilt to be six feet wider (it was suggested that only one side be moved, but Cimino insisted on both). Furthermore, he'd seemingly set out to beat Francis Ford Coppola's record on "Apocalypse Now," and eventually shot as much as 1.3 million feet, equivalent to 220 hours of footage. United Artists were obviously distraught, and tried to replace the helmer with Norman Jewison (who turned them down), but there was nothing they could do about the spiraling costs: Cimino's contract meant that he essentially had carte blanche to spend as much as he liked, so long as he hit the December 1979 release date. Of course, he didn't, but by that point it was too late. Cimino eventually showed United Artists a five-and-a-half-hour work print to his bosses in June 1980, telling them that he was willing to cut out another 15 minutes. The studio put their foot down, and eventually a 219 minute cut premiere in one theater in Los Angeles for a week in November 1980. It was critically savaged, and United Artists yanked the film from theaters, eventually coming back with a 149 minute cut, but the reviews didn't improve, and the film went on to gross a mere $3 million worldwide, on a $44 million budget. The sheer financial loss (the equivalent to $114 million today) and the bad publicity caused owners TransAmerica to sell United Artists to MGM, ending the company founded by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford in 1919 as an independent studio. Still, unlike most of the films on this list, its critical reputation has been restored among cinephiles, even if "Heaven's Gate" is still a euphemism for a financial disaster.
What It Cost: $55 million
What It Made: $14 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $83 million
Why It Flopped: If you're a child of the ‘70s who grew up in the eighties like this writer, "Ishtar" is notable for the first box-office bomb that this generation became aware of as a young pre-adolescent (we were slightly too young for "Heaven's Gate"). An needlessly expensive comedy shot on location in places like far-off Morocco about two inept lounge singing musicians who travel to Northern Africa looking for work, and stumble into a four-party Cold War standoff, Elaine May's "Ishtar" became one of the most expensively produced comedies of its time ($50 million) and grossed a pitiful amount ($14 million overall). Additionally, like “Apocalypse Now,” which was in the media for a year as a would-be turkey before it was released, thanks to its public production problems and delays, the picture’s lavish budget, outrageous cost overruns (it originally was budgeted at $27.5 million) and in-fighting (between Warren Beatty and director Elaine May) all became public a year before the film was released -- and many charged producer David Puttnam, who became the studio boss midway through production, of sabotaging the film and leaking the problems to the press to spite the notoriously control-happy Beatty. While mathematically there are far greater box-office flops (things like "Green Lantern" "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and even "Gigli"), "Ishtar" is still relatively known as one of the biggest turkeys in box-office simply because of all the unfortunate media attention. It didn’t help that it was the first pairing between box-office A-listers Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty and not only were audiences indifferent, but critics roasted the film (Roger Ebert called it "truly dreadful"). Shot by the great Vittorio Storaro ("Apocalypse Now") and an expensive Italian cinematography crew, including songs written by then, in-demand musical star Paul Williams, something like $12 million was spent against the film before even a frame of celluloid was shot, making the film the poster boy for fiscal irresponsibility. Curiosity seekers lead many (like us) to seek out this comedy on VHS the moment it became available and discover a peculiar, oddball comedy rife with dry deadpan humor that many critics didn't find remotely funny. "Ishtar" has developed a cult following and rightly so --it's slow, strangely paced and not as funny as even the average comedy, but damn if it's doesn't come with a distinctively peculiar tone that it commits to fully, for better or worse.
"Speed Racer" (2008)
What It Cost: $200 million
What It Made: $93 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $114 million
Having produced a warmly received and surprisingly profitable adaptation of Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta,” (the film grossed just about three times its $54 million budget) the Wachowski siblings turned their eye to an arguably more mainstream property in “Speed Racer.” Based on the manga and then anime series that debuted stateside in the late 60s and became something of a minor cultural staple, the Wachowskis and compatriot Joel Silver must have hoped that the picture would reach a broader, more family-friendly audience than the R-rated “Matrix” trilogy. With a hefty budget of $200 million, Speed and co. clearly needed a strong push to excite filmgoers who didn’t grow up with the cartoon (mainly, the kids whose interest might translate into major vs. minor profits), with Variety reporting on an aggressive marketing campaign that included General Mills, McDonald's, Target, Mattel, Lego, Topps and even Esurance. Perhaps you may remember Wachowskis unveiling a full-size model of Speed’s iconic Mach 5? Alas, it was not to be - the picture opened against “Iron Man” in its second week and immediately hit a speed bump, grossing only $18.6 million on a whopping 3606 screens. As Marvel’s surprise hit stayed strong, “Racer” eventually came to a stop with a haul of only $94 million, with a net loss of $106 million ($114.5 when adjusted). In part critically savaged, the picture simply didn’t grab hold of the public interest, all trinkets aside. Recently some cult interest has swirled about it (and this writer loved it), but “Speed Racer” ended up as a major disappointment for Warner Bros. That said, the Wachowskis clearly worked their magic in the wake, heading to Germany and co-directing (with “Run Lola Run” helmer Tom Tykwer) a less expensive but considerably more ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s period-hopping “Cloud Atlas”, which Warner Bros. recently bought for a cool $20 million, planning to open it in December of this year. Whether it proves to be a runaway hit or not, the studio stands to lose less since they steered away from initially banking the picture - a lesson learned after “Speed Racer,” perhaps?
"The Avengers" (1998)
What It Cost: $100 million
What It Made: $48 million
What It Lost (Adjusted For Inflation): $69 million
Why It Flopped: What's that you say? "The Avengers" has made a billion dollars, and is now one of the most successful movies of all time? Well, yeah, but an earlier film of the same name, a misguided feature-length adaptation of the 60s British spy series, was a pretty major disaster. Considering the stars attached and the studio behind the project (Warner Bros.), the expectations were definitely aligned for a hit. Starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery, all still hot properties in the late 90s, and poised for a June 1998 release, “The Avengers” was what the studio hoped would become the next "Mission: Impossible," helmed by "Benny & Joon" director Jeremiah Chechik. But by the time it was finished, Warner Bros. chose not to screen the film for critics (fourteen years ago, it was not yet the norm to dump expensive disasters unceremoniously in theaters, so the move actually made news) and bumped its release date up to August, a month that until recent years has been a dumping ground no less toxic than say, February. The version that found its way onto approximately 2,400 screens is...well, butchered for one, seemingly whittled down from a longer cut at the expense of any kind of coherent plotting. Fiennes and Thurman are pretty unimpressive while Connery gnaws on scenery, and who could blame him? It’s an absurd affair that isn’t sure how reverently to treat its material and at the same time indulges in camp that may be self-aware, but isn't any funnier for it. Its first weekend, “The Avengers” grossed $10.3 million. The second weekend - $3.7 million. The third - $1.4 million. For a film that cost at least $60 million, with probably another $40 million for marketing, that's pretty disastrous. Chechik ended up in director's jail, with no credit for another six years, and no one's tried to make Ralph Fiennes an action hero ever since.
- Oliver Lyttelton, Mark Zhuravsky, RP