If you've been paying attention to box-office news this summer then you're probably aware of what a mixed bag it's been for the major Hollywood studios. On the one hand, we have record-breaking hits like Avengers: Endgame, which is currently the second highest-grossing movie of all time, and surprise smashes like John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum. On the other hand, however, there have been a number of major financial disappointments, from Men in Black International to X-Men: Dark Phoenix to Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The films that have made it big have been gargantuan hits, while the ones under-performing are doing so on an eye-watering scale, potentially losing their studios hundreds of millions of dollars. What they all have in common is their statuses as genre movies.
The blockbuster has long reigned supreme at the box office, with the high-concept, genre heavy summer movie becoming the bread and butter of the industry many decades ago when two hot young directors called Lucas and Spielberg helped to dramatically change the game. While there are notable exceptions, it’s tough to ignore how, year after year, the biggest budgeted movies and the ones that make the most money are usually some form of sci-fi, fantasy, or other strain of speculative narrative. Last year, six of the top 10 highest grossing films of 2018 were superhero movies, which also signals the preferred mold of movie-making in the current age. How do you keep up with the big trends? You throw a lot of money at a product with a wide audience appeal and hope the hype pays off. Sometimes it does, but then there are the occasions where it doesn't, and the resulting flops can be legendary.
This is nothing new, of course. Hollywood has been making big-budget disasters for as long as they have existed. There is, however, something to be said for an iconic bomb. Often, they reveal more about the industry, changing audience tastes, and the pop culture zeitgeist than the films themselves. With that in mind, we're taking a look at 12 of the biggest box office bombs of all time, adjusted for inflation.
The basic rule of the box office is that a film must make back two and a half times its budget to break even. So, if your shiny new superhero movie costs $100 million, then the studio will need at least a $250 million overall gross to help offset marketing costs, the amount spent on the movie and reshoots, and the basic bureacracy of getting a film made. Hollywood accounting is its own magic skill, of course, but rest assured, none of the films mentioned did what their respective studios hoped they would.
Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson had long dreamed of adapting Philip Reeve's popular steampunk series of novels, Mortal Engines, into an epic blockbuster on scale with his most beloved movies. The series seemed to have everything working in its favor, with a hook that practically begged for a cinematic adaptation: Imagine a world where entire cities have been motorized and prowl across the ravaged landscape on wheels, hunting one another for resources and domination. Mortal Engines is certainly eye-catching. It's a bombastic blend of Star Wars, steampunk, Mad Max, Lord of the Rings, and Terry Gilliam, with some of the most visually astounding things you'll ever see in a blockbuster. Alas, it's mostly lacking in the story and character department, and at a time when audiences are spoiled for choice with their big-budget popcorn fare, Mortal Engines couldn't compete with bigger names like Aquaman or Mary Poppins Returns. It's not known how much Mortal Engines cost to make, although it's been reported as somewhere between $100 and 150 million. Its worldwide box office gross just scraped past $83 million. That means that Peter Jackson's hopes of continuing the franchise probably won't happen any time soon.
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas
When Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney to co-found Dreamworks, he made no secret of his hope to create an animation division that could compete with his old bosses. After a number of disappointments and a minor hit or two, Dreamworks Animation struck gold with Shrek, but Katzenberg still harbored dreams of recreating that Disney magic. A movie based on the Middle Eastern folk tale of Sinbad the Sailor seemed like the perfect fit, and Dreamworks managed to wrangle together an impressive A-List cast, including Brad Pitt and Michelle Pfeiffer. The end result is a mixed bag that feels oddly lifeless, not to mention culturally confused given the complete lack of Arab context for a Sinbad story. The movie ended up losing $170 million for Dreamworks overall, thanks to lofty advertising and marketing costs, but the ultimate loss was for 2D animation. Katzenberg would say of the film's financial disappointment, "I think the idea of a traditional story being told using traditional animation is likely a thing of the past." Dreamworks would never make a 2D movie again.
Have you ever wondered why it took so long for Hollywood to make more pirates films when Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl became a surprise smash for Disney? Look no further than 1995's Cutthroat Island, a flop so disastrous that it killed careers, caused a major production company to shutter, and once held the Guinness World Record for the largest box office loss of all time. Production was kind of a disaster from the get-go. Star Geena Davis had originally wanted to quit the movie when original co-star Michael Douglas dropped out, but she was contractually obligated to complete the film. The cash-strapped production company Carolco were deep in debt and needed the movie to be a massive hit in order to stay afloat. The budget increased due to delays, various crew members quit thanks to disputes with director Renny Harlin, and the press had a field day mocking the film's troubles. It opened at number 13 at the U.S. box office and grossed a disastrous $10 million domestically from a budget of $98 million. Carolco filed for bankruptcy a month before the movie's release and Cutthroat Island is still blamed with spoiling Geena Davis' chances of becoming an action star.
In the 1980s, the animator Don Bluth decided to leave the then-struggling Walt Disney Studios and start making the sort of esoteric family entertainment he felt the company would never produce. That led to a string of acclaimed titles like The Secret of NIMH, An American Tale, and All Dogs Go To Heaven. However, by the 1990s, he was on a downturn and ended up returning to the Disney mold for a hit. In 1997, he teamed up with the fledgling Fox Animation to direct Anastasia, a blatant Disney Princess rip-off that still made a lot of money and retains a devoted fan base to this day. His follow-up, however, was less well-received. Titan A.E. was immensely ambitious for its time. The 2000 post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventure features a screenplay co-written by Joss Whedon and was originally supposed to be a live-action epic. Thanks to its lavish blending of hand-drawn and 3D animation, the movie went over-budget and over-schedule. Fox Animation suffered a number of staff cuts during production, which didn't help matters. By the time it was released to middling reviews and low box office, the writing was on the wall for Fox Animation. They closed down ten days after the film opened, and overall Titan A.E. made back a mere $36.8 million of its reported $75 to 90 million budget. At a time when Disney still dominated American animation and Dreamworks were joining the scene, Don Bluth simply couldn't compete.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash
In the 1980s, Eddie Murphy was an untouchable superstar. A decade later, he still had box office clout but it was on the wane once 2000 rolled around. By the time he got around to making one of his long-awaited dream projects, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, in 2002, he was no longer the biggest name in Hollywood. Even if he was, it's hard to imagine how this film could have ever been a hit. With an estimated budget of $100 million, Pluto Nash put a lot of effort into its visuals and production design to create the 2080 setting of an American colony on the moon, but there wasn't much work done on making this comedy actually funny. The resulting film made only $7.1 million worldwide and the Razzie Awards nominated it for the prestigious honor of the Worst Comedy of the past 25 years (it lost to the infamous Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez movie Gigli).
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
For gamers, the Final Fantasy franchise is legendary, the pinnacle of the JRPG genre, and one of the most ground-breaking advancements the medium ever made. To this day, it commands a devoted fan-base and its various installments command countless lists of the greatest games ever made. The movie? Well, that's a different story. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was hotly hyped prior to its release for its photorealistic computer animation, with some lofty individuals claiming it offered a glimpse into the future of cinema. Even 18 years after its release, its uncanny valley animation remains stunning and just unnerving enough. The story, however, is less enthralling and doesn't feel all that much like a Final Fantasy narrative. Audiences wanted more than just cartoons that looked pretty lifelike, and American viewers didn't care either way. Overall, from an estimated $137 million budget, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within made $85.1 million.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, also known as the creator of Tarzan, helped to revolutionize modern science-fiction and fantasy literature with his Barsoom series, a rip-roaring collection of pulp stories featuring the Civil War veteran John Carter and his adventures on Mars. Everyone from Star Trek to James Cameron's Avatar was influenced by the saga that started with 1912's A Princess of Mars. It makes sense that a studio like Disney would want to adapt these stories for the big screen, but everyone involved with the making of John Carter seemed to overlook one key problem: When the past century of genre fiction has been defined and influenced by this one story you're now adapting, how do you make it seem fresh and not derivative as all hell? 2012's John Carter is nowhere near the turkey its reputation would have you believe. Director Andrew Stanton, best known for his work at Pixar, clearly loves the material and makes Mars and its inhabitants look utterly stunning. There's a lot of fun to be had here but you can't escape the feeling that you've probably seen all this stuff before. Disney also made some curious marketing decisions for the film, such as changing its title from John Carter of Mars to simply John Carter, making the finished product seem much less interesting than it actually is. The movie still managed to make over $284 million worldwide, but thanks to a reported production budget of $263.7 million, plus massive marketing costs, it remains one of the most costly box office disappointments ever made.
A Wrinkle in Time
Ava DuVernay made history when she became the first black female director to helm a movie with a budget exceeding $100 million. Disney's long-awaited adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time came with massive expectations and a star-studded cast to match. Oprah Winfrey's in this! And so is Chris Pine! A Wrinkle in Time, with a screenplay by Jennifer Lee from Frozen, had the potential to be the best movie ever to your inner eight-year-old, and there is much to appreciate in this unabashedly feminine and deeply earnest story. Overall, however, the film proved too jumbled for some viewers, and it failed to capture the public’s imagination on the scale it needed to. From a budget of between $100 to 130 million, A Wrinkle in Time made around $132.7 million worldwide.
2005's Stealth, starring Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel, is one of the 2000s blockbuster era's more curious anomalies. Columbia Pictures were so sure this sci-fi action movie about three top fighter pilots and the robotic aircraft that goes rogue would be a hit that they gave this thing a $135 million budget. Stealth is loud and silly and not especially interesting. Roger Ebert famously described it in his review as being "offense against taste, intelligence and the noise pollution code — a dumbed-down Top Gun crossed with the HAL 9000 plot from 2001." Out of all the box office bombs on this list, it’s Stealth that feels the most perplexing in that I struggle to imagine how this got greenlit with the budget that it did. The movie made a mere $76.9 million worldwide.
In 1990, director William Malone pitched a small-budget sci-fi horror that he described as "Dead Calm in space". MGM bought it then put a whole host of writers on the team, hoping to bring Supernova to life. Along the way, the film lost its first director, Geoffrey Wright — two months before principal photography — due to "creative differences", as well as its original lead Vincent D'Onofrio, who was replaced by James Spader. Walter Hill, producer of three Alien films, then got the job but dealt with having the budget cut halfway through shooting. Dramatic special effects planned for the movie were cut or never filmed after MGM told them to keep costs down. Test audiences hated the movie, and eventually, Hill quit the project due to tensions with the studio. He was replaced by Jack Sholder, who was then taken over by a little-known director called Francis Ford Coppola, who helmed the editing room. Unhappy with basically every option, MGM eventually chose to sell the film, and Supernova was released in January 2000, almost two years later than planned. The final film is a total mess that's clearly the work of multiple people fighting against one another for creative control. With a reported $60 to $90 million budget, Supernova made back around $14.8 million.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
Guy Ritchie has made plenty of box office hits and is responsible for the third highest grossing movie of 2019 so far thanks to the unexpected success of Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin. However, he has more than his fair share of flops too. His re-imagining of the King Arthur myth was intended to be the start of a Marvel-style franchise, and it shows. Unfortunately, that’s what made the movie such a disappointment. When it’s being a full-on Guy Ritchie movie, complete with lad banter and kinetic action sequences, it’s a lot of fun, but so much of its running time is weighed down by the need to try and replicate a superhero origin story narrative. It’s an ill fit for both Guy Ritchie and the King Arthur myth, and audiences didn’t care for the end result. The planned sequels — Warner Bros. hoped to make this a six-film franchise — were scrapped soon after a tepid release. If you want a sadly under-performing Guy Ritchie blockbuster that's actually fun, watch perennial SYFY WIRE FANGRRLS favorite The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
These days, The Walt Disney Company is almost synonymous with profit, having come to dominate modern entertainment on a gargantuan scale. During their animation renaissance of the 1990s, they further cemented their reputation as proven hitmakers, helping to reinvent modern pop culture with a steady stream of fairy-tales and re-imaginings of classic stories. 2002’s Treasure Planet was intended to be the latest addition to that narrative. The pet project of Ron Clements and John Musker, the sci-fi retelling of Treasure Island was technically ground-breaking in its blending of animation style. It is a visually inventive feast for the eyes. However, it didn't seem to click with audiences, who were growing increasingly weary of Disney's familiar formula. The movie opened at fourth place on the domestic box office, behind Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Die Another Day, and Disney's own The Santa Clause 2, and it only grossed $109.5 million worldwide on a $140 million budget. Disney wrote off their losses before Treasure Planet even opened. Nowadays, it's garnered a minor but devoted nostalgic fan-base but it's never received the critical reappraisal some of its contemporaries have, and it remains the biggest box office flop in the history of Walt Disney animation.