Imagine you're a super high-powered movie executive and you've just had the coolest movie idea of the millennium pitched to you. It's "Star Wars" meets "The Notebook" meets "The Godfather" meets "Bridesmaids" meets "Frozen". It's the perfect movie for every audience and it's sure to be a massive hit! Except that when it actually hits cinemas, it's not a hit. In fact, it's a complete disaster, and now your studio is almost bankrupt. It's incredibly difficult to predict how well (or how poorly) a film will do. Audiences are incredibly fickle, and what looks great on paper does not always translate to the screen. When a movie flops, it can cause huge issues for the producing studio, especially if the production was meant to be a "Hail Mary". Here are five movies that were supposed to crown their studios king, but instead brought the producers to their knees.
Heaven's Gate (1980)
Director: Michael Cimino
Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jon Hurt, Sam Waterston, Isabelle Huppert
Budget: $44 million
Box Office Take: Less than $3 million
Loss: $41 million
With such a talented cast, and a director who'd just won an Oscar, you'd figure that "Heaven's Gate" would be a slam dunk. Not so much. The film was a disaster from top to bottom. Michael Cimino was notoriously anal about every shot, often requiring 50+ takes to shoot each scene. The project was a week behind schedule after five days of shooting. Ridiculous construction requests – including building an irrigation system below the field where all of the battle scenes were shot in order to keep the grass green – caused the budget to mushroom dangerously. Originally given $11.6 million to shoot the Western, the Cimino-helmed production grew to cost over $40 million. The first cut of the film was a whopping five hours. Cut down to closer to three hours, it was stomped on by critics and audiences alike. Additionally, so many animals were injured or tortured on the project, that it spawned the legislation requiring the American Humane Society to monitor all animal use on film sets. Upon the film's release, United Artists, the studio behind "Heaven's Gate", found themselves moments away from bankruptcy. However, the studio's sale to MGM, and the release of "For Your Eyes Only" a year later, saved United Artists from disappearing altogether. Interestingly, "Heaven's Gate" is not actually a bad movie. Unwieldy and problematic, yes, but there are flashes of greatness, and solid performances from almost everyone. The contentious, overlong, miserable production process may be what sunk this movie more than anything else.
Director: Elaine May
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Isabelle Adjani
Budget: $55 million
Box Office: $12.7 million
Loss: $42.3 million
"Ishtar" is one of those movies someone should have said "No" to early on. A comedy-adventure about two less than stellar lounge singers who get caught up in a web of international espionage, "Ishtar", was a bit too many things at once. Stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were paid $5 million each for the movie. This was a big deal in 1987. Frankly, it's still a pretty large sum now, but in the 80s, it was unheard of. Both actors were Oscar winners, and each had their own group of rabid fans. Pairing them up in an oddball buddy comedy seemed like a formula for success. Again, not so much. Like, "Heaven's Gate", production problems plagued the shoot from the start. The issues were exacerbated by the open animosity between star, Warren Beatty, and David Puttnam, the studio head of Columbia Pictures, the producing studio. In fact, there were rumors that it was David Puttnam leaking reports of the film's problems to the press, in an effort to sabotage the film. Whether it was him or not, the reports of production problems did have a negative effect on the box office. While the film opened at #1 its first weekend, it was subsequently thoroughly trounced by the opening of "Beverly Hills Cop II", the following weekend. The fact that the film, while entertaining, was not particularly stellar, led to its audience dropping off to nearly nothing almost immediately. Critics were gleefully nasty, though the film is not half as awful as their reviews would make you believe. Ultimately, the damage was done. "Ishtar" was a flop, and Columbia Pictures was struggling. They were saved by the surprise success of "La Bamba", starring Lou Diamond Phillips, which opened two months later. Sadly, director Elaine May, an Oscar-nominated writer, never directed another film.
Cutthroat Island (1995)
Director: Renny Harlin
Starring: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine, Frank Langella
Budget: $115 million
Box Office Take: $11 million
Loss: $104 million
When a movie's tagline is something as all over the place as, "The Course Has Been Set. There Is No Turning Back. Prepare Your Weapons. Summon Your Courage. Discover the Adventure of a Lifetime!", it's safe to say that there might be problems. "Cutthroat Island", much like "Heaven's Gate", was plagued by production issues and onset injuries. The problems began when Michael Douglas had to pull out of the lead role. Renny Harlin, the director, found himself scrambling for a replacement lead. Consequently, he paid very little attention to script rewrites and initial set construction. When he shifted his focus back to the production itself, just before shooting was set to begin, he demanded multiple changes. Disputes between Harlin and the crew resulted in the chief camera operator and nearly thirty crew members quitting on the spot, putting the production further behind schedule. Part way through pre-production, Geena Davis, asked to leave the production, but she was contractually obligated to shoot the project. Renny Harlin tried to leave part way through principal production, but found himself contractually obligated to stay on, as well. Mario Kassar, the primary financier, had completed construction on the set and ships for the film, and secured distribution rights, before the first script was complete. Consequently, everyone was stuck with the project, even though they knew they were essentially filming a sinking ship. Carolco Studios, the producing studio, had two projects in the pipeline in 1995, "Cutthroat Island" and Paul Verhoeven's now-infamous "Showgirls". Both movies were such bombs that Carolco went under.
Mars Needs Moms (2011)
Director: Simon Wells
Starring the voices of: Seth Green, Seth Robert Dusky, Joan Cusack, and Dan Fogler
Budget: $150 million
Box Office Take: $21 million
Loss: $129 million
"Mars Needs Moms" just didn't quite work somehow. While not a bad cartoon by any stretch of the imagination, it just wasn't quite great enough to secure an audience. A cartoon about a boy's mother being abducted by aliens was just not the sort of escapist fare that people looked for in their cartoon entertainment. With stiff competition from so many stellar cartoons, the project simply fell by the wayside. Additionally, experimentation with new technology caused the budget to balloon. The project was shot using extensive motion-capture technology, which had some kinks, and then 3D processed. Adding to the problems, the director and producers decided that Seth Green's voice did not sound young enough for the character. Seth Robert Dusky, an 11-year old actor, was brought in to dub all of the main character's dialogue. When "Mars Needs Moms" opened in over 3000 theaters during the spring of 2011, it took in less than $7 million, earning it the dubious honor of being one of the least successful 3D films ever. Produced by Robert Zemekis' studio ImageMovers Digital (IMD), in partnership with Disney, the failure of the film caused the dissolution of IMD, and ended the subsidiary's partnership with Disney.
47 Ronin (2013)
Director: Carl Rinsch
Starring: Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada
Budget: $175 million
Box Office Take: $38 million
Loss: $137 million
"47 Ronin" was doomed from the start. While Keanu Reeves has been rather unfairly shouldered with the blame for this particular box office bomb, the project was actually sabotaged by the producers and casting director. If you are going to make a film loosely based on a story that is culturally significant to an entire nation, you might want to actually cast someone from that nation in the lead role. The story of 47 disgraced samurai who set out to avenge their master, "47 Ronin" is based on an important part of Japanese history. Making "47 Ronin" with Keanu Reeves was like filming George Washington's life story with Jackie Chan as George Washington. Then the producers chose to open the movie in Japan, and seemed surprised that no one went to see it. It was basically downhill from there. It didn't help that the movie was stunning to look at, but had zero substance. Disagreements between first-time director Carl Rinsch and studio executives at Universal, led to massive script rewrites, extensive reshooting, and the cutting of major characters partway through filming. The result was a film that felt a bit like Swiss cheese. The massive failure left Universal Studios seriously in debt, and scrambling, as they headed into 2014. Luckily, a little $25 million comedy called, "Ride Along" opened a month later in January. It went on to earn $150 million. The following month, "Non-Stop", a Liam Neeson action flick netted the studio a $130 million profit. Universal Studio's monetary woes following "47 Ronin" were quickly alleviated.
These five films are not necessarily the biggest flops. There are other projects, such as "The Alamo", "The 13th Warrior", "John Carter", and "The Adventures of Pluto Nash", that also earn top flop honors. However, these five actually affected each studio's ability to continue producing projects. Future producers of the world – take heed. There are some clear lessons to be learned from these projects. Keep your budget strict. Avoid megalomaniacal directors. Most importantly, don't put all your eggs in one movie basket. You might end up with a turkey.