Best Box Office Bombs - AwardsCircuit.com - By Clayton Davis

Best Box Office Bombs

If there’s apparently a rather surefire way to be a box office failure these days, it’s to involve the red planet of Mars. We all know how much coverage the underwhelming box office (to date) is for Disney’s expensive would be tent-pole ‘John Carter’ (a film I happened to enjoy, as you can see in my early review here). As disappointing as the take so far must be for the mouse ($55 million domestically as of me starting this article, though the foreign numbers are better…hang tight, I’ll cover all of this in a bit), it was even worse last year for their motion capture flick ‘Mars Needs Moms’, which GLOBALLY was only able to manage $38 million in box office from a budget of $150 million. I’m not actually writing about mars related box office failures (though ‘Red Planet’ was a pretty big bomb and the international markets saved ‘Mission to Mars’, but I digress) or the woes of Disney (which could actually lose $200 million in the end over ‘John Carter’), but actually about how sometimes we get box office failures that don’t deserve their fate. Yes, sometimes bad movies fail at the box office (I’m looking at you ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash’, ‘Battlefield Earth’, and others), but more often good ones do. I decided to sift through the best of the lot that were labeled “bombs” and to find which financial failures were the greatest creative successes. This is obviously on a sliding scale, so don’t expect masterpieces all around, but here are 10 good to great films that didn’t make their budgets back and lost the studios quite a bit of money. Some were victims of their time, some of their bloated budgets, but all are movies that deserved bigger audiences (or better handling), so in a way, they’re all cautionary tales. Let’s dive right in though and see what the best bombs of all time are!

The Fountain (Budget- $35 million Worldwide Box Office- $15.9 million)
Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly ambitious third feature was originally scheduled to be a $70 million epic (of which some significant pre-production money was spent) before it became a modest $35 million production, but it still was only able to make about $10 million in the US at the box office. This is a love it or hate it film, and I consider it one of the 5 best films I’ve ever seen, so I’m obviously in the former category. This has become a cult favorite since its release and is easily one of the most creative films ever to die at the box office. Audiences in the theaters that year just didn’t care about Aronofsky’s vision, and the precursors all but ignored the movie, but he’s had the last laugh since then.

Funny People (Budget- $75 million Worldwide Box Office- $71.5 million)
This doesn’t look like such a big difference between budget and box office until you realize that the domestic cume was only $51.8 million and Judd Apatow’s previous directorial projects had all broken the $100 million mark on far smaller budgets. Despite it not setting the box office on fire like his other works, this dramedy take-off on ‘The Great Gatsby’ (yes, it’s a retelling of Gatsby, and I can explain it further another time if you’d like) is my favorite Apatow work to date. It’s mature and touching while also still being hilarious. Audiences didn’t quite know what to make of this film, and that’s a real shame, as it deserved to be an Oscar player that year.

The Girl Next Door (Budget- $25 million Worldwide Box Office- $18.5 million)
I’ve actually seen some reports that place the foreign takes of this film as high enough to push the worldwide gross towards $30 million, but with at least $26 million being spent on Prints and Advertising, this would be heir to ‘American Pie’ underwhelmed any way that you slice it. It’s a shame too, as this was an incredibly sweet teen rom-com and should have been a massive hit. This is another film (which is a small trend in this piece) that found its audience on DVD and through television as opposed to its initial theatrical release. The film deserved better, but it hasn’t stopped Emile Hirsch from growing into an incredible young actor, nor the movie from emerging as an underrated comedy gem.

How Do You Know (Budget- $120 million Worldwide Box Office- $48.6 million)
This film is the poster child for a solid little romantic comedy that should have cost about $40 million or so, but somehow needed to cost triple that. Here’s one of the main reasons why…the studio opted to pay Reese Witherspoon her $15 million fee, Owen Wilson got his $10 million, though Paul Rudd was a comparable bargain at only $3 million. On top of that, Jack Nicholson’s extended cameo got him $12 million and writer/director James L. Brooks took $10 million plus whatever minimal backend money he had owed to them. That’s $50 million right to start, before they pumped $70 million into actually making the damn thing. The film is just fine, but it’s only good, not great…and when it opened to only $7.4 million on the way to a domestic total of merely $30.2 million, you knew this was going to be a legendarily big flop. The movie is better than its fate, but this is a prime example of how not to make a modest flick into a massive flop. This is an all time bomb.

John Carter (Budget- $250 million Worldwide Box Office- $181.6 million and counting)
Here’s the film on everyone’s mind at the moment, and as I said above and in my review, I think it’s a quality sci-fi flick, though I grant you that it probably didn’t need to cost as much as it did. Also as mentioned above, it’s only grossed about $55 million in the U.S. right now and $126 million abroad, but the film needed to at least double its budget to be considered a success. That’s definitely not happening, and the movie is going from an intriguing flick to a cautionary tale. As the inspiration for this piece, I had to include it, though with so much being written about it I won’t focus much here. I’ll only say that it’s a better movie than its being given credit for, though that won’t make Disney feel any better about its investment…

The Majestic (Budget- $72 million Worldwide Box Office- $37.3 million)
No one can accuse Frank Darabont of playing it safe here with ‘The Majestic’. It was his first non-Stephen King related endeavor and an unabashedly old fashioned film at that. He’d gotten Oscar attention with ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (my all time favorite film) as well as box office acclaim with ‘The Green Mile’, so he all but had carte blanche here. The film itself is excellent, but it was never going to be a blockbuster, and it barely got half of its budget back in the U.S. with a $27.8 million domestic take. Darabont would scale things back in a big way with his next work, an indie horror film ‘The Mist’ (yes, based off of a King work), so maybe he learned his lesson?

Man on the Moon (Budget- $82 million Worldwide Box Office- $47.4 million)
I’m not sure how great a decision it was to give over $80 million to a director wanting to make a biopic of the ultimate cult comedian Andy Kaufman (even if the filmmaker was Milos Forman and the star was Jim Carrey), but the film certainly turned out to be terrific. The thing is, even with Jim Carrey in the lead, it wasn’t the type of movie most Carrey fans wanted, and in America he only drummed up $34.6 million worth of business. He was hoping for an Oscar nomination, but that never materialized, making this seem like even more of a financial failure. It’s certainly a creative success, but in terms of the hard numbers…not so much.

Pirate Radio (Budget- $50 million) Worldwide Box Office- $36.3 million)
If not for this film doing decently in England, we’d be looking at a huge financial disaster here. Originally called ‘The Boat That Rocked’ internationally, it was retitled ‘Pirate Radio’ for the stateside release and was widely ignored, only doing a shade over $8 million in business. I personally loved the film, and cited it on my Top 10 list for The Awards Circuit that year, but I sometimes feel like the only person who actually saw it. The flick is delightful, but it’s going to have to go the cult route to ever actually get any appreciation, since financially it was a pretty big failure.

Strange Days (Budget- $42 million Worldwide Box Office- $7.9 million)
The above number is a bit of a lie, since the global totals weren’t available, but not even cracking $8 million in the states off of a budget over $40 million is pretty bad no matter how you slice it. The Kathryn Bigelow/James Cameron work has developed a strong cult following and is a very good flick, but let’s be real…no one actually saw it in theaters. My colleague Robert Hamer actually offered this up as a personal selection of his, citing it as a gripping thriller that lost so much money it came close to ruining Bigelow’s career. This is the rare time that Robert and I are in complete agreement, hence this movie being included on the list.

Warrior (Budget- $25 million Worldwide Box Office- $23 million)
When I got out of an early screening of ‘Warrior’, I thought we had the next ‘Rocky’ on our hands and a surefire box office smash. How wrong I was. The film barely broke the $5 million mark on opening weekend on the way to merely taking in $13.6 million during its domestic run. Few films last year deserved a better fate than this one, as it was a wonderful sports drama that transcends the genre while also working as an incredible effective genre work in and of itself. This should have made over $100 million, but globally it couldn’t even make a quarter of that. What a shame…though as a consolation prize it received recognition on my Top 10 list last year and got an Academy Award nomination for Nick Nolte in the Best Supporting Actor category.

There you have 10 high quality films that are looked at as financial failures. Essentially, I just want to show that sometimes the movies that are buried at the box office don’t deserve their fate. Plenty do, but these certainly didn’t. Anyway, now it’s your turn. What are your favorite box office bombs? Have at it and let us know!

-Thoughts? Discuss on the Forum!

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When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 200 and 300 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Internet Film Critics Association as well. Today the IFCA, tomorrow the world!
  • Josh P.

    I would also include “Grindhouse” as one of the better films that bombed big at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, the projected budget was $67 million and the worldwide gross was just about $25.5 million, and that includes an incredibly small international take of less than $500,000. I had a ton of fun with that movie, and was quite sad that such a unique movie going experience was lost on most audiences and will never be recaptured again.

    I also don’t know if “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” really counts or not, but the budget is listed as $30 million and the global take was about half that, and I absolutely LOVE that movie.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      I actually had both originally when I was doing 15 films, and then moved it down to 12 and still had them, but I knew they’d be popular reader selections so I opted to cut down to 10. Both definitely count though…

      • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

        I actually remember being at an early screening of Grindhouse, seeing how packed it was and how into it the audience was, and expecting a hit…how wrong I was.

  • sardor

    agree with you strongly on The Pirate Radio, that movie was great. Such shame only a few people saw that one.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Indeed…alas.

  • Exley

    I actually was really disappointed by Pirate Radio. Good music and a good Phillip Seymour Hoffman performance (no surprise there) but other than that I really did not like it. I also liked Funny People but I would not say it’s better than The 40 year old virgin or Knocked Up. You say Funny People is touching and hilarious which I agree with but I think Apatow’s 2 previous films are funnier and even more touching and heartfelt. With The Fountain, it’s got amazing visuals but I feel like there is something I’m missing. I’ve seen it twice and still don’t feel like I really get it. It took me probably three tries to really understand 2001: A Space Odyssey and now it’s one of my favorite movies so I’m gonna give The Fountain another try. Also, I’m another one who absolutely loves The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Can’t win em all I suppose…

  • jmlatinsir2

    On the subject of Pirate Radio. I saw the previews and they didn’t entice me in. Also I didn’t see the subject matter to have appeal stateside. And what was Philip Seymor Hoffman doing in a pic like that. (all these things popped into my head just from the previous).

    I saw The Fountain on DVD, not the best place ot see it, of course, but I had missed it in the theaters and I think Aronofsky is a incredible creative force of one of our most interesting current directors working. However, the who mystical journey left me with a big “blah”.

    I also saw Warrior and liked it a lot. Really baffled why it did so poorly. It was a solid film with a great deal of mass audience appeal. Maybe it needed at star of the Cruise caliber rather than an up and coming Hardy. Still a good flick.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Duly noted.

  • jmlatinsir2

    Just a quick note: Many of today’s film classics were yesterday’s bombs.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Very true…

  • Andrej Bosco

    “Heaven’s Gate”, anyone?
    After thirty years, you American are still unable to understand Cimino’s amazing work?
    And all because of a rollerskating fiddling scene?

    What about “Bringing out the Dead”, the last real Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece before his conversion to fluffy mainstream?
    Martin Ritt’s “The Molly Maguires”? Are Luddites still a taboo compared to Communism in the U.S.?
    Coppola’s “One from the Heart” and “The Cotton Club”? Or is Coppola only the one who gave you Michael Corleone and Lt. Kurtz?

    Also:

    your idea of “all time” = past 17 years.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      I didn’t know that nationality impacted an ability to like or dislike a film…

      • Andrej Bosco

        Trying to answer to my questions instead of making me look like a racist would be a good way, for example, unless you haven’t seen any of the movies I’ve brought up.

        • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

          Racism has nothing to do with it…American isn’t a race, it’s a nationality.

          I have seen your films, and I didn’t select them for multiple reasons, among them the fact that they’ve been written about many times before and I wanted to focus on other selections, and with Heaven’s Gate, I just didn’t care much for it, so it wouldn’t make the cut for me.

          • Andrej Bosco

            Translation: “I just think that Judd Apatow and the guy who shoot a pair of stupid contemporary rom-coms are better than those unpopular drags”.

            They have not “been written about many times”, since “Bringing out the Dead”, for example, got easily forgotten because it was shot exactly between Scorsese’s critically successful Golden Age (the nineties) and his mainstream phase (the ’00s), so people easily forget “Bringing out the Dead” when judging his filmography.

            Ditto for Coppola’s movies, which were shot in the hardest moment of his career, right after “Apocalypse Now” and before he started shooting movies just for cash (but not selling his art out like Scorsese did).

            You didn’t “care much for Heaven’s Gate”: but you did for “The Girl Next Door”, for “Funny People”, for “How Do You Know” and for “Pirate Radio”: this qualifies your credibility as a critic more than any other article you will ever write.

            Critics are supposed to study and to analyze movies, not to “like” them and to be “entertained”: I wonder what you would write about films like “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, “Viagem ao Princípio do Mundo” or “Davandeh”: man, they would make you spill your popcorn!

            • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

              So now a critic must only like certain films? I’ve seen all of the films you’ve referenced…some I like, some I don’t. How does a matter of personal preference when writing about which box office failures I’ve found to be artistic successes take into account whether or not I’ve studied or analyzed film or merely look to be entertained (for example, what do you know of my film history background? You don’t, so it’s folly to assume I don’t know the same films you do, just as I’d never be callus enough to assume I know more than you do). If you don’t like this particular article, fine, but I’d caution you to not question personal taste, as that can backfire.

              And just since I know you’ll love hearing it….I find The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to be very good but slightly overrated, don’t care much for Voyage to the Beginning of the World, and can’t say I liked The Runner nearly as much as most.

              • Andrej Bosco

                “good but slightly overrated”; “don’t care much for”; “can’t say I liked”:

                André Bazin would be so proud of you:
                THAT’s how you judge a movie.

                By the way, any nerd could just google the movie and “build up” an opinion on it in more or less 5 minutes.

                I have written a 150-page essay about Godard’s “Le Mepris” as my graduation thesis and got the highest score at my university with that: what have you done?

                Your top ten actors/actress are ALL american, living and under fifty, your favourite directors are all american and living and your favourite movies were ALL made in the US after 1994 except for a pair of them: do you get asleep in front of a b/w film that is not “clerks.”?
                Do you get sleepy while reading subtitles?
                Have you ever been to a film festival?
                Have you ever seen a movie without eating popcorn?
                Have you ever tried to watch something without expecting to be entertained like a kid at the circus?

                Being considered a critic and a cinema expert where you live must be so incredibly easy.

                • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

                  Thanks for commenting on the article!

                  • Andrej Bosco

                    YOU’RE WELCOME!

                    Can’t wait to see your next one, like “10 Greatest Adam Sandler comedies” or “Is Judd Apatow the next Ernst Lubitsch?” or “Why do even need foreign films anymore”?!

                    • Jessie

                      Wow…someone has a random axe to grind. Sheesh. At least almost everyone else here is respectful in their comments.

                  • Andrej Bosco

                    Comment to your last reply:

                    respect is supposed to be earned.

                    Try to deserve your identity as a critic and film expert and you can deserve all the respect you want.

                    Considering De Oliveira, Naderi, German Expressionism and God knows how many other forms of cinematic art inferior to raunchy US comedies certainly doesn’t make serious and prepared cinéphiles admire you.

                    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

                      Ok.

  • Jessie

    Really interesting article!

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Thanks…

  • WillQ

    The Fountain is the one of the most misunderstood films of this millennium. Seeing that in theaters really was an awe-inspiring experience, it’s a shame it made almost no money here. I would also put Soderbergh’s Solaris in there, if we are going sci-fi, because I think that is criminally underrated, and unfairly vilified by Tarkovsky purists.

    But for me, it is impossible not to include Terrence Malick’s The New World on a list like this. That movie honestly changed my life, and its awful marketing basically cemented its place as a flop before it was even released.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Agreed about both The Fountain and Solaris…

      I don’t love The New World, but I can understand why you do.

  • Kim

    Never understood spending so much on a movie

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Depends on the film…something like How Do You Know is a good example of money being wasted, but certain other films put it on the screen and just can’t make it back in the end.