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!
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