Movie pundits (this one included) enjoy rubbing Hollywood’s nose in its own hubris, and few opportunities are more enticing than an overhyped, monstrously budgeted would-be blockbuster that falls flat on its face. News items delight in flinging Ishtar references hither and yon, citing miserable reviews or crowing about the box office dollars than refuse to come rolling in. But not every movie tarred with that brush deserves the moniker and some so-called “bombs” actually made a tidy profit. The recent kerfuffle over John Carter has brought the issue home to roost, leading us to wonder which supposed flops actually lost money for the studio.
The criteria is tough to determine, thanks to fiendish Hollywood accounting that claims nearly every movie was a financial loser. Public perception of a film’s quality adds to the “flop” moniker as well and the vagaries of a global marketplace (to say nothing of home video) further muddy the waters. A good rule of thumb is to look at the total worldwide gross and compare it to the stated production budget. If the worldwide gross is more than the production budget, the film could be considered a break-even proposition, with video and cable sales covering the cost of advertising. If, on the other hand, it made back significantly less than its production budget, you can pretty much call it a flop.
With those criteria in mind, let’s take a look at ten so-called stinkers. Five of them are genuine bombs, while the other five actually made their nut back… or at least salvaged some dignity. Can you tell which ones are which without peaking? Read on and see.
Having finally worked his way back onto the A-list (with a little help from Quentin Tarantino), John Travolta bet it all on an ambitious adaption of L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction novel. The results, as they say, speak for themselves.
Flop or Not? FLOP. Domestic grosses were a paltry $21 million, with only $29 million grossed in totem worldwide. When placed against a $73 million price tag, there’s not enough creative accounting in the world than can save you.
Warner Bros sometimes has a hard time understanding that just because they own the rights to DC Comics characters doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want to them. You’d think they’d have learned that lesson after Batman and Robin, but apparently not. The Halle Berry version of Catwoman proved more than audience could stand. One look at that costume was all we needed.
Flop or Not? FLOP. Worldwide grosses amounted to $82 million, well short of its $100 million cost. Interestingly enough, the equally toxic Batman and Robin actually grossed $238 million, almost twice as much as its production budget.
George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, announced an ambitious effort to bring Marvel’s iconoclastic sentient waterfowl to life. Unfortunately George Lucas, the creator of Jar Jar Binks and Ewoks: the Battle for Endor, actually ended up making the film. Director William Huyck never worked again and the film is currently spoken of in hushed whispers by those unfortunate enough to have seen it.
Flop or Not? NOT. Believe it or not, the film actually made back its $37 million production budget thanks to overseas figures. Stars Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones and Lea Thompson survived the experience as well and went on to have fruitful careers. Still, I wouldn’t bring it up if you ever run in to any of them.
Back in the days when The Avengers movie was just a gleam in Marvel’s eye, Ang Lee attempted an ambitious new version of The Incredible Hulk. His cerebral tone and Freudian storyline went straight over the heads of most audience members, and prompted a more comics-friendly reboot just five years later.
Flop or Not? NOT. $245 million worldwide places it well above its $150 million price production cost. The reboot did similar numbers, with a $263 million worldwide gross.
Hollywood is full of self-important douches in severe need of a deflating. After an impressive early resume that had critics calling him the next Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan rapidly became that douche. Following a slew of films full of silly characters, bad dialogue and twist endings crammed into the proceedings like a square peg hammered into a round hole, the director stepped away from his own works to adapt a live-action version of Nikelodeon’s well-received Avatar animated series. In the process, he garnered the worst reviews of his rapidly fading career and incensed the very fanbase to whom he hoped to cater.
Flop or Not? NOT. Despite excoriating reviews and an audience ready to string Shyamalan up by his nutsack, The Last Airbender grossed $319 million worldwide… more than twice as much as its $150 million price tag.
When wunderkind Tim Burton set his sights on remaking a sci-fi classic, fanboy hearts leapt. Then the film itself came out, and we could have predicted the results: great visuals, a few strong performances (notably Tim Roth’s evil chimpanzee) but a storyline that made absolutely no sense.
Flop or Not? NOT. Not only was its $362 million worldwide box office well ahead of its production budget, but it made a solid $180 million domestically against a stated production budget of $100 million. That success convinced Fox to eventually bank on this summer’s terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes, bringing a happy ending to more than just the studio accountants.
Edgar Wright entered the ranks of fanboy immortality with his zombie satire Shaun of the Dead. He followed it up with the brilliant Hot Fuzz, and looked ready to repeat the feat with a hyperkinetic adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. The film hit with its core audience… and absolutely no one else.
Flop or Not? FLOP. Its $47 million gross was less than half of its estimated $95 million budget. However, it enjoyed strong critical success and remains a favorite among comic book fans (including this one).
After weathering the disappointing Matrix sequels and angeling an earnest-but-flawed version of V for Vendetta, the Wachowski Brothers hoped to regain their winning form with a live-action version of the ubiquitous anime TV series. Stifling earnestness, a garish visual palette and an opening date just one week after the surprise hit Iron Man shot those hopes down pretty quickly.
Flop or Not? FLOP. $93 million worldwide gross, $120 million budget. Even Asia turned this turkey down.
The space-age update of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic is widely cited as killing 2D animation, as well as the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s.
Flop or Not? FLOP. Its $109 million worldwide total failed to cover its $140 million budget. But like Scott Pilgrim, the film was well received by critics (70% on Rotten Tomatoes) and holds up very well over time: proof that money isn’t always everything.
Critics began sharpening their knives almost as soon as Universal announced this big-budget aquatic post-apocalypse story. Stories of cost overruns fueled the fire and producer/star Kevin Costner’s ego was reportedly running rampant. Plus the notion of The Road Warrior on jet skis sent the Goofy-o-meter clear off the charts.
Flop or Not? NOT. Costner’s gill-man brought in $264 million, more than enough to offset its $175 million production budget. Critics were somewhat kinder than expected too. 43% on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t great, but far better than it could have been.
So where does this leave John Carter? That has yet to be seen. Though its performance is decidedly underwhelming and fans shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for a sequel, its overseas performance is making up for its domestic fizzle. It’s earned just a touch under $180 million in two weeks, and should cruise past $200 million with ease. It might even make back its stated $250 million budget if foreign figures hold. Even if it doesn’t, it’s still nothing compared to some of the disasters it’s been compared to. Ishtar on Mars is overstating the case a great deal… no matter how snappy a title it might make.