The 16 Biggest Box Office Bombs of All Time – entertainment.howstuffworks.com

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It takes a hefty financial investment to create a feature film, with modern blockbusters frequently topping $100 million in budget. On top of that, studios have distribution and advertising costs, which can be almost as high as the production budget. This makes large-scale movie releases almost unfathomably expensive. To make that money back, plus a tidy profit, studios have to get butts into theater seats for opening weekend. Then, they hope that critical praise and word-of-mouth buzz can sustain its popularity long enough to make lots of money.
This plan doesn’t always work out, and plenty of films operate at a loss. Some take years to break even, relying on later showings on home media, cable and streaming royalties to get into the black. Some movies flop so hard that they become legendary. It’s those mega-bombs that we’ll be focusing on in this article. Here are the top 16, in reverse order. (Box office figures are taken from Box Office Mojo and are not adjusted for inflation. Advertising and marketing figures are taken from Deadline.)
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This 1980 Western featuring Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Isabelle Huppert and Jeff Bridges has become somewhat of a cult classic, but at the time it was released it was a colossal failure that bankrupted its studio (United Artists). Written and directed by Michael Cimino (fresh off the success of 1978’s "The Deer Hunter"), "Heaven’s Gate" would ruin his reputation and see the Western genre vanish from cinema for a full decade. Cimino was blamed for the debacle, with his vision pushing the film four times over the budget. "Six days into filming, he was five days behind schedule, and had spent $900,000 on a minute-and-a-half of usable footage," reported the BBC.
When the film was finally released, critics said it was pretentious and meandering. Moviegoers found it long and confusing. "Heaven’s Gate" cost $44 million to make. It would have a worldwide gross revenue of just $3.5 million, and the film’s name became a byword for box-office failure. Cimino’s insistence on complete creative control (and the resulting box office diaster) contributed to other film studios insisting on more oversight for future projects. However, in 2012, Cimino and MGM released a 216-minute director’s cut of "Heaven’s Gate" on Blu-ray that received wide critical acclaim and caused audiences to reassess their view of this movie.
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"John Carter" is the perfect example of how a film with a huge budget can be a huge gamble for studios. The 2012 science fiction fantasy film, based on pulp novels from the early 1900s and starring Taylor Kitsch in the title role, had a staggering production and advertising budget of $350 million, and would take a $200 million write-down after grossing $284 million at theaters worldwide. Critics noted that because of the budget, "John Carter" would have to generate ticket sales of $600 million to break even. This would be quite a stretch and didn’t happen. Disney’s huge swing from profit to loss in the second fiscal quarter of 2012 was primarily due to "John Carter," and this led Richard Ross (then-head of Walt Disney studios) to resign. Unfortunately for Disney, this isn’t their only appearance on this list.
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"Stealth" was directed by Rob Cohen, who helmed popular action films such as "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX." But this is one he probably wishes he could take back. Released by Columbia Pictures on a bulging budget of $135 million, it would only pull in $79.3 million at theaters around the world, making it a spectacular loss. The action/science fiction film, starring Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel and Jamie Foxx, was slammed by critics, including Roger Ebert, who labeled it a "dumbed-down Top Gun." In addition to bad reviews, the movie also had to compete with some big winners like "Wedding Crashers" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" at theaters. "Stealth" was one of several financial disasters for Columbia Pictures at the time, including "XXX: State of the Union," "Bewitched," "Into the Blue," "Zathura" and "Rent."
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If you didn’t glance at the budget, it would appear that "Sahara" was a success. It generated $119 million in gross box office sales, and it opened at No. 1 at the U.S. box office. However, the film lost around $105 million after spending $130 million on production and $81.1 million on distribution. The 2005 action-comedy, starring Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz, is one of the most expensive films of its time. It is based on the best-selling book written by Clive Cussler, about an explorer searching for a lost Civil War battleship in the deserts of West Africa. The film ran into legal troubles, with Cussler and producer Philip Anschutz locked in a battle for rights and each blaming the other for the flick’s failure at the box office. "Sahara" was supposed to be the first movie in a franchise of Cussler’s novels, but producers canned this idea following the film’s flop.
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Based on the Michael Crichton novel "Eaters of the Dead" and a loose retelling of "Beowulf," "The 13th Warrior" is infamous for its box office bomb. The production budget started out at around $85 million, but several reshoots along with promotional expenses saw it reach somewhere in the region of $160 million. The film, starring Antonio Banderas, Omar Sharif and Diane Venora, would make just $61.7 million at the box office. In addition to the negative reviews, the picture was also competing with the hit "The Sixth Sense" for moviegoer dollars and came up way short.
The movie has another "claim to fame" — it was so bad it caused Omar Sharif to give up acting for a few years. "Bad pictures are very humiliating, I was really sick," said Sharif. "It is terrifying to have to do the dialogue from bad scripts, to face a director who does not know what he is doing, in a film so bad that it is not even worth exploring."
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The pirate rom-com "Cutthroat Island" sunk Carolco Pictures so badly, it took until 2015 for the studio to relaunch. The film is famous for its shambolic production which included several rewrites, recasts, two dozen crew members quitting after the chief camera operator was fired, a cameraman breaking his leg, raw sewage spewing into the water tank, plus plenty more roadblocks. There was also a scramble to start filming in line with Michael Douglas’ schedule, but he would later pull out — and practically every big star at the time declined to replace him until Mathew Modine came along.
The original $65 million budget ballooned to $98 million, with director Renny Harlin having to cough up $1 million of his own money to drag the production across the finish line. The result was a clichéd script, poor acting and a host of continuity errors. The film pulled just $10 million at the box office, with a marketing budget of about $16 million.
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Following Disney’s spectacular flop in 2012 with “John Carter,” a financial success would be just what the doctor ordered. This is not how 2013’s “The Lone Ranger” worked out, however, struggling to match a production budget of $215 million and a $150 million marketing budget. Critics estimated it would need to earn around $650 million worldwide to break even (after accounting for revenue splits with theater owners), but it would gross just $260.5 million causing unfavorale comparisons to “John Carter.” The Western starred Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, and it was plagued with production troubles from the get-go. "The Lone Ranger" competed with “Despicable Me 2” at the box office on opening weekend, but the former film would make under a third of what the latter made, and on a budget more than three times larger. Since the previous 1981 "Lone Ranger" outing had also been a flop, some wondered if the public no longer cared about this TV staple of the 1950s.
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A science fiction comedy film that is neither adventurous nor funny, "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" would go on to be a box office bomb, universally panned by critics and the small group of folks who went to the cinema to see it. Starring Eddie Murphy, the film is set on the moon in 2087, with Murphy’s character, Pluto Nash, as a nightclub owner who refuses to sell his club to the local mob. The film wrapped in 2000 and sat on the shelf for two years before being released — always a bad sign. Total worldwide gross earnings were $7 million on an estimated budget of $100 million, plus $30 million for distribution. This makes it one of the most expensive bombs of all time, although it would perform better on DVD. "I know two or three people that liked this movie," Murphy later said.
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This romantic comedy about two middle-aged couples (Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton alongside Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling) and their extramarital affairs, featured no CGI animation, action sequences or special effects. Yet it managed to generate a budget of $90 million thanks to a slew of rewrites and reshoots, ultimately taking three years to finish. Anticipating poor performance, New Line Cinema skimped on marketing, compared to the total budget, and spent only $30 million. It also canceled the film’s premiere party. Hostile reviews from critics and moviegoers didn’t help the box office, which grossed a paltry $10 million.
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Based on the Broadway musical based on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, 2019’s "Cats" had a lot of challenges to overcome. This stage production was widely seen as a bizarre show with a mostly nonsensical plot — though it was enormously popular. In the play, actors dress up as cats in elaborate costumes, but the film instead opted to use motion capture CGI, along with a star-studded cast of people like Judi Dench, Idris Elba and Taylor Swift. This didn’t work.
On its debut, audiences and critics derided the animation. It had clearly been rushed to meet the release deadline. To try and fix this, Universal Pictures pushed new cuts of the film with redone effects after it had already hit theaters, but the results still looked creepy and off-putting compared to the traditional play. Add all that on top of a narrative that’s impossible to follow, and you end up with poor box office performance. "Cats" ultimately made $75.5 million on a $95 million budget, plus a cool $115 million in ad spending.
More casually known as "that movie where cities drive around on tank treads," "Mortal Engines" is based on a sci-fi novel of the same name. The plot involves a post-apocalyptic future in which cities like London are converted into mobile war machines and battle other cities for resources. Somehow this wacky narrative commanded a $100 million budget and a further $120 million in advertising.
Despite its eye-catching futuristic setting and impressive special effects, "Mortal Engines" fell back onto a boilerplate young adult fantasy plot. There just wasn’t enough substance to draw audiences in, and even Peter Jackson’s writing and production input couldn’t save the film from the resulting global box office figures of only $84 million.
At some point in his career, director Guy Ritchie pivoted from making gritty crime dramas to schmaltzy adventure flicks. "King Arthur" is a prime example of the latter. Charlie Hunnam starred as Arthur, the young king who pulls the legendary sword from the stone and inherits the throne of Britain.
The movie displayed Guy Ritchie’s usual flair, with over-the-top action and excessive slow motion, but it didn’t woo audiences — probably because they were sick of King Arthur movies. You can hardly count how many Arthurian pictures have been made over the last century, and plenty of them have been more compelling than this modern take. "King Arthur" made $148.6 million worldwide against a $297 million budget ($175 million on production and $112 million on marketing). Warner Bros initially planned a massive saga of six films but quickly canceled the rest.
There have been dozens of successful computer-animated comedies in recent times, but "Mars Needs Moms" is not one of them. The Walt Disney picture had a budget of $150 million, plus $50 million for marketing, but would gross just $39 million at the box office, making it one of the biggest box office flops in history. Some say "Mars Needs Moms" failed due to the subject matter of the film: a mother being kidnapped by Martians, leaving her child alone. Others say the reason was the movie fell into the uncanny valley (the animated humans were too realistic which most audiences found creepy). Ultimately, the movie became one of the biggest write-downs in modern Hollywood history.
This action flick, starring Keanu Reeves and Hiroyuki Sanada, is about a real-life group of samurai in 18th-century Japan. The movie had an official budget of $175 million, but some sources at Universal Pictures alleged that the true cost was $225 million after reshoots. Then the studio spent at least $100 million in additional marketing and distribution costs. Despite all that cash, "47 Ronin" earned only $38 million in the U.S. Although it did better internationally, it was received poorly in Japan where expectations had been high. Critics blamed its poor performance on its Christmas release (competition is particularly high at this time), the length of time to pull off the project and the fact that Keanu Reeves didn’t have a good track record with period pieces. Whatever the reason, "47 Ronin" was a colossal box office bomb.
Like many other film projects, the live-action remake of the beloved animated movie "Mulan" was thrown into flux by the rising COVID-19 pandemic. As a film filled to the brim with spectacle and with many sequences filmed on location in China, its $200 million budget wasn’t so surprising. But no one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect it would have on the motion picture industry. The picture was initially planned for release in late March 2020 but was postponed as theaters began shutting down.
After multiple attempts at rescheduling, Disney settled on pushing "Mulan" to the Disney+ streaming service in September 2020, along with release to some theaters in international markets. The film took in just under $70 million at the box office, with over half of that coming from China. The remake apparently failed to live up to the emotional stakes of the original animated feature. However, Disney scaled down marketing costs to just $50 million because the film was bound for streaming, while at the same time charging Disney+ subscribers an additional $30 to see it. These maneuvers no doubt helped recoup some of the losses.
It’s almost unthinkable for a Pixar film to bomb, but "Turning Red" flopped with style, thanks to The Walt Disney Company’s business decisions. In the U.S., "Turning Red" went straight to Disney+ in March 2022 with no wide theatrical release. Its entire box office take came from select markets in Europe and Asia, resulting in only $20.1 million on a whopping $175 million budget. Similar to Mulan, it likely received marketing and distribution to the tune of $50 million.
The reason for pushing the film to streaming was reportedly because Pixar’s previous film, "Encanto," had underperformed at the box office but was a hit at Disney+. With "Turning Red," many Disney execs probably considered it a worthwhile loss in order to have a big-budget film drive new subscribers to their streaming service. "Turning Red" was the most-watched program across all streaming platforms in the U.S. during most of March 2022.
The movie with the highest lifetime gross is 2015’s "Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens." On a budget of $245 million, it has made over $2 billion worldwide.
Originally Published: Jul 13, 2015
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