Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand the word "recession" — no matter how bad the economy gets, the dream factory still keeps making dozens of big budget movies every year. Supposedly, they have it down to a science, carefully focus-testing every frame of film to ensure that it’ll make big bucks at the box office. But sometimes that science fails, as we saw early in 2012 with "John Carter." In this feature, we’ll examine ten movies that lost the most staggering amounts of money and find out why it happened.
Cutthroat Island – 1995
Adjusted for inflation, this is the biggest money-loser in movie history. At the time, though, it seemed like a slam dunk. Director Renny Harlin had just scored two huge hits — "Die Hard 2" and "Cliffhanger" — and star Geena Davis had an Oscar under her belt and public recognition from "Thelma and Louise." So, what went wrong? Everything. The production company, Carolco Pictures, was hemorrhaging money. The distributor, MGM, was being sold so they couldn’t do a marketing campaign. And worst of all, the movie stunk. A tepid swashbuckling adventure that followed too closely after the release of "Waterworld" wasn’t what anybody wanted to see, and it got decimated on opening weekend by surprise hit "Toy Story" (then in its fifth week of showings). "Cutthroat Island" cost an estimated $115 million to make and market, and pulled in barely $18 million in revenue, killing Geena Davis’s career as a leading woman and making pirates a forbidden subject in Hollywood for years to come.
The Alamo – 2004
Here’s another film that seems like it should have made huge money. Ron Howard is one of the industry’s most bankable go-to guys for big historical pictures, and the story of the defense of the Alamo during the Texas Revolution is one of America’s most enduring stories. Director John Lee Hancock was a native Texan who obviously had a passion for the material. It’s got legendary figures like Davy Crockett and James Bowie and was perfectly timed to capture the gung-ho American spirit after 9/11. So how did it turn out so damn badly? Well, it was boring. Critics weighed in that for all the sound and fury, the film spent more time setting up the battle than showing it. At the box office, it was steamrolled by "The Passion of the Christ." With a production cost of $145 million and under $30 million in revenue, it was a serious blow for Touchstone Pictures. Hancock bounced back five years later, though, with "The Blind Side."
The Adventures Of Pluto Nash – 2002
Sometimes a studio knows they have a bomb on their hands, but like the 1960s Batman movie teaches us, a bomb can be hard to get rid of. Case in point: "The Adventures of Pluto Nash." During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Eddie Murphy was probably Hollywood’s most bankable black actor. He had a tremendous string of hits that gave studios confidence in his ability to deliver audiences. Then, "Pluto Nash" happened. With a script originally written in the 1980s, the flick was supposed to hit theaters in 2000, ready to cash in on the success of "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." But when Warner Bros. got the final film, they realized that they had a huge stinker and shelved it for two whole years, eventually releasing it in the late summer “dead zone” to minimize competition. It didn’t work. With a production budget of over $120 million, Pluto Nash — a dismal sci-fi comedy ripe with fart jokes — brought in just $7.1 million worldwide.
Sahara – 2005
It’s kind of insane how movie budgets have climbed in the last few decades. We can remember when people were making a stink that "Titanic" cost $100 million. Nowadays, that’s chump change to Hollywood. When a movie does well, nobody cares. When it doesn’t, well, that’s where "Sahara" comes in. First strike against the movie was that it was the first theatrical film by Breck Eisner, the son of Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Second, author Clive Cussler (who wrote the novel the movie was based on) sued the production company. And third, the flick went grossly over budget in both production and marketing. Huge special-effects scenes, costing millions of dollars, were shot and then left on the cutting room floor. Almost a quarter of a million dollars went to bribing Moroccan government officials. At the end of the day, "Sahara" cost over $241 million to make, and even though it did OK at the box office, it still lost Paramount Pictures almost $80 million dollars.
Mars Needs Moms – 2011
One of the more recent bombs on this list has a pretty tragic backstory. Robert Zemeckis was one of Hollywood’s most innovative and technologically experimental directors in the 1980s, with classics like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" and the "Back to the Future" trilogy under his belt. But in the early 2000s, the director started to get obsessed with motion-captured CGI technology and pulled away from human actors to make dreck like "The Polar Express." His production company partnered with Disney to make "Mars Needs Moms," based on a children’s book by Bloom County cartoonist Berke Breathed. It cost a staggering $150 million to make and tanked hard at the box office, earning a meager $38 million. That’s a loss of over $110 million dollars. It’s the worst-earning film Disney has ever made, which is saying a lot. Robert Zemeckis doesn’t seem to realize how bad the flick was, publicly stating it was “the best 3D movie since 'Avatar.'”
The 13th Warrior – 1999
Here’s another flick that seemed to have nothing but potential, only to crash and burn when the curtains opened. Based on the novel "Eaters of the Dead" by "Jurassic Park" scribe Michael Crichton, "The 13th Warrior" starred Antonio Banderas as an exiled Persian poet who falls in with a group of Vikings and helps them battle a group of savage cannibals. Unfortunately, early test screenings of the film were so bad that the studio pushed director John McTiernan out and put Crichton in the director’s chair. The author had directed a few films in the 1970s, but wasn’t cut out for helming a big-budget historical epic, and costs for the movie quickly rocketed up to $160 million. When it opened in 1999 — a year after its original release date — it was crushed by "The Sixth Sense," which had already been in theaters almost a month. "The 13th Warrior" ended up losing the studio almost $100 million.
Town & Country – 2001
One thing that you’re probably noticing on this list is that a lot of big-budget bombs squander cash on special effects and don’t make it back in ticket sales. That’s an understandable scenario, but how do you explain the incredible tanking of "Town & Country"? It was just a romantic comedy starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, for God’s sake, how could that cost $90 million to make? Blame the star. Beatty pocketed $5 million up front, in defiance of his rapidly fading star value, and then proceeded to make production a living hell by demanding multiple takes of every single shot. Since without Beatty there’d be no movie, the director gave in and filming stretched over two years. That’s a hell of a lot of money right there. America also wasn’t interested at all when it opened in 2001, and "Town & Country" barely brought in $10 million, leaving New Line holding the bag for $80 million in losses. It was Warren Beatty’s last film as of press time, which is probably for the best.
Speed Racer – 2008
I can’t think of a pair of filmmakers more unpredictable than the Wachowski siblings. As brothers, they made the first "Matrix" movie, which totally redefined the way we think about action filmmaking. Then they made two bloated, confusing sequels that took away all that goodwill. They followed it up with "V for Vendetta," inspiring hordes of Anonymous worldwide. And then … "Speed Racer." The live-action adaptation of the classic cartoon series was doomed from the start. Warner Bros. bought the rights in 1992 and it went through a laundry list of talent — J.J. Abrams, Johnny Depp, Hype Williams — before the Wachowskis were brought on in 2006. Filmed in high-definition video with an unusual compositing technique, "Speed Racer" was absolutely crazy to look at. Unfortunately, moviegoers weren’t interested, despite $120 million in production costs and another $80 million in marketing. The movie tanked hard, losing $114 million of that money.
Heaven’s Gate – 1980
The oldest film on this list, "Heaven’s Gate" redefined what it meant to be a box office bomb. Director Michael Cimino was one of the hottest talents in town in the late 1970s. His "The Deer Hunter" was one of the decade’s best films, so when United Artists came to him and gave him carte blanche for his next feature, his ambition was at its peak. The result was "Heaven’s Gate," a Western epic that would become synonymous with box office failure. Telling the story of immigrants and land owners in Wyoming during the Johnson County War, production was plagued by delays and endless retakes. Cimino’s original cut was more than five hours long, which obviously was incredibly out of line with Hollywood standards. The film as released was three and a half hours long and only played for a single week. A re-cut version was later released and did no better. "Heaven’s Gate" made $1.3 million on a budget of $44 million. Interestingly enough, a re-edited 2012 release won raves from critics, proving that there might have been something there after all.
Next: 12 So-Called Sequels With No Original Cast Members
Stealth – 2005
One of the most dependable Hollywood products is the big summer action blockbuster. Get a few hot stars, some hot technology and a serviceable script and you can guarantee that audiences will want to beat the heat and come see your flick. Unless, of course, they don’t. On the outside, it looked like "Stealth" had everything: foxy young Jessica Biel for the dudes, Jamie Foxx for the urban audience, Josh Lucas for the ladies and a bunch of planes blowing each other up. What it didn’t have, though, was a story that made any sense. In 2005, nobody is going to believe that a robot plane can get hit by lightning and develop a personality. That, along with many other idiocies, led "Stealth" to be panned by critics and decimated at the box office by "Wedding Crashers" and even dimly remembered superhero family film "Sky High." "Stealth" cost $170 million to make and promote, but like its namesake went completely unnoticed at the box office, pulling in just $77 million.