The Biggest Box Office Bombs Of All Time - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The Biggest Box Office Bombs Of All Time

What's the biggest box office bomb of all time? We look back in Hollywood history to find out.

In our look at the most expensive films ever made, and our article on the highest grossing films of all time we began a 100 years ago at the height of the silent era of cinema. But with production costs being much cheaper then, and investors less likely to take a punt on anything other than a sure thing, it was incredibly rare for, what was deemed at the time, expensive movies to not even make back their nominal production costs. Of course, not every film did and movie studios were often left out of pocket. Never by much though. Not until 1964.

Note: The adjusted for inflation figures are calculated at year end 2018, unless otherwise mentioned.

First Film To Lose More Than $10 million
1964's The Fall Of The Roman Empire arrived at a time when film's like Cleopatra, Ben Hur et all were packing them in at the local theaters. It's considered by many as unusually intelligent and thoughtful for a film of the contemporary sword and sandal genre and also enjoys a 100% "Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It features the largest outdoor film set in the history of film, a 92,000 m2 replica of the Roman Forum, just one of the reasons why it had a production budget of $18,436,625.

The Fall Of The Roman Empire had its World Premiere at the Astoria Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London on March 24th 1964 and ran there for an astonishing 70 weeks. So it clearly did great business in the UK. Unfortunately it's U.S. tally was minuscule, forcing its producer Samuel Bronston to post a bankruptcy notice in the New York Times on 6th August 1965.

All in, The Fall Of The Roman Empire took $4.8 million, losing $14.3 million, which when adjusted for inflation equates to $116 million!

First Film To Lose More Than $20 Million
We jump to 1980 for our next box office, and another historical affair in the form of Heaven's Gate. The American epic Western film written and directed by Michael Cimino was loosely based on the Johnson County War, and portrayed a fictional dispute between land barons and European immigrants in Wyoming in the 1890s.

There were major setbacks in the film's production due to cost overruns, endless retakes, negative press (including allegations of animal abuse on-set) and rumors about Cimino's allegedly authoritarian directorial style; the film resultantly opened to scathing reviews, earning only $3.5 million, from an estimated $44 million budget.

Heaven's Gate effectively destroyed Cimino's reputation as a filmmaker. He'd previously been a rising auteur from the success of his 1978 film The Deer Hunter, and had won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1979. Cimino's expensive and ambitious vision pushed the film nearly four times over its planned budget, resulting in financial problems and United Artists' consequent demise.

The final tally is a loss of $40.8 million. Adjusted for inflation that's $123 million!

First Film To Lose More Than $50 Million
As production costs increased, director's visions became more elaborate, and Hollywood megastars commanded higher and higher salaries, the 1980s and 90s saw a flurry of major box office bombs. Among them; 1987's Ishtar which lost $40.6 million, and 1991's Hudson Hawk which lost $47.8 million. No one film managed to lose more than $50 million though, not until 1995 when Cutthroat Island not only landed that record but more than doubled it for a total loss of $105 million!

Cutthroat Island was, essentially, a wedding present from director Renny Harlin to his new wife Geena Davis. Harlin was insistent Davis was the lead, even though she was not known at all as an action-adventure star. The whole production was notoriously troubled and chaotic, involving multiple rewrites and recasts. Production company Carolco Pictures was already deeply in debt when the film entered pre-production, yet they took a massive gamble and initially budgeted $60 million for Cutthroat Island, pinning hopes for survival on the success of the film. To fund this endeavor, the cash-starved company cancelled its only other project under production, "Crusade" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, losing $13 million in the process but freeing up additional money for Cutthroat Island. It also sold a $20 million interest in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls and Stargate. Then the costs started mounting up further and, as they say, in for a penny in for a pound, Carolco ended up funding Cutthroat Island to the tune of $115 million!

Upon release the film received negative reviews for the script, acting, and unrealistic stunts. It opened in 13th place at the U.S. box office on week of release, taking a little over $10 million worldwide, contributing to the demise of the Carolco Pictures, and of Geena Davis as a bankable star.

First Film To Lose More Than $105 Million 
From 1997, Cutthroat Island was listed in The Guiness Book Of Records as the biggest box office bomb of all time, and for the next decade+ no single film managed to topple its losses. Some came close, of course, like 2003's Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas, which was the major contributing factor in Dreamworks losing a total of $125 million company wide that year (that loss wasn't just from Sinbad, although many sources believe it's responsible for around $90 to $100 million of the total). Animation proved to be very hit or miss with 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within losing $94 million, and the previous year's Titan A.E. losing $100 million. In the live action department, 2004's The Alamo lost $94 million, $2 million less than the following year's Stealth. That same figure was written-off for the 2002's Eddie Murphy 'comedy' The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

Then in 2011 along came Mars Needs Moms, the Disney produced 3D computer-animated motion-capture science fiction adventure family film, based on the Berkeley Breathed book of the same title.

Mars Needs Moms holds the title for the worst financial loss for any Disney-branded animated film. Its $150 million budget returned just $39 million worldwide, for a loss of $111 million.

For once, it wasn't safe to bet on the Mouse.

Er, make that twice...

First Film To lose More Than $125 Million
Things get a little bit tricky here, but stick with us as there's some explaining to do, and 2012's John Carter is a good way to do that 'splaining.

At the time of its release Disney claimed John Carter's production budget was $250 million, although tax returns released in 2014 revealed its exact budget was $263.7 million, and that was after taking extensive tax credits into account. Now this was solely the nominal production cost. When it came to the marketing budget for the film that was something else entirely. Disney spent big time, perhaps because prior to its release film analysts were already predicting John Carter would flop and be a huge financial failure. Two bombs in two years would not do, so to counteract the already bad press Disney threw the weight of their mighty advertising department behind John Carter. Just how much they spent is still unknown to this day. However, Paul Dergarabedian, president of noted,
John Carter's bloated budget and marketing costs would have required it to generate worldwide tickets sales of more than $600 million to break even.
It didn't make $600 million. Nowhere near. Indeed, on May 8th 2012, the Walt Disney Company released a statement on its earnings which attributed the $161 million deterioration in the operating income of their Studio Entertainment division to a loss of $84 million in the quarter ending March 2012 "primarily" to the performance of John Carter and the associated cost write-down.

John Carter went on to gross $284.1 million worldwide. Admittedly, that is $20 million more than its production budget, but when you factor in the huge marketing budget, even if we err on the side of generosity, Disney's had to shoulder a loss of at least $126 million. Some sources claim that figure is closer to $200 million!

Must be something about Disney films with the word "Mars" in their title, eh?

The Biggest Box Office Bomb Of All Time
Hold your horses, Tonto, it's not The Lone Ranger. But the 2013 film is definitely worth mentioning here. It grossed only $260.5 million worldwide against a $250 million production budget and an estimated $130 million in marketing costs. It ended up losing $124 million upon release, just shy of John Carter's loss, and resulted in three massive flops for Disney across three years, causing them to rethink their strategy and mine the past with these new live action remakes their so fond of now.

Both The Lone Ranger and John Carter's losses would be toppled five years later by yet another Disney release, which gives Disney three of the top five spots in the list of biggest box office bombs of all time. None of them can touch the movie in pole position though.

As you will see below, the box office bomb has definitely become more prevalent over the last decade, with those rising production, advertising and star salary costs hitting many a film badly.

The top ten biggest box office bombs of all time, unadjusted for inflation, reads as so...
  • =8. Cutthroat Island (1995) - $105 million loss
  • =8. How Do You Know (2010) - $105 million loss
  • =8. Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) - $105 million loss
  • 7. Monster Trucks (2016) - $109 million loss
  • 6. Mars Needs Moms (2011) - $111 million loss
  • 5. King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017) - $114 million loss
  • 4. The Lone Ranger (2013) - $124 million loss
  • 3. John Carter (2012) - $126 million loss
  • 2. A Wrinkle In Time (2018) - $130.6 million loss
  • 1. Mortal Engines (2018) - $174.8 million loss

Interestingly, within the space of six months both the highest grossing films of all time and the biggest box office bomb of all time were released. The former, Avengers: Endgame, the latter, Mortal Engines.

The film adaptation of the post-apocalyptic book series was incredibly heavy on the special effects, which do not come cheap. All in, $258.5 million was spent on the production and marketing, but worldwide the film made just $83.7 million, losing Universal Pictures a staggering $174.8 million. Nothing else in that top ten comes anywhere near that figure.

Disney's A Wrinkle In Time sits in second place, again thanks to expensive special effects and a lackluster story/edit which really failed to connect with its target audience. The 2018 release cost the House of Mouse dearly, to the tune of $130.6 million.

The most surprising entry in the top 10 is 2010's How Do you Know. RomComs traditionally have quite minor budget's but The combined salaries for the director James L Brooks (about $10 million) and the four major stars Reese Witherspoon ($15 million), Jack Nicholson ($12 million), Owen Wilson ($10 million) and Paul Rudd ($3 million) totaled $50 million alone - it only made $48.7 million theatrically! Then there was Brooks' "slow and meticulous" production and post-production, and you have yourself a $105 million deficit.

But when we adjust for inflation, how do things stand? Well, for one thing, eleven films make up our top ten...
  • =10. Heaven's Gate (1980) - $123 million loss
  • =10. Stealth (2005) - $123 million loss
  • 9. The Alamo (2004) - $125 million loss
  • 8. A Wrinkle In Time (2018) - $131 million loss
  • 6. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) - $133 million loss
  • 6. The Lone Ranger (2013) - $133 million loss
  • 5. The Adventures Of Pluto Nash (2002) - $134 million loss
  • 4. John Carter (2012) - $138 million loss
  • 3. Titan A.E. (2000) - $145 million loss
  • 2. Cutthroat Island (1995) - $173 million loss
  • 1. Mortal Engines (2018) - $174.8 million loss
A big leap for Cutthroat Island into second place, but it seems unlikely Mortal Engines will be caught for many a year to come. After all, inflation will affect all of the films equally from here on out, so unless some production house somewhere makes a catastrophic error of judgement and bets the house on what the think will be the next biggest cinematic event of all time only for it to completely bomb unexpectedly, well, that never happens does it?

Seriously though, it'll take some doing to manage to lose over $175 million on any film. Mind you, Avatar 2 is only a little over a year away, and it's already reportedly had $250 million spent on it. We haven't even got to marketing yet, so you could potentially nearly double that by the time of release, and yet is anyone really crying out for this sequel? Maybe, just maybe Disney will get themselves another spot on the biggest box office bombs of all time.

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