The media will tell you that the communal cultural experience of going to see a movie in a theater is on its way out. While the budgets of the biggest films are going up and up, over the course of 2019 American box office revenue was down five percent. While 2018 had been up one percent, 2017 was a 25 year low. This trend towards stagnation means an ever increasing likelihood that movies will crash and burn at the box office. Let’s have a look through the wreckage…
10. Cats (2019)
This adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1981 stage production had a rocky introduction to the public. That is to say that audiences didn’t so much find Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper’s whimsical visions of people imitating stray cats charming so much as they found it uncomfortably uncanny from the premiere of the trailer on July 18, 2019 on. Of course, even if an ideal balance between cat and human anatomy had been found for the characters, such as using animation (as Steven Spielberg wanted to do in the ’90s), the movie wouldn’t necessarily have had good prospects. Even back when the original premiered, the New York Times bashed Cats for not having “an idea in its head” and that it only “vaguely” attempted a story. Audiences tend to like some plot in even the most idea-free stories, which made the decision to throw $96 million into this production all the more puzzling.
With seemingly everything stacked against it and toxic test audience reception, even $115 million in advertising couldn’t save it. It opened to $6.6 million in the US on December 20, 2019, and its legs/overseas numbers were so bad that a loss of $71 million was assured. With surprising slowness, Universal read the room and withdrew the disaster from Oscar contention. Still, as unsuccessful as it was as a family musical, Cats will probably live for decades as a cult horror spectacle.
9. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
No one was expecting a Star Wars movie to lose money. Since 1977, every Star Wars movie had been highly lucrative, no matter how much it had been attacked by both fans and critics. Even that 2008 animated film The Clone Wars, much cheaper than even the original film after 31 years of inflation and more critically condemned than the punching bag of a movie The Phantom Menace, made more than eight times its budget. So what made this movie based on the origin of one of the most popular characters in the franchise lose Disney money, even at a time when every Disney Star Wars film before and since made more than a billion?
A big part of the problem was a troubled production. The original writer/director team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired part way through production and replaced with Ron Howard, meaning that a huge percentage of the movie was very expensively reshot. It was such a hectic situation that rumors started regarding Alden Ehrenreich supposedly needing an acting coach, although Ehrenreich was adamant to Vanity Fair that the truth was the directors had brought a friend on the production who consulted for the entire cast. Solo also came out only five months after the critically acclaimed but audience-dividing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which left very little time for anticipation for the new movie to build up.
8. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
Despite its obscurity with mainstream audiences, this film at least had some pedigree with the science fiction crowd. Based on the 1969 French comic strip Valerian and Laureline by Jean-Claude Mézières, it either very heavily influenced the art design of the Star Wars original trilogy or bore a staggeringly coincidental resemblance, down from the designs of planets to costumes and plot points (such as putting a character in suspended animation in metal). Luc Besson was relatively hot off his 2014 hit Lucy when the trailer for Valerian was released, so the possibility of a success was there for the $180 million spectacle.
When the film premiered in America to a weak $17 million and test audiences giving it a relatively dismal B-, many fingers were pointed at the casting as the cause for failure. Neither star Dane DeHaan or Cara Delevigne were particularly tall stars, so their relatively similar heights and facial features gave many audience members the subconscious feeling that the romantic leads looked related. Their performances were also criticized for a lack of chemistry and general woodenness. Really though, what actor could deliver dialogue like, “If you don’t help me find Valerian, this bullet is going to find you” convincingly? We have unusually precise numbers for how many people lost their jobs over it. Besson’s production company Eurocorp laid off 22 people, a bit above a quarter of its personnel, in the wake of the release.
7. Town Country (2001)
This movie was not supposed to be a huge production. Originally it was planned to be a relatively modest 1998 release with a budget of only about $45 million. After all, it’s not a spectacle film. It’s a relationship comedy about star Warren Beatty’s character cheating on his wife, and Gary Shandling’s character coming to terms with his homosexuality. So why did the result more than double its budget, get delayed by three years, and end up so bad that the studio never screened it for critics?
According to Michael DeLuca, who greenlit and produced the project for New Line Cinema, the central problem was that the movie began production without a finished script. Hence there were numerous rewrites, reshoots, and the story had no momentum. Even screenwriting legend Buck Henry of The Graduate fame couldn’t fix the script. So it was that this $90 million movie with about $10 million in advertising grossed only about enough to cover its marketing budget. It was the last time Warren Beatty received significant media attention until an Academy Awards show in 2017 that was only slightly less disastrous.
6. A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 Newberry Award-winning novel about the Wallace children traveling through space to save their physicist father from a giant brain has a troubled relationship with the Walt Disney Company. In 1975 Disney attempted to adapt it and abandoned the project. Even worse was in 2003, because there they succeeded and made the embarrassingly cheesy and rushed TV movie of the book, which the author bashed in an interview. Finally in 2018 the story got to inflict its final damage on Disney when its March release failed spectacularly despite performances by such stars as Oprah Winfrey.
Why the failure? Potentially, part of the problem is that the story is just not the kind that’s suitable for motion picture adaptation, since it doesn’t fit neatly into a three act structure. Also, considering the story is the kind where a tesseract (the bending of space time as a means of conveyance similar to the method used in Frank Herbert’s Dune) is explained at length, it’s not really the kind of film with room for pulse-pounding action or whimsy, although critics like Tasha Robinson of Vulture magazine went after it for being childish anyway.
It could also be argued that director Ava DuVernay wasn’t a good fit for the production. Her prior largest project was the relatively modest 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma, which at $20 million had a budget less than a fifth of the one she managed for Disney. Most of her work was also socially conscious dramas and documentaries with tones vastly different than kid-friendly fantasy. It’ll no doubt be awhile before she ever gets hired to make another film like this, and it seems unlikely she’ll even want the gig.
5. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
This is not usually included in lists of legendary movie bombs, if for no other reason than people don’t seem remember it ever existed. It’s certainly not a movie that lacks pedigree. It was made by DreamWorks and stars Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Michelle Pfeiffer. The plot of Sinbad needing to retrieve the Book of Peace is pretty straight-forward, and the quality of the animation has been praised. It also received mixed to decent reviews, with Roger Ebert for one giving it three and a half stars out of four.
Unfortunately, it had the rotten luck of coming out at the same time that Pirates of the Caribbean was redefining the pirate movie paradigm. It also was a 2D movie at a time when 3D movies were becoming fashionable. Thus it joined Treasure Planet and Titan A.E. in the ranks of Early Aughts cartoons that were just barely behind-the-times enough to lose tens of millions of dollars.
4. Monster Trucks (2017)
The first thing audiences heard about this movie about monsters hidden under truck hoods that function as engines was that even before it was released, Paramount’s financials revealed that they expected to lose $115,000,000 on it. The second thing that they heard was that the story for the movie had been literally inspired by Paramount president Adam Goodman’s four year-old son. Not the most encouraging of news.
Adding to this movie’s problems was the fact the main monster Creech was initially so terrifyingly designed that it made children in test audiences scream. Rerendering it into a more “ugly cute” design cost tens of millions of dollars. That helped explain why this movie, which sounds like a combination of a kids cartoon from Nickelodeon in the ’90s and E.T., had its budget climb to $125,000,000. No wonder the studio ended up pushing its release back around two years. Add all that together, and it’s not surprising that it turned out losing $115,000,000 was actually a highly optimistic projection of how bad this project was for Paramount, as it was about ten million short of the real figure.
3. King Arthur Legend of the Sword (2017)
Guy Ritchie is probably still best known as the U.K.’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, in terms of highly stylized gangster movies, so he might seem like an odd fit for a medieval fantasy story. Of course, to many he had seemed like an awkward fit for the Sherlock Holmes films, and those made bank. Plus in this Warner Brothers movie Arthur starts out as a street tough who has to fight his way to the throne, playing more to Ritchie’s style. The fact the actor playing Arthur was Charlie Hunnam, who to this day is still best known for playing Jax on the TV show Sons of Anarchy, was not too encouraging, but it hardly ensured doom.
Critics were consistent that what did the movie in was editing choices. For example, characters are introduced complete with backstories long after they’ve already been part of the action. Monsters are added near the end without set up, let alone explanation. The fights are often too choppy to follow the action properly and get excited by it. Still, at least Guy Ritchie’s abilities served him well enough for 2019’s Aladdin remake to be a smash hit, so he seemed to take the editing lessons of this film to heart.
2. Mortal Engines (2018)
This was not a cash grab or a trend chase. Producer Peter Jackson wanted to adapt the young adult novels of Philip Reeve, featuring cities on gigantic tank treads, to the big screen since at least 2011, but he put that project on hold for five years to make the Hobbit trilogy for Warner Brothers. By 2015, he was still so burned out that he handed the job of directing the adaptation to Christian Rivers, a second unit director for the Middle Earth films. The Mortal Engines books were more niche than they were mainstream hits, and yet even their fanbase had to put up with a change in aesthetics of the book from steampunk to modern, and for the protagonists to be aged up. Universal also had the issue that the leads were not major stars, with the highest profile performer being Hugo Weaving filling in the villain role.
Unfortunately for Universal this movie came at a time when the post-apocalyptic young adult film genre was out of fashion. Critics bashed the film for being overly derivative, and audiences couldn’t work up substantially more enthusiasm, either. At least Peter Jackson had the consolation of his simultaneously released film They Shall Not Grow Old becoming a critical darling and, despite being composed largely of World War I archival footage, grossing more in the US ($17.9 million) than his mega-budget passion project ($15.9 million).
1. John Carter (2012)
There have been attempts to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’s landmark sci-fi story A Princess of Mars to the big screen since 1938. John Carpenter had been developing a John Carter of Mars movie for years. Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton chose the project, bringing 30 years of love for the source material and enough Pixar clout that his demands of no executive interference were met.
Warning signs began flashing when the studio requested footage for the first teaser trailer. Stanton had not scheduled his shoot for the “epic” shots to be completed first, a mistake attributed to Stanton’s inexperience with live action. It left mostly footage that played up the movie’s romance, thus lessening the impact for many viewers’ first impression of the movie.
In interviews, Stanton admitted he had wildly overestimated just how prominent John Carter was in the public imagination. While the story was extremely influential, it had been imitated so much in the decades since its publication that John Carter himself felt like a knockoff. So even as the production scrambled to cobble together footage to sell the movie’s scale, it backfired so badly that a Super Bowl ad actually lessened interest in the movie among test audiences. If nothing else, John Carter and many of the other movies on this list are painful lessons that sometimes if a project is long in Development Hell everyone should just learn to let it go.
Dustin Koski cowrote A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, a book about fairies that have to save their village after everyone turned into monsters.
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