15 Summer ‘Blockbusters’ That Completely Tanked at the Box Office
Summer, according to a normal calendar, begins in late June and ends in late September. Summer, according to Hollywood studios, lasts quite a bit longer, because they’re trying to squeeze every last dollar out of that blockbuster-filled “summer movie season” we all love (or love to hate) so much.
Ever since films like Jaws and Star Wars established a model for ambitious, FX-filled features that could make a lot of money, studios have been tinkering with blockbusters in the summer. Sometimes the real money-making potential is in the stars, sometimes it’s in the intellectual property, sometimes it’s in the massive visual effects, and sometimes it’s all of the above. Whatever the case, it’s a business model that isn’t going anywhere, and as with any continuous Hollywood trend, it’s bound to produce a few flops.
While the 2021 summer movie season is just beginning to spring back to life following a tough year due to the pandemic, here are 15 past films—all filled with blockbuster potential—that failed, often spectacularly, upon arriving in front of audiences. Notice: We said summer, referring to the summer movie season that begins roughly in May these days and continues until the fall, so if a movie tanked in December, it’s not included here. Also notice: We said “blockbusters” in the headline, which means that through budget or casting or both, these were films with big intentions that produced not-so-big results, even if they’re often beloved years later.
1. Ishtar (1987)
A film released in mid-May would not have been considered a “summer movie” in 1987, but it very well would be now, and the history of Ishtar as one of cinema’s most infamous flops is too fascinating to pass up. Ishtar was the brainchild of Elaine May, a legendary improvisational comedy performer who’d made a name for herself as a screenwriter, director, and script doctor throughout the 1970s and '80s. When May did uncredited rewrite work on Reds, one of the great triumphs of Warren Beatty's career, the actor was determined to pay her back somehow, and decided to offer his talents as star and producer for a project that would afford her top Hollywood talent and the freedom to make a film she wanted.
May, a fan of the classic Bing Crosby/Bob Hope road movies like Road to Morocco, offered a new comedic riff on that concept, with a twist. Beatty would play against his ladies man type and be the comedic klutz à la Bob Hope, while Dustin Hoffman (who credited May with saving his film Tootsie and was coaxed into the production by Beatty despite being unsure of the script) would play the ladies man, à la Bing Crosby. With the key talents in place, the production began … and then things started to go wrong. May’s blend of indecision and perfectionism meant that hours were wasted arguing about things like camera placement, while shooting on location in Morocco (as opposed to California) meant dealing with everything from a lack of local cooperation to guerilla fighters and land mines in the region, and May spent much of the on-location work completely wrapped up in shawls or under tents.
When it came time to edit the film, May had produced more than 100 hours of footage, at least three times what a typical comedy of the time would be. Post-production stretched on, with its own various arguments and issues, and the film completely blew past its Christmas 1986 release date. To make matters worse, much of this production drama was being documented in the Hollywood press, which dubbed Ishtar and its ballooning budget “Warrensgate.” It’s a very, very long story, but Ishtar finally rolled into theaters in 1987 with a massive budget, a whole lot of bad blood between various people involved, and journalists eager to document a notorious flop. That’s exactly what happened. Though Ishtar is not as bad as its reputation, it was a bomb, earning $14.37 million domestically from a $55 million budget.
2. Super Mario Bros. (1993)
If you happened to be alive in 1993, and you weren’t an infant, there’s a good chance you remember how big Super Mario Bros. was. It might not have been the first hit video game, but in the age of Nintendo, Mario and his brother Luigi had become the hit video game. A movie seemed inevitable, even in a time before video game movies were common. So, a movie arrived … and then quickly plummeted.
A host of tonal clashes and other production troubles led to the film going through multiple directors and writers, including one who was asked to write a new script just a week before principal photography was set to begin. The initial idea was to make a Mario film that had an edge, because the video game was played by adult consumers almost as much as children. It never worked, the production never quite came together, and the finished film is something that barely resembles its internationally famous source material. The film arrived to negative reviews and ultimately earned just shy of $21 million at the box office, less than half of its reported budget. Bob Hoskins, who played Mario in the film, later called it “the worst thing I ever did.”
3. The 13th Warrior (1999)
The 1990s were a great time to have a Michael Crichton project on your hands. After the bestselling author landed one of the most influential blockbusters of all time with Jurassic Park, studios were eager to adapt his other work. That led to Disclosure, Rising Sun, The Lost World, Congo, Sphere, and The 13th Warrior.
Adapted from Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead, itself loosely based on Beowulf, the film had all the makings of a medieval epic, and blockbuster director John McTiernan (Die Hard) was hired to give it blockbuster appeal. McTiernan shot the film in 1997 for a release the following spring, but then the release was pushed to later in 1998 in the hopes of creating a summer event. Those hopes were dashed when audiences didn’t respond well to test screenings. With McTiernan out as director, Crichton reshot much of the film, and The 13th Warrior (as it was then called) hit theaters in the summer of 1999. While the critical reaction wasn’t completely dismal, the box office was lackluster. Low ticket sales combined with the cost of reshoots meant the studio may have lost as much as $130 million on the film in the end.
4. Battlefield Earth (2000)
It’s possible that no film has ever been as synonymous with a total flop as Battlefield Earth, the big-screen adaptation of science fiction author and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s epic novel of the same name. The film was almost universally panned for bad acting, weird Dutch angles, and goofy costumes, among other things, and its reputation endured so much that by the end of the 2000s the Golden Raspberry Awards declared it their pick for “Worst Picture of the Decade.” The film went far beyond a mere critical failure, though, only earning back about $29.7 million of a reported $73 million budget (and keep in mind that those budgets often don’t factor in marketing costs).
What went wrong? According to writer J.D. Shapiro, who came up with the initial pitch and script for the film after meeting star and prominent Scientologist John Travolta, he was fired from the production after receiving a series of new directives on how to rewrite the film. Shapiro claimed his original draft bears little resemblance to what ended up onscreen, and that he heard that Travolta requested the changes because Battlefield Earth was Hubbard’s pick for the book he must wanted to see a film version of, and had left numerous notes on his ideas. Shapiro owned the failure, though, penning an infamous New York Post editorial on the film and accepting the Worst Picture Golden Razzie in person.
5. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Final Fantasy might not be a video game franchise quite on par with Super Mario Bros., but it’s still a massive and enduring success that’s been running for more than 30 years, so a big-screen adaptation of it would make sense. For The Spirits Within, video game developer Square (now Square Enix) turned to its own newly formed studio—Square Pictures—to create an extremely photorealistic animated film. The groundbreaking animation techniques worked. The visuals are indeed stunning, and realistic enough that one of the film’s characters appeared alongside real women in Maxim magazine, but nothing else about the film worked.
Critics praised the animation but didn’t like the story; Final Fantasy fans didn’t like the story’s departure from the games they loved; and everyone else just didn’t show up. The Spirits Within ended up costing nearly $170 million to produce, and lost Square Pictures $81.8 million. The failure was drastic enough that Square Pictures folded in 2002.
6. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)
The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Eddie Murphy’s sci-fi comedy about a smuggler turned lunar nightclub owner, might not have the same reputation as other films on this list do—but that’s only because almost no one saw it. The film was supposed to come out far sooner than its August 2002 release, but was delayed because of re-shoots and poor test screenings, to the point that Warner Bros. eventually just decided to roll out the film without any real promotion or screenings for press. The critics who finally did see the film largely hated it, but the real proof of Pluto Nash’s bomb status is in the box office. From a reported budget of about $100 million, it made just $7.1 million worldwide. Not every Eddie Murphy movie can be The Nutty Professor, but this particular failure was downright astronomical.
7. Stealth (2005)
At one point, Sony Pictures was very high on Stealth, director Rob Cohen’s action film about a group of pilots dealing with new sci-fi stealth technology. The studio put it on the fast track to a prime summer 2005 release and poured a lot of money into marketing it, particularly after co-star Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar earlier that same year. Sadly, Stealth went the same route as other big films released on the heels of major awards seasons for their stars.
Even with early box office tracking looking poor, the film performed worse than imagined on its opening weekend, finishing in fourth place and earning less than $14 million. The total box office take ultimately came in just shy of $77 million against a $135 million budget, while critics panned it as a ripoff of Top Gun.
8. Evan Almighty (2007)
Evan Almighty had a reported budget, before marketing, of $175 million, in 2007. That might not sound unusual now if you’re talking about a huge action movie with a handful of major stars to its name, but this was a sequel to a comedy about a man who was temporarily granted God’s powers. Bruce Almighty, the original film, made more than $480 million worldwide when it was released in 2003, but it starred Jim Carrey and Jennifer Aniston—two of the biggest stars in the world at the time—and cost just $81 million to produce. Bruce plays God, but the film isn’t exactly packed full of extravagant setpieces. For Evan Almighty, the studio decided to go bigger, much bigger, to the point that the film had the distinction of being the most expensive comedy ever produced at the time.
Steve Carell, who played Evan, was already an acclaimed comedy star, but he didn’t have Carrey’s proven box office draw. All of that, plus the massive costs of visual effects and live animals on the set, led to the film earning just under its reported budget at the box office. When you factor in promotional costs and the cut theatrical distributors take from a film’s earnings, that means the studio had to take a loss.
9. COWBOYS & ALIENS (2011)
Cowboys & Aliens is another one of those big genre projects that seems to have all the right ingredients for success, and then just fizzles. It was director Jon Favreau’s next project following dual hits Iron Man and Iron Man 2, and starred Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford: James Bond and Indiana Jones, sharing the screen while they battle aliens in the Wild West. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Sadly, Cowboys & Aliens just never connected with audiences. Despite a critical reception that was at least mixed, the film’s box office returns were barely enough to earn back its $163 million budget. That’s not a massive flop on the scale of The Adventures of Pluto Nash, but this was a post-Iron Man Jon Favreau action movie being released in 2011 with Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig as the leading men. To say everyone involved expected better when they set out to make this movie would be an understatement.
10. THE LONE RANGER (2013)
On paper, The Lone Ranger had many key ingredients that could have made it a hit: an attractive young star (Armie Hammer, before all the bad publicity hit) looking for his big action movie break, a seasoned fan favorite actor (Johnny Depp) in a quirky supporting role, and the director (Gore Verbinski), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer), and screenwriters (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) who helped build the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise into a Disney behemoth.
The first public sign of trouble came in 2011, when Disney halted production on the project over reported budget concerns. The filmmakers eventually returned to work, but Disney was reportedly still concerned about the return on its investment. The concerns were warranted. The Lone Ranger failed critically and commercially, despite its creators insisting the film would one day be appreciated. In the end, Disney reported during an earnings call that the film would lose them somewhere between $160 and $190 million.
11. R.I.P.D. (2013)
“Ryan Reynolds in a comic book movie” sounds like a great idea now in the era of Deadpool, but five years ago things were a bit different. Though Green Lantern might receive the most mockery now, R.I.P.D. is perhaps the best example of this. Based on a Dark Horse comic book about a pair of deceased cops who have to hunt paranormal fugitives in our world, it basically looked like Men In Black meets Ghostbusters without the same appeal of either. As the film’s box office projections dropped, Universal scaled back some of its marketing and didn’t screen it for critics. Basically, they knew R.I.P.D. wasn’t going to work. The film was received poorly by both critics and the audiences that did see it, and made back only $78 million of its reported $130 million budget.
12. Fantastic Four (2015)
With so many of the films on this list, it’s not hard to understand why a studio would have wanted to pursue a Fantastic Four movie in 2015. Fox, which also owns the film rights to Marvel’s X-Men characters, wanted to take another shot at the franchise after two previous Fantastic Four films did moderately well (even with middling reviews) in 2005 and 2007. It’s also not hard to understand why they’d want to pursue the movie with this team: Director Josh Trank was riding high from his breakout indie hit (which also deals with superpowers) Chronicle, and his chosen stars to play the titular team—Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, and Kate Mara—were all rising stars at the time, full of acclaim and potential. What happened next was a combination of many things, some of which matter more than others, depending on who you ask.
There was the racist backlash against Michael B. Jordan playing the Human Torch, the whispers of Marvel sabotaging its own comic book property from afar by canceling the Fantastic Four’s monthly series, the worries over Trank’s decision to make the film about younger superhumans and how they deal with getting their powers, and more. Then there were the rumored reshoots. You can see at least some evidence of this in the finished film (Mara’s hair seems to rather abruptly change color at times), and much of the final act does morph from emotional journey for young and confused heroes to a big CGI battle, but the best confirmation of this came from Trank himself.
On the eve of the film’s release, he tweeted a cryptic message about a version of the film audiences will “probably never see,” which he then deleted. It was widely viewed as confirmation that the film he wanted to make had indeed been heavily reworked by the studio. At any rate, Fantastic Four suffered poor reviews and grossed $168 million worldwide, much of that overseas, against a $120 million budget.
13. Ben-Hur (2016)
Sometimes you hear about a remake, think “who was asking for this?,” and it turns out a lot of people were ready to show up to the theater for an updated take on a classic. Other times you get Ben-Hur, the 2016 reboot starring Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston in the title role. Though the film’s marketing leaned heavily on the lavish action sequences (including a new version of the famous chariot race sequence) and sword-and-sandal sets, and the final box office wasn’t as dismal as other entries on this list (the film actually came within $10 million of earning back its budget), Ben-Hur was still a flop for a number of reasons.
Critics, though they were kinder to it than other films, mostly weren’t ever enthused about a reboot of William Wyler’s Oscar-winning classic, and audiences weren’t much more excited. The film’s marketing efforts specifically tried out a Passion of the Christ-esque strategy, using its Biblical setting to get faith leaders on their side. While that did work in some cases, the other demographics who were supposed to turn out to watch the action sequences just weren’t there, in part because of the sheer number of FX-driven blockbusters already on the market.
14. The Mummy (2017)
In the age of Marvel Studios, every major distributor in America is trying to bring in Avengers-style money on whatever shared universe concept they can get across to audiences. That’s why spinoff films from both the Transformers and Fast and the Furious universes are on the way right now, and that’s why last year Universal Pictures decided to launch something they dubbed “Dark Universe” with new reboots of their classic monster films. The idea was that eventually characters like Frankenstein’s Monster (Javier Bardem) and The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp) would all get films that would allow various crossovers and team-ups in a big budget, FX-driven style. The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, was supposed to be the film that kicked it all off.
While there are whispers that the Dark Universe isn’t dead, it certainly wasn’t jumpstarted by its opening gambit. The film was critically panned, and while it did manage to earn $400 million on a $125 million budget (which some estimates place closer to $300 million if marketing is factored in), it did less than $81 million domestically. As for what went wrong, insider reports have laid blame on Cruise stepping in and taking a very direct role on the production, hiring his own writers to place the focus more on his character than Sofia Boutella’s title monster, and other such changes. Those reports went unconfirmed, and the Dark Universe might not be dead, but The Mummy certainly didn’t bring it out of the grave on the right foot.
15. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)
Speaking of studios trying to capitalize on classic characters to jumpstart new shared universe: There’s Guy Ritchie’s most recent take on the saga of King Arthur. The idea here seemed to be to tell a gritty, action-driven origin story focused on the title character’s rise to be the wielder of Excalibur, followed by subsequent films that would bring us new takes on Merlin, Lancelot, and so on. The film took a critical beating, saw its budget driven up by reshoots, and earned just $148.67 million worldwide. As for why, you can blame anyone from Ritchie to the lack of recognition of star Charlie Hunnam to the idea that moviegoers just weren’t interested in yet another King Arthur movie.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.