As the old adage goes, you have to speculate to accumulate. But as several Hollywood executives have discovered—often at great professional cost—is that speculation can also lead to multi-million dollar losses, job cuts, and the ignominy of becoming a laughingstock across Tinseltown. As 15 box office turkeys showed us, sometimes all it takes is one major flop to send a studio down the dreaded path of bankruptcy.
1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Yes, it’s hard to believe. But Frank Capra's five-time Oscar-nominated picture that's as integral to Christmas as tinsel and Santa Claus was largely responsible for bankrupting its studio. Perhaps deterred by its unseasonal story—a suicidal man is shown an alternate universe where he doesn’t exist—most cinemagoers gave It’s A Wonderful Life a wide berth upon its original December 1946 release. Having barely managed to recoup their $3.18 million production costs, the fledgling Liberty Films had no option but to accept an acquisition bid from Paramount Pictures. It took nearly 30 years, and a clerical error which pushed the Jimmy Stewart tearjerker into the public domain, for audiences to finally embrace its life-affirming charms.
2. The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1964)
Despite its reputation as a costly flop, 1963’s Cleopatra did eventually recoup its then-record-breaking budget. However, another expensive historical epic released just a year later, Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire, wasn’t so lucky. Samuel Bronston Productions spent a fortune re-creating the 92,000-square meter Roman Forum that once served as the heart of the ancient city, in turn building Hollywood’s largest ever outdoor set. But, proving that size doesn’t always matter, the Sophia Loren picture only managed to earn back a quarter of its $19 million budget. Just three months after its release, Samuel Bronston's very own empire fell into bankruptcy.
3. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Heaven’s Gate boasted a cast including Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Huppert, John Hurt, and Willem Dafoe, and director Michael Cimino’s previous film, The Deer Hunter, had picked up five Oscars. The movie couldn’t have had a better pedigree, but its slow-burning story of a late 19th century battle between European immigrants and native cattle ranchers never sounded like guaranteed box office gold. Plus, its shoot was plagued by copious reshoots, accusations of animal abuse and, most notably, Cimino’s wild spending; the budget ballooned to $44 million—or six times more than its original estimated cost. Disastrously, it recouped just $3.5 million, causing United Artists to go bankrupt and to subsequently be sold off to MGM.
4. Raise the Titanic (1980)
Larger-than-life entertainment impresario Lew Grade once famously remarked that it “would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic” than recreate the titular vessel in Raise the Titanic. He probably had a point. His company, ITC Entertainment, sank $40 million into adapting Clive Cussler’s novel of the same name to the big screen, with the majority of the budget going toward the replica scale model that gets lifted to the ocean’s surface. It’s a spectacular sight that you could argue was worth every cent. However, as its measly $7 million showing at the box office suggests, the rest of the Cold War saga failed to inspire the same levels of awe. ITC subsequently had to sell off its distribution arm, AFD, to avoid going down with the ship [PDF].
5. One From The Heart (1981)
A key figure in the New Hollywood movement, Francis Ford Coppola helped to shape the landscape of 1970s cinema with seminal films such as The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now. The '80s, however, weren’t as kind to the Oscar-winning auteur. His first movie of the decade, One From the Heart, undoubtedly looked good—the filmmaker spent the majority of its then-colossal $27 million budget on pioneering visual techniques and a faithful recreation of Nevada's McCarran International Airport. But fans of his earlier, testosterone-fueled work were left completely baffled by a candy-colored Vegas musical rom-com and the film only pulled in a dismal $638,000 at the box office. Coppola’s own studio, Zoetrope, never recovered from the gigantic loss, and in 1992 it filed into bankruptcy.
6. The Right Stuff (1983)
After a series of flops that included the Terry Jean Moore biopic Love Child, Fred Zinnemann's romantic drama Five Days One Summer, and the stop-motion animation film Twice Upon a Time, The Ladd Company was expecting space race tale The Right Stuff, adapted by Tom Wolfe's book, to reverse their commercial fortunes. But despite four Academy Awards and near-universal critical acclaim, the 1983 picture fell $6 million short of recouping its $27 million budget. Although the first Police Academy movies gave the studio a brief reprieve, The Ladd Company's earlier, way-off-the-mark predictions proved to be too significant to overcome. When the studio was no longer aligned with Warner Bros., its three founders essentially opted to put the company into hibernation for more than a decade.
7. Side Out (1990)
Former Walt Disney execs James L. Stewart and Rich Irvine hit the ground running with their Aurora Productions company’s first venture: The Secret of NIMH grossed twice its budget in 1982. But their live-action output struggled to replicate this early success, as their next four films all flopped pretty hard at the box office. By 1990, the company was pinning all its hopes on a $6 million volleyball dramedy starring Thomas C. Howell titled Side Out. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this sixth feature failed to stop the rot, raking in just over $400,000 and sending Aurora Productions to that great, big backlot in the sky.
8. Cutthroat Island (1995)
The most cutthroat thing about Renny Harlin’s 1995 swashbuckler was the critical response. The knives were already out before the film even made it to cinemas thanks to a troubled production where everything from the casting to the script was constantly made to walk the plank. Audiences were even less receptive. Embarrassingly, Cutthroat Island missed the domestic Top 10 entirely in its opening weekend, eventually crawling to a $10 million gross on a whopping $98 million budget. Dubbed Hollywood’s biggest ever flop by the Guinness World of Records, the Geena Davis/Matthew Modine vehicle brought Carolco Pictures (Terminator 2, Total Recall) to its knees and prompted Hollywood to give pirate pictures the heave-ho for nearly a full decade.
9. Battlefield Earth (2000)
Having rescued his career from the doldrums with Pulp Fiction, John Travolta then squandered it again six years later with this self-indulgent love letter to Scientology. To add insult to injury, he even put $5 million of his own money into the unintentionally hilarious project. Battlefield Earth only covered the first half of Ron L. Hubbard’s novel—a record-breaking Razzie haul and a financial loss of $44 million quickly squashed to the idea of a sequel. And studio Franchise Pictures’s woes continued four years later when accusations that it had vastly inflated the film’s $73 million budget landed them in court and ultimately insolvency.
10. Titan A.E. (2000)
Fox Animation had first enjoyed success with one of the few 1990s cartoons that could compete with Disney’s renaissance, Anastasia. Yet just three years later, the studio appeared to throw in the towel, laying off two-thirds of its employees shortly before releasing what would be its final picture. The post-apocalyptic sci-fi tale Titan A.E., therefore, already seemed dead on arrival when it limped into cinemas at the turn of the century. Even with the A-list voices of Drew Barrymore and Matt Damon, the movie couldn’t pull in more than $37 million at the box office, less than half of its budget. And 20th Century Fox wasted little time in putting its offshoot out of its misery, cutting the cord just one week after Titan A.E.’s release.
11. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is widely considered to be one of the few video game movies that doesn’t completely taint the legacy of its 32-bit source material—and it earned a respectable $85.1 million at the box office, too. But with approximately 200 people working painstakingly for four years to bring world-saving scientists Doctor Sid and Aki Ross to photorealistic life, its costs soared to more than $137 million, leaving production company Square Pictures squarely in the red. Apart from a contribution to The Matrix’s animated anthology, they never got the chance to “simulate human emotions and movements through computer graphics” ever again.
12. Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003)
Warner Bros. Feature Animation had famously brought the likes of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig back to the big screen in Space Jam. But whereas these iconic characters played second fiddle to Michael Jordan’s basketball antics in the 1996 smash, 2004’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action saw them take center stage. Sadly, the appetite for retro animation mixed with modern live-action appeared to have dwindled in the intervening eight years and the zany adventure grossed just $68.5 million on an $80 million budget. The studio offshoot subsequently dismissed plans to create further Looney Tunes shorts and instead said “That’s all folks” for good.
13. The Golden Compass (2007)
New Line Cinema were no doubt hoping to launch a money-spinning, Harry Potter-style franchise with their adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first chapter in the fantasy author’s His Dark Materials trilogy. They certainly threw enough money at the project, a studio record of $180 million to be exact. And looking at its worldwide box office take of $372 million, you might have expected them to make a tidy profit. Unfortunately, to help finance the movie, bosses had signed away the film’s international rights. And with only $70 million of its gross coming from domestic territory, New Line was forced to get into bed with Warner Bros. Pictures just to survive.
14. Bangkok Dangerous (2008)
Remember the time when Nicolas Cage films didn’t go straight-to-VOD? Back in 2008, Bangkok Dangerous actually hit the number one spot at the US box office, albeit with the lowest total since Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star five years previously. Unfortunately, the contract killer thriller soon nosedived down the chart, finishing with a paltry $15 million gross. Although the international market would boost this figure by a further $27 million, that still wasn’t enough to recoup its budget. As a result, Benjamin Waisbren and Tibor Hernádi decided to fold the film’s co-production company, Virtual Studios, and seek their fortunes elsewhere.
15. Mars Need Moms (2011)
From Red Planet and Mission to Mars to John Carter and The Space Between Us, recent cinematic jaunts to Earth’s next-door neighbor have largely been box office poison. But few interplanetary movies have crashed and burned as badly as 2011’s Mars Needs Moms. The performance-capture animation cost a whopping $150 million to produce yet failed to recoup even a third of this figure at the worldwide box office. Not only did this make the alien abduction tale co-producers Walt Disney’s biggest ever financial loss, but it also caused Robert Zemeckis’s ImageMovers to pull the plug on its digital offshoot after just two releases.