Reel Trouble: 11 Unfinished and Unreleased Films

Some filmmakers are unable to finish what they've started.
Some filmmakers are unable to finish what they've started. / norkim/iStock via Getty Images (Film Canister) // Photo illustration by Ken Ossea, Jr.

There is a truism in Hollywood that insists no one sets out to make a bad movie. Likewise, no one sets out to start a movie they can’t—or won’t—finish. Yet the history of filmmaking has seen a litany of directors and studios who haven’t been able to realize their project to completion. One of the most infamous is Orson Welles, whose film The Other Side of the Wind languished for decades before being finished by his friend and fellow director Peter Bogdanovich and debuting on Netflix in 2018.

Take a look at some other examples of films that went unfinished, unreleased, or otherwise unspooled.

1. Revenge of the Nerds

You probably remember the original Revenge of the Nerds from 1984 as a raucous comedy about a group of frat brothers who bully the geek brain trust of the fictional Adams College and where a character nicknamed “Booger” helped the titular revenge take place. What you may not know is that a remake was partially filmed in 2006 before production was halted. The update starred Adam Brody (The O.C.) and Jenna Dewan and was directed by Kyle Newman (2009’s Fanboys). The film had issues right off the bat, with Emory University objecting to the script and the filmmakers being forced to find a new location on short notice. After filming for two weeks, executives at studio Fox Atomic felt the movie looked too “small” and decided the project wasn’t coming together the way they had hoped. Filming was halted, the cast and crew were compensated, and the nerds and jocks went their separate ways. Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) is set to produce another remake starring Keith Lucas and Kenny Lucas (2014’s 22 Jump Street).

2. Empires of the Deep

Hailed as China’s answer to James Cameron’s epic Avatar (2009), Empires of the Deep may be the single most expensive movie never to see the light of day. Apparently centered on a war between underwater kingdoms with mermaids and crabs, the effects-heavy 3D feature went through at least four directors—at one point, Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner was involved—and a ballooning budget of $130 million, much of it provided by a real estate mogul named Jon Jiang. (He also wrote the script.) The net result was one underwhelming trailer that offers a glimpse of a somewhat shoddy production. Empires of the Deep was screened once in North America in 2014 on the Sony Pictures lot, where it apparently met with a tepid reception. Jiang later told Atavist writer Mitch Moxley that funds were needed to complete the effects. That was back in 2016.

3. The American

Director J. Stuart Blackton told press that The American, which was also known as The Flag Maker, was a film suggested to him by none other than President (and Blackton's neighbor) Theodore Roosevelt. However it came about, the silent Western was filmed but never released. The movie was made using a novel process known as Natural Vision, which was an early attempt at a widescreen presentation. But this decision proved to be the movie’s undoing. For one thing, Blackton didn’t have a Natural Vision projector on set, so he had to shoot coverage using a second, conventional camera in order to watch the dailies. By the time The American was screened in full, the widescreen effect was clearly underwhelming, with critics dubbing it “poorly made.” There’s no record it was ever commercially released.

Blackton, a pioneering filmmaker who was an early contributor to animated features, wound up losing money in the 1929 stock market crash. He died after being hit by a car in 1941.

4. Bogart Slept Here

Robert De Niro in 1979.
Robert De Niro in 1979. / Evening Standard/Getty Images

Robert De Niro is widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s best film actors. But in 1975, he was getting fired from Bogart Slept Here, a light comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols and written by Neil Simon. De Niro was playing an actor who stumbles into superstardom; Marsha Mason portrayed his wife. From all accounts, De Niro—who had just finished the disturbing psychological study Taxi Driver (1976) only days earlier—couldn’t wrap himself around Simon’s written sensibilities. Nichols suggested to Warner Bros. that they fire De Niro and recast the part. De Niro was said to be livid over the situation. When no suitable replacement was found, the project was scrapped. Some of the material was reworked in Simon’s The Goodbye Girl (1977), which starred Mason and Richard Dreyfuss.

5. Divine Rapture

It seems a sure bet to mount a production starring Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, and Debra Winger. But Divine Rapture, shot in 1995, needed divine intervention to succeed. Shot on the small island of Ballycotton in Ireland, the film was to tell the story of a woman named Mary (Winger) who “rises” from the dead during her own funeral. (In fact, she had only experienced a heart problem.) Brando was to be a priest, while Depp was playing a journalist sent to the town to investigate. After two weeks of shooting, the film’s financier, a company named CineFin, ran into legal problems. When Winger’s agent went looking for her fee, the agent discovered CineFin’s address was a parking lot.

CineFin executives insisted they needed paperwork from Orion Pictures, the distributor, to proceed. The film never recovered, though it wasn’t a total loss for Brando. The actor demanded—and received—$1 million up front.

6. The Overcoat

Directors like Stanley Kubrick are often noted as perfectionists, but not even Kubrick can compare to Yuri Norstein. The Russian animator has been working on a film titled The Overcoat for 40 years and appears to be in no great hurry to complete it. Based on a short story by author Nikolai Gogol about a man’s obsession with a particular piece of apparel, The Overcoat features hand-drawn animation overlaid on glass panels. This painstaking process produced just 20 minutes of footage during the first 20 years Norstein worked on it. The labor involved has resulted in a film, albeit not the one Norstein eventually intends to finish: In 2021, a documentary, Making the Overcoat, premiered. You can see some of the animated film in the trailer for the documentary above.

7. Hippie Hippie Shake

Filmed in 2007 with an impressive cast including Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller, Hippie Hippie Shake details the emergence of counter-culture 1960s magazine Oz. Murphy played Oz co-founder Richard Neville; Miller was his girlfriend, Louise Ferrier. Director Beeban Kidron and her husband, screenwriter Lee Hall, both left the project before it was completed. No one seems quite sure what happened, though Miller once intimated that issues over taxes between the United States and the UK would prevent distributor Universal from realizing a profit on the movie.

8. The Shadow King

Directed by Henry Selick (2009’s Coraline), The Shadow King promised a darkly humorous tale of a boy named Hap Dagger who can summon shadow creatures with his hands and must confront a monster using his newfound army. It was intended to be Pixar’s first foray into stop-motion animation. But Selick and Disney reportedly clashed over the movie’s development, and production was halted after it was only partially completed. Selick attempted to continue the movie with German company K5 International, but there’s been little news about it since 2013.

9. The Freak

Intended to be the final movie from silent film star and director Charlie Chaplin, The Freak never got past the pre-production stage owing to the actor’s death in 1977. But what was left behind seemed to offer a great deal of potential. The Freak tells the story of Serapha, a woman born with wings who sees her physically unique trait used by others for financial gain. Chaplin intended to have his own daughter, Victoria Chaplin, portray Serapha, and he spent a decade working on the script, on storyboards, and on ways to realize the ambitious visual effects. He also intended to appear in a cameo role.

10. Grizzly II: Revenge

Filmed in Hungary and featuring future stars Charlie Sheen, Laura Dern, and George Clooney, this bearsplotation sequel to 1976’s Grizzly had all the makings of a drive-in success. The three play friends who set out for an outdoor music festival and instead run afoul of a grizzly. Despite this promising plot, the project never seemed to coalesce into a releasable project. Funds ran dry, which meant most of the effects shots of the bear attack went unfinished. At one point, the 8-foot animatronic bear meant to strike fear into the hearts of moviegoers went missing.

The movie wound up coming in at a skimpy 68 minutes and proceeded to sit on a shelf for nearly 40 years until producer Suzanne C. Nagy and GBGB International salvaged what they could and gave it a straight-to-video and drive-in release in early 2021. The movie still lacks the bear attack scenes it was originally intended to have, so it's not exactly a finished product. But, according to Nagy, “it’s watchable.”

11. The Waterman Movie

Before Leslie Nielsen passed in 2010, the actor—best known for his straight-faced portrayal of Frank Drebin in The Naked Gun franchise—completed a voiceover role in The Waterman Movie. The Flash-animated comedy directed by Bryan Waterman was to feature Nielsen as Ready Espanoza, a bumbling explorer. But Waterman ran into budget constraints, and the film wound up with only two minutes of finished footage.