No obituary written about director Michael Cimino (1939-2016) will ever neglect to mention Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 box office bomb that became synonymous with failure in Hollywood. Despite earning raves for The Deer Hunter two years earlier, Cimino was unable to corral Heaven's Gate, which ran into production issues and ultimately went so far over budget that United Artists, the studio backing the project, was thought to be devastated.
That’s not quite true—Transamerica, the company’s owner, wrote off the $44 million budget—but United Artists did wind up selling to MGM. And while Cimino’s film might be the most well-known movie disaster, it’s hardly the only one that brought major film distributors to their collective knees. Here are six others that either damaged their studio supporters or demolished them entirely.
1. CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995)
Despite having a catalog full of hits like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Basic Instinct, Carolco Pictures found itself in a precarious financial situation in 1994. The studio had invested in an explosive flop—Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—and was faced with a decision on whether to sink enormous production costs into another Verhoeven film, the Middle Ages epic Crusade, set to star Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, they opted to push ahead with Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island, a $121 million pirate adventure film starring Harlin’s wife, Geena Davis.
It was their sink or swim project, and it sank: Filming in Malta was burdened by cost overruns and bouts of food poisoning. Cutthroat Island grossed less than $10 million. Adding to the financial insult was the $13 million spent on pre-production on Crusade. Although Carolco made up some of the difference in selling off foreign rights, they were unable to satisfy their bond investors and declared Chapter 11 within weeks of the film’s release.
Star Matthew Modine pointed the finger at Harlin. “It was frustrating and Renny spent a lot of his time just finding new ways to blow things up,” he told the Independent in 1996. “He likes to blow things up.”
2. TITAN A.E. (2000)
After a lull in the 1980s, Disney proved feature-length animation was still a viable commodity in the 1990s with hits like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. Their success prompted a number of studios to try their hand in the genre. In 1994, Fox hired veterans Don Bluth (An American Tail) and partner Gary Goldman to oversee Fox Animation.
Their first effort, 1997’s Anastasia, was a modest hit. Their second, the sci-fi space chase thriller Titan A.E. co-written by Joss Whedon, was not. According to Goldman, Fox Animation had sunk $30 million into pre-production with only concept drawings to show for it. They spent another $55 million to get it made. Halfway through production, they decided to abandon their 2D animation venture; the announcement was made official after Titan A.E. grossed just $9.4 million in its opening weekend. Goldman and Bluth are now trying to launch their crowdfunded Dragon’s Lair feature.
3. THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007)
New Line/Warner Bros.
New Line Cinema was not a risk-averse studio. They were the only shingle in town willing to gamble an enormous $200 million on Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That payoff may have given them a false sense of confidence in adapting The Golden Compass, part of author Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga. Instead of amortizing the cost across three films, New Line sunk $180 million into just one installment.
The film grossed $70 million domestically but fared well internationally, with $260 million collected. The problem? New Line had sold off foreign distribution rights in order to finance the film and saw virtually none of that take. The decision left the studio vulnerable for a takeover by Warner Bros. The label is still being used: New Line plans on co-producing a new Compass adaptation for the BBC.
4. CLEOPATRA (1963)
With a budget of $44 million—the largest of its time—it was going to be difficult for 20th Century Fox’s Egyptian costume drama Cleopatra to ever justify its existence at the box office. The period epic had such a disjointed production that actors sometimes didn’t know which scenes were being shot until they arrived on set that day. It also bears the unique distinction of being the highest-grossing film of 1963 that lost money. Although the studio didn’t fold, Fox was forced to sell off 300 acres of its lot and postpone other productions to avoid permanently closing its doors.
5. THE RIGHT STUFF // TWICE UPON A TME (1983)
Founded by legendary studio executive Alan Ladd, Jr., who had greenlit Star Wars while at Fox, the Ladd Company pursued ambitious projects like The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book about the early days of the space program. While a critical success, it failed to find an audience at the box office; the same held true for Twice Upon a Time, an animated feature executive produced by George Lucas. When both films sunk, the Ladd Company was forced to sell its assets to Warner Bros.
6. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
Before it became a seminal—and public domain—classic, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was perceived as a disappointment upon its initial release. That was devastating for Capra, who had actually opened his own production studio, Liberty Films, with fellow filmmakers George Stevens and William Wyler to help distance themselves from executive meddling. With no track record, Liberty needed the film to live up to Capra's usual standards of success. When it didn’t, he was forced to sell Liberty to the highest bidder. Paramount claimed his company; Capra’s autonomy was short-lived.