World War Z and the 5 Biggest Box-Office Bombs

world war z poster

Get out while you still can.

(6/23/13 Update:  So far World War Z looks to be beating the odds, having grossed an estimated $66 million on it’s opening weekend, $15 million more than analysts predicted. The final tally from it’s theatrical run will be the determining factor, but so far, things are looking good for World War Z.)

There have been rumblings of turmoil behind the scenes of World War Z for a while now, but Vanity Fair has opened the can of worms with their article on just how bad the production has been. The budget is rumored to have ballooned to around $200 million $400 million which would surpass Pirates of the Carribean: At Worlds End for the most expensive movie ever made. Stories of rewrites, changing of story locations, and the shooting of an additional 30-40 minutes to help the incoherent ending have all led many to believe that the film will never overcome it’s troubled production. It’s no wonder some are already predicting that World War Z will become one of the biggest flops ever. But even if the film proves to be a bust, it wouldn’t be the first time production problems and ballooning budgets proved disastrous for a film. Here are 5 films that also followed suit, essentially ending the careers for many involved. (There are so many films that were box-office failures that could be included in this list. I chose 5 films that were plagued with production problems, earned less money than the cost of the film, and also proved damaging to the careers of those involved.)

#5. John Carter (2012)

Maybe if there was a missing clown fish and an adorable robot, the film could have been a success

John Carter had so much potential to be one of the best films of 2012. It was Andrew Stanton’s first live action directing gig, having previously directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E and also helping co-write the Toy Story films. It was poised to be Taylor Kitsch’s breakout film, the first of three high profile acting gigs that year (the other two being Battleship and Savages). And most importantly, the source material was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series, most particularly The Princess of Mars. After going through development hell, with Robert Rodriquez set to direct at one point, Disney finally took a chance on Andrew Stanton and greenlit the film. When initial shooting ended in late 2010, a month of reshoots were then scheduled. While reshoots are typical of most films, Stanton admitted to reshooting much of the film twice. Soon rumors began of the film going over budget amid production turmoil. While any production problems were originally denied, Stanton later contributed many of the reshoots to his workflow with animation. Marketing for the film was equally troubling, with Stanton resisting Disney’s marketing ideas, and instead insisting they go with his. The trailers for the film were misleading and confusing, while the the original title for the film, John Carter of Mars, was eventually changed to John Carter, infuriating hardcore fans of the books and neglecting newcomers who had no idea the story took place on the red planet. In the end, John Carter earned a little more than $282 million on an estimated budget of $350 million with a net loss of about $67 million dollars.  While Andrew Stanton’s career is safe for now (he’s currently directing Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo) he probably won’t be directing any big-budget live-action films anytime soon. The film’s failure did lead to the resignation of Rich Ross, then head of Walt Disney Studios, and also may have sparked a trend of Taylor Kitsch’s films being received poorly both critically and commercially (both Battleship and Savages went on to underperform at the box office). In the end Disney counted it’s losses and moved on to other properties including this year’s The Lone Ranger, which I predict will also wind up being a dud.

  • Estimated Budget: $350 million
  • Box-office Total: $282 million
  • Net Loss Total:  $67 million
  • Careers Affected:  Taylor Kitsch, Rich Ross, and potentially Andrew Stanton

#4. The Postman (1997)

The Postman poster In 1995 Kevin Costner starred in, produced, and according to some rumors, eventually took over directing of what was then the biggest budget film ever made: Waterworld. Like the other films on this list, Waterworld was plagued with production issues (a Hurricane destroyed the huge set built on the water), ran overbudget (the original budget of $100 million soon reached over $175 million) and eventually affected the careers of director Kevin Reynolds and some would argue Kevin Costner. Thus it seemed ironic that Costner would follow up a big budget post-apocalyptic film with another big budget post-apocalyptic film (technically  Tin Cup came in between those films, but Costner’s role in the development of that film was small compared to Waterworld and The Postman). David Brin wrote the book that The Postman is based on, and after seeing Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, thought that Costner would be great in the role of the unnamed Postman. Eventually his wish came true, as Costner came on board to not only star in, but also direct. While the film wasn’t plagued by any production problems like Waterworld, there was some minor squabbling behind the scenes. Visual effects supervisor Tricia Henry Ashford was fired several weeks before the end of production due to creative differences, as she wanted to do many of the special effects in post production whereas Costner wanted to do them on location in-camera. Still the film had a massive budget at the time, $80 million, most likely due to the huge set pieces. In order to create the Bethlehem set, a huge mining pit in Tuscon was used. At two miles wide and almost a 1/4 mile deep, the set was one of the largest ever dressed. Another massive set piece for the Bridge City location was built on the side of Boundary Dam in Washington which supplies much of Seattle’s power. In the end, The Postman wound up being a bloated 178 minutes (two minutes shy of three hours) thanks to Costner’s overindulgent shooting. The film only grossed a little over $17 million, bringing a net loss of $62 million ($89 when adjusted for inflation). While Kevin Costner’s career wasn’t too tarnished, he never would retain the star power nor accolades he once had.  He would only direct one other movie afterwards, returning to the genre that brought him so much praise earlier in his career (Dances with Wolves), and craft the highly underrated Open Range. Sadly, Costner has not returned to the peak that his career was once at, but he continues to put out good work every now and then, with the Hatfields & McCoys and hopefully Man of Steel being recent examples.

  • Estimated Budget:  $80 million
  • Box-Office Total: $17.6 million
  • Net Loss Total:  $62 million
  • Careers Affected: Kevin Costner

#3. Ishtar (1987)

ishtar movie poster beatty

The perfect sand dunes!

There are so many things that can be said about Ishtar. Before reporting on the production problems of World War Z, Vanity Fair published a great article on the journey of Ishtar’s eventual flop at the box-office. It’s a great article that I highly recommend reading, but I’ll just sum up many of the issues mentioned therein. While working on Reds in the early 80’s, Warren Beatty brought in his friend, Elaine May, with whom he worked with on the film Heaven Can Wait, to help polish the script. With Reds eventually becoming a big hit commercially and critically and winning many Academy Awards, Beatty wanted to return the favor and produce her next film which she would write and direct. With studios caving in to Beatty’s demands, they agreed to finance the film that would later become Ishtar. Not only would he produce, but Beatty would also star, alongside Dustin Hoffman who likewise was returning a favor to Elaine for her work on the film Tootsie, which also became a huge success. It wasn’t long though before problems on set began to build up. With shooting to take place in Morocco, it soon became obvious that there was no infrastructure in the country to help support a big Hollywood production. Beyond the production itself, there was  political tension in the North African region as well, with the Moroccan army fighting the Polisario Front guerrillas at the time. All of this pales in comparison to the actual production woes itself. Stories of animal trainers looking for specific blue-eyed camels, searching for the perfect sand dunes to be in shots and then deciding flat land would be better, and in-fighting between May and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, production designer Paul Sylbert, and even actress Isabelle Adjani (whom Beatty was dating at the time). Unsure of how to approach the film, May kept second-guessing herself, eventually shooting lots of film and going over budget. It all culminated with the final battle scene, an area May had no experience in, having come from a background in comedy. With frustrations from Beatty at an all time high, he confronted May who interjected, “You want it done? You shoot it!”  The crew returned to New York to finish principal photography, but by then the damage was done. There Beatty confessed to former Columbia CEO, Vincent Fay, that May couldn’t direct, but refused to allow her to be fired. To make matters worse, the new head of production, David Puttnam, had a disdain for excessive Hollywood productions and didn’t care for Beatty. So when he announced that he would not interfere with postproduction on Ishtar, it was seen as a way to subtly undermine Beatty, Hoffman, and May. Still problems continued in postproduction, with May leaving the direction of dialogue looping to Beatty,as well as the insurmountable task of making a movie out of 108 hours of film shot. In the end, Ishtar landed in theatres in Spring of ’87 after it’s original deadline of Christmas was missed. While it early screening tested well, the film barely opened to #1 at the box-office, having nearly beat out the #2 film, The Gate, a low-budget horror film. It would go on to only gross $14 million in America, becoming one of the worst box-office bombs ever, and establishing itself in Hollywood lore as one of the most plagued productions ever. While May would go on to write a couple more screenplays (with her script Primary Colors getting nominated for an Oscar), she would never fully bounce back from the damage Ishtar caused. Beatty’s career also seemed to take a turn after Ishtar; his clout and star power never really returning, he eventually settled down with Anette Bening in 1992 and has done little film work since.

  • Estimated Budget:  $55 million
  • Box-Office Total: $14.3 million
  • Net Loss Total:  $40 million ($82 million adjusted inflation)
  • Careers Affected: Elaine May and to an extent, Warren Beatty

#2. Heaven’s Gate (1980)

heaven's gate poster

The Beginning of the End of Director-Controlled Films

The film that started it all: Heaven’s Gate. Yes, there had ben box-office flops before Heaven’s Gate, but with films like Jaws and Star Wars creating the ‘summer blockbuster’, the emphasis on box-office results was at an all time high. Thus when Heaven’s Gate did bomb, studios took notice. Heaven’s Gate is largely credited for bringing an end to the director-driven films that led to young talent such as Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, and William Freidkin creating such classics as The Godfather I and II, The French Connection, and Chinatown. Heaven’s Gate also contributed to the collapse of United Artist, which was eventually sold to MGM, as well as help shift the power of movie productions back to studios, who were scared to repeat the events that led to the diaster of Heaven’s Gate. But to understand how it got to this, one has to only go back a couple of years earlier. Michael Cimino was fresh off of The Deer Hunter, having co-written, produced, and directed the film, and winning big at the Academy Awards, scooping up Oscars for many categories including Best Director and Best Picture. Needless to say, Cimino was hot property. After his pitch to United Artists to make Heaven’s Gate was put on hold in the early ’70s, he was able to use his newfound clout to convince UA to resurrect his film. With an initial budget of $11.7 million and and a release of mid December, principal photography began on April 16, 1979. However, the film soon fell behind schedule, largely due to Cimino’s perfectionist eye for detail. One example of Cimino’s demands involved the long street set for the Casper, Wyoming. He demanded it be rebuilt because it reportedly “didn’t look right” as it wasn’t wide enough. Instead of just dismantling one side and moving it six feet, Cimino demanded that both halves be dismantled and each moved three feet apart. For the beginning courtyard scene at Harvard, an entire tree was cut down, moved in pieces, and then rebuilt. He even went as far as to have an irrigation system built under the area where the final battle took place so that the grass would stay healthy and green. Cimino’s perfectionism also led to multiple retakes, even for small scenes such as a man dropping his pants. He reportedly halted shooting until a cloud he liked made it’s way into the camera’s view. Allegations of heavy drug use, along with Cimino’s alleged desire to surpass Coppola’s record of shooting a million feet of film, may have also contributed to the ballooning budget. By the time shooting commenced  the film’s budget was now around $30 million. But Cimino still had the task of putting together the film in the editing room, slaving for months and undoing much of the work that Oscar-winning editor William H. Reynolds had previously done. By June, Cimino had a work print that reportedly ran almost 5 1/2 hours (or 325 minutes.) After executives refused to release the movie at it’s current length, Cimino continued whittling down the film over the summer and fall until he reached the premiere length of 3 hours and 39 minutes. But after a disastrous premiere, the film was pulled and again whittled down to two hours and twenty nine minutes. By this point, however, the damage had been done. The film’s final cost came to $44 million while only earning a measly $3.4 million at the box office. Michael Cimino’s career would never be the same, putting out only four more films, all of which were essentially duds. More importantly, the western genre would largely become considered too risky, with only a flash re-emergence in the early nineties with films like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven.

  • Estimated Budget:  $44 million
  • Box-Office Total: $3.4 million
  • Net Loss Total:  $40.5 million ($112 million adjusted inflation)
  • Careers Affected: Michael Cimino (along with the demise of UA and the disappearance of Westerns as a major genre

#1. Cutthroat Island (1995)

cutthroat island poster

All aboard the sinking ship!

When discussing box-office bombs, many films are mentioned like Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, Battlefield Earth, or even more recent films like John Carter and Speed Racer. However, Cutthroat Island many times seems forgotten. Perhaps this is humanity’s way of plausibly denying it ever existed. What’s interesting is that if Cutthroat Island were to be made today, it probably would be a huge hit. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has revitalized the pirate genre, which is ironic since it was Cutthroat Island that nearly killed the genre all those years ago. It’s a shame because Cutthroat Island had all the benchmarks of being a success. It’s director, Renny Harlin, was hot off of two big hits in a row: Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. Geena Davis was one of the most bankable and talented actresses at that time, starring in big hits like The Fly, The Accidental Tourist (for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), and Thelma and Louise (which also won numerous awards). Thus it came as no surprise when Renny Harlin, who was married to Gena Davis at the time, pushed to have Davis star in Cutthroat Island. After all, an actress mostly know for light comedies could easily be made into an action star.  Michael Douglas was originally going to play the role of William Shaw, but eventually backed out after Davis’ role was expanded leaving Douglas’ character diminished as a result. With Douglas’ departure, Gena Davis tried to bow out as well, but contractual obligations said otherwise, leaving her to go down with the sinking ship. Apparently Douglas shared a sixth sense with other actors Harlin pursued, as talent like Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Liam Neeson, and Jeff Bridges all turned down the role. Thus, desperate times called for desperate measures as Matthew Modine was approached to play Shaw. Modines last role before Cutthroat was TNT’s biblical adaption of Jacob. That’s correct, Modine’s last project was a made-for-TV-movie. However, the one potentially redeeming factor was that Matthew Modine had fencing skills. Still, Carolco Pictures was willing to bank $98 million into the film, which would be plenty of money for even today’s standards. But as past trends show, production issues usually precede box-office flops and this film certainly had some. The original director of photography, Oliver Wood, had to be replaced during shooting after breaking his ankle. Production designer, Mario Kassar, decided to start building sets and ships before the first revised script was even ready, much of which was completed without Harlin’s input as he was busy trying to replace Douglas’ role. Upon arriving in Malta to begin shooting, Harlin immediately requested changes made to the sets and script as he wasn’t happy with it. Another incident involved broken sewage pipes which caused raw sewage to pour into the tank where the actors would be swimming. Years later, Matthew Modine would blame the budget spiraling out of control due to the fact that Harlin would always have three cameras rolling at the same time, as well as having an inordinate amount of V8 juice shipped to Malta for Harlin and Davis to consume. In the end, Cutthroat Island debuted at #13 at the Box Office and only managed to gross $18 million in total revenue. It’s been speculated that Carolco Pictures was close to bankruptcy before even green-lighting Cutthroat, leaving no money to market the film once it was complete.  Regardless, Carolco Pictures had two failures that year: Cutthroat Island and Showgirls, which certainly lead to it’s eventual demise. Sadly too, Gena Davis’ career was also effected as she never returned to the pre-Cutthroat height of her career. While Renny Harlin was able to continue directing, he’ll forever be attached to the fiasco that was Cutthroat Island.

  • Estimated Budget:  $115 million
  • Box-Office Total: $18.5 million
  • Net Loss Total:  $96 million ($145 million adjusted inflation)
  • Careers Affected: Renny Harlin and Gena Davis (as well as Oliver Wood, whose broken ankle kept him from working on his next film: Broken Arrow)

4 responses to “World War Z and the 5 Biggest Box-Office Bombs

  1. Pingback: Review: World War Z | Reel Antagonist·

  2. world war z is a bombed also because it cost millions to make it and only brought in 66 for the weekend. It amaze me how when brad pitts movie bomb at the box office you never announce it but you let other stars bombed at the box office and you announce it every where.

    • I corrected the rumored $400 million budget to $200 million- WWZ still has a while to go before it can be declared a bomb. It’s made almost $100 million in one week domestically (and a world wide total of $143 as of June 27). It’s doing well enough for Paramout to move ahead with a sequel.

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