The High Cost of Entertainment: Biggest Box Office Flops (and Successes) of All Time

March 3, 2015

The Hollywood film industry evokes images of glitzy red carpets, beautiful actors and actresses, and, of course, some of the most iconic shots in our collective cultural consciousness. The image it should evoke, though, is dollar signs. Hollywood films have accounted for more than $10 billion in tickets sales every year since 2009, and “creative industries” with Hollywood as a large percentage, contributed half a trillion(!) dollars to the economy in 2011 alone.

When a film is released, typically its level of success is judged by the amount of profit (or lack thereof) it generates for the producers and studios that paid for production and marketing costs. Everyone knows about some of the biggest recent blockbusters in Hollywood history: Titanic (1997), Avatar (2009), and Marvel’s The Avengers (2013) immediately come to mind. However, taking inflation into account, the biggest box office smash of all time is still Gone with the Wind (1939) whose total ticket sales come out to a whopping $1.6 billion in 2015 dollars—Star Wars (1977) isn’t far behind at $1.4 billion. Using that standard, Avatar is only #14 all-time. This can be a bit misleading, because most of the movies in the top 10 have had the benefit of receiving multiple re-releases, but it helps put the big recent blockbusters in perspective.

Not all movies are big successes for the studios that produce them. Whether a movie does well or bombs at the box office can be weighed by whether or not it breaks even. Often times, a movie is considered to be a bomb even if it generates millions (or hundreds of millions) for the studio, because the production costs and associated marketing campaigns may also cost hundreds of millions. A recent example of this was Men in Black 3 (2012) which brought in over $500 million including international ticket sales, but had difficulty recouping its $250 million budget.

In writing this piece, it was suggested that Waterworld (1995) which starred Kevin Costner, and was the most expensive movie ever produced at the time, should be included as an example of one of the bigger bombs in Hollywood history. While it didn’t initially make money for Universal Pictures, the film did end up breaking even thanks to cross-platform repackaging like console video games and even a pinball machine.

Another classic example of a big Hollywood flop was the film Ishtar (1987). A sprawling comedy epic which was to be filmed in the Moroccan desert (if that didn’t sound alarm bells in the producers heads, nothing would) powered by big stars like Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, it fell victim to cost overruns, and no shortage of bad decisions on the part of the studios, the stars, and the director Elaine May. Despite living on as a notorious bomb, it doesn’t even earn a spot on the list of biggest bombs of all time.

The dubious honor of the biggest financial failure in Hollywood history by raw dollars goes, instead, to a different epic, this time a drama. Based on the Michael Crichton book, Eaters of the Dead, which tells the story of a medieval adventure of a Muslim who travels with Vikings, The 13th Warrior (1999) ended up losing those involved in its production an estimated $100-$182 million adjusted for inflation. Plagued by budget overruns, expensive locations and sets, and a fired director, the film was a true disaster. Ironically enough, it did open at the box office at #2 behind one of the biggest box office surprise hits of all time—the horror thriller The 6th Sense (1999). That film cost just $40 million but brought in nearly $650 million at the box office.

Although The 13th Warrior is recognized as the biggest bomb in terms of inflation-adjusted raw dollars, another film earns the distinction of the largest loss as a percentage of the total budget. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002), a comedy/sci-fi vehicle starring Eddie Murphy, cost $100 million to produce (not including marketing and other costs) and brought in a paltry $7 million at the box office. With estimated losses of $96 million (roughly 96% of the total budget) that film is one of the worst financial failures of all time.

Conversely, some films made on a shoestring budget end up defying all expectations and becoming some of the biggest box office successes. One of the most popular examples of this was the 2007 found footage horror movie Paranormal Activity. Spawning countless parodies, and a series of less successful sequels, the original was produced at an almost laughably low cost of $15,000, but grossed nearly $200 million globally. That film was one of the first to successfully create buzz for itself using viral internet marketing.