Guest Post – Forgotten Box Office Misfires Part I

[rtm’s note: Who knew that the little blue people can actually take on Cowboys & Aliens? The Smurfs and the hybrid Western tied at the box office with $36.2 mil. It’s perhaps too soon to call it a flop, but given the $163 production budget for the Harrison Ford/Daniel Craig starrer, it definitely underperformed.]



With today’s bloated budget in Hollywood, when a film tanks at the box office no one really blinks an eye, for example last year Hollywood released a few stinkers: Prince of Persia with a reported budget of $200 mil but earned a paltry $90 mil here in the States; The Sorcerer’s Apprentice cost $150 mil to make but only earned about $60 mil; and Robin Hood with a $200 mil budget only made about half of that. Now some of these films actually made more money overseas so they can perhaps justify their bloated budget, but still the studios had to take a loss because they didn’t make as much from overseas earnings, but that’s a whole other discussion.

Well, here are some forgotten big budgeted films that people either don’t remember or just don’t know about. These were the films that had a huge budget for its time and some even bankrupt the studio and ruined the director’s film career:

1. Heaven’s Gate (1980): This is the godfather of movie failure, it not only bankrupted United Artists studio but also ruined the film’s director and its star’s career. The film was directed by Michael Cimino and starred Kris Kristofferson. The film’s original budget was set at around $15 mil but it ballooned up close to $50 mil. Remember, this was way back in 1979/1980 so that kind of number was unheard of. Cimino was the ‘it’ director around that time, he’d just won an Oscar for directing The Deer Hunter, which also won best picture at the 1979 Oscars. United Artists was in need of some prestige picture and also in need of some box office hits. So they figured why not try to get both by hiring a young hot director who’d just won an Oscar and the film he directed was also a box office hit.

They also hired Kris Kristopherson, who at the time believe it or not was fast to becoming the go-to actor for big-budgeted films. Well, what looked like a sure-fire hit for the studio turned out to be a nightmare. First, Cimino turned in a very long script that would’ve made the film’s runtime close to six hour, and he demanded a huge budget for it. Then when they started shooting, Cimino acted like a madman on the set. He demanded that a building be torn down and rebuilt because it didn’t match up with other buildings on the set. This of course took time and cost more money. If you want to know more about what happened with this movie, there’s a great documentary that you can find on YouTube.

So after Cimino finished the movie, he showed his first cut of the film to studio executives and it was over 4 hours long. I this cut the battle scene at the end lasted over an hour and of course the executives told him there’s no way they could release the film with this cut. Cimino went back into the editing room to trim down the runtime but by this time the damage was already done.

The media caught wind of what went on behind the scenes and ran a story of how Heaven’s Gate was the most expensive film ever made and the United Artists went bankrupt because of it. Of course all of it was true and United Artists actually sold their shares to MGM so they could promote the film. By the time the film hit theater, it had gotten so much bad press that most critics and audiences alike ignored it.

I finally watched the film last year and it wasn’t as bad as its reputation. I think this was the perfect example of how a director’s ego got in the way of his talent. I mean the film also starred Jeff Bridges and Christopher Walken, so there were some real talents involved, but the ego of the director got in the way and prevented him from making a great film. According to boxofficemojo.com, the film earned a measly $3 million! Cimino never recovered after this film, he directed a few films after Heaven’s Gate but never regained his status as an A-list director again. Kris Kristofferson also suffered as the result of this film’s failure. He never became the top leading man like a lot of people thought he would be; he appeared in a lot of films since but mostly as supporting character or a sidekick, i.e. the Blade films.

2. The Cotton Club (1984): This was Francis Ford Coppola’s first true big-budgeted film (starring Richard Gere, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane) since Apocalypse Now. It cost around $60 mil to make and it only made about $25 mil back. The film had such a high hope for the studio, they released it in December hoping it will get lots of Oscar nominations and make a ton of cash. Of course it didn’t turn out that way and I think Paramount was just happy that most people didn’t remember anything about this film . I also think it destroyed Coppola’s career as an A-list director, after this film he never get to make another mega-budget movie.

3. Blade Runner (1982): This film is now considered one of the best sci-fi films ever made and it has a huge cult following after its release back in the summer of 1982. Now it did earned back close to its budget, the film cost around $28 mil to produce and earned around $27 mil. But considering the hype of the film for its time and it starred the very popular Harrison Ford—who just came off two box office hits in a row, Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark—the film was huge failure.

Also, it was directed by an up and coming young director Ridley Scott whose previous film Alien was a huge hit a couple of years earlier. I’m sure the studio thought, ‘hey we got Harrison Ford, Ridley Scott and a sci-fi action flick, money in the bank right?’ Wrong, the film turned out to be more of a thinking man sci-fi thriller and it hardly contained any action scenes in it at all. After this film came out, Ridley Scott’s career was stuck in neutral for many years. He didn’t have another big hit until the year 2000 when he made Gladiator.

4. The Abyss (1989): The king of big-budgeted films James Cameron actually had a box office misfire, believe it or not. After two big hits in a row, The Terminator in 1984 and Aliens in 1986, Cameron got a huge budget from Fox to make this film.  It cost around $70 mil to make but only made about $50 mil. I think this film was the victim of Batman dominance that summer. Had Fox released the film at a later date, it could’ve been a box office hit. You see, the Summer of 1989 was dominated by Tim Burton’s Batman; seriously the film was everywhere that summer. Also I think another reason The Abyss was a dud was because it wasn’t an action flick but they marketed it that way. So when people actually saw the film, they were disappointed. Well of course this film didn’t ruin Cameron’s career, he bounced back right away two summers later with T2: Judgment Day.

Sources: imdb.com, boxofficemojo.com, youtube.com and Wikipedia.org


That’s the end of part I, stay tuned for the last half of the list of box-office misfires you might not know about coming tomorrow.

So have you heard about any of these stories before? Feel free to share other misfires the average moviegoers might not have heard about.

54 thoughts on “Guest Post – Forgotten Box Office Misfires Part I

    1. Ted S.

      Heaven’s Gate wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good either so yeah I can understand why you can’t finish the film. As I mentioned in the article, the film has potentials but because of Cimino’s ego, it failed.

      1. Ted,

        Have you ever read the seminal Hollywood book “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists” by Stephen Bach. It gives great insight to what really went on with Heaven’s Gate. I highly recommend it to any film buff.

        First off no director had shot more film than Cimino for a movie at that time. 1.3 million feet (nearly 220 hours) of footage. Cimino delivered his version which ran 5 hours and 25 minutes (325 minutes). United Artists executives forced Cimino to edit the film to 3 hours and 39 minutes (219 minutes) then to 2 hours and 29 minutes (149 minutes) which is what was theatrically released. Heaven’s Gate resurfaced six months later back in the 2 hour and 29 minute (149 minute) version attempting to recoup some of its losses. But negative publicity had already damaged the film’s reputation and this version quickly disappeared from theatres. Cimino’s little seen director’s cut, that and Blade Runner were two of the first official director’s cuts ever done, was reviewed much better but too little, too late.

        A subsequent review by The New York Times critic Vincent Canby called Heaven’s Gate “an unqualified disaster,” famously comparing it to “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” Canby went even further by stating that “It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Cimino sold his soul to obtain the success of The Deer Hunter and the Devil has just come around to collect.” Yikes!

        Dave W

        1. Ted S.

          I never read the book but I watched the behind the scenes documentary on the film, it was so fascinating. I might have to pick up the book and read it, the documentary was only an hour long so they didn’t go through some of the things you mentioned.

          Thanks for stopping by and read my rantings. 🙂

  1. Intresting post. I have never seen let along heard of the first 2 movies. I have seen The Abbys in TV years ago. It has been rerun several times. I can understand thr flop as it wasn’t that good, I barely remember what’s it about anymore. It wasn’t bad but was not memorable either.

    There is one movie that I think really good and funny but failed in the market, ever heard of The Boat That Rocked? (I think it was called Pirate Radio in US). After I watched it, I read wikipedia as my source for details of people behind the scene (as I always did before writing my review), I was surprised it didn’t get good reception in cinema.

    1. Ted S.

      Yeah I remember Pirate Radio, it came out a couple of years ago. It didn’t cost a lot of money to make so it doesn’t qualify to be on this list. 🙂 I think the film was meant to get a lot of Oscar nominations but most critics didn’t care for it and of course not many people saw it. To be honest with you, I saw the film and didn’t really enjoy it myself.

      I do love The Abyss though, I think they marketed the film as some sort of an action flick but it wasn’t and when people saw it, they didn’t care for it.

        1. Same with you C…I don’t like that title…sounds so cheezy.

          @Ted yeah I know it’s not a big budget movie but as far as I can remember, that movie didn’t get all their money back. I am just trying to point out, the critics aren’t always right. The critics hate it but I like it.

      1. Ted,

        I worked in a movie theater in ’89 and saw this SEVERAL times so I know it back and forth. The problem was poor timing not the marketing so much. See DeepStar Six (January) and Leviathan (March) both came out just before The Abyss (August) thus saturating the market for underwater themed movies. It’s a shame because those movies paled in comparison to The Abyss. Some advice… don’t ever ask Ed Harris what it’s like to work with James Cameron… he just might take a swing at you. Didn’t care for the directors cut. Have you seen it?

        Dave W

        1. Ted S.

          Hi Dave,

          Yeah you’re right, around that time there were so many films about aliens under the ocean and maybe people were just sick of them. It’s probably why The Abyss tanked at the box office. I remember hearing about how Ed Harris was not a big fan of James Cameron, maybe that’s why they never worked with each other again after The Abyss. I have seen the director’s cut and I didn’t mind it as much but definitely preferred the original cut.

    1. Glad you liked it Ted, I originally wanted to post this whilst I was on vacation but glad I waited. It’s more appropriate now I think as I think C&A might end up being a misfire of the Summer.

      I love Blade Runner and The Abyss, interesting that both flopped at the box office. But clearly both filmmakers survived that.

      1. We’ll see if C&A will be more of a misfire than say Green Lantern. That film had a $200 million budget and it will make the least out of ALL of the superhero films that came out this summer (stands now at $114 million).

        1. Well, it looks like Smurfs’ total tally was a bit less (not even by a million dollars!) so that’s hardly a hit for C&A. I thought that it’d at least be in the $50 mil range, ouch!

          GL might still be the ‘winner’ of the box office flop though as it has a bigger budget.

  2. Melissa Bradley

    Interesting post. I have never seen Heaven’s Gate and won’t be likely to, which is unfortunate because I loved The Deer Hunter. The Cotton Club was much better than people gave it credit for and Blade Runner is completely awesome from start to finish. The Abyss disappointed me because it was so slow and rather boring.

    One film that was considered a huge disappointment in its day was John Carpenter’s The Thing. Now, this is considered one of the absolute greatest sci fi horror film of all time and yet, it tanked because it unfortunately ran into the juggernaught of E.T. No one wanted to even look at a monstrous alien when the cute Reeses’s Pieces guy was wanting to go home.

    1. Ted S.

      Hi Melissa,

      I was thinking of including The Thing on the list too but since it came out around the same time as Blade Runner, I decided to just go with Scott’s movie instead. No doubt The Thing was a huge flop thanks to E.T.

  3. WOW I knew nothing of Heavens Gate before reading this and I agree Ted, it does seem a bit like the Directors EGO in overdrive!!

    Great read that one my friend!! I look forward to Part 2

    🙂

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Custard, if you have a few hours to waste give Heaven’s Gate a watch, you can tell there are some hints of greatness in the film but unfortunately Cimino’s was just a nutcase when he made the film.

  4. “…After this film came out, Ridley Scott’s career was stuck in neutral for many years. He didn’t have another big hit until the year 2000 when he made Gladiator.”

    Um, “Thelma and Louise’?

    1. I suppose the fact that it made $45 mil, which was more than double it’s budget, it’s definitely a successful project. But not exactly a ‘hit’ the way Gladiator was.

    2. Ted S.

      Well Thelma & Louise wasn’t a huge box office hit so that’s why I said his career was in neutral, yes it got lots of great critical reviews but like Ruth mentioned, it barely made $50mil. Also, after the mild success of Thelma & Louise, Scott went and made a couple big budgeted films that tanked, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and GI Jane.

  5. Hi, Ted and company:

    ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is what happens when a director of mediocre talent catches lightning with a previous film (The Deer Hunter) and is given Carte Blanche from the suits in Hollywood to do it again. Without parental supervision.

    For all the Flak it’s caught, ‘The Cotton Club’ isn’t a bad period piece that boasts a better than average cast, One needs look no further than Coppola’s
    ‘One From The Heart’ for a film that cost a lot of money and goes nowhere in a hurry.

    I never understood the hoopla over Scott’s ‘Alien’. When the overall effect was throwing a truck load of money at huge, dimly lit, moody sets while re-vamping a B-Movie from 1958 titled, ‘It! The Terror From Beyond Space’.

    I’ve always held that ‘The Abyss’ was an experiment in advanced technology and special effects at the core of a decent film. Tech and effects that would be polished and honed and perfected as the T-1000 ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’.

    1. Ted S.

      Hi Jack,

      Yes I agree about Cimino’s talent, it seemed he got lucky with The Deer Hunter and thought he was the king of world after the success of the film.

      Yeah The Cotton Club was a decent flick but I understand why it tanked.

      I’m with you on Alien, I know a lot of people say it’s a sci-fi masterpiece but I thought it wasn’t that good. Especially if you watch it now.

      Great point about The Abyss, you can tell Cameron was basically playing around with special effects in that film and perfected in T2.

  6. Haven’t seen Heaven’s Gate but I’m not surprised The Abyss didn’t do well at the box office. About 10 years ago, my friends and I tried to watch it one night. We all fell asleep halfway through ahah 😛

    Nice list Ted, I haven’t even heard of The Cotton Club either.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Castor, The Abyss was definitely not the usual sci-fi invasion film. It came out around the time when Hollywood was fascinating with aliens under the ocean.

      Give The Cotton Club a try when you have some free time, it was probably Coppola’s last decent film.

        1. I cannot emphasise enough how much I disagree with you on The Abyss! It’s such a lovely movie. It always makes me cry, especially that moment when he has to leave her with no oxygen in order to save them both in the end. heartbreaking 😦

    1. Ted S.

      Ha ha yeah, I figured most people probably don’t even know about these older box office misfires. Today we’re surprised if a big Hollywood film cost less than $100mil to make, back in the days if a film cost more than $30mil, it’s considered a big budget. Funny how things have changed.

  7. Great post Ted. Lots of new-to-me info. The only one I’ve seen of these is Blade Runner.

    Maybe this is way too far back in time, but I’m wondering about Cleopatra, the 1963 version with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton…how big of a bomb was that, do you know? It’s an OK-to-decent movie but mostly what you hear/read about is the drama behind the scenes. I think it took like 3 years to make and I can’t imagine they didn’t go wayover-budget with it.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Paula, you know I was thinking of putting Cleopatra on the list but after doing some research, it wasn’t as big of a flop as the other films. According to box office mojo, it cost $44mil to make, which was huge back in the 60s, but it earned back around $48mil. i vaguely remember watching the documentary on the film and I think you’re right, it took like 3 years to complete the film and it was way over budget.

        1. FUNK

          Ya I thought the article was pretty good, that must of been something working on that movie..

          Enjoy your vacation, you going someplace exotic?

  8. Interesting list and am surprised at Blade Runner and The Abyss, which are both so good. Don’t know the other two but these are definetly a couple I would like to check out.

      1. Not yet. Right now i am trying i am in the beginning stages of a short film i want to shoot next summer tho. But i am on the lookout for any part-time jobs that become available

  9. FUNK

    This is a really interesting post you’ve come up with.
    Lately I’ve seen both Heaven’s Gate and Cleopatra and as a movie fan, I really got into to both films quite heavily, and immensely enjoyed them both. I really liked the slow pace of Heaven’s Gate, and thought Kristofferson and Walken where pretty good, plus the music was good as well and just thought it was a good historical drama.
    Just finished reading Stacy Schiff’s book “Cleopatra: A Life”, and alot of what went on in the movie makes sense, the thing about the movie is the amazing sets, and of course Taylor.

  10. I really liked The Abyss, but I can understand how it (and the others) misfired. Most of them are just because of poor marketing, and that’s not fair. Films should be marketed as what they are, not what the studios want them to be.

    1. Hi Tyler, yeah The Abyss is perhaps not the most accessible of James Cameron films but I just really like the performances. I mean, Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, Michael Biehn… love them all.

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