Guest Post: Six directors’ career who got derailed by box office bombs

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Film directors know that it’s hard to make movies in Hollywood; it’s even harder to actually make a successful one. So when some of them hit the jackpot and make a box office hit, studio executives and fans are expecting nothing less from them in their next film. In the last few years, some filmmakers like Spielberg, Nolan, Fincher and Scorsese seem to be able to churn out hit after hit, but for some, that’s not the case. Below are some directors who’ve had one or two box office hits but haven’t made another successful film since.

1. Andrew Davis

Davis is a native of Chicago and shot most of his films there, and he started in the 80s making small-budget films. Then he got a shot at his first action film, Code of Silence, followed by another action flick, Above the Law. The first film starred Chuck Norris and the latter was Steven Seagal’s debut film. They were modest hits but nothing spectacular. In his next film he got to work with couple of big-name stars. He made The Package starring Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones, but unfortunately the film was a failure at the box office. Nevertheless, he made a name for himself with those three pictures, so he reunited with Seagal and Jones for his next film: Under Siege, his first big hit. He followed that with his biggest hit ever, The Fugitive. After The Fugitive, he was offered a lot of big tent pole projects, but he decided he wanted to make a smaller film. He didn’t know it, but that was the biggest mistake of his career. The following year he made a film called Steal Big Steal Little, a dramedy that was ignored by both the critics and audiences alike.

He went into panic mode to recover his career, and then made a very awful movie called Chain Reaction (starring Keanu Reeves who was also in a slump). Fortunately for Reeves, he bounced back a few years later with a little film called The Matrix. For Davis, on the other hand, the damage was already done and all the offers from the studios disappeared along with his fading career. I think the last film he made was The Guardian, which ironically starred another has-been, Kevin Costner.

2.  Michael Cimino

Cimino directing Christopher Lambert in The Sicilian

Cimino’s career started out on a high note. He first wrote a screenplay to Dirty Harry’s sequel Magnum Force, and he then directed Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (a much underrated film from the 70s). His next film, The Deer Hunter, turned out to be his biggest hit. Not only was the film a box- office success,  but it also won best picture and Cimino took home the best director award at the Oscars in 1979. Unfortunately for Cimino, his next picture was his downfall, the godfather of all box office failures, Heaven’s Gate (one of Hollywood’s ‘forgotten’ misfires). The film not only destroyed Cimino’s career, but it also bankrupted the studio that financed it, United Artists. Cimino did a few films after the Heaven’s Gate fiasco, but he couldn’t recover his career. He’s now pretty much disappeared from Hollywood.

3. Kevin Costner

This might be a controversial pick since Costner only directed three films. Well,  he also directed parts of Waterworld after that film’s original director walked off the set. Anyhoo, his first directing gig turned out to be his biggest box office hit: Dances with Wolves earned close to $200 million at the box office and won several awards at the Oscars—including best picture and director. Unfortunately for Costner, his next directing gig, The Postman, was one of the biggest box office duds of the decade. His next film, Open Range, was very good but it didn’t earn a lot of money and it earned little respect from top critics. He’s currently attached to direct a film called A Little War of Our Own. Since his leading man status is way behind him, he should just focus on directing films. Who knows? He might have a big comeback with his new film.

4. Antoine Fuqua

Fuqua started out directing music videos, and then made a couple of low-budget action films. His breakout film was Training Day; it’s still his highest-earning film. Unfortunately for Fuqua, his next two films, Tears of the Sun and King Arthur, were box office misfires, and they cost a lot of money to make. He was supposed to direct American Gangster right after King Arthur, but he was fired from that picture because he demanded more money and wanted to shoot the film entirely in NYC. The studio wasn’t willing to oblige him since his previous films were huge failures. Currently he’s attached to a few projects, and he’s not sure if any of them will make it to the big screen. I don’t know if he’ll ever have the success he had with Training Day. I think he’s a capable director—but nothing special.

5. Renny Harlin

Harlin’s biggest hit was Die Hard 2; he followed that up with Cliffhanger, which was a modest hit. In 1995 he made Cutthroat Island, and that is still considered one of the biggest box office flops of all time. The film cost more than $100 million, but it only earned about $10 million. The next year he made The Long Kiss Goodnight, another big-budget action film that tanked. Even though his two previous films failed at the box office, Warner Bros. still gave him $80 million to direct Deep Blue Sea. It opened in the summer of 1999 and was considered a modest hit. In 2001 he reunited with Stallone and made Driven, another $70 million picture. Unfortunately the film only earned about $30 million, and Harlin’s career was pretty much in the dump. He made a few films after Driven, but most of them either went directly to DVD or never opened in American theaters.

6. Jan De Bont

De Bont on the set of Tomb Raider 2 w/ Gerry Butler & Angelina Jolie

Jan De Bont started out in the film industry in the 1960s as a director of photography. Some of the famous films he shot were Die Hard, The Hunt For Red October, Basic Instinct and Lethal Weapon 3. His directorial debut was a 1994 summer flick, Speed, and it turned out to be a huge hit. He followed that up with another summer flick, Twister, and again it was a huge hit. So with two huge box office hits in a row, studio executives were kissing his butt and he decided to do Speed 2. Well, as it turned out Speed 2 was his kryptonite. The film cost more than $160 million to produce and reportedly De Bont was a mad man on the set. He and his leading man Jason Patric were constantly fighting during the shoot. The film opened in the summer of 1997, the critics tore it to pieces and most people ignored it. The film ended up being one of the biggest box office busts of the 90s.

De Bont had a couple of big films he intended to direct after Speed 2.  One was a huge budget action-adventure picture about a group of elite special forces hunting down the world’s worst terrorists. Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon films, Die Hard films, The Matrix films) was going to produce and they were eyeing either Eddie Murphy or Wesley Snipes for the lead role. For the younger readers out there, Murphy and Snipes were quite big stars back in the 90s. The other project was the Godzilla remake. If I remember correctly, De Bont asked Sony to give him $200mil to make the film. Of course he didn’t get to direct either of those since Speed 2 was a huge failure and studio executives didn’t want him to be in charge of their tent-pole pictures anymore.

Somehow De Bont was able to get $80 million from Dreamworks to make The Haunting, another bad film. It wasn’t as big a failure as Speed 2, but by this time it’s clear De Bont’s not in the A-list director class anymore. The last film he directed was Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, another bad film that tanked at the box office. That was the last film project he was involved in, and he hasn’t done anything since.

Article edited by Bob Filipczak


Well those are some directors who have had one or two hits in their resume, only to watch their career fizzle after one bad movie. It goes to show how tough it is to stay on top of your game in Hollywood. Now some of these directors might have another hit in the future. If I was a betting man, I would pick Kevin Costner as the one with the best shot of returning to the top again.

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36 thoughts on “Guest Post: Six directors’ career who got derailed by box office bombs

    1. I was going to mention Kelly in my post. I’ll defend Donnie Darko to my dying day. At least he went for it with Southland Tales. The way he tied the movie in with the website and the graphic novels was pretty cool. I will say this about The Box. It was too long, it shouldn’t have been a period piece and Cameron Diaz???

      Kelly is busy setting up his next film, a Texas-set thriller, produced by Eli Roth, titled Corpus Christi. The story revolves around the strange friendship between a mentally unstable Iraq war veteran and his boss, the wealthy owner of a supermarket chain with political ambitions. Also he said he was working on a thriller set in Manhattan in the year 2014. He hopes to shoot the movie in 3-D, and part of the movie would be filmed using full CGI motion capture.

      Dave

      1. Ted S.

        Hey Dave,

        I enjoyed Donnie Darko but after that Kelly’s sort of lost it in my opinion, as I mentioned before, he’s not one of my favorite directors. But believe it or not, I’m actually very curious about his new film that you mentioned. I think he’s a good director but somehow he just can’t seem to know how to execute his scripts.

    2. Ted S.

      Yeah, Kelly’s not one of my favorite directors but he doesn’t belong on this list because he never has a film that was a box office hit. Donny Darko became a cult hit, it earned next to nothing at the box office.

      1. It’s a shame about Darko debuting the weel of 9/11. It’ll be 10 years ago next week. It kinda killed it especially with the plane scene. Who knows what it could have done. I remember being intrigued by the trailer but it wasn’t really on my radar after that day.

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  3. Some worthy additions:

    The Wachowski’s (Speed Racer) You could just see the downfall coming as the trilogy progressed.

    Coppola after the 70’s ended. (One From The Heart, Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club)

    De Palma (Bonfire of the Vanities) Mission: Impossible and maybe Snake Eyes were his only real hits since 1990.

    Hugh Hudson (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, Revolution w/ Al Pacino) Chariots of Fire shocked Hollywood won the Oscar and he was nominated for best director. Then, like Cimino, he followed down the same path to box office disaster.

    Michael Lehmann (Hudson Hawk) He made the darkly wonderful Heathers. While 40 Days and 40 Nights made 500% back on the budget but his last film, Flakes, made a total of $778. Oddly enough he’s done very well in TV. The West Wing, True Blood, The Larry Sanders Show, Big Love, Californication.

    McTiernan (The 13th Warrior, Rollerball, Basic) Oddly enough back in ’99 The Thomas Crown Affair, which was a critical and financial hit, came out three weeks before The 13th Warrior which lost a whopping $132 mil. with inflation.

    Mysteriously M. Night is still getting financed and making money somehow.

    Dave

    1. Ted S.

      Yeah those are a few more names that deserves to be on the list.

      Funny you mentioned McTiernan, I almost include him on the list but he did make three of my favorite action films, Die Hard, Predator and Hunt for Red October, so I guess I was a bit bias there. Let’s see if he get back into the game once he’s out of jail. I remember he actually quit The 13th Warrior and Michael Crichton was the person who finished directing the film. Apparently he and Crichton just couldn’t agree on a lot of things while shooting the movie.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks Scott.

      I wonder the same about Costner, I think he’s finished as far as his leading cred, he should just focus on directing like Eastwood did in his later years in the industry.

  4. Cimino had it coming. Check out this feature length BTS piece on Heavens Gate. http://www.joelburman.com/2010/05/crazy-bananas-nar-michael-cimino-sparar-ur-i-montana/

    I have also read the book that its based on (very interesting read!) and the Deer Hunter had similar difficulties in pre-production but he was saved when it did good at the box office and the academy awards.

    Another thing about the Heavens Gate debacle that was difference from Deer Hunter that they had switched to a very unexperienced execs. duo that let the shoot get completely out of hand. He also had a different producer on the both films.

    The interesting part with Heavens Gate is that they cut it down from 5-6 hours to around two hours (it bombed) and then they added 40 minutes and re-premiered it. However, I think it has several sequences that are really confusing. Its a fascinating film in so many ways.

    1. Ted S.

      Yeah I saw that, it’s fascinating how a man with such a huge ego can destroy so many careers including his own. Technically I thought the film was great but story wise, it was a mess.

  5. Freeda B.

    I like Kevin Costner and I think The Postman is one of the best films ever. I watch it all the time. I’m down to once or twice a year now. Too bad it never got the respect it deserves. Heaven’s Gate is a great story too, but it is long, still definitely worth a watch.
    M. Night has way too many excellent movies under his belt to ever have to worry abut financing.

    1. Ted S.

      Hi Freeda,

      I can’t agree with you on The Postman, I thought it was pretty bad. It has so much potentials but in my opinion Costner just didn’t know how to execute the film.

      Thanks for stopping by.

    1. Hi Hatter, or do you go by Ryan now that you’ve got a smashing new blog? 😀 I can’t take credit for this wonderful post, it’s courtesy of my guest blogger Ted.

  6. Hey, what’s up w/ labeling Tomb Raider 2 as a bad movie, Ted? It’s a good one!

    Ahah, just kidding, it’s more of a guilty pleasure for me considering who played Jolie’s um, boy toy 😀 But it also got Ciaran Hinds, another Brit I like, but yeah, it’s basically just a vehicle to show off her buff physique.

    I’m hopeful too about Costner, I do hope he gets his comeback as a director one of these days. At least he’s still getting major supporting roles, curious to see how he fares as Pa Kent.

    1. Ted S.

      Ha ha, I liked the first Tomb Raider film so I was looking forward to the second one. I think I fell asleep half way through the Tomb Raider 2, I don’t even remember what happened at the end.

      Costner should just focus on directing films since his leading man status is all but over.

  7. As has been stated or implied in other comments, there is something else to be said here – how about those people who in spite of themselves (and box office receipts) continue to find work? M Night be somewhat of a benchmark …

    1. Ted S.

      I think with M. Night he made two films that earned a lot of money, The Sixth Sense and Signs so even if some of his later films tanked, studios are willing to give him money to make his new films. Of course if he doesn’t make another big hit soon, he might be directing TV shows. Look up John Badham on imdb and I think that’s where M. Night’s career might be heading if he keeps making crappy films.

  8. Irvin Kershner made one of the greatest sequels in movie history with “The Empire Strikes Back,” and later made one of the worst “Robocop 2.” I always wanted to see this guy do more, but alas….he has sadly passed away. Empire’s not a bad legacy to leave behind though.

    1. Ted S.

      If I remember correctly Irvin Kershner was a teacher at a university and he prefers teaching to actually making films. Lucas actually begged him to take over The Empire Strikes Back since he didn’t want to direct it himself. You’re right about Robocop 2, it was bad. Kerchner also directed another bad film, the unofficial James Bond film, Never Say Never Again. If you saw the documentary about the film, he said he didn’t want to make the film but again the producers begged him to work on it.

  9. I was thinking of Cimino when I saw the title of the post. Some are even looking back at The Deer Hunter and thinking, given Cimino’s comparatively mediocre career, that they overrated the film on its release.

    You’ve highlighted some excellent examples. It is interesting that these directors have a hit then spend far too much money on a film that can’t recoup the money. Perhaps they get too big for their boots.

  10. Nice list Ted. I think this happen more often than not that directors can’t follow through after a big breakthrough (and not necessarily due to box office duds). Zack Snyder, for example, is well on his way to do that. David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), Shane Caruth (Primer) etc…

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks and yes if Snyder doesn’t deliver Man of Steel, he’ll be on this list pretty soon. There are definitely more directors out there who can’t seem to follow up to their first hit, my list just include those who have had huge hit or hits, Andrew Davis was on his way to becoming a big time director in the 90s but after he made Steal Big Steal Little, he lost all of his cred pretty fast.

    2. Castor,

      I can’t speak to David Dobkin because I think a lot of directors would have had a hit with Wedding Crashers but Primer? You gotta admit Shane Carruth set the bar pretty high by making a hard sci-fi movie for $7000, doing all the work himself (writing, directing, editing, acting, producing, composing the music, etc.) and pulling it off in spectacular fashion. As brilliant as Jim Cameron is do you think he coud have pulled off what Shane Carruth did with that budget? Take away all Cameron’s special effects and his stories leave a lot to be desired. See Avatar = Pocahontas: http://s3.amazonaws.com/files.posterous.com/shareables/eibJDheJumCemAexlHHAgyjpyHoctpCtEiuhwqjhIqlgzEcdECweyAgGouby/media_http9gagcomphot_DaBoz.jpg.scaled1000.jpg?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJFZAE65UYRT34AOQ&Expires=1315457228&Signature=QpfYEjQqdZqmjXNU2FBmoovzSHI%3D

      In Carruth’s defense he’s dammed if he does and damned if he dosen’t. If Carruth never makes another film then he gets the rap that he can’t follow up. How many of you think Keven Coster should have stopped after Dances With Wolves or M. Night after The Sixth Sense? Certainly their legacies would be a lot different today, wouldn’t they? On the flipside, if Carruth does make another movie and then it’s a dud, then it takes away from the brilliance of Primer and his brilliance comes into question. Not unlike what happened with Michael Cimino. He has nowhere to go but down at this point. Maybe like Malick, Kubrick, or Lean (who was prolific in his early years but only made 5 movies, arguably his best work, from ’57 to ’84) greatness need not be rushed but nurtured. The actor Charles McNaughton only ever made one movie… Night Of The Hunter. Harper Lee only ever wrote one book… To Kill A Mockingbird. Sometimes it’s better to just leave well enough alone and remark at what they did instead of what they didn’t do. I’m just trying to point out that there’s other options then the idea that Shane can’t follow through. It may just that he hasn’t yet or has had no desire to follow it up…. which I just found out he does. Shane IS working on a new sci-fi project, A Topiary, that’s in pre-production right now. http://io9.com/5569986/more-details-about-shane-carruths-next-mind+bending-film

      Dave

  11. great post ted, i have to mention renny harlin, he made the worst of the 4 die hards for me, the fact that they were still giving him money after cutthroat island is astounding. and driven?! i remember seeing that DVD on shelves for 3 pounds back when DVDs still cost 25 pounds and still not having any interest in it.

    i would like to suggest Rian Johnson to sit alongside Richard Kelley in this equaltion. Brick was a bit of a cult favourite rather than a huge success and then he wasted a big budget on Brothers Bloom (yes i know some people really liked it) and he hasnt made a movie in years now. If Looper doesn’t sell next year I can see him falling away pretty quickly.

    1. Ted S.

      Thanks.

      I don’t understand how Renny Harlin kept getting big money from studios either, after Cutthroat Island I thought for sure his career would be over but no, these big studios kept financing his films. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t deliver so now he’s finished as a big budget film director.

      I’ve never seen Brick but heard good things about it.

  12. Ted,

    I give Brick a big thumbs up. There’s a lot of slang, it’s a neo-noir set in high school, so it takes a while to get used to the rhythms. You may not like it but at least it’s original. Plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great in it. He’s quietly becoming one of the best young actors out there with his pre-Inception films like Mysterious Skin, Brick, The Lookout, and (500) Days Of Summer.

    Dave

  13. I never got into the Matrix-mania anyway, but tbh I didn’t have a clue who the director was! The whole thing was bigger than any single part of it. Maybe that’s why even after that his career fizzled out.

  14. I must mention Ivan Reitman. I mean, to go from 80s classics like STRIPES, MEATBALLS and GHOSTBUSTERS (GHOSTBUSTERS!!!!) to absolute crap like FATHER’S DAY, SIX DAYS SEVEN NIGHTS and MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND). What the Hell? I also remember a time when mentioning Michael Bay in a positive way wasn’t a bad thing (though I concede that the shit he’s made recently outweighs anything decent he might ever have made).

    1. Ted S.

      Good call on Ivan Reitman Tyler, I totally forgot about him. He hasn’t done anything significant in the last decade or so. I guess since his son is having a success in the industry, he may not care to work anymore. If I remember correctly, he’s still trying to get the third Ghostbusters film off the ground.

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