It’s difficult to predict when a film will be a hit. There are some ways to ensure success if the film is part of a successful franchise, but even then the public may react against it if the qualify of the film is middling. These days Hollywood loves tent pole films that they can build a franchise around.
Original properties that aren’t based on a comic book are getting more difficult to produce. Often times the reason for a film flopping are not to do with how good it is. Marketing and timing are just as important and can doom a film before it’s even released.
Sometimes the studios don’t seem to know how to advertise their own films, which is one of the main reasons some films fail at the box office. In hindsight we can look back at those films and realize they weren’t as bad as we thought at the time. It’s unfortunate that these films failed, but maybe it will give a hint for the future as to how films like this should be marketed.
1. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
This film is the undisputed champion of flops. It was made by the well respected director Michael Cimino who had just made the multiple Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter which won Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, Best director for Cimino, best editing for Peter Zinner, Best Sound and Best Picture.
After that, Cimino was one of the biggest directors in Hollywood. Everyone was looking forward to his next production and on the surface Heaven’s Gate was a winner. The production issues with the film are too numerous to name here and since we weren’t on set for the filming we can only speculate about some problems.
What we know for sure is the film ended up costing about 44 million and made less than 4 domestically. This is due to the film taking way longer than expected and the budget escalading out of control. Was this due the Cimino’s ego in wanting to capture a perfect vision?
It’s difficult to say since the film’s production issues all seem to point toward that. Famously it even contributed to shutting down the film production division of United Artists who at the time were one of the biggest studios around. Reportedly the first cut of the film he showed was about 5 and half hours long. There was talk of Cimono constructing an entire town to shoot part of the film then knocking parts of it down when the set didn’t look right.
Another infamous story involved him building an irrigation system beneath a field to keep the grass looking as green as possible. Some of these may have been exaggerated to a certain extent, so all we have are the stories behind the scenes of the film and the final product. In the end the film is actually quite good.
It’s a stunning portrayal of the old west with a fantastic cast lead by Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert. The cinematography is beautiful, the sweeping narrative is rich and involving and the music is gorgeous. It’s far from perfect, the film is way too long and this drags the pace down substantially.
Film has flaws and the production issues maybe could have been solved before it destroyed the film’s chances of success, but in spite of that, the film is much better than its reputation.
2. Speed Racer (2008)
I will always defend this film no matter what people say about it. Unlike Heaven’s Gate, it doesn’t have a sprawling in depth story. What it does have though is a ridiculous sense of fun and a colorful narrative with some brilliantly absurd race scenes and cheesy dialogue.
Speed Racer had been in development since the early 90’s. Various other directors were considered to direct it before the Wachowskis. The project bounced around from Julien Temple, to Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuaron and Hype Williams. It’s not clear exactly how far they got in the development process, but all these names were involved at some point.
By the time it got to the Wachowskis, the studio was looking to make a more family friendly film to appeal to more people. It has been reported that the film’s budget was about 120 million and only made about 43 million domestically and about 50 million elsewhere. Despite getting into the 100 million range the film was considered a flop and didn’t make much money back.
The criticism leveled at the film was in a way justified. It’s not an entirely coherent narrative and the characters are pretty much cartoons. While many critics see this as a problem, the film has gained a cult status because of its absurd style.
The film captures the original anime better than any Hollywood film I can think of. Usually when Hollywood makes a film version of a cartoon or anime, the results are mixed at best. They aren’t able to translate the unique approach the original material has to the screen. Speed Racer did this better than most and it’s over the top bombastic visuals are it’s biggest asset.
Yeah it can be accused of being cheesy and excessive and it very much is, but I admire it for being so fun. The colorful candy coated visuals are completely unique. It’s understandable it didn’t do well critically, the film is far too cheesy and silly and many don’t react well to that. To those who grew up on the original series though, it is exactly what we wanted to see.
3. Lolita (1997)
Lolita is one of the few new versions of a famous novel that is actually more faithful to the source material than the first film. The original film by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 was great in its own way, but the new adaptation’s goals of making a more faithful version of the story were admirable. Screenplays by Harold Pinter and David Mamet were rejected and in the end the producers went with Stephen Schiff.
Most of the hate surrounding the film has something to do with people’s hostility directed at anyone with the audacity to remake a Stanley Kubrick film. Those involved in the film can defend it all they want by claiming it’s a new adaptation of the book rather than a remake of Kubrick’s film, but most won’t listen to that. We are used to rejection most remakes since a lot of them have turned our quite poor. This is not one of those films.
The biggest issue the film faced that essentially made it impossible to be successful was how it couldn’t find a distributor to give it a wide release. This meant that the film ended only making about 2 million domestically on a 62 million dollar budget. That is a substantial loss but unfortunately given the film’s risky material, it’s not surprising that it couldn’t get a wide release.
The original Kubrick film had to dumb down some of the material to fit the era it came out in. It’s still a great film in its own way but it was not as faithful to the novel as the new version. Sue Lyon’s performance in Kubrick’s film was strong but she looked much older than the character was meant to be.
The 1997 film’s casting of Dominique Swain was a much more accurate portrayal of a character meant to be a girl rather than a grown woman. Her relationship Jeremy Irons as Humber was a fascinating study of a young girl with a broken man.
The original film didn’t show this as well while the new version really conveys the idea that Humbert is a fundamentally messed up person. By default that is a difficult dynamic to sell to an audience. Many will reject the concept before seeing it, which is shame since it is quite a good film.
4. John Carter (2012)
Looking back on John Carter now, it’s pretty obvious why the film failed at the box office. It is a prime example of how unclear marketing can doom a film before its release. The biggest mistake made with marketing the film is calling it John Carter instead of John Carter of Mars.
Calling it just John Carter means nothing, it assumes we care who that is and without a major star in the lead role, there is no reason for an audience to latch onto that name. Taylor Kitsch is a good actor, but he doesn’t sell a major Hollywood film. Many don’t realize that John Carter was one of the most influential science fiction stories in literature.
It was a series of pulp novels that started in 1917 by Edgar Rice Burroughs. They weren’t amazing or deep, but their influence is evident in pretty much every single science fiction film afterward especially Star Wars. The development of the novels into a film dates back to 1931 when Bob Clampett approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with the idea of making John Carter into an animated film. Ray Harryhausen even expressed an interest in making the film in the late 1950’s.
It really wasn’t until the 80’s when serious development on the project happened. John McTiernan was set to direct with Tom Cruise as the star. Unfortunately McTiernan realized that the special effects technology back then was not advanced enough to recreate Edgar Rice Burroughs unique vision on screen. The next biggest stage in development with the film was when Robert Rodriquez signed on to direct it in 2004, but that deal didn’t pan out.
The project then went to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow director Kerry Conran, but he left the project only to be replaced by Jon Favreau. He left to direct Iron Man and the film ended up with Pixar director Andrew Stanton. Those who know the novels will understand how important their influence is on modern sci fi, but the main problem with John Carter is many people haven’t read those books, so to most of the audience it just looked like a generic version of Star Wars.
This is doing the film a disservice since it is a very fun film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s far from being great but it has a great sense of visual wonder and it is much more enjoyable than it’s reputation would have you believe.
5. One From the Heart (1982)
After Heaven’s Gate, this Francis Ford Coppola film was the next most infamous flop. Coppola came from a filmmaking era in the 1970’s where directors had much more creative control to make their projects as outlandish or fantastic as they wanted. This all came crashing down when films like Heaven’s Gate, One From the Heart and Martin Scorsese’s film New York, New York all flopped around the same time.
The era of the auteur director for the most part came to a close after that. Most directors now don’t have the same creative control they had back then. Some would argue this is a good thing to keep egos in check but the 70’s did produce many of the greatest films ever made.
One from the Heart had a major influence on the rest of Coppola’s career. He reportedly claimed that many of his next films in the 80’s and 90’s including The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Cotton Club, The Godfather Part 3 Jack and The Rainmaker were made to pay off One From the Heart’s Debts.
This is a major loss from any perspective and the reasons for it are complicated. The major issue seems to be to do with Coppola deciding to shoot on a series of sound stages that recreated the city of Las Vegas instead of shooting on location. As an artistic statement, it created a visually stunning film but it made the budget shoot up from 2 million to about 26.
It only ended up making about 600 thousand domestically. The film has problems and the end result isn’t as strong of a character piece as it could be but the soundtrack with songs by Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle is the best part of the film. Its visual splendor sometimes threatens to override the actual story, but it’s a very entertaining and romantic film that should have been a hit at the time. Hopefully now people can rediscover this flawed gem.