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10 Massive Movie Flops That Killed Directors’ Careers

15 November 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Thor Magnusson

5. Hudson Hawk (1991) – Michael Lehmann

Hudson Hawk (1991)

Pre-Flop: Michael Lehmann emerged as a director to be reckoned with straight out of the gate. “Heathers” (1988), the vicious high school comedy that played like the anti-John Hughes, was a scathing review on youth culture’s fascination with suicide, the media spotlight, and the cutthroat nature of cliques, all wrapped up in a hilariously witty script by Daniel Waters and a duo of breakout performances from Winona Ryder and Christian Slater.

The movie shrugged at the box office, but the burgeoning age of VHS changed that – it was an immediate cult hit, and it’s oft-quoted one-liners made it a Hollywood hot commodity in a short time span.

Lehmann’s equally zany follow-up “Meet the Applegates” (1990) was a mash-up of “Leave it to Beaver” with 50’s monster movies, but failed to fascinate in the same manner. Yet it didn’t matter – producers had set their eyes on Lehmann as the next hot ticket.

Film in Question: Going from two relatively low-budget productions straight to working on a big budget Bruce Willis blockbuster never foreshadowed good things, especially when the producer was the infamously short-tempered and controlling Joel Silver (at peak power). Add to that, it’s your star’s dream project he’d been shepherding for years (Willis shares his first and last story credit with the movie).

Plenty of production dilemmas occurred with too many cooks and plenty of extravagant spending, and it resulted in a bizarre movie that not many could make heads or tails of, nor wanted to. More importantly, it was the first bomb for the Willis/Silver golden team, and Lehmann ended up getting thrown under the bus for his troubles.

It’s a shame, since there’s actually a lot to enjoy. Lehmann, along with “Heathers” screenwriter Waters, created a hodgepodge of effective action tropes, loony tunes insanity, and ‘Three Stooges’ slapstick. It’s a bit of a mess, but in retrospect a fascinatingly unique and entertaining one; you certainly don’t get many R-rated madcap comedies nowadays (shut up, “Deadpool”).

Post-Flop: Lehmann has continued working, delivering some decent if workmanlike sleeper hits (“Airheads,” “The Truth About Cats & Dogs”) amongst for-hire dreck and mucho TV work.

Still, his unique talents and individual voice could have catapulted him to the A-list in a similar fashion that Tim Burton had in the same era, yet unfortunately instead of landing his “Batman,” he was saddled with Hollywood’s biggest dud with many not forgetting it.


4. The Postman (1997) – Kevin Costner


Pre-Flop: From the mid-80s, Kevin Costner rose from strength to strength, building a teflon reputation as the industry’s most sought after leading men. With old school chiselled features matched with a macho attitude yet sensitive touch, the man did it all – big budget spectacles (“The Untouchables,” “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”), classy conspiracy suspense (“JFK,” “No Way Out”), and even romantic leads (“Bull Durham,” “The Bodyguard”) – all of which resulted in box office gold.

Add to that, the man randomly decided to become a director, tackling on the ambitious western script “Dances with Wolves” (1990), and walked away with seven Oscars (including Best Director) for his trouble. With this sort of rep, the press were eager for a directorial follow-up, what could possibly go wrong?

Film in Question: Well before the flop in subject reared its ugly head, Costner’s pedigree had grown slightly tarnished. An infidelity in his marriage had the press turning on his All-American image, and add to that, he starred in (at that point) the most expensive movie ever made – the ambitious apocalyptic action flick “Waterworld” (1995), which had been hyped only to fail with the press due to its widely reported insane production that even had Costner and long-time director Kevin Reynolds split due to heated tensions (they eventually made up years later with the excellent “Hatfields & McCoys”).

With the pressure on, what did Costner do to try and turn his troubles around? Well, he went back to directing – taking on an ambitious apocalyptic action flick… wait, what? That’s correct, he was a glutton for punishment as he tackled “The Postman,” a combo of “Road Warrior” with “Dances with Wolves,” as he played the main role of a man who attempts to inspire hope across an America devastated by World War III – by delivering the mail?

While the film admittedly has some strengths, it also has unavoidable flaws – overlong, over-schmaltzy and over-budget. None of these things helped Costner’s already waning cred and it resulted with him falling off his leading man and directorial pedestal.

Post-Flop: With plenty of years of hard work, Costner managed to gain a strong status amongst the industry again by playing to his strengths as an actor (both the underrated “Thirteen Days” and “Mr. Brooks” are peak work), and although a couple attempts at a Liam Neeson-style action revival have failed, he has churned a respectable run of elder statesmen/mentor roles for big budget paycheques.

Also, he did get a chance to direct once more with “Open Range” (2003), a cracking and beautifully shoot western with some of the genres best shootouts this side of Peckinpah. Fortunately, the critics highly praised the film, but unfortunately it dissolved at the box office and was quickly forgotten – the A-list Oscar hits of his favourite hobby were a thing of the past.


3. Peeping Tom (1960) – Michael Powell

Peeping Tom (1960)

Pre-Flop: Michael Powell enjoyed one of the most enduring filmic partnerships of all time, that with screenwriter/producer Emeric Pressburger. The two created some of Britain’s most championed cinematic endeavours, including “The Red Shoes” (1948), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946) and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (1943).

Their 20-year legacy would go on to influence massive filmmaking talents such as Martin Scorsese, George Romero and Francis Ford Coppola. So with such a fine legacy, how could his career end on such a bum note?

Film in Question: That reason would be “Peeping Tom” (1960), the first ‘slasher’ movie and which marked the separation from Pressburger (although they would eventually reunite several years later).

Powell was determined to make a fiercely psychological horror movie centred around a broken man, obsessed with filming the death of his female victims on camera. The execution is hardly as grimy as the synopsis would suggest; Powell, the ever-professional, makes the low budget production an elegant if disturbing affair that delves into heady subjects of cinema’s nature of voyeurism, as well as the repressed sexual nature of Britain’s society.

All of the intelligence placed on the thematics were moots though – Powell came under heavy fire in Britain with the film not just flopping but resulted in his long-running and respectable career go down in an inferno.

Post-Flop: Powell had a difficult time getting films made afterwards and was never able to work in Britain again, having to resort to productions in Germany and Australia with less than enthusiastic results.

It wasn’t until the 70s where, after playing in New York’s grindhouse then arthouse cinemas, that “Peeping Tom” received a massive reassessment that rejuvenated Powell’s reputation with critics. Still, by that point the damage had already been done, but at least his legacy had a chance to be rightfully repaired before his death.


2. Heaven’s Gate (1980) – Michael Cimino

Heaven's Gate

Pre-Flop: Michael Cimino catapulted to success in a space of only two movies, no small feet during the mid-70s, a time when Scorsese, Coppola and Bogdanovich were at their top of their game and consistently creating seminal hits.

After cutting his teeth as a screenwriter, Clint Eastwood was so impressed by the young upstart he offered to produce and star in his directorial debut, the off-kilter buddy/heist movie “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974) – a colourful, wacky yet moving ride that was an immediate box office success.

Cimino quickly followed it up with “The Deer Hunter” (1978), a harrowing and poetic treatise on war, not to mention a stone cold classic – the film led Cimino to Oscar glory that year, and it was safe to say the film world was his proverbial oyster to what was next…

Film in Question: Well, that was “Heaven’s Gate,” the indulgent, extravagantly expensive western that put a whole studio under and killed the 1970’s wave of creativity in one fell swoop. The ambitious plot was set around a love triangle within the shockingly violent Johnson County War, resulting in a weird mix of Peckinpah and Lean that left critics cold and audiences bewildered.

Over the years, the original cut of the movie (not the truncated theatrical cut) emerged and has lead to a major reevaluation, yet I was too late – the film had already became a cautionary tale that studios used to strike fear into cocky directors or the media used to label out-of-control productions.

Post-Flop: Cimino never recovered,and although he kept working, he was never allowed full control again and it lead to compromised results (e.g. “The Sicilian,” “Desperate Hours”) and on-set drama that only added a taint to a difficult reputation.

The one gem amongst the dreck is fierce thriller “Year of the Dragon” (1985), yet it doesn’t save the sad story of his gradual decline and soon early retirement from the industry.


1. Gigli (2003) – Martin Brest


Pre-Flop: After delivering a sleeper hit with the warm heist comedy “Going in Style” (1979), young director Martin Brest hit the big time with “Beverly Hills Cop” (1984), a movie with several false starts and a revolving door of lead actors. He finally nailed the angle with Eddie Murphy as the lead and a blend of entertaining action, spot-on comedy, and involving fish-out-of-water scenario that gelled and resulted in the smash of that summer.

Brest continued his winning streak with “Midnight Run” (1988), a stellar and superior buddy movie starring the electric combo of Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, and then “Scent of a Woman” (1992 was a dramatic crowdpleaser that managed to net Al Pacino his first acting Oscar after seven nominations.) The dull romance “Meet Joe Black” (1998) was a rare misstep, but hardly tarnished his rep, and it set up him to return to the sub-genre he worked in best.

Film in Question: Unfortunately, this was “Gigli” (2003), the most infamous bomb of that decade. The massive media hurricane that surrounded its two leads Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez sadly influenced a movie that already wrapped filming in early 2002; originally concocted as a crime movie with comedy elements, poor test screenings and studio mandates forced Brest to reshoot the film into a romantic comedy to ride off the media hype.

The miserable and messy ordeal eventually came out in mid-2003 amidst a torrent of bad press and a public that was completely fed up with the ‘Bennifer’ craze. It flopped hard, even being pulled from release in the UK only one week after its premiere.

Post-Flop: This is a short one – Brest’s career not only died, but he officially walked from the industry forever more.



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  • In defense of Cimino, Heaven’s Gate may have hurt his credibility with the studios but Year of the Dragon and the extended cut of The Sicilian are still amazing films. Unfaithful as I recall did OK but I still wondered why he hasn’t made a new film. Same with Kevin Costner as I really did like Open Range though I don’t think it did too badly commercially. What about Richard Kelly with Southland Tales? That was a massive flop and The Box didn’t really do well commercially either.

    • Josh Lee

      And he may never do anything again as a result. Unfortunate.

      • True. Plus, I think Kelly did it to himself as he was a bit arrogant during the press conference for the premiere of Southland Tales in telling audiences to see it more than once. What’s the point of seeing the film a second time when you hated it the first time around and found little to like about it?

        • giorgio palmas

          I tried to watch Southland Tales but couldn’t get through it. Thanks for the Sicilian tip- I’ll look for it. Re-watched YOTD the other day. Mickey’s hair goes from white to brown to gray heh heh.

          • I first heard about the extended version of The Sicilian on the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession where film critic F.X. Feeney saw the shortened theatrical cut and then flew to France with Z Channel programmer Jerry Harvey and his then-wife to see the extended cut as Feeney felt the extended cut was an improvement. It’s got some flaws but certainly lives up to the grand scale of imagery that Cimino wanted. It’s sad he never got a shot to redeem himself as I think Heaven’t Gate was unfairly maligned whether anyone liked the film or not. I didn’t think it was that bad the first time I saw though it had flaws but it grew on me as I began to realize its brilliance through the 2012 restored edition of the film.

          • giorgio palmas

            Maybe I’ll make The Sardinian. We are always upstaged by our gumbah neighbors to the south.

  • Kaj Roihio

    Cutthroat Island is a fine example as well.

    • ArmitageX

      Amazingly, though, Renny Harlin has continued to work pretty steadily since.

  • Great, thorough write ups.

  • David

    Fuck critics of the 80s. Heaven’s Gate is a masterpiece.

  • Lucas Corsi

    Night Of The Hunter is a masterpiece.

  • Alain

    I think I’m alone in thinking ‘Peeping Tom’ failed simply because it’s a bit crap.

    • Kosta Jovanovic

      For now, yes

  • lamarkeith

    [1/3] Scottish actor Gerard Butler and Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau were the headlining Egyptian royalty, with a pale-skinned light-eyed cast filling out the majority of the other roles. In all fairness, the film certainly wasn’t striving for realism (people do, in fact, transform into metallic hawks mid-battle and bust out lightning bolts from their eyes), but never in recent times has the ethnic casting couch felt so backwards.”

    There’s so much in this quote that confuses the daylights out of me and it needs to be cleared up. “People” do NOT, in fact, transform into those things — Gods do. Did nobody stop to think that the majority of the characters in the film being prematurely bashed for whitewashing were gods, as if Gods of Egypt wasn’t enough information in the first place? Being that they’re gods — visually blatant in them being 9 feet taller than the humans in the film, and of course the transformations/super powers — they’re not “Egyptian royalty”. Pharoahs, kings, and queens are Egyptian royalty; not that culture’s gods.

    • lamarkeith

      [2/3] You flagrantly make this mistake that frames gods as humans in your language twice in a row (“Egyptian royalty”, “people transform”), which is the same kind of false pretense that led to the film’s unwarranted, predetermined backlash in the first place.

      On top of that, the Egyptian Gods did not belong to any human race nor any anthropological traits such as skin color. The Gods aren’t even Egyptian. (Imagine how strange it would be for someone to argue that the Christian God was an Earthling.) So to slight a film for portraying them as a certain skin color in favor of another is ludicrously off-base, and ironically you’re just reinforcing the arbitrary lines of human cultures (onto non-human entities no less!)

      • lamarkeith

        [3/3] But wait, there’s more: the paragraph of yours I quoted above reads as if you haven’t even considered the worldview of Egyptians themselves on the matter. If you had, then you could’ve quickly researched and found that your concept of “white” and “non-white” might as well cease to exist once you cross Egypt’s borders. Attempts to categorize the Egyptian people in a single or groups of race and skin color like you’re insinuating here is actually considered quite offensive by most Egyptians themselves, because they (wisely) still connect that type of behavior to colonial Europeans who used it to sort people into classes and assign privileges.

        So not only is it offensively reductive to mention Western political concepts of “white” and “non-white” while discussing the Egyptian people, but it’s downright ridiculous to bring it up when referring to their very much non-human, non-skin-color-bound celestial deities. Or are we just supposed to complain about the skin color of Gods just because Egypt is the title and setting?

        If you read this far, you might as well check out the paintings on the walls of Seti I’s tomb that depicts the diverse people of Egypt while you’re at it:

  • ArmitageX

    Didn’t Rolland Joffe also ghost-direct some of the ill-fated “Super Mario Bros.” movie? I can think of no worse fate than that…

  • Bittermetimbers

    Surprised that Night of the Hunter was a flop, beautiful film.
    I’m a big fan of the 1997 version of Lolita, I actually prefer it to Kubricks.