A History of the Hollywood Flop

Recently there was a pretty big flop at the box-office. Charlie's Angels. Were you as shocked at Elizabeth Banks? Here at Daily Lounge we looked at four of the most famous box-office flameouts of all time, flameouts big enough that not even Waterworld made the cut:

Arguably, Disney was already tempting fate by casting a relative unknown, Taylor Kitsch, as the lead in their sci-fi epic. No such excuses can be made for Ishtar, which starred two of Hollywood’s brightest lights in Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. Its $55 million budget would be considered small potatoes today (by contrast, John Carter cost $250 million to produce and another $100 million to market), but in 1987, it was a huge amount of money to risk on a film. The return on investment, meanwhile, was only a little bit over $14 million. The film was universally panned, and the cost overruns and difficult filming process reportedly left several close friendships in tatters. Still, both Hoffman and Beatty lived to fight another day: Hoffman is still one of the most respected actors in Hollywood, while Beatty scored hits shortly after the film came out with Dick Tracy and Bugsy, the latter of which was nominated for Best Picture.

Battlefield Earth

The same can’t be really said of John Travolta, who, when he began production on Battlefield Earth, had already come back from one apparent career death thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn in Pulp Fiction. Want to know a good way to ruin a career resurgence is? Easy. Be solely responsible shortly thereafter for a movie that’s in serious contention to be considered the worst movie ever made. Financed by Travolta as a thinly-disguised recruitment video for Scientology, BE earns bonus points for being easily the worst religious movie ever made. And, given that his most prominent role after it was in Austin Powers in Goldmember, it’s safe to say that Travolta never quite made it back to primetime.


No such travesties befell the cast of Cleopatra; Richard Burton and Liz Taylor are two of the most-lauded and most iconic figures in film history, and Rex Harrison seems to have largely been forgiven due to his work in My Fair Lady. Nonetheless, Cleopatra, which was critically panned when it came out, holds the unenviable distinction of being the only movie ever to be the highest-grossing movie of its year and still lose money. You’ll remember that we pointed out that Ishtar’s budget of $55 million was lavish for the year it came out. Well, Cleopatra cost almost $3 million more – and came out over twenty years earlier. Compounding that issue is the fact that it was originally only budgeted for $2 million, giving a new definition to “cost overrun” in the process of nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox.

Heaven’s Gate

Still, 20th Century Fox recovered, and would go on to reap the benefits of distributing small movies by men with names like Spielberg and Lucas. Heaven’s Gate, though, remains to this day the picture of what a box office flop really is, a critically-panned, universally-reviled, over-budget monstrosity that destroyed careers and brought down powerhouses. Gate was Michael Cimino’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter (arguably the most overrated war movie of all time, but we digress), and was meant to cement his status as one of the leading young directors in the business. Cimino, though, pushed for more money and fewer constraints, and, since Hollywood at the time was flush with the idea of auteur cinema, United Artists felt that it had to give him the money. The result was an almost four-hour-long monstrosity that cost $44 million and only earned $3.5 million. In part due to that flop, United Artists was forced to close its doors in the 1980s. Cimino’s career, meanwhile, was effectively torpedoed; he would direct only four more movies, all on constrained budgets and none of which were profitable.

[Pic via Flickr – Seth Anderson]

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