Making a movie is like a very expensive game of poker: you try to get a good hand (decent script + bankable artists + strong marketing campaign) but sometimes you can lose, and lose big. (Like $95 million for Eddie Murphy’s colossal box office bomb, ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash.’)
A movie tanks for many reasons. Sometimes, it’s just overshadowed by movies that were released at the same time. Sometimes, the story is just so god-awful bad that we wonder, ourselves, ‘What on earth were they thinking?’ Here are some of the biggest, and most expensive, losers.
1. Howard the Duck
This 1986 film cost Universal Pictures $37 million to make, and earned less than half ($16 million). The plot: a duck from an alien planet goes to Cleveland, teams up with a rocker chick Lea Thompson, and saves the Earth from vengeful villains with quack-fu. The director, William Huyck, never got a decent directing job again. You could say it was a ‘fowl’ career move.
2. Hudson Hawk
What is it with movies that are named after birds? Hudson Hawk, released by Columbia Tristar, lost a mind-reeling $43 million (recovering just $17.2 million from its $60 million production costs).
Basically the movie is about a retired cat burglar who’s forced to steal Da Vinci masterpieces. At some point, the burglar (played by Bruce Willis) actually breaks into song. Critics, including those from Rolling Stone magazine, were not amused. One writer, Peter Travers said the movie was so bad you wanted to throw things at the actors and beg them to stop. The 1991 Gold Razzies named it the Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, and Worst Director.
This movie was called the most expensive comedy ever made, costing Columbia a loss of over $30 million (earning just $12.7 million of its $55 million budget). The movie revolved around two singer-songwriters (played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman) who find themselves in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom Ishtar. It was a stupid story to begin with (movie critic Roger Ebert said ‘it’s interesting only in the way a traffic accident is interesting.”
Ouch, this hurt the pockets of Warner Bros. Pictures. This movie (about the Korean War) took in just $1.9 million after costing a hefty $50 million to make. It starred Laurence Olivier, whose reputation and acting skill was not able to salvage this movie at all. Critics called it the ‘worst movie ever made.’
This movie was made in 1963. It cost $44 million (the equivalent of over $250 million today) and earned just $26 million (the equivalent of $153 million). Most of the budget went to the costumes, sets, and the cast of thousands. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred as Cleopatra and Marc Antony.
The movie did earn a lot in the box office and even won four Oscars, but the production costs nearly made Century Fox bankrupt. To stay alive, the studio had to close down for four months, sell off some of its properties, and cut over 2,000 from their payroll.
6. Heaven’s Gate
This movie forced its studio, United Artists, to sell its shares to MGM. It earned just $3 million at the box office, despite a $44 million production budget and over 1.5 million feet of film (which can actually make several feature-length movies). It killed the career of its director, Cimino, who had won an Oscar for Best Director for ‘Deer Hunter,’ but was described as ‘difficult to control’ and ‘egoistic.’
7. The Postman
This picture won all the 1997 Razzie Awards: Worst Picture, Worst Actor (Kevin Costner), Worst Director (Kevin Costner), Worst Screenplay and Worst Song (yes, song—Costner had a duet with Amy Grant).
The movie may also have earned the reputation of being the only post-apocalyptic drama where people laughed more than they cried, and for all the wrong reasons. Basically, it’s about a postman that quotes Shakespeare and inspires humanity to overthrow oppressors. Lines like “I don’t think we ever really understood what letters meant to us until they were gone” makes you want to cheer… for the oppressors. The movie cost nearly $100 million to make, and earned just $17.6 million
8. Town & Country
This ‘middle-aged sex comedy’ starring Sharon Stone, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Warren Beatty and Garry Shandling cost $90 million to make, and earned just $6.7 million. Despite the stellar cast, the movie supposedly went to production without a script, and the director, Chelsom, ended up accumulating 1.3 million feet of film. The studio had to move the release date 13 times, too, hoping things would get better and realizing that all they could do was to chuck it out and end everyone’s suffering. ‘It is awful to see talented stars without a clue as to who they are supposed to be portraying or what they are supposed to be doing,” moaned New York Post writer Liz Smith. Chelsom blames Warren Beatty, who supposedly demanded the script to be changed several times. It was Beatty’s last film.
9. Cutthroat Island
This pirate movie cost over $100 million to make, and earned less than $10 million. Clearly, the big explosions and special effects weren’t enough to salvage the inane plot, bad acting, godawful editing, and amateurish directing. It ran for two weeks.
10. The Adventures of Pluto Nash
Like Cutthroat Island, it cost more than $100 million to make, but earned only $4.4 million. It stars Eddie Murphy, a nightclub owner whose bar is located…on the moon. Critics compared it to ‘Ishtar.’ The studio may have sensed that this would happen, shelving the project for two years before finally releasing it, just to get it over and done with. Murphy refused to promote it, and soon after this box office bomb, returned to making films for kids.