Box Office Bomb

Ishtar

The term box office bomb or flop generally refers to a film that is viewed as highly unsuccessful or unprofitable during its theatrical run, sometimes preceding hype regarding its production, cost, or marketing efforts.

Not all films that fail to earn back their estimated costs during their theatrical runs are bombs, and the label is generally applied to films that miss earnings projections by a wide margin, particularly when they are very expensive to produce, and sometimes in conjunction with middling or poor reviews (though critical reception has nothing to do with box office performance). A film can be box office bomb, even though international distribution, sales to television syndication, and home video releases often mean some films that are considered flops in North America eventually make a profit for their studios.

‘Waterworld’ is an example of a movie that does not appear on lists of box office bombs, despite enormous budget overruns, because the film broke even after making huge revenues from foreign box office, rentals, pay-per-view fees, cable outlays, and other revenue streams that exist independently of the North American theatrical system. ‘Head,’ a 1968 film featuring The Monkees was a flop that became profitable for its studio years later when its cult film status led to its sale to Rhino Entertainment and its re-release in various video formats. The popularity and profitability of DVD and Blu-ray sales has added further opportunities for films to recoup losses and eventually become profitable, leading to doubts over the significance of US domestic grosses as a predictor of a film’s overall success.

‘The Golden Compass,’ based on the first novel in Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ series, is considered a flop in North America due to its $180 million budget coupled with New Line Cinema’s decision to sell all of the international distribution rights, but the unique circumstances of its international earnings have made the film’s overall success a point of contention; it was the first film ever to make more than $300 million internationally but less than $100 million in the United States. New Line studio co-head Michael Lynne (who has since resigned) said, ‘The jury is still very much out on the movie…’

Different genres of film are subject to different standards of success. Action movies typically have higher production costs and promotion budgets than love stories. Typically, the most notorious flops are attempts at creating summer blockbusters, which often incur enormous production costs in a highly competitive market. The 2004 film ‘Catwoman’ was released in July of that year to poor reviews, and went on to gross $40,202,379 domestically against a budget of $100 million. Advertising and marketing costs are not included in a movie’s production costs, and can make a bomb even more harmful to the studio. In extreme cases, a single film’s poor performance can push a studio into bankruptcy or equivalent financial ruin, as happened with RKO Pictures (‘The Conqueror’), United Artists (‘Heaven’s Gate’), Carolco Pictures (‘Cutthroat Island’), Fox Animation Studios (‘Titan A.E.’), The Ladd Company (‘Twice Upon a Time’ and ‘The Right Stuff’), Fleischer Studios (‘Mr. Bug Goes to Town’), and ITC Entertainment (‘Raise the Titanic’). ‘The Golden Compass’ was seen as a significant factor in influencing Warner Bros.’ decision to take direct control of New Line Cinema.

When a failed attempt to revive a genre is particularly costly, all studios may subsequently balk at producing similar films, as was the case with Gold Circle Films’ horror-comedy ‘Slither,’ which made less than a quarter of its $29.5 million budget. Some failures have changed a company’s agenda, such as Walt Disney Pictures’ decision to make only computer-animated features, which stemmed from several disappointing traditionally-animated releases, including ‘Atlantis: The Lost Empire,’ and ‘Treasure Planet.’ However, this decision was reversed a few years later. Similarly, Warner Bros. Animation went nearly bankrupt in December 2003 due to the disasters of ‘Cats Don’t Dance,’ ‘Quest for Camelot,’ ‘Osmosis Jones,’ and ‘Looney Tunes: Back in Action,’ but it continued to operate after reorganizing from theatrical features to television shows (however, recently it has produced some ‘Looney Tunes’ theatrical shorts). Also, The Jim Henson Company was sold by Jim Henson’s children to EM.TV as ‘The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland’ and ‘Muppets from Space’ under-performed commercially  and after the Henson Company was sold back to Henson’s children, they have focused primarily on non-Muppet franchises such as ‘Sid the Science Kid’ and ‘Dinosaur Train’ since. However, Disney released ‘The Muppets’ theatrically in 2011 to universal acclaim and major box office success leading to a ‘Sesame Street’ film revival in works.

In 2001, Square Pictures released its first film, ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,’ an animated motion picture inspired by the ‘Final Fantasy’ series of video games. However, despite relatively positive reviews from critics, it lost over $52 million. In 2011, ‘Mars Needs Moms’ was released to poor reviews and disastrous box-office returns; as of its second week of release, the film was on track to lose $100 million of its $150 million budget, and its failure led to the closing of ImageMovers Digital.

Beginning in the 1980s, cinemas began to drop movies that suffered a poor opening weekend. This made the performance of a film on its opening weekend much more crucial to its perception. With the growth of the Internet during the 1990s, chat rooms and websites enabled negative word of mouth to spread rapidly. Promotion is one of the factors in a film’s success; however studios sometimes fail to promote certain films. When a studio has the ability to promote a film and does not, it may be due to an earlier management team’s having left the studio, leaving a new management team uninterested in the project. January is an infamous ‘dump’ month, when films expected to bomb get premiered without fanfare (it can also be a ‘counter-programming’ (programs to attract an audience from another event) month like the months of October and November, though, with lighter films released to compete with more serious films that are up for awards).

20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. released many animated films but did little or no promotion for them. As a result of the failures from the films produced by both studios’ feature animation departments, the WBFA studio shut down after producing ‘Looney Tunes: Back in Action’ while Fox did so after ‘Titan A.E.’ Warner’s later animated releases, such as ‘The Polar Express’ and ‘Happy Feet,’ along with Fox’s ‘Ice Age’ series and ‘The Simpsons Movie’ fared better. The earlier films, however, garnered later praise and cult followings, such as ‘Batman: Mask of the Phantasm’ and ‘The Iron Giant.’ Another example of a wide release production failing to see any significant promotion was the animated film ‘Delgo,’ which despite opening on over 2000 screens, only grossed $694,782 (against a $40 million budget). In certain cases the lack of promotion is due to business circumstances; ‘Cats Don’t Dance,’ a 1997 animated film, made barely a tenth of its budget largely because its production company, Turner Entertainment, was in the middle of a merger with Time Warner.

The 2006 Mike Judge comedy ‘Idiocracy’ had its release date changed repeatedly and eventually opened in only 125 theaters in seven cities, with no trailers, premieres, TV commercials or press kits, and the film was not screened for critics. This led to speculation that 20th Century Fox was not promoting the film due to its subject matter and its mocking of numerous corporations, including Fox and Fox News Channel themselves; the film later gained a cult following after its DVD release. Movies may attract low ticket sales if they are released against heavy competition from other movies also in theaters at the same time. A notable example of this was 1946 film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ The film was a financial loss for RKO because it was pitted against the highly successful films ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.’ However it became largely popular during the television era, and is now considered a Christmas classic.

While it is rare, films which might have otherwise fared well, may fail due to issues unrelated to the film itself, with the timing of the film’s release being perhaps the most common. This was one of several reasons for the commercial failure of one of Hollywood’s first flops, ‘Intolerance.’ Due to production delays, the film was not released until late 1916, by which time the widespread anti-war sentiment it reflected had started to shift in favor of U.S. entry into World War I. While the film would later be considered groundbreaking, its failure drove D. W. Griffith’s production company, Triangle Studio, out of business. Other examples include MGM’s ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and Walt Disney’s ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Fantasia,’ and ‘Bambi,’ all of which flopped merely due to the fact they were released during World War II which cut off 60% of Hollywood’s international release market. However these films became popular and critically acclaimed in later years. Others issues such as general economic malaise may cause less disposable income for potential filmgoers, resulting in fewer ticket sales. Also, many movies that open during times of national crisis such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 under-perform at the box office. However, movies about these particular events have been known to be box office successes.

Sometimes, a film may do reasonably well at the box office, but still be considered a failure due to a large budget. For example, ‘Sahara’ cost over $241 million to make, due in part to exorbitant production costs. It took in $122 million, usually enough to be successful. However, in this case, this accounted for barely over half of its expenses. In 2012, Disney said that it expected losses of $200 million on ‘John Carter’; at that time the film had made only $234 million worldwide, far short of the $250 million budget plus worldwide advertising.

The 2006 independent movie ‘Zyzzyx Road’ made just $30 at the domestic box office. The film, with a budget of $1.2 million and starring Tom Sizemore and Katherine Heigl, may owe its tiny revenue to its limited box office release — just six days in a single theater in Dallas, Texas, for the purpose of meeting SAG requirements – rather than its ability to attract viewers. According to co-star Leo Grillo, it sold six tickets, two of which were to cast members. Previously, a British film (‘Offending Angels’) became notorious because it took £89 at the box office. It had a £70,000 budget but was panned by critics including the BBC, who called it a ‘truly awful pile of garbage.’

The critically acclaimed Canadian film ‘The Law of Enclosures’ (1999) took in about C$1,000 at the box office due to an extremely limited release in the year 2001. The movie was exhibited in only one theater in Toronto for exactly one week. Costing C$2 million, ‘Law’ won three Genie Award nominations, including nods to its stars Sarah Polley and Brendan Fletcher (Fletcher won). The film was publicly financed due to Canadian legislation mandating the production of Canadian-content films to compete with product imported from the United States, which dominates the Canadian box office. Despite the praise and the participation of the Oscar-nominated Polley, a major movie star in Canada, the film was a flop at the box office, and was not released on DVD.

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