Hollywood is, at the end of the day, a business, so while we can have endless fun debating the merits of all manner of films, what ultimately matters to studios and distributors, and in turn influences what gets made in the future, is the box office. If the film turns a profit, it’s a success. If it doesn’t, it’s a failure. Sure, it’s a little more complicated than that (despite making almost $900 worldwide on a reported $250 million budget, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is regarded as a disappointment), but that’s the basic rule.
Over time, you spot trends and feel like you know which movies are going to be smash hits and which will be complete embarrassments on studio’s end of year financial reports. But, like all art, movie-making isn’t a science. Sure things can fail and films everyone wrote off the moment they were announced wind up being some of the most successful movies of all-time.
This list will be looking at movies whose financial success a large group of film commentators were highly sceptical of, yet somehow managed to, at the very least, break even. Some only just made it, while others completely cleaned up and smashed records. To measure this, we’re going to go with the widely assumed rule that to turn a profit a movie needs a worldwide box office gross that doubles its budget (to account for marketing and other non-production based costs). Here are 15 Movies You Were Sure Would Flop – But Didn’t.
Budget: $200 million
Box office: $2.187 billion (after 2012 re-release)
Titanic’s success is undebatable. Upon release in 1997, it became the highest grossing film thus far by an almost $1 billion buffer and went on to sweep the Oscars, winning a record 13 awards (tying with Lawrence Of Arabia and, later, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Then, not willing to let things lie, its return to cinemas for the centenary in 2012 of the sinking was the most successful 3D re-release of all time, which pushed its total over $2 billion and meant that Star Wars: The Force Awakens had to settle for third place on the all-time box office. Money aside, that whether Leonardo DiCaprio could fit on the door can still be debated to this day singularly shows something about Jack and Rose’ ill-fated voyage hooked in people’s minds.
Suggest this happening to someone in mid-1997 and there’d have probably laughed you out of the cinema.
Before release, Titanic was set to be a, well, titanic disaster. It was James Cameron’s bonkers passion project, a period romance disaster flick made so he could indulge his love of deep sea diving. Coverage focused on a tiresome, troubled production and ballooning budget that conjured up many comparisons to Waterworld (which, while not bombing as hard as predicted, was far from a box-office success). It was simply too big to succeed, a story irony lost on nobody. Of course, a release switch (from summer to Christmas), a balanced marketing campaign that appealed to both genders and, crucially, unexpectedly positive reviews made those worries infinitesimal.
Budget: $125 million
Box office: $362.6 million
Even though they’ve not been cultural landmarks since the late-sixties and early-seventies (and by then they were well out of fashion), studios are still incredibly obsessed with Biblical epics. Where many seem to stumble is in deciding a target audience. Getting modern mainstream cinemagoers amped for a Bible story is a hard task, but there’s conversely a real aversion to singularly targeting a religious audience lest you end up in the ghetto of the Christian film industry.
Noah looked particularly confused. Darren Aronofsky’s passion project was an unashamed top-down reimagining of The Great Flood that positioned the Book of Genesis as a high fantasy source, something guaranteed to not land in the Bible-belt, but in a long-fought battle between director and studio for final edit that audience was the centre of the debate; Paramount even tested a 90 minute version that removed any contentious elements and adding in several hymns. All the while, there was doubt in commentators that anybody else would even care about the film. When you’ve sunk superhero money, that’s not a good thing.
Budget: $237 million
Box office: $2.788 billion
That people were sceptical about Avatar is a little easier to accept given how muted its plaudits can be today, but let’s not mince words: Avatar was massive. It set such a high bar at the worldwide box office the return of Star Wars after a ten-year absence couldn’t even get close and, in spite of lacking tangible copycats, it did have a major technical impact with the rise of mo-cap and 3D.
Suggest this happening to someone in mid-2009 and there’d have probably laughed you out of the cinema. And if that all sounds a bit familiar, then it’s because people seem to have a real problem in trusting with James Cameron.
There were less disaster rumblings around Avatar than there was on Titanic, but the sheer length of the production (Cameron was actively working on it for four years, and had been trying to perfect the technology required to bring Pandora to life for double that) created a real air of scepticism around a brand new, out-there IP that risked being distilled down to “FernGully in space.” At this point, though, people should just understand that Cameron understands what mainstream audiences want (although don’t be surprised if the scepticism returns when Avatar 2 eventually rolls around)
12. Olympus Has Fallen
Budget: $70 million
Box office: $161 million
Twin movies – two films based on a similar subject released at the same time – are absolutely fascinating. How is it that two totally separate productions can lead to something so similar? And you can normally call which will win: A Bug’s Life over Antz because Pixar; The Prestige over The Illusionist because Nolan; Finding Nemo over Shark Tale because, damn, Dreamworks weren’t all that original early on. And, in the battle of “Die Hard in the White House” films in 2013, you’re safe to assume Roland Emmerich’s White House Down would easily slay Antoine Fuqua’s Olympus Has Fallen.
And while technically the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx film did make marginally more at the box office, it did so on double the budget, meaning it flopped badly while the Gerard Butler/Aaron Eckhart flick made a tidy profit. There’s plenty of factors to consider (the political ethos of both films is subtly different), but it ultimately comes down to timing – Olympus Has Fallen came first, so felt a little less derivative, something that made up for its lesser star power.
11. Iron Man
Budget: $140 million
Box office: $585.2 million
Now that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the biggest franchise in movie history, it’s nigh-on impossible to consider, but when Iron Man hit in 2008 its hero was firmly on Marvel’s B-list. Pre-Downey, Jr., there just wasn’t much exposure for Tony Stark. That’s kind of why Marvel made the film; they’d sold the movie rights to most of their then-A-list – Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk – to other studios after filing for bankruptcy in 1996, which meant that when they wanted to get into the film business a decade later they were left with lesser-known heroes like Captain America and Thor, leading to them opting to forsake individual name recognition and assemble The Avengers.
Obviously that was a genius, industry-changing decision, but before Iron Man it was just a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, with the success of the first film far-from certain. Downey, Jr. wasn’t the bankable star he is now, still coming out from his highly publicized troubles and the superhero genre’s future was in question: 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2007’s Spider-Man 3 pointed towards the naughties explosion of spandexed crimefighters beginning to abate.
10. 21 Jump Street
Budget: $55 million
Box office: $201.5 million
21 Jump Street was a late-eighties action sitcom that’s only really noteworthy for starring an on-the-rise Johnny Depp. When a movie reboot was announced starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, everyone’s response was the same: why on earth would you even bother doing that?
The answer, it turns out, is to send up the very idea of the needless reboot. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who had already proven their ability to craft surreal brilliance from odd places with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, went all in on the zaniness. Tatum wasn’t known for comedy and Hill was a stranger to action, but that became the whole point, set against a backdrop of knowing winks to the audience about countless genre tropes (like exploding chickens). There was even a cameo from Depp that placed it within the original continuity to please original fans. Hardly surprising the word-of-mouth was so strong.
Things were only increased with 22 Jump Street, which flagrantly repeated the first and repeatedly drew attention to that fact, although because the first film was such a hit the sequel’s success was less in doubt (the same goes for 23, 24, 25, the Seth Rogen recasting, the video game etc.).
Budget: $260 million
Box office: $591.8 million
Many consider us to be in the middle of a second Disney renaissance, with the animation wing of the company enjoying a level of creative and commercial success that almost rivals its work in the early 1990s with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. Just a few years ago, however, it was a different story; the naughties weren’t kind on the studio and it had produced a run of poorly received films (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Home on the Range).
Tangled’s problems extended beyond just that downturn, however – it was also one of the most expensive films ever made, animated or otherwise. The movie had been in production on-and-off since the end of the previous renaissance and in that time had been the subject to a lot of scrutiny from the company, both in terms of its animation approach (it was originally intended to be done traditionally) and its story angling; due to a fear of making a classical princess film in the 2000s, what had originally been called Rapunzel had to be refocused to appeal to both genders. This all lead to a situation where it could make $500 million and still be classed a failure. Based on their recent form, Disney had a guaranteed flop on their hands.
However, it worked – Tangled wasn’t just a success, managing to clear its ridiculously high bar by connecting with multiple generations, but managed to reignite the entirety of Disney’s animation arm, leading to a host of exciting new movies, including more overtly princess adventures Frozen and Moana.
Budget: $40 million
Box office: $463 million
Lucy is far-and-away the most profitable film on this list (Titanic comes closest, but that’s only with a major re-release). It was nothing less than a shock smash, the third biggest film not based on an existing IP in 2014. And yes, we are talking about the movie exploring what would happen if humans used more than 10% of their brain.
That notion is what made everyone so suspect about its chances: there’s movie science and then there’s bottom-of-the-barrel urban myth-scraping. Sure, it’s was just to enable for some mind-bendy action, but there’s countless movies that do similar things and sink without a trace. Also, while the trailers gleefully championed its director, it’s also not like Luc Besson’s name carries the weight it did twenty years ago.
What nobody really considered was how Lucy was a perfect storm – there was just enough allure in the silly premise, Scarlett Johannsen was just big enough to carry a movie herself, and it hit in the late-summer lull where audiences were starved for basic action. It’s frankly amazing we’ve heard so little about the sequel.
7. The Bourne Legacy
Budget: $125 million
Box office: $276.1 million
When the name of a character is in the title of franchise, you’d expect the departure of that character to be the end of said franchise. However, Universal weren’t giving up on Bourne; each movie in the trilogy had made more than the last, so even though Jason had got to the bottom of his mystery and Matt Damon had announced his plans to not continue, they were keen to keen things moving forward after 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum.
The solution was to bring in Jeremy Renner as an agent off on his own tangential mission that tied into the wider CIA black ops mystery without needed to feature the series subject. Fans of the trilogy (and especially of Paul Greengrass’ latter two films) weren’t convinced, and predicated “No Jason, no interest.” Things didn’t go that way, and while The Bourne Legacy saw a downturn in interest, the brand was still strong enough for the film to turn a profit.
The Jason-loyal thinkers were ultimately proven correct in some form, however; Jason Bourne may not be as beloved as the original trilogy, but it grossed $150 million more than Legacy, becoming the series’ second most successful entry behind Ultimatum.
6. Star Trek
Budget: $150 million
Box office: $385.7 million
Although notorious for alternating quality, the Star Trek movies were, by-and-large, dependable hits: every one of the original series films made a tidy profit. However, as the years wore on, The Next Generation took over and, as budgets increased, the totals didn’t adjust accordingly; both Insurrection and Nemesis underperformed and seemingly buried the Enterprise on the big screen.
Bringing the series back in 2009, then, was far from a sure thing. There was no proven modern interest in a Trek film, and without a TV series to bolster mainstream interest it was back to being the mocked object of geek desire. J.J. Abrams knew this and stripped the series back to its core iconography, making a prequel-sequel-alt-timeline adventure that gave the Original Series crew’s origins in a manner accessible for all.
Die-hard Trekkies were mixed on Abrams’ approach, finding it more Star Wars than Trek (unsurprisingly, the director was always more of a Wars fan, and would go on to rejuvenate that series as well), but even they can’t deny it made the franchise cool again. Star Trek Beyond, the third film in the reboot, did eventually deliver something more in keeping with the TV series ideological bent (while keeping the action), although it wasn’t quite as successful.
Budget: $100 million
Box office: $244.8 million
Never underestimate the power of The Rock. His self-proclaimed franchise Viagra isn’t some Ponzi scheme, but a genuine effect; he basically single-handedly reinvigorated Fast and Furious and G.I. Joe, and hopes to do the same for Jumanji next year, but by far his biggest achievement in terms of shock factor was with 2014’s Hercules.
For starters, it’s a movie from Brett Ratner, who despite still getting work isn’t the biggest hitter, and everything in it looked to be a murky, generic fantasy that poorly riffed on 300. Worse, it was taking on the story of Hercules, something that not only had been covered plenty of times before (once earlier in the year), but felt a bit reductive in the superhero era. Of course, these takeaways melted away for audiences thanks to the presence of Dwayne Johnson, whose effortless charisma made people want to turn out regardless of everything else.
Those who turned up were in for a pleasant surprise too: instead of a retread of the twelve trials, the film was instead a mythic deconstruction of the supposed legend where John Hurt was flattened by a giant boulder. Oddly, a sequel hasn’t been mooted, although Johnson’s schedule’s pretty full as it is.
4. Angels & Demons
Budget: $150 million
Box office: $485.9 million
You could really count any of the Robert Langdon movies here, but seeing as how The Da Vinci Code was already a major bestseller and Inferno’s profit’s a bit spluttering, Angels & Demons is the biggest surprise.
Starring Tom Hanks (who, despite not being as prolific as in his nineties boom, remains a draw), directed by Ron Howard (equally successful with prestige and audience-pleasing projects) and coming from a popular book series (so a built-in audience) you shouldn’t probably expect a flop (indeed, a combination of those reasons is why the film made three times its mammoth budget), yet everything besides that doesn’t add up. There’s no intrinsic appeal in Langdon as a character – his personality goes as far as having a watch from Disneyland – or his adventures, which read as “My First Renaissance”.
It ultimately comes down to the scale of Dan Brown’s popularity as much as anything else; they may not be high-art and the plot structure incredibly obvious, but the accessible mysteries have maintained mass appeal and, similar to the likes of Harry Potter, that fanbase goes a long way.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Budget: $232.3 million
Box office: $773.3 million
If Iron Man was B-list superhero, then the Guardians of the Galaxy were D-listers (and that’s being generous) before their cinematic debut in 2014. If someone like Thor was a bit niche outside of comic book circles, the likes of Star-Lord were full-on nobodies, to the point that, when the movie was announced, the comic was rebooted to better line up with the cinematic vision and barely any fans objected.
In the build-up, this was declared as “Marvel’s biggest gamble”, a Star Wars-riff with no recognizable characters. People were less hesitant to declare disaster after the early teasers showed something so overwhelmingly fun, but until it arrived there was no guarantee audiences would warm to a film centred on a trisyllabic walking tree and talking racoon. It would be the ultimate test of whether the red-and-white logo really had the wider populace’s attention.
Of course, Marvel had struck gold again; Guardians remains the studio’s biggest non-sequel standalone by a margin of $200 million and its sequel is one of the most anticipated films on their upcoming slate.
2. Mad Mad: Fury Road
Budget: $150 million
Box office: $378.4 million
George Miller had been trying to make a fourth Mad Max for so long that when he first pitched it Mel Gibson was actually on the rails and producing award-winning movies people wanted to see. But while the series mastermind had a clear idea of what Fury Road would entail, it was repeatedly stalled by studio and budgetary issues.
By the time the film did reach cinemas, it was a whole thirty years since the previous film, Beyond Thunderdome, basically ensuring any brand recognition was gone. To make things more troubling, the film’s production had been lengthy and hampered by relocation issues, and that was before a two year editing period and reshoots created real worry in observer’s minds.
In the end though, Fury Road is really a sign of how a completely badass film can be the best sell of all; not only did it not flop, but it became a shock awards contender, winning more Oscars (albeit in technical categories) than The Revenant. Its home video sales weren’t too shabby either, and that number’s only going to increase with the release of the Black and Chrome edition.
1. World War Z
Budget: $190 million
Box office: $540 million
Like all the best entries in the zombie sub-genre, Max Brook’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War took a major societal issue and explored it through the proliferation of walkers. The topic here was global relations, with a UN agent travelling the globe to get to the bottom of the outbreak and its impact. When it came to bringing it to the big screen, things were, typically, dumbed down – Brad Pitt’s character still worked at the UN, but his adventures were more focused on the simple thrills and chills of the zombie apocalypse than they were examining our current world.
This reduction from a lofty source to generic, A-list starring action movie seemed to suggest it was a failed endeavour already. When reports of drastic, costly reshoots, with Damon Lindelof brought in to completely reshape the entire third act, its fate seemed sealed; bad press aside, the budget was only going to climb.
World War Z did wind up costing a stupid amount, but it grossed an equally unexpected sum, testament to how strong the undead’s mainstream allure still was and how sometimes people just want something that looks exciting.