An unblemished record is something of a rarity in the world of directing, with films like Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows and, more recently, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG proving that even masters of the trade can have a less-than-perfect day at the office. The question is, how many imperfect days can a great film director have and still hope to be considered among the best? More than a couple, apparently.
The following directors have all achieved greatness at some point in their careers, and are all held in high regard, either by their own dedicated fanbase or by the wider film community. The other thing these directors have in common is that they have all managed to maintain that status as a top director despite helming multiple flops.
Whether this is a testament to their abilities or a misrepresentation of them is a matter of opinion, but one thing is for sure-- these guys know their way around a box office bomb. From blockbuster specialists to B-movie enthusiasts, here are 15 Great Directors With The Most Flops.
The siblings who brought us one of the most influential sci-fi flicks ever have been having a hard time of it as of late, with a string of big budget misfires leaving their reputation in the balance, though those of a certain age will remember the massive impact that the Wachowskis had on Hollywood at the turn of the century. Not only did The Matrix restore some much needed credibility to the science fiction genre as the new millennium drew near, it changed the way filmmakers approached action sequences forever by introducing the John Woo style of bullet ballet to the Western world.
While their two Matrix sequels proved profitable at the box office, critics were largely divided over them, both subject to mixed reviews. There was little indecision when it came to their next three features, however, among neither critics nor viewers. 2008’s headache inducing mess Speed Racer returned less than $94 million on a budget of $120 million, 2012 misfire Cloud Atlas managed to pull in more than its estimated $102 million budget but still lost tens of millions in marketing costs. It was the same case with 2015’s Jupiter Ascending, which had a colossal budget of $176 million but only managed $183 million in worldwide receipts.
Robert Rodriguez burst on to the scene in 1992 with his critically and commercially successful debut El Mariachi, the first film in his so-called "Mexico Trilogy" and still one of his best films to date. He cut his mainstream chops with the profitable Spy Kids franchise, though since then his record has been hit and miss. He jumped on the 3D bandwagon in 2005 with the severely miscalculated The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, pumping in excess of $50 million into a project that wasn’t even visually impressive enough to make up for its lack of a coherent plot.
The release of Sin City the same year meant that Rodriguez was absolved of the many cinematic sins committed by Shark Boy and Lava Girl, though his next project was a case of much style and little substance. His joint venture with Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse may have satisfied some B-movie itches, but it barely broke the $25 million mark from a budget of $67 million. He had some success in this area with 2010’s Machete, which quadrupled its $10.5 million budget, but his next three ventures (Spy Kids: All The Time in the World, Machete Kills, and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For) all lost money.
John Carpenter became known as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 1970s and ‘80s, lumped into the same category as Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis by those able to look back at his work and recognize its value. Carpenter got the nickname the "Horror Master" after the success of 1978’s Halloween, 1982’s The Thing, and 1983 Stephen King adaptation Christine, though in reality most of his films at this early stage were both critical and commercial failures.
While many of these early bombs went on to be considered cult classics among genre fans (Big Trouble in Little China didn't even scrape back half of its $25 million budget but today holds an 82 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes) the same thing isn’t likely to happen to any of Carpenter’s later efforts. The master seemed to lose his touch during the ‘90s, with Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness (1995), Village of the Damned (1995), and Vampires (1998) all falling flat at the box office. It got even worse with 2001’s Ghost of Mars, which only managed to make a worldwide total of $14 million on a budget of $28 million.
Academy Award nominee Spike Lee has examined a number of different political issues over the course of his career to date, from race relations to crime and poverty. He announced himself as an exciting director with a unique voice back in 1986 with She’s Gotta Have It and has gone on to become known as one of the greats, though, every now and then, the Georgia-native misses his target entirely. For every success that Lee has had at the box office there is a flop to match it, whether that be commercially, critically or both.
In 1996, for example, Lee was commended for his Million Man March tale Get on the Bus, but that same year he was behind box office flop Girl 6, a $12 million film that made less than $5 million. He has managed to maintain his reputation by routinely returning to his roots, though a couple of high budget flops in recent years (Miracle at St. Anna and Oldboy lost $35 million and $25 million respectively) have led many to ask if Spike Lee is simply a great director of indie films and nothing more.
British director Ridley Scott was considered one of the UK’s most promising talents in the years after he first burst onto the scene like an extraterrestrial through a chest cavity in 1979, masterfully blending elements of sci-fi and horror in his second feature outing Alien. In the decades since, Scott has delivered some of the most memorable blockbusters in Hollywood history, though the Englishman’s record is far from squeaky clean. G.I. Jane (1997), Matchstick Men (2003), and A Good Year (2006) all disappointed financially, and the scale of the losses incurred by Scott’s movies has increased exponentially over the years.
2010’s Robin Hood had a staggering budget of $200 million and only posted $105 million domestically, and 2014’s Exodus: Gods and Kings had a budget of $140 million and returned just $65 million at the US box office. While both films were more successful in international markets, they still represented huge financial losses with the cost of their high profile marketing campaigns taken into consideration, though there is an argument that the 20th Century Fox and Universal are just as liable as the director for spending more money than necessary over the course of production.
As one of the founding members of the New Hollywood movement, Brian De Palma has always been well respected in cinematic circles. De Palma became a hot name in Tinseltown after the release of his Stephen King adaptation Carrie, the director’s first taste of box office success and a showpiece for his potential as a big-budget director. Since then he has has flitted back and forth between mainstream and independent projects, always doing just enough to maintain his reputation as a masterful director of a particular brand of thriller.
Most attribute De Palma’s longevity to the fact that some of his finer films (Scarface in particular) have become completely ingrained in pop culture, though his work rate also needs to be taken into account. With 40 directing credits to his name, De Palma has always kept himself busy, though anyone who helms that many films will always end up with a few flops among them. In De Palma’s case, there are more than a few.
Snake Eyes (1998), Mission to Mars (2000), Femme Fatale (2002), The Black Dahlia (2006), Redacted (2007) and, most recently, Passion (2012) all failed to hit financial targets. His biggest box office disaster of all, however, was 1990’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a comedy drama that cost $47 million to make and only brought home a total of $15 million.
Like John Carpenter, Wes Craven is one of a handful of directors to have been referred to as the Master of Horror at some point, though perhaps a more accurate description would be the Master of Slashers. The late horror veteran gave us one of the genre’s most iconic cutters in Freddie Kruger when he dropped cult classic A Nightmare On Elm Street in 1984, and he increased our wariness of kitchen knives tenfold throughout the late ‘90s and early ‘00s with the highly profitable Scream franchise. Dotted among some truly great films, however, are a number of often overlooked disappointments.
The year before Scream became the surprise box office success of 1996, Craven was fending off questions about the poor performance of Vampire In Brooklyn (1995), which struggled to make back its estimated $20 million budget. Eyebrows were also raised at the receipts for Craven’s only foray into drama; Music of the Heart (1999), werewolf horror-comedy Cursed (2005), and supernatural 3D chiller My Soul To Take (2010), which lost more than $20 million between them. Looking back at his career as a whole, there is no doubting Craven’s influence on the genre. While undeniably a great director, he certainly had some misfires.
Oliver Stone was a force to be reckoned with in the late 1980s, winning two Academy Awards for Best Director for his work on Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, the first two films in his Vietnam War trilogy. The third film, 1993’s Heaven and Earth, didn’t complete a hat-trick of Oscars for the director as he might have hoped, receiving reviews that were mixed at best and bombing at the box office. It ended its run having grossed just under $6 million on a budget of $33 million.
From there, Stone has developed a reputation as a great, though not necessarily profitable director. While he’s shown that he is capable of getting a solid ROI with films like 2006’s World Trade Center, those figures pale in comparison to losses posted on films like 2004 mega flop Alexander, which almost caused Irish star Colin Farrell to quit acting. While his political biopic JFK went down well with audiences and critics alike, W. and Nixon both bombed, with the latter returning a disappointing $13.5 million on a budget of $44 million.
Michael Mann has never been a particularly fashionable director, despite helming such classics as The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider. These films were the only three that Mann worked on in the 1990s, undoubtedly his most successful decade as a director as far as critics were concerned. Mann confirmed his position as a blockbuster-level director in 2004 with Collateral, which earned a sum in the region of $215 million.
Mann commanded budgets in the region of $100 million throughout the ‘00s, though the returns weren’t always as high as they were on that occasion. He began the decade with 2001’s Ali, but the boxing biopic only managed $87 million at the worldwide box office, and 2006’s Miami Vice reboot, which was allotted an overly generous budget of $135 million, only brought home $63.5 million domestically. Mann’s most obvious flop to date came fairly recently in the shape of cybercrime misfire Blackhat, considered one of the biggest bombs of 2015 after pulling in less than $20 million worldwide from a budget of $70 million.
Terry Gilliam is an unusual case-- a director considered by many to be one of the greats but who has rarely been profitable, outside of his time as part of Monty Python. His earliest box office success was 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, though this was co-directed with Terry Jones. While he went on to earn critical plaudits as a solo act in the 1980s with future cult classics Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, only the first one made any money, with the latter two losing tens of millions between them.
Some high profile flops have been helmed by Gilliam in the years since, most memorably his 2005 adaptation of The Brothers Grimm fairy tales, which cost $88 million to make but finished its North American run with only $38 million to show for it. Even the films he is best known for were financial letdowns, with 1995’s Twelve Monkeys barely turning a profit and 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas making back just over half of its budget.
These losses pale in comparison to some of his more obscure flops, however, such as his 2013 fantasy sci-fi The Zero Theorem (which grossed $219,438 from a $8.5 million budget) or his 2005 fantasy horror Tideland (which grossed an extraordinarily poor $61,238 from a budget of $19.5 million).
Sam Raimi is known to the casual film fan as the guy who did Evil Dead and directed the Toby Maguire Spider-Man movies, though the Michigan-native has actually directed a total of 16 feature films. Perhaps the reason that he isn’t really recognized for much else is that none of his other projects have achieved the cult status of his Evil Dead movies or come close to his Spider-Man trilogy in terms of mainstream success, with many of them actually losing large sums of money.
The ‘90s started well enough for Raimi, who, after failing to acquire the rights to both The Shadow and Batman, created his own superhero in Darkman (1990), his first genuine Hollywood movie. Both this and his next film (1992’s Army of Darkness) doubled their budgets at the box office, though The Quick and the Dead (1995), A Simple Plan (1998), and For Love of the Game (1999) all made losses, the latter bombing hard with a total of $35 million from a budget of $80 million.
Raimi's next project is one that he has been pursuing for several years, a movie based on The Next 100 Years: A Forecast of The 21st Century by political philosopher and geopolitical forecaster George Friedman. The film, which is going under the name World War 3, is Raimi's chance to remind everyone that he deserves big money backing after Oz The Great and Powerful failed to make the most of its huge budget.
When 2015’s heavily plugged Crimson Peak bombed hard at the box office, a conversation about Guillermo Del Toro’s perceived greatness began. The gothic romance earned just $31 million from the North American market, despite a healthy production budget of $55 million. As was the case with his previous outing Pacific Rim, the damage was lessened by receipts from foreign markets, where the Mexican director has traditionally been a lot more popular than he is in the United States.
Both of his Hellboy films, while critically acclaimed, failed to recoup their budgets domestically, as did his 1997 sci-fi horror Mimic, each coming close to breaking even but falling at the last hurdle. Even the film considered Del Toro’s one true Hollywood box office success has question marks over it, with $73 million of Blade II’s worldwide take of $155 million coming from abroad. Funnily enough, the director’s only undisputed success in the American market is his Spanish language fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, which took a comparatively small budget of $19 million and turned it into $38 million.
Another director that has repeatedly relied on international markets to turn a profit is Tarsem, who made a name for himself in the world of TV commercials before he moved into feature film making. While his debut The Cell (2000) almost doubled its budget with $61 million in US receipts, it was hammered by critics for relying on style over substance, forcing Tarsem to take a radically different approach to his next film. This approach created one of the most debatable bombs in film history.
To get total control over his follow-up, The Fall, Tarsem decided to fund and film the whole thing himself using the money he had accumulated from his commercial work. His richly textured labor of love made just over $2.5 million when it was released in 2008, and judging by the fact that Singh claims he can make more in a day shooting ads than his father would earn in 30 years as an aircraft engineer in India, The Fall cost a lot more than $2.5 million to make.
His luck in Hollywood hasn’t been much better. While 2011’s Immortals made slender gains in North America (a total of $83 million from a budget of $75 million), 2012’s Mirror Mirror, and 2015’s Self/Less both made losses domestically, with the latter only just clawing back enough to cover expenses from the worldwide box office.
A string of high-profile flops have thrown M. Night Shyamalan’s reputation into doubt in recent years, with a once exciting and well-respected filmmaker becoming the subject of ridicule in certain circles. After dabbling in comedy for most of the 1990s, Shyamalan decided to move in a different direction as the turn of the century approached and put pen to paper on what would eventually become box office sensation The Sixth Sense. The Bruce Willis lead supernatural thriller earned an astonishing $673 million back in 1999, kick-starting a run of successful films for the Indian-American.
Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004) all earned in excess of $250 million each at the worldwide box office, making Shyamalan one of biggest hitters in Hollywood at the time, though the director seemed to peak at the mid-point of the decade. His next film, 2006’s The Lady in the Water was a shock flop, returning only $3 million more than the production budget of $70 million and receiving a hammering by the critics.
Critical and commercial disappointment started to become a running theme for Shyamalan, with The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), and After Earth (2013) all bombing domestically. Continued negative response forced the director to go back to what he used to do so well, making The Visit (2015) for $5 million and watching it bring home just short of $100 million.
Anyone just recently discovering Barry Levinson through his latest effort Rock The Kasbah would be forgiven for refusing to believe that he is capable of directing a great film, but he has the statue to prove it. The Baltimore-born helmer topped off a very fruitful decade when he took home the Academy Award for Best Director for 1988’s Rain Man, and his films would routinely get nominations at the Oscars into the ‘90s (his historical crime drama Bugsy got nods in ten different categories). His fortunes took a turn for the worse as the millennium approached, however.
Like many decent directors at that time, Levinson took on a poorly thought-out sci-fi and it proved to be a bad movie. His 1998 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Sphere bombed hard, losing more than half of the $80 million it cost to make, never mind advertize. Liberty Heights (1999), Bandits (2001), Envy (2004) and What Just Happened (2008) all hemorrhaged cash in the years that followed, though perhaps Levinson’s most embarrassing flop is his most recent one. Rock The Kasbah was named the biggest flop of 2015 after it brought in just shy of $3 million from an estimated production budget of $15 million, leaving producers with only a 19% return on their outlay.