Movies are a gamble that offer no middle-ground for mediocrity. Countless cinematic corpses lay strewn about the battlefield of blockbusters. Hollywood’s most recent victim? Relativity Media, which filed Chapter 11 last year. Like the Titanic, a deadbeat film will sink at the box office, drowning studios in debt and leaving scores of workers unemployed. Only the luckiest studio execs get a lifeboat.
Nowadays, with exorbitant costs of prints & advertising and rising expectations for each superhero blockbuster, industry analysts salivate at the prospect of a box office dud. Just look at the hysteria surrounding Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which prompted journalists to thrash the movie’s solvency at the sight of second-weekend box-office decline.
Warner Bros. is alive and well, but imagine if Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice had scored just a fraction of its earnings. Given its massive bet on building the DC Extended Universe, a lack of returns on BvS could have sank the Burbank studio. Indeed, Hollywood’s history is filled with the ghosts of old studios crushed beneath the weight of one bad bet.
Here are the 12 Movies That Bankrupted Studios:
12. It's A Wonderful Life
This may come as a surprise, but Frank Capra’s Christmas classic bankrupted Liberty Films when it first came out. Despite the movie's now legendary reputation, It’s A Wonderful Life suffered a limited holiday release in December of 1946. Expanding nationwide the following July, the Jimmy Stewart-led tearjerker landed with a thud, grossing merely half of what it needed to turn a profit. Audiences apparently had little interest in watching a Christmas tale in the middle of summer, flocking instead to the World War II centric The Best Years of Our Lives.
While It’s A Wonderful Life got some traction at the Academy Awards, it won none of its nominations, essentially ended Frank Capra’s career and sat unloved for thirty years. Only when it entered the public domain and got replayed ad infinitum on TV did audiences realize what they had been missing.
11 Superman IV: The Quest For Peace
Besides Zack Snyder’s own artistic integrity, Superman IV is the greatest defense you can bring up when people criticize Man of Steel. With visual effects beneath Galaga and Golden Tee Golf, Superman IV may be the worst superhero film of all time. Its villain, Nuclear Man, goes into rage mode by growing metallic fingernails and clawing at Supes in the biggest catfight ever recorded.
Indeed, the Washington Post got it right when they called the film, “more sluggish than a funeral barge – cheaper than a sale at K-Mart!” Though the executives at The Cannon Group told Christopher Reeve they had a $36 million budget, they actually had less than half of that at their disposal. No surprise, then, that Cannon Films eventually imploded in debt and killed the Superman series for almost twenty years.
10 Life of Pi
Ang Lee’s triumphant interpretation of Yann Martel’s ambitious book had both winners and losers. Without transcendent visual effects, Life of Pi would have gone nowhere. Thanks to the geniuses at Rhythm & Hues Studios, the VFX developers behind Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, Life of Pi won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Special Effects.
Just a week prior, however, 254 employees at Rhythm & Hues had been laid off amidst the company filing for bankruptcy. As the VFX team accepted their Oscar, they drew attention to the financial storms surrounding Rhythm & Hues, only for the microphone to be cut off and flooded by the orchestra’s rendition of the Jaws theme. How fitting for a company drowning in debt that received no returns from Life of Pi’s global box office.
9 One From the Heart
Despite delivering a near deathblow to Zoetrope Productions, One From the Heart gave a personal coup de grace to the finances of Francis Ford Coppola. Entranced by technical developments in the film industry, Coppola abandoned his wartime and gangster prowess for a fever dream musical starring Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest. As one industry analyst observed, “[Coppola] took an $8 million project and used the latest advances in video to bring it in to $23 million.”
These were astronomical figures in 1982, especially for something as simple as a love story. In addition to getting critical evisceration and only recouping a mere fraction of it its ballooned budget, Coppola filed Chapter 11 to bail out his family and both of his production companies.
8 The Golden Compass
What went wrong with The Golden Compass, a fantasy adventure with all the trappings of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings? Despite starring a freshly-minted James Bond, Daniel Craig, matched by Nicole Kidman, Eva Green and Ian McKellen, the adaptation of Philip Pullman’s popular trilogy ended in the red. With an enormous $180 million budget, The Golden Compass quickly became New Line Cinema’s most expensive film. It also became the box office turkey that forced New Line into merging with Warner Bros. Studios, muting its long reign of imaginative success in Middle Earth and beyond.
Though the film made a respectable $375 million around the globe, New Line had sold off the movie’s international rights in order to fund the venture, thus earning mere pennies from its worldwide returns.
If released today, the controversy surrounding Cleopatra stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor would dominate E! News, Perez Hilton and more. The on-again, off-again couple shrugged off judgment for their less-than-private infidelity, adding fuel to the fire surrounding Cleopatra’s publicity. In addition to its social clout, the film remains one of the most expensive ever produced. If adjusted for inflation, Cleopatra’s $44 million budget would climb to over $334 million in today’s currency. No wonder, then, that the exorbitant cost nearly turned 20th Century Fox into a 1st Century relic.
The film’s original run time easily cleared six hours, causing studio execs to consider splitting the behemoth into two separate movies, one focusing on Caesar and Cleopatra and the second on Mark Antony. Fox ultimately declined, however, knowing the sordid publicity surrounding Burton and Taylor could boost ticket sales. As with the couple's bankrupt relationship, the Cleopatra box office never quite went the distance and forced 20th Century Fox to close its doors for weeks.
6 Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within
Video game adaptations have always been a gamble. With Assassin’s Creed on the horizon, audiences are hopeful that the Michael Fassbender-led adventure will course correct the history of video game-movies. Part of that unfortunate past is marked by Square’s attempt to take Final Fantasy onto the big screen, a power play that carried a hefty price tag of $137 million. That may be on the lighter side for places like Pixar, who specialize in crafting animated adventures, but for first-time studio Square, they bet it all on director Hironobu Sakaguchi’s vision.
With a virile cast of Hollywood stars like Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames, Final Fantasy matched its revolutionary digital rendering technology with name talent. Only recouping $85 million from its initial investment, however, the movie truly became Square’s final big screen fantasy.
5 Cutthroat Island
Watching Cutthroat Island will make you respect movies like Pirates of the Caribbean more than you ever imagined. High-seas adventures are easy to botch, and director Renny Harlin’s Cutthroat Island performed so poorly that it sent Carolco Pictures into immediate bankruptcy. Led by a perplexingly anodyne cast of Geena Davis (Harlin's wife at the time) and Matthew Modine, the swashbuckling film was plagued with rewrites and recasts (Michael Douglass dropped out after learning he had a secondary role to Davis) amid a slew of production foibles.
With an estimated budget of $100 million, the total domestic gross barely topped ten percent of that, forcing Cutthroat Island to walk the plank. To make matters worse, the Guinness Book of World Records once dubbed it the biggest box office flop of all time.
4 Rise of the Guardians
Rise of the Guardians resulted in DreamWorks Animation firing over 25% of its staff. Released around Thanksgiving of 2012, Guardians had star power voiceover actors (including Jude Law and Hugh Jackman) and the producing oversight of Guillermo Del Toro. Though we should probably place the movie's failure at the feet of its terrifying depiction of the Easter Bunny, the jury is out on why Rise of the Guardians fell so hard.
Despite grossing $306 million worldwide, DreamWorks Animation took an $83 million write-down, contributing to the lay-offs of over 350 employees in a mass corporate restructuring. As CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg said, “[this] was the first movie of ours in 17 in a row that didn’t work. And when that happens, it makes you rethink everything.” Reports suggest that after the earnings call, Mr. Katzenberg told his children Santa Claus doesn't exist.
3 Battlefield Earth
Passion projects can often lead to great works of art. They can also instigate financial ruin and lifelong mockery. With Battlefield Earth, the 2000 adaptation of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp science-fiction tome, John Travolta sought to make the movie nearly every Hollywood studio turned down. Securing money from domestic and international financiers, Travolta even put $5 million of his own cash into the sci-fi epic.
Led by Franchise Pictures, an outfit dedicated to bringing celebrity passion projects to fruition, Battlefield Earth started a war that would last well beyond its abortive box-office run. In 2004, Franchise Pictures was finally bankrupted by a court-ordered decision to pay German distributor, Intertainment, a whopping $77 million. Why? Because Franchise had been inflating their proposed budget costs, essentially leading the German company to foot the vast majority of the Battlefield Earth budget.
2 Titan AE
Titan AE was bold. Bold enough to feature a Creed song in its trailer. The tune may have taken the visuals “Higher,” but the box office never followed suit. Costing 20th Century Fox a whopping $100 million loss, the Don Bluth directed animated adventure underperformed in truly grand fashion. The voices of Matt Damon, Bill Pullman and Drew Barrymore couldn’t lift the movie’s reported $90 million budget, which essentially cost the company a million bucks per sixty seconds of Titan AE’s 94 minute run time.
Not long after the film’s poor reception (opening at #5 on the weekend box office), Fox Animation Studios was shut down, buried in the tomb of Titan AE’s crushing ambition.
1 1. Heaven’s Gate
Criticism is cheap. For Michael Cimino’s lampooned magnum opus, Heaven’s Gate, few original comments have been left unsaid. Roger Ebert called it, “the most scandalous cinematic waste I’ve ever seen.” Amid accusations of ego gone wild and vanity unchecked remains a movie that deserves a certain level of respect. It’s not easy to end a studio like United Artists, which had Annie Hall, Raging Bull and Apocalypse Now in various stages of production at the same time.
United Artists was the flagship store for the golden age of cinema, founded by cinematic greats Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and DW Griffith, and it took one misfiring and costly movie like Heaven’s Gate to end the dynasty. Known to the press as Apocalypse Later, Cimino reportedly shot well over one million feet of footage during the exhausting and sisyphean principal photography. Cimino’s carte blanche reign style led to the destruction of United Artists and its subsequent sale to MGM Studios. Heaven’s Gate was the end of an era. Be sure to check out this fascinating documentary on Heaven’s Gate, voiced by Willem Dafoe.
What other movies bankrupted their studios? Let us know in the comments below!