The law of averages says that things won’t work out eventually for everyone, and famous film directors are not exempt from this simple fact.
Which is a very fancy way of saying that famous film directors are bound to have box office flops, and sometimes they’re flops for a reason, but sometimes movies are just unlucky. There’s actually a couple of movies I really enjoy on this list, but a financial flop is a financial flop.
Steven Spielberg and 1941 (1979)
If you didn’t know the plot,
1941 on paper sounds like a no-brainer. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Co-written by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Dan Akroyd, John Belushi, Ned Beatty, Christopher Lee, John Candy, and legendary Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune.
So, what went wrong? The fact it’s a comedy about the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, set in California. I’m a HUGE fan of dark comedy, but that’s a tough sell, and audiences didn’t buy in. Costing $35 million and only making $34 million, it was a massive step down from his two previous film’s super blockbuster statuses,
Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That being said, his next movie was literally
Raiders of the Lost Ark, so it’s not like 1941 even came close to slowing Spielberg down.
James Cameron and The Abyss (1989)
…And here’s the first movie in this round-up that I really like. I’m a big fan of
The Abyss, specifically the director’s cut. It’s a weirdo entry in the middle of James Cameron’s career and in many ways helped usher in the new era of digital effects (I know Young Sherlock Holmes had the first fully computer-generated character in a live-action film, but we’re not here to talk about the history of visual effects, I’ll do that another time).
The Abyss didn’t completely bomb. On a $70 million budget, it brought in $90 million. Not a great number, but it at least covered its budget (it probably didn’t cover its marketing costs though). It’s a shame, mostly because its story of underwater aliens is kind of cool as hell, but it’s not like James Cameron’s career suffered.
His next movie was
Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and considering he’s gone on to direct the two highest-grossing films in history, I’d say The Abyss is a minor stumble at worst.
Martin Scorsese and Silence (2016)
Scorsese is one of the best living directors we have. Seriously, it’s amazing that he’s still working and still making massive and tricky films, but
Silence, an uber depressing rumination on faith in the middle of feudal Japan was never going to be a big hit.
And the film made only $23.7 million across the entire world, and maybe if the production was much smaller, that would have been okay, but the film’s $50 million budget dwarfs that previous number. To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen this movie, but I’ve heard it’s good? In any case, Scorsese is still directing and producing films at this exact moment, so this didn’t exactly hurt him too much.
The Wachowskis and Speed Racer (2008)
Look, I’m going to keep this brief, but the creators of
The Matrix deciding to make a whole damn movie out of Speed Racer was an odd proposition, but not necessarily too weird considering the duo’s influences. But the over-exaggerated aesthetic was too much for most people, and that aesthetic brought the budget up to $120 million. And it only made $93 million, making this a bizarre as hell fuck up.
Michael Bay and The Island (2005)
Michael Bay’s filmography has made Hollywood an unholy amount of money, but
The Island is not one of those movies. It’s the biggest bomb of his career, costing $126 million and making only $35 million in the U.S., though the worldwide total helped.
What didn’t help was that the film was sued for allegedly stealing its plot from a 1970s B-movie called
Parts: The Clonus Horror, and the suit was settled out of court for a substantial amount of cash.
Peter Jackson and The Lovely Bones (2009)
Real quick, it’s worth mentioning up front that Peter Jackson’s fourth movie was called
Heavenly Creatures, a true crime drama set in New Zealand. And The Lovely Bones was meant to harken back to that time in his career, except it was after Lord of the Rings, so the studio threw way WAY too much money at what should have been a small film about grief and moving on.
Instead, they spent $65 million on the damn thing, and while its worldwide gross just shy of $100 million isn’t horrible, it’s not great. But seriously, this should NEVER have cost that much to make, period.
Ron Howard and In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
Goddamn, Ron Howard is a versatile director. For a guy who started as a child actor, it’s amazing to see the range of films he’s willing to tackle, from
A Beautiful Mind, to Apollo 13, to the criminally underrated Rush, and more. So the idea of Ron Howard tackling the real story that inspired Moby Dick sounded pretty great on paper.
Unlike something like
The Lovely Bones that shouldn’t have cost much, this project was always going to cost a ton. It’s a period piece in the middle of the ocean with a giant whale and a destroyed ship. Unsurprisingly, the budget was around $100 million, and unfortunately it only made $93 million, partially because of middling reviews, but mostly because Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens came out literally a week afterward, effectively killing this film’s hopes in the process.
Ridley Scott and 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
I love Ridley Scott. He’s literally over eighty years old now, and he still manages to crank out movies on a massive scale (whether or not those movies are good is kind of a coin flip, sometimes you get
The Martian, sometimes you get The Counselor). With a career that has that many projects, one of them is bound to fail.
But none failed like
1492: Conquest of Paradise. Some of the budget to box office numbers haven’t been that bad so far, but I’ll just leave it at this:
Budget: $47 million
Box office: $7 million
That’s a goddamn disaster, straight up.
Jon Favreau and Zathura (2005)
Hear me out,
Zathura is kind of a good movie. As far as family films from the 2000s go, it’s really fun, and even features some pretty cool monsters in the back-half of the film. But unfortunately for Jon Favreau, audiences didn’t see it that way.
The spiritual successor to
Jumanji cost $65 million, and made $64 million. That’s some insult to injury shit, just a million shy of its budget. Luckily for Favreau though, he’s doing just fine (and he has that Lion King remake coming out later this year, which is pretty much guaranteed to make a billion dollars minimum, and that’s not a joke).
Kevin Costner and The Postman (1997)
We saved the most fucked up for last. Kevin Costner went from directing
Dances With Wolves, a genuinely great movie, to directing a movie about a man who’s still trying to deliver the mail in the post-apocalypse. Now, if that was a premise for a short film, it might have worked.
The Postman is almost three fucking hours long, and since Titanic was out at roughly the same time, one movie was going to survive and the other was going to die, and holy shit The Postman died. Costing $80 million, it only made $17 million. This one finishes out this list, not just because of the massive gap between budget and box office, but because someone thought a three-hour movie about a mailman was going to earn back an $80 million budget. That’s straight up insanity, and I still wonder how the hell it ever happened.
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