British impresario Malcolm McLaren’s headstone reads, “Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success.” So it goes in life and, sometimes, at the movies.
Hollywood makes lots of movies. Most of them aren’t good. Sometimes the good ones make money (lots of the bad ones do, too), but then sometimes…they don’t. Films fail at the box office for many reasons, though — a poor release date, a distracted news cycle, a disconnection from the zeitgeist, a flagging trend — not always because they’re bad. Some infamous money-losers rank with my favourite movies — and probably yours, too.
What follows are 35 films that didn’t connect with audience in theatres — which is a nice way of saying they flopped, earning less in ticket sales than they cost to make and market. Sometimes, it’s easy to see why (Speed Racer hit 10 years too soon). Other times, not so much (why did John Carter stumble where Avatar flew?). But whatever the reason, these films were initially viewed as disappointments — though many are now considered cult classics; too off-kilter, quirky, or challenging to initially connect with mainstream audiences, they found their fans on video or streaming. Or, maybe I just think they’re good. (It’s my list, after all.)
Please note: I have not included on this list The Shawshank Redemption — perhaps the flop-worth-watching ne plus ultra — because it needs no help from me. It was the internet’s favourite movie for more than a decade, after all. Consider it mentioned.
Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
It’s not exactly original to label Josie and the Pussycats a good movie in 2021 (Jezebel interviewed Rachel Leigh Cook about its legacy this week), but you can’t call me a latecomer to the trend: I was one of the few who saw it in the theatre in 2001 (final box office gross: $US14.9 ($19) million), and I was an instant fan (I definitely liked it more than the only other people at my showing — a mum and her two young daughters, who seemed confused about why I was laughing so much).
Once dismissed as a formulaic post-Girl Power rags-to-rock riches story, the film has been reassessed as a smart satire with a great cast (which includes Rosario Dawson, Alan Cumming, Parker Posy, and Tara Reid), and an irresistible pop punk soundtrack.
Michael Mann is so revered as a filmmaker’s filmmaker, it’s easy to forget how many of his movies have fared poorly in theatres (1999’s The Insider lost $US30 million, but got seven Oscar nominations). One of his most infamous in that regard is this techno-thriller starring a mid-Thor Chris Hemsworth, which cost $US70 million and made $US8 million and it’s great!
Hemsworth displays real charisma (and range) as an ex-con hacker tasked with saving the world from cyberterrorists, and the intricate plot spools out masterfully — at least since Mann tinkered with the editing to produce his director’s cut, which is the one to watch if you can find it (it’s currently not streaming anywhere).
Cats is the last film I saw in theatres before the pandemic. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just something I have to live with. But while I can’t quite argue that this horrifically misaligned adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical about…cats doesn’t deserve its 19% Rotten Tomatoes score, it’s too mesmerisingly confounding to avoid entirely; indeed, you might find yourself drawn into its strange cult and start attending jubilant midnight sing-along screenings (you know, eventually). Even if you don’t, I can’t imagine witnessing a CGI feline version of Judy Dench explain the difference between cats and dogs won’t leave you forever changed.
Up front: Spike Lee’s Oldboy is not worth watching in lieu of the original South Korean film from award-winning director Park Chan-wook — you definitely want to experience that one first, because this 2013 Americanization is a much less effective version of the story (which isn’t to say an uninteresting one).
Josh Brolin plays a man who is kidnapped and held in a hotel room for 20 years, only to be suddenly released and forced to figure out why — and seek his revenge. Lee’s version recalls Brian De Palma’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho: it twists and turns on its own, yet some scenes are unmistakably copied straight from the source. I’m glad I saw it; it definitely deserved to make more than a measly $US5 million (the biggest bomb of Lee’s storied career).
Writer/director Elaine May’s folly has long been synonymous with the hubris of Hollywood, the epitome of a flop: an outrageously expensive dry “comedy” starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as a pair of half-talented musicians unwittingly drawn into a foreign policy disaster in the fictional middle eastern nation of the title. It lost so much money (nearly $US100 million in today’s dollars), it remains infamous decades later, despite the fact that almost no one has seen it (it lost so much money, you see).
Well, give it a rental and you’ll see: It’s actually pretty good, particularly the first half, the kind of rambling, good-natured, star-filled romp they really don’t make anymore.
The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Vin Diesel cashed in his xXx and The Fast and the Furious fame to make this convoluted RPG campaign of a sequel to David Twohy’s spare sci-fi thriller Pitch Black (2000). If you’re asking yourself why, the answer is pretty simple: Vin Diesel is a huge nerd.
Did the world need to learn that the good-hearted criminal who could see in the dark was actually part of an ancient space-faring civilisation known as “Furyans”? I would agree it did not (and in fact many people did not bother to learn it at all — it grossed just $57 million in the U.S. against a budget of over $US100 million). But that doesn’t mean I, also a huge nerd, was not there for it opening weekend, and I declare it: Pretty good. I mean, Judy Dench, again.
The Iron Giant (1999)
It’s not every movie that can say it got its studio shut down, but, well, director Brad Bird’s E.T.-like period fable about a alien machine that crash lands in the Red Scare America of the 1950s and the young boy who befriends him tanked so badly ($23 million U.S. against a $US5o million budget) that Warner Bros. Animation essentially abandoned its feature-length ambitions in the wake of its release.
But critics loved it from the start, and audiences soon found it on DVD — especially after the release of Pixar’s The Incredibles boosted Bird’s reputation. By 2018, the title character was well-known enough to receive a major cameo in Steven Spielberg’s IP crossover extravaganza Ready Player One, and is also expected to be found in the next big IP crossover, Space Jam: A New Legacy.
Fight Club (1999)
Fight Club failed in theatres (grossing about half what it cost to make) but was already on its way to cult status by the time it arrived on DVD in an elaborate four-disc set filled with breathlessly exhaustive special features examining every facet of its production. Judging by its lasting impact on film (its primary twist becoming something of a narrative shorthand) and culture in general (certain audiences’ misreadings of its message are…problematic), its legacy seems assured, which is to say, you’ve probably seen Edward Norton and Brad Pitt’s meet cute, fight cute, and then start an underground boxing club-turned-terrorist organisation plenty of times already.
Crass cult film icon John Waters found mainstream success with 1988’s Hairspray, a ‘50s period musical about an unflappable young woman’s obsession with appearing on a teen dance show, so his followup — a ‘50s period musical about an unflappable young woman’s obsession with a good-hearted hoodlum (played by Johnny Depp in peak teen pinup form) — seemed a good bet.
Nope: It made around $US8 million on a $US12 million budget and vanished into video store obscurity. But its story of singing toughs and the girls who love them proved too irresistible, and it eventually attracted the cult audience it deserved — to the point it was eventually remade as a Tony-nominated Broadway musical, walking the same path as Hairspray, but backward.
Inherent Vice (2014)
Director Paul Thomas Anderson’s box office success often pales in comparison to his critical cred, but he never swung bigger and missed so badly ($US8 million gross on a $US20million budget) than with this, the first ever cinematic adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel.
In retrospect, it’s no surprise a confounding, convoluted, drugged out LA noir built on an alienating performance by Joaquin Phoenix didn’t exactly light the world on fire, but like all of PTA’s films, every frame is worth watching — no working director (save maybe Wes Anderson) is so tonally consistent — and maybe with enough re-viewings, the plot will start to make sense.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was to be a comeback of sorts, both for a pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. and for writer/director Shane Black, years removed from penning ‘80s hits like Lethal Weapon. Yet despite an enthusiastic critical response, it managed just $US4 million at the U.S. box office — though, like most of these movies, it wound up finding its crowd on DVD. It’s worth watching both for its glimpse of an actor on the brink of career-changing global superstardom and its funny, fast-moving plot — a tongue-in-cheek homage to hardboiled Hollywood noir.
One From the Heart (1982)
After directing both of The Godfather films to blockbuster grosses and critical acclaim — not to mention redefining the war film with Apocalypse Now — Francis Ford Coppola could seemingly do no wrong, which is probably how he managed to secure a $US23 million budget for this stagey, highly artificial, contemporary Las Vegas-set ode to classic musicals.
After a troubled, pricey production, early screenings of the film went so poorly that many distributors elected not to show it, resulting in a disastrous sub-$US1 million box office gross that nearly spelled the end of Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios. It’s hardly a movie for everyone, but you can clearly see its slice-of-city life influence in later Oscar sensation La La Land, and even a misfire from Coppola is worth seeing at least once.
A Cure For Wellness (2017)
Director Gore Verbinski took a step back from popcorn epics like The Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger for this twisted, small-scale homage to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. A young businessman (Dane DeHaan) is sent to retrieve his boss from a “wellness retreat” in the Swiss Alps and encounters a strange, insular community lorded over by a sinister doctor (Jason Isaacs), and soon finds himself subject to disturbing experiments. The deeply weird plot, involving blood-thirsty leeches and a quest for immortality, alienated theatrical audiences, but like all of Verbinski’s movies, this one is too visually inventive to miss — and it plays pretty well when streamed late at night (possibly after you’ve partaken of your own “cure” for what’s ailing you).
Crimson Peak (2015)
Sandwiched in-between Guillermo del Toro’s summer blockbuster Pacific Rim and his Best Picture-winning The Shape of Water is this painterly ode to gothic horror — a lurid, oversexed haunted house potboiler in which a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) travels to a remote mansion to work on her novel but instead falls into a convoluted affair with the home’s owners, aristocratic British siblings (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), who share a terrible secret.
The film is a visual marvel — the crumbling estate, haunted by bloody specters, is a wonder of production design — more than making up for its somewhat overcooked Grand Guignol plotting.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
The Coen brothers’ drug-fuelled bowling alley noir The Big Lebowski famously threw a gutter ball in theatres before stoners propelled it into a massive cult hit on video, and I’d like to see the same sort of reassessment of this earlier flop, a blackly comic morality play about the inventor of the hula hoop (Tim Robbins) that’s like a dark reflection of the screwball comedies of the 1940s. The zany characters and over-the-top visuals might have you wondering what it’s all about, but you’ll honestly be too entertained to really care.
John Carter (2012)
John Carter’s failure seems one of timing. Released a few years post-Avatar, it arrived just as audiences were growing weary of 3-D special effects extravaganzas, and the marketing never managed to justify its existence — admittedly a challenge when adapting source material (the Barsoom novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs) that established sci-fi/fantasy tropes long since passed into cliché.
Yet like two later would-be outer space blockbusters appearing later on this list (see if you can spot them), it’s far better than its damaged reputation. Taylor Kitsch is suitably heroic as a Civil War soldier mysteriously transported to the surface of Mars, the unusual environment granting him the superhuman abilities he needs to change the course of an alien war; and, in his first live-action film, director (and Pixar-mainstay) Andrew Stanton brings real dimension to a bunch of impressive CGI effects.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
One weird, dour Terry Gilliam “children’s” movie was a hit — 1981’s Time Bandits — so why not this one? Unfortunately, this chronicle of the high-flying adventures of oddball aristocrat Baron Munchausen (John Neville) cost way too much ($US46 million) and made way too little ($US8 million). But its episodic plot, which takes you on an airship to the moon, on a voyage under the sea, and beyond plays well on video — and it’s fun seeing future stars like Sarah Polley and Uma Thurman in early roles.
Peter Pan (2003)
With the notable exception of the Disney animated version, Hollywood just can’t quite seem to make Peter Pan happen — though not for a lack of trying. And none of these box office misfires hurts worse than the abject failure of this faithful 2003 adaptation, which hews closely to the original novel and casts real, actual kids in the lead roles of Wendy (Rachel Hurd-Wood) and Peter (Jeremy Sumpter) against Jason Isaac’s perfectly fiendish Captain Hook. Director P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) perfectly captures the tension of the metaphor at the heart of this story about near-adolescents who never want to grow up.
Director Danny Boyle brings an arthouse flair to this sci-fi drama, which attempts to take a grounded approach to its story of a ragtag crew of astronauts’ desperate mission to reignite our dying sun (at least until the last 30 minutes, when it makes a hard turn into thriller territory). An odd sense of elegiac sadness hangs over the whole affair — Armageddon this ain’t, which might be why it made a measly $4 million in the U.S. — but more patient genre fans will find its arresting, sun-scorched imagery and strives for realism entirely rewarding.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
I totally get why this somber, painterly western — a nearly three-hour loose biography of the title characters that favours long silences and artful visuals over plot momentum — didn’t exactly become a summer blockbuster, but still, you’d think a piece of awards bait starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck would do better than $US4 million in ticket sales. If you have any patience for the genre, though, its a must-see — coupled with career-best work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, the sober tone and measured pacing become almost hypnotic.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
That Edgar Wright managed to pull off the best comic book adaptation of all time, if for a comic with extremely niche appeal, is all too appropriate: The slacker title character (Michael Cera), a part-time musician and full-time misanthrope living in early aughts Toronto, would scoff at becoming too popular.
Though buzz for it lit up Comic-Con, no one came out to theatres (where it gross about half of the $US60 million it cost to make) to see Scott engage in video game duels with his girlfriend Ramona’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) “seven evil exes” to win her hand (no one except me), but its Geriatric Millennial nostalgia appeal (not to mention a cast of future stars like Aubrey Plaza and Brie Larson) has won it a legion of fans after the fact.
Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)
Given how often The Lonely Island’s Saturday Night Live parody songs would become viral sensations, I can’t quite figure out why this story of the rise and fall of a loud-mouthed musician didn’t take off — it’s basically a feature-length adaptation of “I’m on a Boat.” Yet just five years later, and despite making less than $10 million in the U.S., it is already often spoken of alongside the best lowbrow comedies of the last decade, which isn’t nothing. If you’ve any affection for its sister musical box office disappoint-turned-cult smash Walk Hard ($US20 million against a $US35 million budget), put it on your weekend playlist.
Death to Smoochy (2002)
Iconic star of short stature Danny DeVito had weird side-career as a director, bouncing from the over-the-top divorce comedy of The War of the Roses, to the acid-tinged children’s film Matilda, to this outright misfire, a nasty noir of the preschool entertainment set in which a down-on-his-luck TV host (Robin Williams) concocts a vicious scheme to take down his upstart rival, a purple rhino-costumed Edward Norton. It’s crass and violent enough that I’m not shocked no one wanted to see it in theatres (where it made $US8 million on a $US50 million budget), nor am I surprised it found more amenable audiences on DVD.
Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
On paper, this one should’ve been a massive success: a romantic comedy pairing Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, written and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley, who’d just won an Oscar for Moonstruck. And yet: Turns out 1990 audiences didn’t know what to make of a weird fable about a man with a fable illness who ventures to the South Pacific to throw himself into a volcano. Its highly artificial screwball flair did eventually find its adherents, but not until it had already garnered a reputation as a poorly conceived box office disappointment.
You mean to tell me audiences is 1998 couldn’t appreciate this black-as-night teen comedy satire about a pair of murderous high school students (Christian Slater and Winona Ryder) getting revenge against the same-named clique of awful rich girls? What was their damage? Luckily, this devilish romp from Daniel Waters (whose brother Mark would find success with the similarly sharp but more broadly appealing Mean Girls) hasn’t aged a day in the decades since it managed to earn just $US1 million in theatres.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
A sure thing that sure wasn’t, this adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s blockbuster novel, a long-winded saga of 1980s excess, became an infamous flop even before its 1990 release, despite the involvement of award-winning director Brian De Palma and a cast that includes big stars like Melanie Griffith, Tom Hanks, and Bruce Willis.
At the time it was regarded as a poor take on a zeitgeist-y book, and scraped out just a third of its $US47 million budget in ticket sales, but it plays better at a remove — when’s the last time anyone actually read The Bonfire of the Vanities? — or as a companion piece to the dishy 1991 book The Devil’s Candy, journalist Julie Salamon’s no-holds-barred fly-on-the-wall account of its troubled production.
The Hunger (1983)
Warner Bros. recently announced plans to remake this stylish 1983 vampire flick, which seems ill-advised: Director Tony Scott brought the full weight of his music video aesthetic to his adaptation of the pulpy Whitley Strieber novel, basically defining the “glampire” goth aesthetic that would become a cliché by the time Buffy the Vampire Slayer appeared on TV, and it’s hard to imagine it any other way. But there’s also the matter of trying to improve on roles inhabited by the likes of Susan Sarandon (an a naive geneticist), Catharine Deneuve (as an immortal succubus), and, most of all, the late David Bowie (as an ageless killer suddenly grappling with his own mortality). Sure, the plot is nigh-incomprehensible nonsense — but the style.
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
I was so excited for this sci-fi spectacle — a lifelong passion project for director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, Lucy) — that I almost saw it in a theatre in Paris while on vacation, dubbed into French. Perhaps that would have been a better bet, because the occasionally atrocious dialogue and the miscast leads are basically my only problems with this overclocked live-action cartoon.
Appealing elsewhere, Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne display an aloof hipster anti-chemistry as Valerian and Laureline, two government agents of humanity’s space-faring future who get pulled into a colourful conspiracy on the titular space station, but everything around them — from the eye-popping production design (ripped from the pages of the original French comics), to the supporting cast (including Rhianna as a sexy blob alien), to the propulsive episodic plotting — is impossible to resist. Switch language tracks, pop on the subtitles (or don’t bother), and enjoy.
Muppets From Space (1999)
A bold choice, I know — Muppets From Space is no one’s favourite Muppet movie. But it’s also far better than its reputation as the nadir of the beloved felt creations’ storied career. As with any Muppet film, the plot — about blue Weirdo Gonzo’s hunt for his origins (the title deserves a spoiler alert) — is just a framework upon which to hang Muppet-y antics and recognisable human cameos (including a totally game Jeffrey Tambor as an eternally exasperated government agent). It fared so poorly in theatres (failing to earn back its $US24 million budget) that it put the Jim Henson creations in mothballs for more than a decade.
Treasure Planet (2002)
Disney’s attempt to appeal to the non-princess crowd with a spacefaring adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island — long a passion project for co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker — tanked so badly (losing some $US75 million) that it basically signalled the end of traditional 2-D animation at the Mouse House (in-development projects like Tangled and Frozen quickly pivoted to CGI). And yet despite a super made-in-the-year-2000 aesthetic (the lead’s floppy boy band hair; that “space surfing” sequence), it’s actually an entertaining, imaginative update of the original story, and one of the most handsome animated films ever made. (Kids who grew up with it seem to agree.)
The Man From UNCLE (2015)
It’s hard to say why Guy Ritchie’s protege Matthew Vaughn found success (and a franchise) with the 2014 spy action comedy Kingsmen: The Secret Service while Ritchie himself had no success the next year with this clever reboot of the cult 1960s TV series The Man From UNCLE. Starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer (problematic!), it similarly walks the line between serious action and genre spoof, moving at a mile a minute between elaborate action sequences and clever gags as its titular secret agent gets involved in international spy hijinks. (Spy-jinks?) I’d love a sequel, but the poor box office returns ($45 million U.S. on a budget of over $US100 million) probably means I’ll have to be content with what I have.
This low-key science fiction drama from director Andrew Niccol (writer of The Truman Show) feels eerily prescient despite getting basically nothing of the future right. In “the not-too-distant future,” wealthy elites genetically engineer perfect children in the womb (“valids”), making life doubly difficult for natural born “in-valids” like Vincent (Ethan Hawke), who attempts to pass himself off as a valid in order to participate in an historic space mission. The setup is the stuff of classic sci-fi, favouring intellectual fireworks and moral musing over flashy special effects, and it took a while to find an appreciative audience, earning only a third of its $US36 million budget in ticket sales.
Man on the Moon (1999)
The behind-the-camera talent for this bio-pic of 1980s outsider comic Andy Kauffman could be more impressive: An Oscar-winning director in Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), acclaimed screenwriters (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who penned the bio-pics Ed Wood and The People vs. Larry Flynt), and the talents of producer/star (and Kauffman confidant) Danny DeVito. Yet it seems 1999 audiences just didn’t want to see Jim Carrey in serious mode; he totally nails his portrayal of the troubled comedy legend, but couldn’t appeal to the Oscars (though he did win a Golden Globe) or audiences (the movie limped to $US47 million against an $US82 million budget). It’s a suitably risk-taking, beguiling take on the life of an unknowable celebrity who remained a mystery even in death.
Based on the novel by capital-W Weird writer Jeff VanderMeer, this 2018 sci-fi thriller film wanders away from the plot of the book but tells a similarly unsettling story of a group of women scientists who venture within a strange unnatural phenomenon known as “the Shimmer,” from which no one has emerged (with their sanity intact, anyway) since it suddenly appeared in the wilds of the southeastern U.S.
Director Alex Garland’s followup to the critically lauded Ex-Machina, it was to be one of Paramount’s tentpole releases — until the studio got cold feet and sold off the foreign rights to Netflix, and put the least amount of effort possible into a cursory domestic release. Still, critical support was there early on, and genre fans seem to have embraced it as a heady ecological horror fable.
Speed Racer (2008)/Cloud Atlas (2012)/Jupiter Ascending (2015)
The Wachowskis have made a cottage industry out of directing ambitious genre films that utterly fail to connect with audiences, starting with their 2008 adaptation of the Japanese anime Speed Racer, a perfect live-action encapsulation of a cartoon’s manic energy that alienated critics upon initial release, leading to a $43 million U.S. gross on a $US120 million budget (and here I must again point out I saw this one in the theatre; it rules).
They fared a bit better with their sprawling take on David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” time-spanning cyclical novel Cloud Atlas in 2012, which made $US130 million worldwide but still lost massive amounts of money, only to find themselves shuttled off to director jail after their fairy tale sci-fi epic Jupiter Ascending face-planted in 2015, resulting in a $US100 million loss for Warner Bros. and sending Lana Waschowski running back to the more comfortable confines of the Matrix franchise for her next film.
Lumpy and misshapen and tonally inconsistent as they all are, these films feel like the rare big budget spectacles that are the product of a singular vision, and very much deserving of a second chance.