Next week, The Dark Knight Rises will hit theaters, and holy cow, even we’re tired of talking about how excited we are. But if you can’t wait until next week to get your Christian Bale fix, may we recommend this week’s new DVD release The Flowers of War? What’s that, you haven’t heard of it? Well, no wonder; it only made it to 30 theaters during its very limited release last January, and took in a paltry $311K. (Don’t fear for Bale and director Zhang Yimou — it grossed $93 million in China.) It just goes to show — movie stardom isn’t certain, and even the biggest names in the business can make a picture that comes and goes with nary a ripple. Bale is far from the only one to have a movie sink without a trace in spite of his fame; after the jump, we’ve assembled (in descending order of gross, with the invaluable help of Box Office Mojo) a list of ten big movie stars, and their films that barely made a peep.
Robin Williams, Being Human TOTAL GROSS: $1.5 million TOTAL THEATERS: 224
No one was bigger in mid-1994 than Robin Williams, whose vehicle Mrs. Doubtfire (which he also co-produced) was a smash hit the previous fall, capping off a stellar run of acclaimed financial hits that included Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Aladdin, and The Fisher King. But its red-hot star couldn’t get Warner Brothers to support the troubled Being Human, in which writer/director Bill Forsyth (Local Hero, Gregory’s Girl) cast Williams as a multi-era Everyman, in five vignettes set in five historical periods. It sounds like a laugh riot, but Forsyth made the film a deliberately paced, whimsical seriocomic drama, with Williams in mostly-serious mode. Test screenings were disastrous, and Warner Brothers forced Forsyth to cut forty minutes from the film (most of it reportedly from an entirely excised sixth segment), bringing it down to a still-runny 122 minutes. When Warner’s ad campaign for the $40 million picture failed to make an impression, the studio gave it a limited release in 224 theaters, where brutal reviews kept audiences away. Seen today, the film certainly drags (and would, it seems, only have been worst in its original, nearly three hour form), but it has its moments, particularly in the final, modern-day vignette. But back in 1994, it played a couple of weeks, got a quiet VHS release, and vanished (it was only recently made available on DVD, via the on-demand Warner Archive label).
Tom Hanks, The Great Buck Howard TOTAL GROSS: $750,587 TOTAL THEATERS: 76
Few people can open a movie as reliably as Tom Hanks, which is why it’s so peculiar that his 2008 film The Great Buck Howard didn’t make more noise. To be fair, Hanks had only a supporting performance, playing the frustrated father to his real-life son Colin (Hanks and Colin’s stepmom Rita Wilson also produced). But still — Tom Hanks! In a movie! That came out between Charlie Wilson’s War and Angels & Demons! And it’s a fun little flick beyond the father/son gawking stuff: John Malcovich is enjoyably batshit, the romance is sweet, and Emily Blunt is drop-dead charming. But its opening weekend (supplemented by an on-demand release) only pulled $115K in 55 theaters — a per-screen average low enough to prevent the film from ever opening wide and finding a larger audience.
Dustin Hoffman, American Buffalo TOTAL GROSS: $665,450 TOTAL THEATERS: 73
Fun fact #1: Dustin Hoffman’s highest-grossing movie to date is Meet the Fockers, which may well be his worst! Fun fact #2: his lowest-grossing movie (for which figures are available, at least) is American Buffalo, one of his least-appreciated. David Mamet adapted his tough, brutal, brilliant 1975 breakthrough play for director Michael Corrente (who’d had an indie success the previous year with Federal Hill); Hoffman, hot again after the box-office success of Outbreak, was cast in the showy role of Teach, while perennial NYPD Blue Emmy winner Dennis Franz and Fresh breakout star Sean Nelson filled out the three-man cast. They acted up a storm, and Mamet’s forceful script was as potent as ever, but the indie Samuel Goldwyn Company couldn’t figure out how the hell to market the story of three losers stealing a rare nickel, and its September 1996 release never broke 75 theaters or three-quarters of a million at the box office.
Harrison Ford, Crossing Over TOTAL GROSS: $455,654 TOTAL THEATERS: 42
Of the many, many poor decisions Harrison Ford has made over the past decade or so, perhaps the most befuddling was his choice to pass on the role of drug czar Robert Wakefield in Soderbergh’s Traffic. Michael Douglas had originally passed on the role, but Ford — who was in a bit of a creative dry spell — was interested, and worked with Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan to flesh out the character. He then abruptly pulled out of the movie, and when the script went back to Douglas, he liked the new dimensions of the Wakefield character, so he took the role (to considerable acclaim). Ford went on to flops like Hollywood Homicide and Firewall, and it’s probably safe to say he regretted walking away from Traffic — so, nine years later, he tried for a do-over. Crossing Over was director Wayne Kramer’s rather obvious attempt to do for illegal immigration what Traffic had done for illegal drugs. It was shot in 2007, but its distributors, The Weinstein Company, thought it would be wise to hold it until after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No luck; the then-newbie studio (which literally couldn’t buy a hit in its early days) saw it gross less than $500K on a maximum of 42 screens.
Bruce Willis, Breakfast of Champions TOTAL GROSS: $178,278 TOTAL THEATERS: 11
For a book considered by most to be unfilmable, Breakfast of Champions had been knocking around Hollywood for quite a while; Dino DeLaurentis had grabbed the movie rights in 1976 for Robert Altman, who wanted to cast Peter Falk, Sterling Hayden, and Ruth Gordon. He planned to make it right after Buffalo Bill and the Indians, also for DeLaurentis, but when that film laid an egg, Breakfast went away. Before it went to Development Hell, however, Altman had his young protégé Alan Rudolph take a crack at the script, and the story stuck with him. When he had the chance to make it himself over 20 years later, he talked to Bruce Willis — with whom he’d made the great, unsung Mortal Thoughts — about taking on the role of suicidal car salesman Dwayne Hoover. Willis, as good an actor as he can be (when he chooses to be) was all wrong for the role, but that was the least of Breakfast’s problems; Rudolph’s overblown, hyper-caffeinated adaptation managed to piss off Vonnegut fans and alienate pretty much everyone else. Presumably realizing they had a dud on their hands, Disney-owned Hollywood Pictures gave the picture only a perfunctory seven theater opening, where it made a ragged $42K in its opening weekend before expanding to 11 theaters and less than $200,000 in total release.
Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta, A Love Song for Bobby Long TOTAL GROSS: $164,308 TOTAL THEATERS: 24
Johansson was white-hot in 2004, after winning our hearts (and scores of awards and nominations) for her marvelous turn in the previous year’s Lost in Translation. John Travolta wasn’t doing quite so well — The Punisher, Basic, Domestic Disturbance, Swordfish, and Lucky Numbers hadn’t quelled the stench of his 2000 megabomb Battlefield Earth. But he could still get an audience, and all of those movies at least opened wide, which is why the disappearance of their 2004 film A Love Song for Bobby Long was so befuddling. Though it was released to only eight theaters on December 29th, that’s S.O.P. for an Oscar-bait drama, yet it never went much wider; distributor Lionsgate hadn’t really gotten the hang of prestige movies just yet, and the film quietly went to DVD.
Samuel L. Jackson, Home of the Brave TOTAL GROSS: $51,708 TOTAL THEATRES: 44
Jackson is pretty much the hardest-working man in show business, and he works so much that the occasional flop can be expected. But Home of the Brave is rather a special case, a movie so spectacularly bad that it’s actually surprising it did as poorly as it did; movies this terrible usually at least get the curiosity dollar. MGM first gave it a one-week, three-theater release in December 2006 — for the purpose of Oscar consideration, an uproarious notion to anyone who’s seen this screeching, ridiculous melodrama. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Brian Presley, and (in one of the worst performances ever captured in a major motion picture) 50 Cent play a quartet of Iraq war vets trying to re-assimilate into society — a noble story, though Mark Friedman’s screenplay and Irwin Winkler’s direction couldn’t be more ham-fisted. That first week only brought in six thousand bucks and terrible reviews, so when the Oscar nominations that MGM was banking on didn’t roll in, they sat on the film until the following May. Its release to 44 theaters (against Spider-Man 3 and 28 Weeks Later) was barely an improvement; it grossed $25K that weekend, then dropped 75% to another $6K the following week, which was its last in theaters.
Natalie Portman, The Other Woman TOTAL GROSS: $25,423 TOTAL THEATERS: 9
The critical, award, and box office success of Black Swan in late 2010 couldn’t have come at a better time for the producers of The Other Woman, the Natalie Portman vehicle (she also is credited as executive producer) which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2009 under the title Love and Other Impossible Pursuits. After theatrical runs in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine (plus Italian television) in 2010, distributors IFC Films probably figured it was the perfect time for a release of another Portman vehicle; it was the same strategy adopted by Paramount for the Portman/Ashton Kutcher sex comedy No Strings Attached. It worked for the latter; the dour and depressing Other Woman, on the other hand, only pulled in 25 grand during its brief, post-VOD theatrical run.
Ben Stiller, The Marc Pease Experience TOTAL GROSS: $4,033 TOTAL THEATERS: 10
For all the Museum and Fokker trash that bears his name, Stiller is actually pretty good about spreading himself out between crowd-pleasers and smaller, more daring projects. That’s what The Marc Pease Experience sounded like, a high-school based musical/comedy from director Todd Louiso (best known for his supporting role in High Fidelity), co-starring Jason Schwartzmann and Anna Kendrick. But if you’ve never heard of the movie, that’s by the all-but-explicit design of its distributor. Paramount Vantage was set up to create chancier, prestige projects, and while their product included such critical faves as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, corporate overlord Paramount decided in 2009 to yank the shingle and focus on big-budget masterpieces like Transformers. The Vantage films that were still in the pipeline got the shaft; as The Playlist noted in August of that year, its ten-city release was basically to fulfill a contractual obligation, and was accompanied by no promotion whatsoever — no trailers, no web presence, no nothing. The ten cities didn’t even include New York and LA, in order to save the money of promoting and releasing a movie in those more expensive markets. As a result of that whole no-one-knows-it-exists-so-no-one-goes-to-see-it thing, the film grossed an anemic $3K in its opening weekend, i.e., $300 per screen. Weekend two brought in another grand or so, and that was the end of that particular Experience.
Those were the more interesting names and numbers that we found — what about you? What surprising star flops have you found while perusing Netflix or Amazon?