Bombs Away: 12 of Film’s Most Welcome Failures

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We try not to make a habit of cheering failure (really, honestly, promise, we don’t), but we couldn’t help getting a little warm and runny inside when Battleship laid a big egg at the beginning of the summer, since the movie beat is filled with tales of great movies that no one sees, and terrible turkeys that make a fortune. But occasionally, people just don’t go see a barking dog of a picture, and that can be good for all of us — not just because time isn’t wasted and incompetence isn’t rewarded, but because Hollywood is a town that takes its cues from what does well, so when a bad idea fails, more are less likely to follow. So today, in honor of Battleship’s DVD/Blu-ray release tomorrow, we’ll take a look at a dozen big-time bombs, and what the movie industry did or didn’t learn from them.

Battleship TOTAL COST: $319 million GROSS*: $65 million LESSON: Sure, there have been stranger sources for feature films, but still: who thinks it’s a good idea to start turning board games into movies? The desperate suits at the studios, that’s who, who are so obsessed with the notion of pre-selling movies based on familiar “brands” that, basically, as long as a movie is based on something you’ve heard of, they’ll throw money at it. In the case of Battleship, a game centered (when you get right down to it) on putting pegs into a board, the filmmakers were clearly challenged for cinematic elements, so they adopted a classic Hollywood solution: steal from somewhere else. In this case, the final Battleship film ended up an alien invasion tale with a suspicious resemblance to the Transformers movies. LEARNED? Poor Taylor Kitsch (who also had the misfortune of starring in the spring’s other big money-loser, John Carter) probably won’t get too many more leading roles, but in terms of the lesson that should’ve been learned, i.e., don’t turn board games into movies — well, we’ll have to get back to you on that after the Adam Sandler Candyland movie comes out.

*all grosses domestic, and yes, fine, it made a ridiculous amount of money overseas, where they like watching shit blow up real good even more than we do.

The Green Lantern TOTAL COST: $325 million GROSS: $116 million LESSON: The aforementioned obsession with branding has manifested itself most clearly in moviedom’s non-stop super hero parade, which began with the ’89 Batman (maybe even with the ’78 Superman) and has seldom wavered; comic book movies are big business, with five of the current top 20 grossers centered on cape-wearers and web-spinners. But you can’t just slap tights on a hunk, give him some powers, and expect people to show up; as the makers of The Green Lantern learned the hard way last summer, not every comic book hero has to get a movie. LEARNED? Ha. Not by a long shot.

Mars Needs Moms TOTAL COST: $175 million GROSS: $21 million LESSON: Robert Zemeckis’ obsession with “performance capture,” the peculiar animation-CGI hybrid that gives us movies populated by weird, waxy, creepy denizens of the “uncanny valley,” took him out of live-action production for over a decade, as the gifted director of Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Used Cars wasted his time on the likes of The Polar Express and Disney’s A Christmas Carol. It finally came to a head with Mars Needs Moms, a 2011 3D performance capture sci-fi comedy that Zemeckis produced but did not direct. The credits didn’t matter much, though; the steadily-decreasing grosses of Zemeckis’ product finally came to a head, when it started to look like we actually don’t like performance capture movies all that much. LEARNED? Apparently so. The plug was pulled on Zemeckis’ planned performance capture remake of Yellow Submarine (thank god), and his newest film, Flight, is (brace yourself) a live action Denzel Washington vehicle — and one that looks pretty damn good to boot.

Cutthroat Island TOTAL COST: $115 million GROSS: $10 million LESSON: It was already a dicey proposition when director Renny Harlin and his then-wife Geena Davis decided to embark on a costly pirate movie; there hadn’t been a successful one in years, and the last attempt, by Roman Polanski, resulted in the notorious 1986 bomb Pirates. Davis was originally to co-star with the more-bankable Michael Douglas, but he dropped out at the eleventh hour, and was replaced by Matthew Modine, not exactly the same level of star. Its unprecedented failure — it sank its production entity, Carolco, and, as it is still the biggest loss as a percentage of total cost, it’s in The Guinness Book of World Records as cinema’s biggest flop — seemed to teach two lessons: don’t make pirate movies and don’t give Geena Davis and Matthew Modine starring roles. LEARNED? The latter, yes; Davis and Harlin made one more action movie together, 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (it barely broke even), but her work since has been mostly confined to television and Stuart Little movies, while Modine has also mostly stuck to supporting roles (including, most recently, The Dark Knight Rises). And the pirate rule held strong for about eight years — until Disney took a chance on a film adaptation of their “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride.

Battlefield Earth TOTAL COST: $103 million GROSS: $30 million LESSON: John Travolta had been trying for years to get a film adaptation of Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard’s sci-fi novel off the ground, but he couldn’t get it done; studios, it seemed, were worried that audiences would fear it was a Scientology polemic, and stay far, far away. Come to find out, they were right; the $100-plus million dollar production, with the stink of spectacularly poor reviews wafting out of every auditorium, tanked badly, indicating that maybe every star’s ego-inspired vanity project isn’t a sure thing at the box office. LEARNED? The early ’00s were a rocky time for vanity projects — Battlefield’s 2003 release came hard on the heels of Glitter in 2001 and Swept Away in 2002 — but the following year, another independently-produced paean to a star’s religion met with considerably greater financial success: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. That was one of the most profitable movies of the era, so this one’s more on a case-by-case basis these days.

In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale TOTAL COST: $70 million GROSS: $5 million LESSON: Uwe Boll has been one of the world’s most prolific filmmakers — inexplicably, since his films are a) terrible, and b) seldom turn a profit. For the first few years of his career, he financed them via a complicated system of German tax shelter money, where any losses incurred were fully tax-deductible. And deductions were surely made on the back of In the Name of the King: A Dragon Siege Tale, his hilariously low-rent and utterly incoherent 2006 epic based (as much of his filmography is) on a video game franchise. In spite of a cast that included Jason Statham and John Rhys-Davies, audiences stayed far way, reconfirming that you just shouldn’t let Uwe Boll make movies. LEARNED? Not even close. In spite of its $61 million loss (after adding in foreign gross), he actually made a sequel to In The Name of the King, which came out last year; he’s turned out at least three films a year in the five years since In The Name’s disastrous theatrical run.

Lost Horizon TOTAL COST: $12 million GROSS: $3 million LESSON: The oldest movie on our list, 1973’s Lost Horizon is the long-forgotten remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 classic, beefed up with an all-star cast including Liv Ullmann, Sally Kellerman, John Gielgud, Michael York, Olivia Hussey, and Peter Finch. But that’s not all they added: since the success of The Sound of Music, studios had been scrambling (and failing) to find the next big movie musical, so producer Ross Hunter engaged songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David to write eleven new songs to smash into the story. But the film’s notorious failure made it clear: audiences don’t want to see musical remakes of old movies. LEARNED? For a while, sure. But if those movies were first turned into stage musicals, and then adapted into musical remakes, well, that’s another story — and thus, Little Shop of Horrors begat The Producers, which begat Hairspray, which begat Nine, and so on, and so on.

The Scarlet Letter TOTAL COST: $46 million GROSS: $10 million LESSON: Roland Joffé’s Demi Moore-fronted film adaptation of the Hawthorne classic took some, erm, inventive liberties with the original text: namely, the addition of torrid love scenes, lesbian/voyeuristic overtones, and (unbelievably) a happy ending. They ended up with a movie that pissed off everyone: the lit folks were angered by the half-assed interpretation, and the modern audiences those changes were presumably made to appeal to found most of the film frightfully dull. In other words, don’t make a film version of a classic book if you’re just going to change everything. LEARNED? Sort of. Mostly, they just stopped making film versions of classic books, unless Jane Austen wrote them.

Cats Don’t Dance/Delgo TOTAL COST: $32 million/$40 million GROSS: $3.5 million/$700,000 LESSON: Disney has always dominated the animated feature market, but plenty of interlopers have tried to penetrate the market, and can you blame them? The Disney formula, ’90s to present day, was pretty easy to figure out: tell a family-friendly tale, get some celebrities to lend their voices, throw in some songs, animate it up, and voila! Dynamite box office. Except, not so much; Warner Brothers took a bath on 1997’s Cats Don’t Dance, in spite of it being directed by former Disney animator David Dindal, with songs by a post-Toy Story Randy Newman. Delgo, meanwhile, had been in production for nearly a decade by the time of its release, and the 2008 audience wasn’t exactly lured in by the voice talents of Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jennifer Love Hewitt; it had the worst opening to date for a film opening in over 2,000 theaters, earning a record-low $237 per screen. In other words, leaving making Disney movies to Disney. LEARNED? Actually, no. DreamWorks Animation finally made a breakthrough in 2001 with Shrek, while Fox/Blue Sky’s Ice Age the following year also proved profitable. Neither studio is making films that touch Disney or in their in-house purveyor of computer animation, Pixar, but it’s not a monopoly anymore either.

The Mod Squad/McHale’s Navy TOTAL COST: $50 million/$31 million GROSS: $13 million/$4.5 million LESSON: Few ideas make film execs happier than turning a television series into a movie — after all, that’s a built-in audience, an eager brand, and a nostalgia factor that can’t be beat. And the results have been lucrative: the Star Trek films, the Mission: Impossible franchise, The Addams Family, The Fugitive, Maverick, etc. The success of those films had studios green-lighting damn near any TV-to-film project they were pitched in the ’90s, leading to film versions of The Brady Bunch, Car 54 Where Are You, Sgt. Bilko, Flipper, The Beverly Hillbillies, and the two money-hemorrhaging projects above, which just went to show that every TV show shouldn’t be made into a movie. LEARNED? Oh goodness no. In recent years, we’ve seen Get Smart, 21 Jump Street, Sex and the City, Yogi Bear, The Smurfs, and Dark Shadows, as well as a rebooted Star Trek; a sequel to that one is on the way, in addition to film versions of Dallas and The Equalizer.