At one time, they were the toast of Tinsel Town, heirs apparent to the mantle maintained by Spielberg, Lucas, and the like. Among the Gods of Blockbusters, they were the popcorn princes, the pre—ordained legatees being groomed to effortlessly slip into the role of moviemaking royalty. No matter the genre, no matter the style, the ten names listed below all had success branded on their backside, and nothing could stop them from achieving their place among the savants of cinema—nothing except a single horrendous film. Indeed, like a hitman hired by a competing studio conspiracy, they saw their skyrocking status and rock solid reputation pierced by that business-minded bullet known as the box office bomb. In some cases, the hit was fatal. In others, the damage was done, but it took years of journeyman slog to solidify a stance six feet under.
Granted, the initial praise lacked perspective, and perhaps a few of the individuals here were unjustly heralded. But it is clear, at least from a cursory glance, that in an industry always looking for the ‘next big thing’, many thought these directors equaled firm future financial returns. But all it took was one misstep, one big fat belly flop in front of the ticket buying types—and the accompanying unreasonable hater hype—to turn their apparently tentative tides. The result was death—not creatively, but commercially—and a long tumble back to the back of the A-list line. There are dozens of stories like these, of auteurs dragged out of obscurity and put through the ringer for some dollar driven manufacturing. They deserve a requiem, not to be reviled. They are the victims of a revolving door system that celebrates cash, not creation. So, in alphabetical order, we will uncover the corpses strewn across the movieland morgue, the one time potential motion picture phenoms who had their preferred medium step up and slaughter them in the bank statement. Let’s begin with:
Name: Martin Brest
Prime Suspect: Meet Joe Black (1998)
After a shaky start (he was replaced by John Badham on the nuke hit Wargames), Brest bounced back, delivering three incredibly popular films (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman). He even managed what many thought was cinematically impossible—getting Al Pacino that long denied Oscar. But something happened to the man who had worked with major movie stars both young (Eddie Murphy) and old (George Burns and Lee Strasberg in Going in Style). He decided to helm an unnecessary remake of Death Takes a Holiday. Not even the superhot Brad Pitt or the prestige factor of Anthony Hopkins could help. The overlong movie tanked, taking Brest’s bankability with it. It was five years before his next film—the final nail in the creative coffin known as Gigli.
Last Seen: Chasing Jennifer Lopez down the street with a “Will Hurt You for Food” sign.
Name: Michael Cimino
Prime Suspect: The Sicilian (1987)
While many would think that the mortal wounding this Oscar winning director took at the hands of his fabled flop Heaven’s Gate basically ended his filmic futures, the truth is a little more complicated. Granted, Cimino couldn’t get arrested in a town that believes fallacy as much as fact, but after a five year exile, the apologetic egotist crafted the fairly decent crime thriller Year of the Dragon. With a solid script from Oliver Stone (which Cimino changed) and a great performance from Mickey Rourke, it appeared that all the Gate hate was forgiven. Then Cimino really stumbled. Hoping to capitalize on his fading Godfather goodwill, Mario Puzo plumed the gangster genre once again, this time in service of a sloppy story about an Italian mobster and freedom fighters. The results finally finished Cimino.
Last Seen: Directing two more forgotten flops before dropping out of sight.
Name: Joe Dante
Prime Suspect: The ‘burbs (1989)
Though he got his start at Roger Corman’s gonzo genre filmmaking ‘academy’, Dante discovered the joys of box office benevolence under the guiding hand of a far more powerful producer—Steven Spielberg. After his revisionist werewolf film The Howling established his creative acumen, Mr. ET hired him to helm his Christmas critterfest, Gremlins. A major mainstream smash, Dante followed it up with two more terrific films—Explorers and Innerspace. But when he teamed up with emerging superstar Tom Hanks for the serial killers in suburbia mess, an artistic Achilles Heal was exposed. It was determined that Dante was TOO in love with his Famous Monsters of Filmland foundations. He became the first film geek in a world unwilling to embrace such a status. He’s been struggling to keep his name in the filmmaking fray ever since.
Last Seen: Still working, though barely producing a mention outside messageboards.
Name: Jan de Bont
Prime Suspect: The Haunting (1999)
A cinematographer since the mid ‘60s, no one would have expected this native of the Netherlands to become the standard bearer for American action. But thanks to his work on a collection of commercial skyrockets (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct), and his dazzling debut with the unlikely hit Speed, de Bont was so deified. The equally popular Twister only sealed the deal. Then came the first real stumble, the unsuccessful sequel to his initial hit. But de Bont shrugged it off, blaming the entire mess on a studio eager to repeat its payday and a lack of Keanu Reeves. But with his remake of The Haunting of Hill House, there was no place to hide. Dull, soulless, and visually messy, it confirmed that his move from setting the lens to calling the shots was premature.
Last Seen: Turning Tomb Raider into another stone in his moviemaking mausoleum.
Name: Renny Harlin
Prime Suspect: Cutthroat Island (1995)
Like de Bont, Finnish born Harlin got his start in the lower echelons of moviemaking. Both Prison and his installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series proved he could handle horror. But his terrific take on the Die Hard franchise, and collaboration with super hot Sly Stallone (for Cliffhanger) turned him from pretender to preeminent. Heck, even his work on the Andrew Dice Clay vanity vomit The Adventures of Ford Fairlane wasn’t the talent trainwreck everyone assumed. No, love led Renny astray, especially when he decided to turn then wife Geena Davis into a buccaneer. A decade after Roman Polanski proved that pirates were box office poison, this troubled production became the latest in a long line of notorious non-performers. It was such a massive flop that it rendered all his future efforts inert.
Last Seen: Making male model warlocks unintentionally hilarious in The Covenant.
Name: John McTiernan
Prime Suspect: Medicine Man (1992)
Though he’s had troubles off the film set that cost him dearly, McTiernan was viewed as a visionary for his Die Hard revamp of the thriller. It was a reputation secured thanks in part to his work on the equally effective Govenator vehicle Predator, and the superb submarine show, The Hunt for Red October. But Medicine Man proved that this determined director may indeed be a one trick—or make that, one genre—motion picture pony. Aside from a horribly miscast Sean Connery and a preposterous premise about the Amazon as a cancer curing enclave, the complete lack of intrigue had fans wondering if McTiernan had lost it. His next project, The Last Action Hero, confirmed everyone’s worst fears. It was a freefall that even a return to John McClane territory couldn’t salvage.
Last Seen: Rising for air with The Thomas Crown Affair redux, before slowly re-submerging.
Name: Kevin Reynolds
Prime Suspect: Rapa Nui (1994)
Back in the ‘80s, hitching your fortunes to a friend like Kevin Costner seemed like a sensational idea—and that’s exactly what lawyer turned USC film school grad Reynolds did. After working with the soon to be superstar on Fandango, the pair managed to fool the moviegoing public into buying the obviously American actor as Robin Hood. As the two prepared their next project—a post-apocalyptic epic set in a world completely encased in water—Reynolds decided to go native. Pre-dating Apocalypto by more than a decade, this tale of civil war among the indigenous people of Easter Island wanted to be a New Age naturalist adventure. Instead, it turned into a homo-erotic fallacy that fictionalized the region’s rich heritage. No one cared, and no one came. Even Costner abandoned him, kicking him off the troubled Waterworld.
Last Seen: Taking Shakespeare to task with his tame Tristan + Isolde.
Name: Guy Ritchie
Prime Suspect: Swept Away (2002)
Love can do funny things to the creative mind. It can fuel of myriad of artistic pretentions and possibilities. It can also destroy your fledging film career. When Ritchie married America’s middle aged answer to fame whoring, a.k.a. Madonna, he inherited his spouse’s mistaken belief in her cinematic possibilities. The dangerous combination of noted directorial novelty and blond ambition culminated in the cinematic hate crime Swept Away. It’s hard to figure out what’s worse—the notion that someone would be stupid enough to touch Lina Wertmüller’s certifiable culture clash classic, or substituting the riveting Mariangela Melato with the saggy singer who purred “Papa Don’t Preach”. It’s no surprise that this remains the Material matron’s last starring role. Richie, on the other hand, may never fully recover his tainted Tarantino clout.
Last Seen: Trying to return to his London underground crime roots.
Name: Michael Ritchie
Prime Suspect: The Survivors (1984)
Prior to his actual death in 2001 from prostate cancer, this former social satirist was one of the heavies of ‘70s Hollywood. After an apprenticeship in television, Ritchie burst onto the silver screen with one amazing movie after another—Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough. Each one took on a major element of popular culture—sports, fame, beauty, politics—and filtered it through an amazingly insightful and ironic filmmaking mind. It was something Ritchie hoped to carry over into the ‘80s, but his efforts were short lived. Making the mistake of pairing motormouthed Robin Williams with laconic Walter Mathieu, this take on survivalists and the American fascination with guns was grating and uninspired. Worse, it was painfully unfunny, signaling the end of the Ritchie era.
Last Seen: Hanging out with his fellow filmmakers in Heaven’s sumptuous screening room.
Name: Michael Schultz
Prime Suspect: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
It was bad enough that this Beatles debacle had to taint the reputation of the heretofore unflappable Fab Four, but it also undermined the career of one of the great future filmmakers of color. Many were unaware that this infamous flop was helmed by an African American. Even worse, Schultz was the defiant director of such noted urban excellence as Cooley High, Car Wash, and early Richard Pryor vehicles Greased Lightning and Which Way is Up? In a time period locked into the baser elements of blaxpolitation, this auteur was looking to magnify, not marginalize, his people. A decade later, he’d be putting rappers and wannabe hip hop stars through their pedestrian paces. If you want to know how an insightful, intelligent artist can become a slighted cultural shill, this pure pop puke is the answer.
Last Seen: Working his way through episodic television.