The Lone Ranger (2013)

Building the Perfect Bomb: The Numbers Behind Box Office Flops

The biggest "box office bombs" of all time, much like the biggest hits, are not always the ones you're expecting them to be.

Back in December of 2014, I was hanging out at a Christmas party when the subject of movies came up — which, with me around, it invariably does. A friend of mine mentioned Waterworld (1995) and referred to it, in no uncertain terms as “the biggest flop of all time”. I moved to correct this fact, indicating that Waterworld was nowhere near the biggest flop of all time, and that there are much bigger box office failures out there in the ocean of Hollywood. Before I even finished my sentence, she stated again, even louder, “It was the biggestflopof alltime!”

This is, of course, a common misconception based largely on anecdotal evidence, so I let it go. Still, the conversation did make me think about what really constitutes a hit, and what really constitutes a bomb.

The fact is that Waterworld, the “biggest flop of all time”, doesn’t even make the list of the top 50 biggest box office bombs. That is because — brace yourself — Waterworld was, in fact, not a flop at all. The post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner vehicle made $264 million worldwide against an estimated budget of $172 million, making the film a worldwide profit of over $89 million. Industry estimates set the total budget, with after-production costs included, at $235 million. But if that claim is true true, it still leaves Universal Studios with almost $30 million in profit alone.

So what caused this rumor?

Bad Words Disguise Big Receipts

The cause was mostly negative word of mouth, surrounding the fact that the initial $100 million budget soared to a brobdignagian $172 million due to a series of setbacks and production issues that made Waterworld immediately the most expensive movie ever made, not just by Universal but by any studio at that time. The Hollywood press circled like sea vultures over the presumed shipwreck of Waterworld, predicting its demise and cleverly calling it “Fishtar” (in reference the notorious 1987 flop Ishtar) and “Kevin’s Gate” (in reference to Michael Cimino’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate, the budget overruns and small box office of which sunk United Artists as a studio). Thus, Waterworld was a joke before it was released, but the joke did not keep patrons from going to see it. The resultant profits, while respectable, still were not enough to outweigh the impression the press had made.


Heaven’s Gate (1980)

It takes a titanic film to get out of a press mess like that. Coincidentally, Titanic (1997) was similarly mocked in the press for its budget overruns, release delays, and surefire failure status. One enormous flop was predicted by all. Instead, the $200 million Titanic became the first movie to net a billion dollars, and it kept going to the point that its gross box office profits alone are now over two billion. The predicted failure became the most successful movie of all time, a title it held for 12 years until Avatar (like Titanic, also directed by James Cameron) took that crown.

Waterworld is most assuredly no Titanic, but that doesn’t somehow make it a flop either. (Ironically, 1980’s Raise the Titanic made seven million against a $40 million budget and sunk its studio.)

So that leaves, what, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate as the biggest flops of all time? Interestingly, no. While, both films did lose money, neither of them made the top 50 bombs list either.

Finding the Right Formula

What exactly makes a movie a hit and what exactly makes a movie a flop? That question is virtually impossible to answer, because there is no “exact” formula. This is, in part, due to the fact that studios do not really want us to know the exact expenditures and earnings for any given film. As we discussed in the Next Reel article “Hollywood Creative Accounting“, technically just about every movie can be a financial failure on paper.

Aside from the difficulty of getting one’s hands on exact budgetary numbers, there is no universal definition of a “box office bomb” or even “box office hit”, for that matter. There are also different standards of bomb versus hit virtually for any movie. So how can we calculate success and failure?

Inflation has made simply counting ticket sales an inexact science. Adjusting for inflation, Gone with the Wind (1939) is the best-selling movie of all time, although it made $390 million as compared to Avatar‘s $2.7 billion. Similarly, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is the sixth biggest box office failure of all time when one adjusts for inflation (less than two million earned against a $20 million budget), but doesn’t even break the top 50 without adjustment.

We cannot simply count the amount of money a film earns at the box office alone. The budget must also be taken into consideration. One doesn’t compare Star Trek (2009) to Bottle Shock (2008) and expect a comparable box office or budget. Sahara (2005) was a big box office money-maker with a gross of over $120 million worldwide. (Incidentally, it features the same main character as Raise the Titanic.) Most films would kill for success like that, but because Sahara cost $160 million to make, the film is one of the biggest bombs of all time. Final estimates indicate that after marketing and distribution, Sahara actually lost around $100 million. By way of comparison, 2012’s The Devil Inside didn’t come close to Sahara‘s box office receipts, having finished its run at just under $102 million, but because the film cost $1 million to make, the latter film is considered a huge hit.

Most everyone knows that a film’s “production budget” is not the final word on how much a film costs. There are distribution charges, marketing fees (and more) that combine to expand a film’s price tag even after the final cut. Furthermore, exhibitors take their cut of the proceeds, and there could be any number of interested parties with percentages of the gross before the film’s net profits can be calculated. Jack Nicholson, for example, received a percentage of the gross proceeds from Batman (1989), meaning that he made money whether the film did or not. Therefore we cannot simply count the amount of money a film pulls in against the reported budget. Take the excellent Martin Scorsese film Hugo (2011), which cost about $160 million to make and earned over $185 million. Including marketing and advertising costs, Hugo doesn’t even break even and is regarded as a box office failure. According to the film’s producer Graham King, Hugo would have needed to make $450 million to be profitable, especially considering the money Paramount spent to market the film.

To elaborate, Avatar (2009) has raked in the most actual profits of any film. According to The-Numbers.com, a website that factors in total sales versus total cost for movies, Avatar earned over $2.7 billion against a budget (including after costs) of $425 million. That’s a 655 percent return, with $2.3 billion standing as nothing but profit. However, percentage-wise, Avatar is not the most profitable film ever made. While the low-budget Paranormal Activity (2009) amazed analysts by recouping over 43,000 percent of its budget, the biggest winner happens to be the little porno movie that went mainstream, Deep Throat (1972), which sucked in around 100,000 percent of its tiny budget.

Unsurprisingly, that fact doesn’t make a whole lot of lists.

There are some movies with bigger marketing budgets than production budgets. Small horror movies and romance films often generate larger dollars (fueled by advertising) than their budgets would suggest. The Blair Witch Project (1999) cost barely $22,500 to make, but was promoted as a “real” documentary with a viral advertising campaign. Artisan Entertainment spent a little over $1.1 million to acquire the film, and about $25 million for that amazing marketing scheme that is still studied to this day. That far outweighs the meager production budget, but the film was still a hit, pulling in almost $250 million. Similarly, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) cost a mere five million to make, but it became a sleeper hit and was heavily marketed after its release, helping the film to earn over $368 million.

Additionally, there are the “prestige” films that studios release and advertise with more hopes of awards and notice than actual box office returns (although both would be nice). One example is The Shawshank Redemption, which was a box office bomb. That hiccup didn’t stop it from gaining the notice of critics, earning seven Academy Award nominations, and winning two Golden Globes. The Shawshank Redemption was a financial failure, earning $16 million against a budget of $25 million. Heavy marketing during Oscar season prompted more interest in the film, which ultimately earned a total of $28 million in the USA, followed by an additional $30 million internationally. That marketing continued and helped The Shawshank Redemption earn $80 million more on the home video market. And thus, the bomb exploded, and became a hit.

International Receipts and the Rule of Thumb

Of course, even “worldwide box office” is not as simple as it seems. Internationally released movies make for bigger box office, but more confusing accounting due to local currencies that fluctuate against the dollar on a daily basis.

While there is no constant and exact formula for calculating a bomb versus a hit (and due to contracts, every movie is different), analysts commonly cite the rule of thumb that a film’s final cost (after marketing, distribution, shipping, print-making, etc.) is about 200 percent of its budget. Therefore, a film must make twice its original production budget just to break even, let alone make a profit.

By that logic, let’s take Superman Returns (2006), the film whose sequels were cancelled after poor box office results, paving the way for the saga reboot in 2013’s Man of Steel. So how much did Superman Returns actually lose? Nothing… on paper, at least.

According to that 200 percent rule of thumb, Superman Returns needed to make $408 million against its $204 million budget, and the film made $391 million. To casual observers, the film made $187 million in pure profit (before the aformentioned “Hollywood Creative Accounting” comes into play), which should have warranted sequels, but according to the “rule of thumb”, Superman Returns actually lost about $17 million. This is before merchandising and DVD sales, all of which made Superman Returns profitable. However, Warner Bros. was counting on those figures anyway, so the box office returns were disappointing.

The Insider’s Formula

Of course, the “200 percent rule of thumb” is just shorthand, and immediately inaccurate because neither worldwide gross nor production budgets are constant numbers. These are always variables in the cost and profit makeup. The “rule of thumb” is considered a somewhat reliable calculus for how much a film needs to make to “break even”, not a calculation of profit or loss.

Therefore, a more accurate calculus is what we will call the “Insider’s Formula”. This Hollywood formula (often cited as the calculator for a film’s success or failure) is still problematic (as the post-production spending is also variable), but it does give us a good estimate of a film’s losses, by guessing at the after-production costs like marketing and distribution in comparison to the budget. This Insider’s Formula is “Gross receipts divided by two minus production budget” (or, G/2 – B), the result of which estimates your film’s total losses.

The two formulas match up when you use perfectly round numbers.

Let’s say you’ve got a Studio, Inc. film known as “Example: The Movie”, which costs exactly $100 million to make and earns exactly $200 million at the box office. According to the “rule of thumb”, the film breaks even to the penny, as it made exactly 200 percent of its production budget. Using the “Insider’s Formula”, we see the numbers match. Half of the box office gross of $200 million is $100 million. Subtract your $100 million production budget and you get exactly $0. The film breaks even both ways.

When real world (meaning, not-so-round) numbers come into play, things get a bit more complicated.

For instance, let’s look at the 2004 bomb Alexander, which cost $155 million and made $167 million worldwide. We know by now that a film can make $12 million over its budget and still be considered a bomb. Using the Insider’s Formula of “G/2 – B”, we cut that $167 million gross in half, giving us roughly $83.5 million. Subtract $155 million from that and we get a loss of roughly $71.5 million. This means Alexander needed to pillage about $226 million to be successful. That’s around 146 percent, and a far cry from our 200 percent rule of thumb, which suggests a need of $310 million. That $84 million difference is hardly chicken feed, and with other films, the divide can be much greater.


Alexander (2004)

Town & Country (2001) made $10.3 million against a $90 million budget. For those of you without a calculator, that makes for a loss of almost $85 million (based on half the gross minus the production budget), meaning that Town & Country needed to make 194 percent of its budget (or roughly $175 million) to break even. That is a lot closer to the 200 percent rule of thumb, which sets Town & Country’s forecast at $180 million, though the film’s losses were a lot greater than Alexander’s.

Then again, for those of us hanging out at parties and discussing movies without an abacus and slide rule in our pocket, that 200 percent idea makes for some easy (if unreliable) mathematics, which fall so trippingly from the tongue. With a few mojitos being passed around, it certainly beats running up to a white board and “entertaining” your friends with algebra. After all, even the more accurate formula is problematic, as all of the numbers we are allowed to see are, in fact, rough themselves.

By any formula and any adjustment, many of the best-known box office bombs also tend to make the top flops list, even though some of the exceptions prove to be surprises. While Heaven’s Gate is only the tenth biggest bomb when one adjusts for inflation (and, again, doesn’t even make the top 50 without it), Sahara makes the list at number eight regardless of adjustment for inflation or not. The also infamous Cutthroat Island (1995) and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) were both edged out of the top ten of all time, but make the inflation-adjusted third and seventh spots, respectively. Before you ask, no, Ishtar is not on either list.

Another film that makes both lists, quite sadly, is The Lone Ranger (2013). With a budget of $225 million, The Lone Ranger is unquestionably the most expensive flop to date. At an estimated $275 million with after-production costs (again, not all estimates follow the same formulas and every production is different), the film stands as the fourth most expensive movie ever made. Did audiences stay away in droves? Actually, no.

The Lone Ranger made about $260 million at the box office. Those blockbuster numbers still couldn’t keep the studio in Silver, as the estimated loss on the film tops out at over $15 million. While that is a tragedy, The New York Times estimated that The Lone Ranger‘s production and marketing costs actually topped out at around $375 million, making this pale rider an even bigger loss, falling far short of the $650 million it would take to break even. Both the rule of thumb and the Insider’s Formula suggest that the figure needed to break even was under $500 million. Either way, The Lone Ranger reportedly lost between $94 million and $120 million. The film stands as the fourth biggest bomb of all time without inflation adjustment, also clocking in at number nine on the inflation-adjusted list.

While The Lone Ranger may be the most expensive movie ever to lose money, it isn’t the biggest money loser (including marketing) of all time, nor is it the only high-profile failure for its studio, Disney.

Mars Needs Moms… and Better Numbers

Mars Needs Moms (2011) was another animated hit in the making from Disney, with Robert Zemeckis’ proven ImageMovers Digital bringing in the same sort of motion capture computer generated animation that it had to its hits The Polar Express (2004), A Christmas Carol (2009) and Beowulf (2007). The picture was even based on a book by Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed. Disney had faith in their potential blockbuster, heavily marketed the film, and released it into over three thousand theaters.

The studio was soon horrified when the film did far less than “underperform”; it actually became the second biggest flop of all time considering budget to receipts and money lost. Mars Needs Moms is now the fifth biggest flop of all time, adjusting for inflation. At a cost of $150 million, the film pulled in only $39 million worldwide, with $21 million of that coming from North America. When the film sank that fast, Disney cut the marketing budget (along with their losses) and fiddled as the film burned. Final estimates indicate that Mars Needs Moms lost between $111 million and $130 million worldwide, depending on what the final expenditures were.


Mars Needs Moms (2011)

The loss was so pungent for Disney, not to mention Hollywood at large, that the company began to reevaluate its properties. Disney marketing president MT Carney renamed John Carter of Mars, which was already in production at the time of Mars Needs Moms‘ failure, to simply John Carter to avoid any planetary connection with the previous film.

The name change did not help much.


John Carter (2012)

John Carter (2012) had a reported budget of between $250 million and $264 million (though some estimates set the cost at closer to $275 million); it made less than $75 million at the domestic box office. Counting foreign receipts, the film pulled in a little less than $285 million. Assuming that $275 million included marketing costs (which it probably did not), this planned blockbuster made only $10 million, with studio reports claiming profits of around double that. Advertising estimates for Carter are around $100 million, which makes the loss much heavier. However, factoring in the “200 percent rule of thumb”, Disney’s reported $250 million budget would balloon to around $500 million, making John Carter a loss on any planet. Final estimates place John Carter‘s loss at between $90 and $109 million.

If that sounds like something of a one-two-three punch for Disney, it is. All three films — Mars Needs Moms (2011), John Carter (2012), and The Lone Ranger (2013) — feature on the top ten list of the biggest box office failures of all time.

The Bombs of Recent Years

The Lone Ranger would not be alone in 2013, as no less than four films that made not just the top 50 list of the biggest bombs, but the top ten were released that year, although not all of them from Disney. R.I.P.D., Universal’s sci-fi comedy about ghostly cops, cost around $130 million to make, and made less than $80 million, earning it fifth place on the (non-inflation adjusted) list of biggest flops. Final estimates place that loss at around $114 million.

John barely beat out Jack for sixth place, with Jack the Giant Slayer taking 7th place by storm. With a budget of $200 million and a box office take of around $192 million, that may seem like only a loss of eight million, but final estimates indicate the film (with after-production costs) may have lost as much as $101 million. Thus, the only “Giant” Jack managed to slay was its studio, New Line Cinema. With high profile flops like Jack the Giant Slayer and 2007’s The Golden Compass, New Line’s parent company Warner Bros. assumed control of the once lucrative division.

In 2005, Jamie Foxx followed up his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray (2004) by teaming up with action director Rob Cohen (of 2001’s The Fast and the Furious and 2002’s xXx) for Stealth. In spite of high expectations for Columbia Pictures, Stealth lost over $100 million of its $135 million budget (not including marketing costs), becoming the ninth biggest flop in history.

“High expectations” were not forthcoming for the tenth biggest flop, The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). The Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy was in pre-production and production for so long that the film ended up costing over $100 million. Finally completed in 2000, Warner Bros. had zero faith in the film and sat on it for two years. Nash was released in 2002 with no critic screenings at all, a very bad sign; the total box office receipts barely broke seven million.

There may seem to be no rhyme or reason that makes these films flop. Does their spectacular failure mean that these films are, in fact, the worst ever made? Well, if the fact that all four of Michael Bay’s Transformers films are in the top 100 best-selling movies of all time tells us anything, it’s that quality has little impact on a film’s successes.

Sometimes, it is a lack of that all-important marketing budget (or a misuse thereof) that causes these failures. Other times, competition (opening similar movies at the same time, for example) can cause a deep impact in a film’s prospects, and even armageddon for a studio. External circumstances like disasters or major television and sports events can impact ticket sales and, while bad reviews don’t always impact a film’s successes, negative word of mouth does have the power to do that.

A Second Life at Home

Just as Hollywood’s “creative accountants” can make just about any film look like a flop, it is also true that a box office bomb can end up making money. After all, box office is not the only source of income for films. Blade Runner (1982) faced stiff opposition at the box office, and ultimately made under $34 million against a $28 million budget. Yet its cult following made video, DVD and Blu-ray sales so strong that Blade Runner is not only profitable, but also more versions of Blade Runner have been released than most other films. The Boondock Saints (2006) was cursed to a limited release after the Columbine High School shootings, ultimately underperforming in the United States, although foreign ticket sales were strong. However, Blockbuster Video, which at the time was still a powerhouse, released the film as a “Blockbuster Exclusive”, earning the film a cult following, an impressive income, and ultimately a sequel.

Then, of course, there is the much-anticipated British comic book adaptation Dredd, which finally hit theaters in 2012. Although Dredd impressed critics and fans of the comics (who praised the film), and also a huge success in its native England, the film underperformed in the USA and abroad, earning a final haul of $41.5 million against a $45 million budget. Things looked bleak for the hero of Mega City One (perfectly played by Karl Urban, who is Judge Dredd) until the movie was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the USA. Dredd immediately sold 650,000 units (about half of which were the more expensive Blu-ray format), immediately making it the number one best seller in the USA. The film was also the number one digital download in the States, and was the best seller in all formats in the UK. When talk of a sequel began in 2013, units spiked once again, and Dredd continues to sell admirably today (and, yes, sequel talk has continued).

Making the Bucks Before the Reel Is in the Theatres

Home video sales and rentals may be “post-box office” revenue, but they are obviously well-known forms of direct revenue for films. However, there are ways that movies can make money, and even make a profit over budget, before they are even released into theaters.

The Dino De Laurentiis Company was able to sell the distribution rights to their little film Death Wish (1974) to Paramount Pictures and sell the international distribution rights to Columbia Pictures. As such, it was thus able to increase the budget of the film. Just a few years later, Alexander and Ilya Salkind were working on a little film called Superman (1978), for which they had purchased the rights from character owner Warner Bros. When the father and son production team ran into budget overruns, they managed to sell the television distribution rights to the film back to Warner Bros. for a cool $20 million. Warner Bros. was also the partial early benefactor, along with Sony Pictures and Toho-Towa, of 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. C2 pictures and German firm Intermedia sold the distribution rights to those three companies for a combined $149 million, then transferred the film’s copyright to a German tax shelter, earning them another $11 million. Because the film cost $187.3 million to make, Terminator 3 almost broke even before hitting the box office.

In the early ’90s, an actor named Bruce Willis signed on for a supporting role in the film Pulp Fiction (1994). Although Willis had faced a few box office bombs of his own before this, he was still a big marquee attraction, especially overseas. Thus, Miramax was able to sell the foreign distribution rights piecemeal for a total of $11 million. Because Pulp Fiction cost less than $9 million to make, the film had already made a profit before it even hit theaters.

Of course, none of these three films were bombs, but had they been, they already made enough money without even hitting the screen that it would be nearly impossible for them to be financial failures.

Genre and Bombs

The genres of the biggest failures of all time are all over the map. Romantic comedies like 2010’s How Do You Know? (which made $35 million against a $140 million budget) are rubbing elbows with “surefire sequels” like 2007’s Evan Almighty (which cost $212 million and made $125 million). We’ve covered period dramas like Hugo, Westerns like The Lone Ranger and family films like Mars Needs Moms. CGI heavy sci-fi films like 2008’s Speed Racer (which made $69 million against a budget of $150 million) fared little better than John Carter or Jack the Giant Slayer.

These films do have one thing in common: they are all big movies from big studios. This, of course, makes sense. The bigger the budget, the bigger the risk. When a movie like 2008’s The Love Guru makes only slightly more than its $65 million budget back, studios and backers feel the hit a lot less than when 2004’s $100 million Catwoman makes only $40 million.

Often, the bigger the risk, the bigger the marketing budget, which brings us back full circle. That isn’t to say that there are no high profile independent flops. This brings us to Delgo (2008).

The Indie Flop

Ah, yes, poor, well-intentioned, ill-fated Delgo. Most of you have probably never heard of this animated fantasy adventure, which also features elements of environmentalism, romance, and comedy. Judging from the fact that you’re reading about it in this article, you can guess why that is, although it should be noted it wasn’t for lack of trying. The voice cast reads like a Hollywood phone book, with names like Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jennifer Love Hewitt, Eric Idle, Michael Clarke Duncan, Armin Shimmerman, Kelly Ripa, and Burt Reynolds joining the huge cast. John Vernon and Anne Bancroft both made their swan songs in this film.

Delgo was a labor of love that took almost a decade to make (pre-production began in 1999). Fathom Studios invested $40 million to make the film a success, and hired Freestyle Releasing to distribute the film on over 2,100 screens. The film was a success at film festivals and won several awards, but when the actual wide release took place, critics were dismissive and audiences were disinterested. The final haul was $694,782.

Further, Delgo isn’t only the high-budgeted indies that face flop territory. 2008’s Zyzzyx Road cost $1.3 million to make and earned $30 at the box office. No, I’m not missing a few zeroes there; the film literally made only 30 dollars at the box office, in spite of its stars Katherine Heigl and Tom Sizemore. Don’t be too hard on the Road, though; it was only released in one theater to satisfy union requirements, and that six day run only had noon showings in Dallas, Texas.

Similarly, 1999’s The Law of Enclosures made $1,000 against a two million budget, due to a limited run. That still beats Zyzzyx Road‘s final count of only three tickets (one of which was refunded, making the total gross only $20).

While it may not be surprising to find catastrophes like 2000’s Battlefield Earth is the very box office bomb you’ve heard it was (making less than $30 million against a $73 million budget), you might be surprised to note that the classic critical darling The Right Stuff (1983) was also a flop, pulling in just over $21 million against a $27 million budget.

No Risk, No (Potential) Reward

High-profile box office bombs are the risks one takes when he, much like the astronauts in The Right Stuff, aims high. To make a movie like Battlefield Earth even a potential success, you need a lot of money pumped into the production (as well as, in this case, a miracle of some kind). Can you imagine Disney approaching a venerable and other-worldly tale like that of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter with a low budget? Of course not. Can you imagine making a big-budgeted film like that and not advertising the hell out of it to promote ticket sales? Of course not. Thus, Disney invested, and while the gamble didn’t pay off financially, at least they took the gamble. It is only the trifecta of John Carter, The Lone Ranger and Mars Needs Moms that makes the box office failure for Disney that much more noticeable.

It takes money to make money and, as any Vegas regular will tell you, the more you risk, the more you stand to lose. But if companies never take risks, we not only push movies into the realm of sameness, but we also never get surprise hits like District 9 (2009), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), or even The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy (both 2014). True, looking back on any of those films, they may seem, in hindsight, to be sure things, but every one of these was a huge risk for their studios. In these cases, the risks paid off.

In the case of John Carter and The Lone Ranger, the risks did not. However, on paper, a high-budget and high-tech, ambitious sci-fi odyssey from the venerable creator of Tarzan and a gunslinging adventure from the best known Western Lawman in all of filmdom both seemed more sure to succeed than an South African alien invasion movie, a road picture about a pint-sized stripper, an animated toy tie-in with static characters and a movie based on a comic nobody had ever heard of.

Such lack of payoff is the case with the last two movies in the top flops of all time. So far we’ve seen big stars like Eddie Murphy (Pluto Nash), Ewan McGregor (Jack the Giant Slayer), Matthew McConaughey (Sahara), Jeff Bridges (R.I.P.D.), Jamie Foxx (Stealth), and even Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) hitting the list of the biggest box office bombs of all time, proving the investments made in these pictures were due to both monetary and star-power related reasons.

Seeming to prove the rule is the hugely budgeted 2013 film 47 Ronin, starring Keanu Reeves. Without adjusting for inflation, Universal’s 47 Ronin is number one on the list, pulling in the otherwise respectful $151 million against the whopping budget of $225 million. For those of you reaching for your calculators to find out why this one is (currently) at number one, reportedly after all costs are added to that budget, the price tag zooms to around $375 million, meaning 47 Ronin actually lost about $150 million. That’s more than Mars Needs Moms‘ loss of $130 million by a comfortable (yet hardly “comforting”) margin.

The star rebounded the following year with a more successful film called John Wick, in which Reeves’ title character famously says “Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back!” in the trailer. Strangely, the same tale of the “47 Ronin” (which has been made into films many times in its native Japan) was told again in 2015 with Last Knights, starring Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman. While the box office results are still not final, critical response is giving the film its doom, much like its sister picture. 47 Ronin, in fact, was such a financial failure that it is still second on the list when one adjusts for inflation.

The Biggest Bomb of All

So what, pray tell, is the biggest movie bomb of all time? Well, it’s third on the list without adjusting for inflation, and first on the list when inflation is accounted for. Directed by the very successful John McTiernan (1987’s Predator, 1988’s Die Hard), this film featured the writing talents of Michael Crichton (a box office powerhouse in himself) and a starring role for the super popular Antonio Banderas. It was called The 13th Warrior, and by the time it was finally released in 1999, its budget had skyrocketed from $85 million to a reported $160 million. That would be okay if The 13th Warrior followed Crichton’s other children, like Jurassic Park, to box office platinum. Unfortunately, the film made only $61.7 million. This failure is exacerbated by the fact that the film was heavily marketed, and the final analysis indicates not a $98 million loss, but as much as $130 million. In 2013 dollars, that’s a loss of almost $183 million, making The 13th Warrior the conqueror of the inflation-adjusted list.


The 13th Warrior (1999)

And the film’s studio? Sadly, that was Disney again.

Let’s take another look at just three of the top ten worst-selling movies of all time. We see 47 Ronin, The 13th Warrior and The Lone Ranger. From this, it sure looks like that any time a film’s title has a count of fighters, the odds are most decidedly against it. Certainly, this can’t be the only factor in a film’s failure, but, as any Hollywood accountant will tell you, “the numbers don’t lie”.

Thus, the biggest box office failures of all time are not exactly what you might expect: Waterworld was a hit, and The Right Stuff actually bombed. While the biggest bombs in history all happen to be recent and high-budgeted, there is no stopping the studios from pumping out films of higher and higher cost. After all, it takes money to make money, and while huge investments can lead to huge failures, no studio can win unless they play the game.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am finally finishing off the screenplay for my new film 817 Combatants, although the studio is arguing that we change the title to the more profitable “817 Combatants… from Mars”. With at title like that, how could it fail?

See you in the Next Reel.