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What makes a classic movie bomb?
By Tom Soter
from DIVERSION, 2000
Everyone knows when a movie’s a stinker, right? Take Cutthroat Island, for instance. Anyone in his right mind would question the premise: Geena Davis as a swashbuckling pirate? Anyone looking at the insipid script would have to agree that there was no buried treasure on this Island. And, indeed, after the movie’s release, it was pretty obvious that the producers had dug up a bomb of epic proportions. Although the pirate picture cost about $100 million to produce and market, within a month of its release in December 1995, it had taken in only $9 million.
Yes, they should have seen it coming.
But it’s not that simple. How do do you explain the fate of the classic Citizen Kane? It was a flop on first release in 1941, ruining the career of its 25-year-old director/star Orson Welles. So were The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Fantasia (1940). Indeed, the Christmas TV perennial It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was such a financial disaster that director-producer Frank Capra initially disowned it, even allowing the copyright to fall into the public domain.
So what makes a flop? That’s a question many in Hollywood must be thinking about these days as they await the returns on this summer’s high-cost, high-risk releases, all budgeted in the $80-$100 million range: The Lost World, Batman and Robin, Starship Troopers, and Titanic. For as budgets increase (the average Hollywood picture now costs $60 million), so does the risk of failure.
The Ego and I
Finding the formula for flops is not easy, since film fiascoes are as old and varied as the medium itself. The most common type is the Big-Budget, Ego-Driven Failure. D.W. Griffith, considered the father of modern motion picture, also invented the “Director’s Mega-Bomb.”
The mega-bomb is crafted by a highly successful director like Griffith who has an ego and a vision – and financial backers who have neither. For Intolerance (1916), Griffith demanded and got whatever he wanted: 4,000 extras, a massive set, and a huge budget (the cost of an extravagant orgy scene was more than twice as much as the entire budget for his successful Birth of a Nation). His original vision was for an eight-hour movie. Even in a three-hour version, the confusing, multi-century saga elicited snores. Noted one critic: “The universally heard comment from high-brow or nobrow who tried to get it all in an evening: ‘I am so tired!’” Griffith lost everything in the financial disaster.
Sixty-four years later, director Michael Cimino had apparently learned nothing from Griffith’s experience, creating a movie that was to become a benchmark for most modern film failures: Heaven’s Gate. Cimino, one of Hollywood “wonder kids” of the early ‘70s, rocketed to fame with a Best Picture Oscar for The Deer Hunter in 1978. He was quickly signed up by inexperienced management executives at United Artists to direct a film of his choosing. Budgeted at $7.8 million, Heaven’s Gate was a Cimino-written script about a real-life incident: a violent skirmish between cattle barons and homesteaders in the 19th century American west. Although westerns were out of favor, United Artists’ executives okayed the project, giving Cimino carte blanche to execute his dream. Instead, he executed the company.
By the time Heaven’s Gate was released in 1980, Cimino had spent $50 million in ways that had become legend. A two-and-a-half minute epilogue cost $1 million. For a half-a-million dollars, he had an entire street constructed and then destroyed because it “didn’t look right” to his artistic eye. And he shot 30 takes of a man dropping his pants. The movie needed to gross $140 million just to break even. During the movie’s first weekend, however, its take was only $1.3 million at 843 theaters. The Los Angeles Times calculated that the sum was just over $500 a night for each theater which “will barely pay for the film cans used to transport prints of Heaven’s Gate.” The movie failed so totally – critic Vincent Canby called it an “unqualified disaster” – that United Artists’ top management team was fired and the company itself sold.
As a director, Cimino is not alone in crafting Mega-Bombs: Steven Spielberg finished the blockbuster hit E.T. (1978) and made the unfunny farce 1941 (1979), while William Friedkin, flush with success from The Exorcist (1973), crafted Sorceror (1977), a pallid remake of the French classic The Wages of Fear (1953). Both movies were huge failures. Actor and sometime director Kevin Costner was so full of himself after the financial success of his Academy Award-winning directorial debut Dances With Wolves (1990) that he reportedly took over, uncredited, the directing chores of the multi-million-dollar flop Waterworld (1996). And not even the comic genius of director Elaine May (as in the 1950s comic team of Mike Nichols & Elaine May) could save the mega-dollar farce Ishtar (1987) from laying an egg. No one could believe – or apparently even wanted to see – Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman make fools of themselves as fifth-rate songwriters in a spy farce set in Africa. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope they weren’t.
The Star Formula
Sometimes, it is not the director but the tyrannical star who becomes the dominant reason for a flop. Cleopatra (1963) had many problems, but the chief one was diva Elizabeth Taylor. Begun in 1958, the movie was started and stopped four times. It had two different directors, two Caesars, two Antonys, but only one Cleopatra: Taylor. She received $125,000 for every week of work that went over schedule (104 weeks), $3,000 a week for expenses, and 10 percent of the gross (her third husband, Eddie Fisher, was also paid $1,500 a day to see that she turned up). The result was a glitzy dud, dominated by Taylor's Cleopatra, depicted as a spoiled fashion plate with 58 costumes (which were constantly being refitted to keep pace with Taylor's expanding girth). Cleopatra, costing an unprecedented $40 million ($150 million in 1997 dollars), nearly bankrupted its studio and only went into the black in 1978.
Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s $100 million Last Action Hero (1993) found another high-priced star out of control. Certainly the premise had promise: what happens when the glitzy fantasy world of movie super-hero Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger), connects with the gritty real world of young hero-worshiper Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien)?
The film was obviously meant to be a free-wheeling parody, but since most of the stunts were directed so deftly, it soon became hard to distinguish Hero from the movies it mocks. In fact, Last Action Hero's biggest difficulty was a big-budget and a creative split personality: it both celebrated and deplored mindless explosions, car wrecks, and death-defying escapes. Audiences were equally confused.
Absolute Producers Corrupting Absolutely
In other cases, the producer has power but no vision. That was the problem with Casino Royale, a 1967 James Bond spoof that has the distinction of being the only Bond movie not to succeed. In fact, it was a creative and financial mess, with an ever-ballooning budget and not one but five directors: John Huston directed 38 minutes, Ken Hughes 25, Joe McGrath 20, Robert Parrish 20, and Val Guest 26. “Three film studios were going at once for the making of the movie: the MGM, Pinewood, and Shepperton Studios,” recalls Hughes. “None of us knew what the other guy was doing. When you've got five directors you've got continuity problems. I'd have to call up and find out what an actress was wearing in the sequence before mine. You'd often find, however, that people would walk through the door and have different clothes – and different characters, as well.” The all-star cast included David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, John Huston, William Holden, cameos by George Raft and John Paul Belmondo.
In another producer-run mess, The Swarm (1978), the plot finds cockney scientist Michael Caine trying to convince an all-star cast that African killer bees should be taken seriously. Naturally, no one believes him, until a plane, a helicopter, a military base, a picnicking family, and Fred MacMurray are all covered in honey. The Swarm, from disaster film king Irwin (The Poseidon Adventure) Allen, is a 1950s B-flick blown up to epic proportions, with plenty of dull action and cheapo special effects, lots of inept soap opera stuff, a pile of priceless bad sci-fi dialogue ("Cardipep might have eased their palpitations"), and a roster of big stars in small parts. The "take the money and run" prize, however, must go to Jose Ferrer, who appears just long enough to say, "Bees can't hurt me" – and then get blown up in a bee-induced nuclear blast. The movie lost $11 million.
Failures in Cash Only
Many times, however, failure is not justified. The Wizard of Oz went into the red partly because “nearly half of a typical audience for the picture consisted of children, who got in for reduced prices,” observed Aljean Harmetz in The Making of The Wizard of Oz, “so that even when the picture played to full houses, the theater made considerably less money than usual.”
Studio or outside pressures may also play a role in a movie’s lack of success. Citizen Kane, a thinly disguised expose of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, faced attacks from the Hearst empire. Fearing reprisals, many theaters refused to show it. After its initial run, studio RKO claimed it had lost more than $150,000 on the movie. More recently, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) became embroiled in a studio-director power struggle over the final cut. The result: the studio did not back the film with a solid advertising campaign and it never found a large audience.
Eventually, changing times, a good script, and/or repeated showings on television may help turn a flop into a classic. That certainly has been the case with It’s a Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz, which have both gained new life with old age. “Distance would do many things to The Wizard of Oz,” observed Harmetz. “The over-produced quality that was so offensive to critics in 1939 has 38 years later lent a hand to the picture’s being seen as significant. Time has given a wistful charm to the painfully literal Kansas in the picture...” Part of the movie’s current appeal is the “revelation of seeing one’s own innocence restored, the innocence that allows one to return home...it is in the tangled subtext – beyond or beneath art – that the film has remained alive.”
So which of today’s flops will be tomorrow’s classics? It’s anybody’s guess. For in Hollywood, making movies has always been both a conjurer’s trick and a high-budget role of the dice. “Everyone is gambling with high stakes,” former TriStar Pictures chairman Mike Medavoy once told Variety, “It’s not unlike Vegas...We’ll find out after the fact which ones are smart.”
And check your common sense at the door.