Predicting which movies will set the box office alight seems like an easy task, but there’s a reason studios get paid the big bucks to do so.
However, every so often, an acclaimed film can come along that absolutely tanks after being unveiled for the public.
Over the years, there have been a startling number of films that have struggled, or indeed failed, to recoup their budget, and have consequently earned the “box office flop” label.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why movies such as these – Children of Men and It’s a Wonderful Life, to name a few – initially struggle to find an audience. Fortunately, though, the film’s quality shines through and it ultimately finds a fanbase beyond its theatrical release.
Thanks to the advent of streaming services, reliance on box office figures has diminished somewhat over the years. This also means that films which struggled to find an audience upon release could potentially go on to find love years later after being added to Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or another service.
As the 2023 awards season marches on, two of the most critically hyped releases – Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical The Fabelmans and Damien Chazelle’s Old Hollywood bacchanal Babylon– have joined the list of unfortunate box office flops.
Making back just over half of its $40m budget, The Fabelmans represents one of the biggest bombs of Spielberg’s illustrious career. Babylon, meanwhile, recouped under $30m of its reported $78m budget.
Going back to late last year, two other films that received good reviews from the critics suffered huge losses at the box office: She Said, which is based on Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s 2019 book about the New York Times investigation that exposed Harvey Weinstein, and Disney animation Strange Worlds.
Below, we run through a list of films that unexpectedly – and unfairly – bombed at the box office.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s revered Western only just recouped half of its $30m (£22m) budget when released in cinemas in 2007. However, it fortunately found love after being released on DVD and Blu-ray, no doubt helped by its inclusion on several “best films of the year” lists.
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It’s hard to know exactly what was behind Babylon’s insipid box office showing. Was it poor marketing, or the fact that the film was 190 minutes long? Whatever the reason, it’s a damn shame – in her five-star Babylon review, Clarisse Loughrey describes the “debauched drama” as being “tailor-made to divide audiences”, adding that it “puts a bullet in the head of any notion that the film industry’s silent era was ever austere or quaint”.
Michael Mann’s underrated cyber thriller was a box office bomb, earning a mere $19.7m (£15m) at the box office against a budget of $70m (£52.5m). The unfairly scathing reviews probably didn’t help.
Blade Runner (1982)
It’s hard to imagine a seminal film like Blade Runner being a flop at the time of its release, but that’s exactly what Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film was. After a lacklustre run in America, the film proved it had staying power thanks to worldwide audiences and became a word-of-mouth hit in the process. Still, it only made back $10.5m (£8m) more than its budget of $30m (£22.5m).
Children of Men (2006)
While it’s now considered to be one of the best films of the 21st century, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian thriller, starring Clive Owen, failed to make its money back at the box office at its time of release in 2006.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles’ film may now be a beloved classic, but it was a different story back in the early 1940s: it failed to recoup its costs at the box office – and was beaten to the Oscar Best Picture by (the actually very good) How Green Was My Valley.
Spike Lee’s Clockers ranks as one of the director’s most disappointing performances at the box office to date, taking just $13m (£10m) from a $25m (£18.7m) budget.
Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Peter Berg’s real-life drama fell more than $30m (£22.6m) short of its $156m (£117m) budget – a shame considering it’s one of the Friday Night Lights creator’s best films to date (which, from the guy who directed Battleship and Mile 22, we suppose is not saying much).
Donnie Darko (2004)
Donnie Darko grossed just over $7.5m (£5.6m) worldwide on a budget of $4.5m (£3.3m). A notable reason for its flop was likely due to the fact its marketing campaign centred on the scene involving a crash of a plane’s engine just weeks before 9/11. Thankfully, the film went on to earn a cult following after being released on DVD and is now one of the most celebrated films of the 2000s.
Event Horizon (1997)
With its B-movie-style scares and ridiculous twists, Event Horizon had all the ingredients to become a sleeper hit. Instead, it was a commercial and critical failure, grossing $26.7m (£20m) on a $60m (£45m) production budget.
The Fabelmans (2022)
Steven Spielberg’s late-career efforts have seldom enjoyed the kind of box office sorcery that defined his early hits. But it was still shocking to see just how few people turned out to see The Fabelmans, a mostly autobiographical drama focusing on the filmmaker’s childhood, and his parent’s marital troubles. Perhaps it was the marketing that was at fault – trailers suggested this would be a mawkish love letter to the wonder of cinema, whereas the actual film offers a far more cynical and nuanced worldview.
Fight Club (1999)
There was something of a controversy surrounding David Fincher’s Fight Club at the time of its release due to rumours that studio execs didn’t like the finished product. It was because of this that bosses reduced the planned marketing campaign in an attempt to reduce what they expected would be poor ticket sales. It’s unsurprising, then, that the film underwhelmed at the box office.
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Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Michael Cimino’s ambitious epic is notable for being one of the biggest box office bombs of its time, losing studio United Artists an estimated $37m (£27.7m) – which is over $114m (£85.5m) when adjusted for inflation. The film, which received a mauling from critics at the time, has been reevaluated in recent years – and is best viewed as one of the last truly director-driven films in that Hollywood era.
Martin Scorsese’s charming family film was a commercial failure, grossing just $185m (£138.6m) against its $150–170m (£112m-127m) budget. Five years later, he’d have another flop with Silence, which consequently made studios wary about investing in the director’s future projects. Instead. Scorsese jumped to streaming, releasing The Irishman on Netflix in 2019. He will release his next two films, including 2022’s The Killers of the Flower Moon, on Apple TV+.
The Insider (1999)
While loved by critics, Michael Mann’s drama – starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe – never made back its $68m (£51m) budget.
The Iron Giant (1999)
Despite being one of the greatest animated films of all time, The Iron Giant was a victim of Warner Bros’ scepticism towards the genre after the failure of their previous effort, Quest for Camelot. Future Pixar director Brad Bird’s film made $31.3m (£23.4m) worldwide against a budget of $70–80m (£52-£60m).
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
While not a major flop, this classic underperformed at the Christmas box office due to stiff competition from other big films released at the time, including William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death.
The King of Comedy (1982)
Although Martin Scorsese’s drama was well-received by critics, it flopped at the box office. Reflecting on this, lead star Robert De Niro said that the film “maybe wasn’t so well received because it gave off an aura of something that people didn’t want to look at or know”.
Man on the Moon (1999)
This Jim Carrey film from Miloš Forman ended up costing Universal a lot of money after it failed to make back its $52m-82m (£39m-£61.4m) budget. In 2017, footage of the making of the film was turned into a documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which documented Carrey’s transformation into comedian Andy Kaufman.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s head-scratcher is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, but it was so hard to market that it failed to make back its $20m (£15m) budget.
Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010)
Edgar Wright’s latest film, Last Night in Soho, flopped. at the box office – but it wasn’t the director’s first taste of disappointment. In 2010, Scott Pilgrim was a box office bomb, grossing $47.7m (£35.8m) against its production budget of $85m–90m (£63.7m-£67.5m). However, love for the film is strong 11 years on,with the director regularly tweeting along whenever it’s broadcast on TV.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
This Stephen King adaptation might famously sit atop IMDb’s “top 250” list, but it was a box office disappointment upon release, earning only $16m (£12m) during its initial theatrical run. It would later get re-released and earn $58.3m (£43.7m), which is kind of cheating, but we’ll allow it.
A Simple Plan (1998)
This Oscar-nominated Coen brothers-style noir from Sam Raimi, which is currently on BBC iPlayer, amassed a paltry $17m (£12.7m) at the box office,. This perhaps cemented its destiny to be one of the most unsung films of the 1990s.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
It wasn’t until its home entertainment release that Rob Reiner’s mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, documenting the rise of a fictional band, became the beloved classic it is today.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
It may be a superior Roald Dahl adaptation, but the Gene Wilder movie made a tiny $1m (£749) profit upon its original release in 1971. It cemented its status as one of the most-loved family films of all time after becoming a regular fixture in the Christmas TV schedules.