10 Movies That Caused Financial Ruin

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Making movies is expensive. There’s no way of getting around that, especially these days with 3D, huge special effects and massive movie star contracts coming into play. It’s easy for a movie these days to soar into nine figures, and chances are that unless your movie costs at least eight figures it’ll never see the light of day. But just being made doesn’t guaranteed success.

There have been some very well known, very expensive movies over the years which have resulted in box office disaster. We can obviously point to movies like Cowboys & Aliens or John Carter, but instead we’re going to focus on movies that were such box office poison they left massive amounts of ruin in their wake.

10. Life of Pi

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Life of Pi was shot almost entirely against green screen and based on a book that you probably said you read but absolutely didn’t. It was a stunning work of art and won an Academy Award for its astonishing visual effects, and unlike pretty much every other movie on this list it made a ton of money at the box office. However, its $609 million worldwide gross did very, very little to help the special effects company responsible for that success.

Even when accepting the Oscar for visual effects, the folks behind the incredible visuals were basically begging for money because the movie put Rhythm & Hues out of business. The excessive production values forced R&H into bankruptcy, though fortunately the folks behind Pi have been able to keep working despite the terrible financial losses the movie created.

9. Raise the Titanic

RAISE THE TITANIC, 1980, (c) Associated Film Distribution

No, this wasn’t some weird sequel to the James Cameron blockbuster that you’ve never heard of. We’re talking about a 1980 film produced by ITC Entertainment starring Jason Robards and Sir Alec Guinness. The movie featured a budget of $40 million, but bombed with both critics and audiences.

Despite being based on a well known book by famous author Clive Cussler and starring a renowned cast, Raise the Titanic has gone down as one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history. The film made a dismal $13.8 million, meaning it barely made back even a third of its — for the time — massive budget. By the way, those total earnings consist of both the box office and the home rentals, and as if being nominated for multiple Golden Raspberries wasn’t enough, the movie pretty much put ITC out of business and caused them to sell off their remaining films to Universal.

8. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

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Final Fantasy is a long-running video game franchise that’s produced some of the best received games in history. In 2001, the franchise made the jump to the big screen with the voice talents of Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Steve Buscemi and Ving Rhames. The results were… less than spectacular. In fact, the CGI film with a massive cost of $137 million didn’t actually come anywhere close to earning back its budget, forcing the studio behind the film, Square Pictures, to shutter its doors.

It didn’t help that reviews weren’t exactly stellar, despite a glowing review from Roger Ebert. The storyline also had nothing to do with the actual Final Fantasy franchise, which is kind of a no-no when it comes to adapting a video game for the big screen. The film made just $32 million domestically and $85 million total, making it one of the biggest bombs in recent history.

7. It’s a Wonderful Life

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We know what you’re thinking: there’s no way the most classic Christmas film of all-time was a disaster, right? Yup. These days it’s ranked among the top films of all-time by the American Film Institute, but not only did it bomb with critics upon its initial release, it also bombed at the box office. The movie grossed just $3.1 million and very nearly ruined the career of director Frank Capra.

How? Well, by bankrupting his production studio. Pretty ironic since one of the prevailing themes that drives George Bailey to contemplate suicide and bring down the intervention of angels was the threat of financial ruin. Life eventually, kind of, imitated art as the initial massive monetary issues were solved by late arriving bundles of cash. Unfortunately for Capra, unlike Sam Wainwright wiring a bunch of cash, he had to wait for television syndication to achieve financial success.

6. Looney Tunes: Back in Action

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It seems kind of incredible that Looney Tunes could ever be box office poison, because who doesn’t love Bugs Bunny? But after the smash success of Space Jam, the Warner Brothers animated follow up starring Brendan Fraser opposite Bugs, Daffy, Elmer and the gang not only disappointed at the theaters, but pretty much destroyed any prospects of Warner Brothers ever attempting a feature film again.

The movie had a budget that was more than $80 million, but domestically it made just $20 million, and the worldwide gross still fell well short of breaking even, totaling just $68.5 million in all. Poor reviews certainly didn’t help its box office production. Have you noticed that you haven’t seen much of Bugs Bunny these days? Well, now you know that Brendan Fraser and an excessively crappy script are to blame.

5. Cleopatra

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It’s not often that you can have a movie that’s considered a smash success at the box office yet can still be counted as a financial disaster, but such is the case with the Elizabeth Taylor classic Cleopatra. The movie was actually the top grossing film of 1963, pulling in $26 million, but it still managed to lose $18 million because of the astronomical price tag to get the film completed.


Despite having a pretty reasonable budget at the beginning of shooting, it exploded to $44 million by the time the crew wrapped up. To put that in perspective, by today’s standards that would be the equivalent of about $339 million, which would make it the most expensive movie ever produced. Obviously it had virtually no shot at ever earning that money back, and in fact it just about bankrupted 20th Century Fox. To date, it remains the only film to ever win the yearly box office while still somehow managing to lose money.

4. Heaven’s Gate

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When you’ve got the director of The Deer Hunter and a cast that includes Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, John Hurt and Willem Dafoe making his feature film debut (not to mention Terry O’Quinn, Sam Waterston, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Rourke and Brad Dourif), your movie seems destined for greatness. But such was decidedly not the case with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a Western set in Wyoming in the 1890s.

The massively troubled production went over budget by $13 million, finishing up at around $44 million. The film was released at three and a half hours long, and now you’re probably starting to get a sense of why it was such a massive failure. It stayed in theaters for just two weeks and earned only $1.4 million to make it one of the biggest box office disasters in history. Add in the fact that it faced accusations of animal cruelty during filming and this is a movie that just about everyone involved would probably rather forget.

3. Titan AE

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On paper, Titan AE probably should have worked. In fact, leading up to its release people were expecting big things from this Fox Animation Studios cartoon featuring the voice talents of Matt Damon, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane and Drew Barrymore. These days, a cast like that and a concept that involves a spaceship roaming a post-apocalyptic universe seems like a complete no-brainer, but the movie was such a disaster that it put Fox Animation out of business.

The estimated budget of Titan AE was $75 million, but it fell just shy of $37 million at the box office, with its poor marketing being blamed for its failure. Over the years it’s gained a little bit of a cult following, and was actually nominated for a Best Science Fiction Film award at the Saturn Awards, though we’re going to go ahead and guess that the people who lost their jobs at Fox Animation didn’t take a lot of solace in that fact.

2. A Sound of Thunder

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You probably haven’t seen A Sound of Thunder, but you’re absolutely familiar with the basic premise of the classic Ray Bradbury story. It deals with time travel and the butterfly effect, and how killing a bug in the past can change the course of history. But despite having such a classic science fiction conceit, the movie is one of the biggest disasters in Hollywood history.

Starring Ed Burns and Ben Kingsley, the film faced financial challenges right from the beginning. Although the budget was originally set for $80 million, the production company could only muster $30 million due to the company going bankrupt right smack in the middle of post-production. As you might guess, it’s hard to finish a movie and make it anything resembling decent when your financial backers run out of money before you get even halfway to the overall budget. Domestically, it made just $1.9 million, with a total gross of about $11.6 million worldwide.

1. Cutthroat Island

FILM 'CUTTHROAT ISLAND' BY RENNY HARLIN

There are famous box office bombs, and then there’s Cutthroat Island. This is pretty much the Holy Grail of financial failures in Hollywood, infamous for being the biggest flop in history according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It was also the very last film ever produced by a company called Carolco Pictures. The movie starred Matthew Modine, Geena Davis and Frank Langella, and was about pirates about a decade before pirates came back into vogue in Hollywood.

The movie cost $98 million, with some estimates skewing even higher. That’s a pretty big budget in 2014, so you can imagine how enormous it must have looked back in 1995. The movie mustered only about 10% of that at the box office, topping out with a domestic gross of just over $10 million. Director Renny Harlin has gone on record saying that Carolco was already on the brink of disaster before they even began shooting, and it certainly didn’t help that the film’s distributor, MGM, was being sold at the time, so there was virtually zero marketing money available to promote it. Although it’s not like that would have helped, because who wants to watch Matthew Modine try to swashbuckle?


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1 Comment

  1. I’m a little disappointed by “Mars Needs Moms” not being on the list. It killed ImageMovers Digital by making a movie that cost $150 million and only getting back less than $40 million. It’s one of the biggest box office bombs in history and it effectively ended Disney’s involvement (through IMD) in motion capture animation.