First off, I’ll openly admit I haven’t seen Disney’s John Carter so don’t take this post as a film review in any way. I already feel bad for posting about something I haven’t actually experienced. It’s more concerned with box office duds. There, cards on the table, may I indulge further?
The 2012 motion picture adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of novels has had more press surrounding its box office performance than it’s review since being released. Even to the point of being financially disowned by its parent company, Disney. A bold move considering it’s still playing in theatres. Aside from the more high-brow critics such as Mark “1950s quiff” Kermode (that’s not a dig of any kind – keep a rockin’, Mark), the film has actually had some favourable reviews (currently 51% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 70% viewer’s score at the time writing). Roger Ebert, who I find to be more appreciative of other tastes in his reviews, gave it an average 2.5/5 stating it “does the job for the weekend action audience”. Since Disney have posted that the film will net them a $200 million loss it has had the “box office dud” sticker pasted all over it.
So what I’m really trying to find out; is a film necessarily a bad one if it fails at the box office?
Blade Runner, Fight Club and The Shawshank Redmeption (which currently sits at #1 of the IMDb’s top 250) all failed to recoup their costs in theatres. Even Citizen Kane, which is regarded by some institutions including the AFI as the greatest film ever made, didn’t break-even. Since the introduction of home media these have been labelled as cult classics and found its true audience. It appears that they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
At the other end of the scale, you have Cutthroat Island, Pluto Nash and Sahara. All of which failed miserably, both financially and critically. Clearly two different classes of film can be seen. One where the artist (such as the director) has appears to have reign; Ridley Scott was not the most popular man on set during the Blade Runner shoot, with disgruntled crew members wearing t-shirts branded, “Yes Guvnor, my ass”, rumoured to be because of his painstaking attention to detail into the visual world.
Top 5 Box Office Bombs (adjusted for inflation in USD 2011) (Source: Pajiba.com)
5. Mars Needs Moms ($136 million)
4. Sahara ($140 million)
3. The Adventures of Pluto Nash ($141.1 million)
2. The Alamo (2004) ($141.8 million)
1. Cutthroat Island ($142 million)
The other class would seem when the studio/marketing team takes charge. Going back to John Carter’s case, the production cost Disney around $250 million and a further $100 million on marketing the film. James Cameron’s Avatar cost an estimated $230 million production + $150 million marketing, and considering the technological feat this film was striving to achieve that amount of money can be justified (only in Hollywood!).
In my experience of going to the cinema, the only film that been profitable and a critical success whilst juggling a huge marketing budget is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It consisted of a massive viral campaign up until its release and was on every bus, every TV channel and in every magazine you could pick up. And it worked. Undoubtedly there have been films before this that have achieved such a feat (Terminator 2?), but that’s the one that sticks in my mind. All in all, I think it’s clear: be watchful of spiralling budgets and justify it every step of the way in your movie!