Money can’t buy everything. It can’t buy love, or happiness, or even decent box office numbers. Just as a thrifty attitude doesn’t preclude great financial success, flinging copious cash at the screen does not guarantee a full house. Sometimes lousy reviews do a film in, sometimes it’s just the wrong movie at the wrong time with the wrong cast. So in honor of the très cher and hotly anticipated Avatar, we’ve assembled a rogues’ gallery of pricey fiascoes, all of which brought in less than half (and often much less than half) of what they cost to produce.
10. Miami Vice (2006)
Production Budget: $135 million; Domestic Gross $63.4 million
Is there a limit to baby boomers’ appetite for big budget movies based on the iconic television series of their youth? Why yes, there is, and Michael Mann’s adaptation put it to the test. The critics were tepid, and audiences followed suit. While the movie did decently overseas, stateside viewers essentially told Colin Farrell that he was no Don Johnson. His hubris lands his movie last on the list.
9. The Island (2005)
Production Budget: $126 million; Domestic Gross $35.8 million
The Island got a lot of attention, most of it negative. Critics found it too loud, too stupid, too over-the-top, too… Michael Bay. As for the movie’s star, Ewan McGregor, he’s just been named No. 2 on Forbes‘ “Hollywood’s 10 Most Overpaid Stars” list (Will Ferrell topped the list). For every dollar McGregor is paid, he delivers a scant $3.75. This turkey didn’t help.
8. The Insider (1999)
Production Budget: $90 million; Domestic Gross $29 million
The Insider is that sad conundrum: A near unanimous critical success, and a dismal audience failure. Audiences just weren’t intererested in a story about big tobacco and broadcast news. So while The Insider starred heavy hitters Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, and it won multiple awards, the movie was, to put it delicately, a commercial disappointment.
7. The Postman (1997)
Production Budget: $80 million; Domestic Gross $17.6 million
This postman didn’t ring twice. It didn’t even ring once. Kevin Costner starred in and directed this post-apocalyptic… well, thriller seems an altogether wrong word. But in addition to the seventh position in our countdown, this nonsensical and aimless movie won a Golden Raspberry Award in every category for which it was nominated — even “worst song,” for its entire score.
6. The Golden Compass (2007)
Production Budget: $180 million; Domestic Gross: $70.1 million
The adaptation of the first installment of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, starring Nicole Kidman and her noble, immobile forehead, garnered brickbats from all sides. Terry Anderson, the president of the National Secular Society (Pullman is a member) mourned director Chris Weitz’ dilution of the book’s anti-religious themes, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League thought it denigrated Christianity. “It is our hope that the film fails to meet box office expectations,” he said, and his prayers were answered.
5. Cutthroat Island (1995)
Production Budget: $98 million; Domestic Gross: $10 million
This movie’s star, Geena Davis, said, “I’d rather play a pirate captain in a failed action movie than the wife of some guy who goes out and does something interesting and she stays home and worries.” So it worked out for her! But not for her then-husband Renny Harlin, or the film’s production company, Carolco, which shuttered soon after this under-loved swashbuckler was released.
4. Hudson Hawk (1991)
Production Budget: $65 million; Domestic Gross: $17.2 million
Along with star and co-screenwriter Bruce Willis’ off-putting smirk — and his Sinatra renditions — lousy marketing played a role in grounding this strange, unappealing movie, which was not quite action, not quite comedy, not quite satire. The plot revolves around building a machine that turns lead into gold; considering that the movie earned back just a quarter of the money it took to produce, that seems like a cruel irony.
3. Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Production Budget: $44 million; Domestic Gross $3.4 million
Heaven’s Gate is so famous for failure that it inspired a book and a documentary — both called “Final Cut” — about its travails. Author (and former studio exec) Steven Bach recalls the audience at the premiere as being “stunned into submission by the sheer weight of the thing.” And the New York Times‘ Vincent Canby called it “a forced four-hour walking tour of one’s own living room.” Recent assessments are kinder, but you can’t change history. And the fate of the Gate lands it in third place.
2. The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)
Production Budget: $100 million; Domestic Gross: $4.4 million
This Eddie Murphy flick had a long, circuitous route to the screen and sat on the shelf for fourteen months before being released — rarely a good sign. A strong supporting cast (Pam Grier, Illeana Douglas, Luis Guzman) couldn’t save it from a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 6 percent. Ouch! And although a recent Hollywood Reporter poll named it the worst flop of the decade, we’re only giving it the runner up prize.
1. Ishtar (1987)
Production Budget: $55 million; Domestic Gross: $14.3 million
The saying goes that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Ishtar is the exception: There’s so much blame to go around. Warren Beatty antagonized members of the press by being both coy and demanding. David Putnam arrived to run Columbia Pictures midway through the movie’s production and wasn’t all that enthralled with the project. “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it,” said director Elaine May, “I would be a rich woman today.” Still, Ishtar’s a winner here, at the top spot in our countdown.