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Box Office Bombs That Everyone Saw Coming

It can be tough for a movie studio to know when they've got a big old flop on their hands until it's far too late. Unless you're Marvel, every picture constitutes a gamble; audiences can be fickle and unpredictable, and just as smash hits come soaring out of left field, so can giant bombs — and a nine-figure budget and advertising funds to match are no guarantee of success. 

But every once in awhile, films come along that have DISASTER written all over them in big, flashing neon letters long before they're released. Whether they justifiably languished in development hell, adapted properties nobody wanted to see onscreen, or fell victim to pure bad timing, they were all a special brand of flop. The writing was on the wall for these pictures well before they made their way to theaters — they're some of the biggest box office bombs of all time, and many of us saw them coming from a mile away.

Aeon Flux

The live-action adaptation of MTV's groundbreaking animated series Aeon Flux, with Charlize Theron in the title role, arrived a full decade after the last episode of the show aired. Already facing that formidable uphill battle, the film was shuffled around through multiple regime changes at Paramount. Studio head Sherry Lansing initially told director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) that she wanted it to be Paramount's answer to Blade Runner; incoming chief Gail Berman wanted more of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer vibe. After struggling through the shoot with unclear directives, Kusama then endured the ultimate insult as a third incoming administration removed her from the post-production process — and, in her words, "eviscerated" the film.

About 25 minutes was sliced from Kusama's cut, resulting in a barely coherent movie; Kusama would later note that "What they didn't realize is that sometimes a cohesive 100 minutes will feel much shorter than an incoherent and barely comprehensible 82." Paramount's failure to trust Kusama doomed the project before it even hit screens, and it predictably garnered appalling reviews and anemic box-office. Theron saw it coming too: in an interview with Variety, she recalled, "I was never completely sold on the entire concept, but I really loved [Girlfight]. So, I threw myself into that with the belief that she's a great filmmaker. And then we f—ed it all up."

The Adventures of Pluto Nash

2002's The Adventures of Pluto Nash is one of the more puzzling films ever, in that it's a wonder it was released at all. The story of a space smuggler who bails out the indebted owner of a nightclub located on the moon, it was in development for an unreasonably long time — the original script was written in the '80s and worked over countless times by a long line of script doctors until it was finally deemed acceptable and shot with an all-star cast and Eddie Murphy in the title role, wrapping production in 2000. Then it sat on a shelf for two full years before its release. Warner Bros. claimed that the delay was in the interest of getting the special effects just right, but upon the film's release, it was obvious that this was baloney; Pluto Nash is simply one of the worst movies ever made.

The film's long and troubled production history would have raised red flags even if Murphy hadn't been well into the "sleepwalk through everything" phase of his career. The endlessly toiled-over script contained nothing resembling interesting characterizations, a unique plot, or jokes that were actually funny, and no amount of expensive special effects could paper over Murphy's plain disinterest in the film. The $100 million production didn't even crack $10 million at the box office worldwide, and Warners learned the valuable lesson that obvious turkeys don't improve with age.

Battlefield Earth

Much has been written about Mother of All Flops Battlefield Earth in the years since its 2000 release, but it's interesting to note that the producers of the film — based on a novel by Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — seemed to exist in an alternate universe where Scientology wasn't facing a crippling PR crisis. The church's public image had taken a serious hit in the '90s, with information beginning to leak about their creation story and an alleged habit of destroying the lives of former members and "suppressive people," and there was significant controversy when it succeeded in getting the IRS to declare it an official religion and, therefore, tax exempt. In a retrospective piece for A.V. Club, critic Nathan Rabin summed up the public attitude toward the film prior to its release nicely: "Battlefield Earth hit theaters with a 'Kick Me' sign on it so massive it could be detected from outer space."

Even if the film had been good, it would have faced severe public skepticism due to its ties to Scientology — but with its utterly confusing script, amateurish cinematography, and cringeworthy acting highlighted by the most ridiculous performance of John Travolta's career, it became a boondoggle of historic proportions. All these years later, it's still often pegged as one of the biggest flops ever, an outcome that was never really in doubt. 

Cowboys and Aliens

2011's Cowboys and Aliens seemed like the kind of high-concept romp that the right filmmaker could knock out of the park, and director Jon Favreau — fresh off the success of Iron Man and its sequel — certainly seemed like the man for the job. With Steven Spielberg as a producer and an all-star cast including Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, DreamWorks and distributor Paramount were predicting big things for the picture — but they should have paid a little closer attention to that writing on the wall.

For one thing, the script was labored over by more than a dozen writers for 14 years, which is never a good sign. For another, many observers assumed by its title that the film would be a comedy, rather than a straight-faced action outing (it wasn't), and it tracked consistently poorly among its target audience for the duration of its months-long, multi-faceted, very expensive marketing campaign. It just barely managed to edge out The Smurfs in its first week, and followed that performance with a precipitous drop which resulted in its failing to make back its production budget domestically. Cowboys and Aliens certainly had a wealth of talent on either side of the camera, but everyone involved forgot the crucial step of making sure they were crafting a picture people actually wanted to see.

Fantastic Four

Production problems are a pretty reliable indicator that a big-budget tentpole film could be in trouble, and few have had production issues as extensive and varied as 2015's Fantastic Four. From questionable casting to clashes between director Josh Trank and producer Simon Kinberg to Trank's unpreparedness for such a large-scale production, rumors flew fast and furious about the snafus plaguing Fantastic Four for months before the film's release. Trank and Kinberg publicly shot down these rumors, claiming that everything was just fine and scolding the "unfair" treatment of Trank — but then the film hit theaters, and it became astoundingly clear that every single rumor had been true, and then some.

Audiences stayed away in droves, and those who gave it a chance largely wished they hadn't. In the wake of the hostile reviews, Trank defended his work via Twitter by implying that the studio had savaged the film in editing, saying, "A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would've received great reviews. You'll probably never see it." As for Kinberg, he ignored the film's troubled production history by placing the blame for its failure on its tone, proving that some people fail to learn lessons even when they're taught the hard way.

John Carter

Disney's John Carter had a lot of things going for it. It was an adaptation of the first in a series of novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (also the creator of Tarzan) which had been a towering influence on pop culture staples such as Star Wars and Avatar; it was helmed by Andrew Stanton, the director of beloved Pixar outings Wall-E and Finding Nemo; and it had the type of ridiculously huge production budget one would expect for a tentpole film. Any or all of these things would have been brilliant to play up in the film's marketing — so of course the first trailer capitalized by mentioning exactly none of them.

The teaser appeared in July 2011, and it wasn't until the 2012 Super Bowl that a second trailer was released. Unfortunately, it wasn't much better, and in the interim the film had become something of a joke among the moviegoing public. Speaking with Vulture, an anonymous former studio executive called John Carter's marketing campaign the worst in history, saying, "It's almost as if they went out of their way to not make us care." Amazingly, the problem was compounded by Stanton's familiarity with (and complete loyalty to) the source material — he called Burroughs' novels "my Harry Potter" — and his apparent assumption that the public at large adored John Carter as much as he did. This colossal miscalculation plus the vague marketing campaign equaled zero butts in the seats, and Carter became far and away the biggest flop of 2012.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

The legend of King Arthur has gotten its fair share of cinematic portrayals, but in recent years, the well-worn story hasn't exactly been fodder for box office gold. Director Antoine Fuqua's 2004 effort King Arthur, the first attempt of the new millennium to attempt to cash in on the legend, was a significant flop — but that didn't stop Guy Ritchie from taking a stab at it with 2017's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Ritchie certainly had a decent level of name recognition, and star Charlie Hunnam was coming off a great seven-season run on the AMC television series Sons of Anarchy, but there were a few problems that made Hollywood prognosticators rightfully nervous before its release.

First, Ritchie's cheeky, rapid-fire style didn't exactly seem like it would be the right fit for a sword-and-sorcery epic. Hunnam, while a fine actor, looked a bit out of place in the title role, and the film's trailers portended doom, featuring a great deal more witty banter and bad CGI than one would expect from a retelling of the Arthurian legend. All signs pointed to a potentially huge misfire, and studio Warner Bros. didn't help matters by scheduling the film to open against Marvel's highly anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in only its second week. Observers predicted that Arthur would pull less than half of what the studio was expecting its opening weekend haul to be — and they were right. The $175 million production failed to even crack $40 million domestically.

The Lone Ranger

When Disney's live-action The Lone Ranger was announced in 2010, it was not at all clear whether audiences were even up for a retelling of the adventures of the Western hero. More recent adaptations of the property had traditionally not fared very well, and while Gore Verbinski (of the Pirates of the Carribean series) was tapped to direct, a few feathers were ruffled over the choices of Armie Hammer in the title role and the decidedly non-Native Johnny Depp as his Native American sidekick Tonto. The production was briefly shut down over budget concerns in 2011 — never a good sign — but managed to get back on track. Then, in early 2012, fans were treated to the first production stills, featuring Hammer in the famous mask... and Depp in the most egregiously terrible Tonto makeup anyone could have imagined.

The images quickly drew jeers and charges of racism, giving observers plenty of negative things to talk about for before the film was finally released in July 2013. It failed to generate any significant positive social media buzz, and analysts correctly predicted that the film would be trounced by Despicable Me 2, which opened the same weekend and went on to gross nearly a billion dollars. 


2015's Pan was billed as "The story of how Peter got to Neverland." It wasn't necessarily clear that anyone cared how he got there, but Warner Bros. envisioned the film as a launchpad for a new, kid-friendly franchise that could rake in the family moviegoing dollars for years to come. Unfortunately, it wasn't tracking well with family or general audiences prior to its release, and competition from surprise hit The Martian (in its second week) and Hotel Transylvania 2 had observers concerned that the $150 million production might fail to live up to expectations. It was predicted that the film would score only $20 million or so in its opening weekend — but it couldn't even hit that number.

Poor reviews dissuaded even those who might have been inclined to take a chance on a new Peter Pan story, and by the end of its run Pan just barely cracked the $35 million mark at the domestic box office. With an advertising spend even heftier than its production budget, it was one of the biggest money losers of the year, with some estimates suggesting that Warners lost up to $100 million on the picture.

Cutthroat Island

In the days before the Pirates of the Caribbean series became a box office juggernaut, swashbuckling epics were notoriously risky propositions, but this was far from the biggest problem with the 1995 pirate romp Cutthroat Island. According to director Renny Harlin, who discussed the picture's failure in an interview years after the fact, studio Carolco was broke and distributor MGM was in trouble before the film even went into production — which Harlin knew would mean a nonexistent advertising budget.

"At that point I was left there with my then-wife, Geena Davis and myself, and a company that was already belly-up," Harlin recalled. "We begged to be let go. We begged that we didn't have to make this movie. And I don't think I've ever said this in any other interview. We begged that we not be put in this position." He went on to elaborate that Davis was "terrified" of headlining the film, knowing full well that a female-led pirate movie was "suicidal," but that due to contractual obligations they had no choice but to play ball. The film went on to gross a tenth of its $100 million budget, and — as Harlin now insists he knew all along — it was the last picture Carolco would ever make.