Even when I was still a small child, the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were already thirty years old. Their last film together, after ten years apart, was made some years before I was born, and their earliest collaboration was in 1935. Despite this, I always loved those films. The Art Deco sets, the snappy scripts, and of course, the wonderful music and dancing. Only ten films, nine in black and white, one in colour, yet they achieved an iconic status as an on-screen pairing, and nobody has ever matched their style since. Last week, I discovered that the BBC were showing two of their films, early on a Saturday, and I taped them. Although I have seen them all many times, and as recently as last year, the prospect of watching them always fills me with delight.
You can enjoy a film whilst at the same time realising it has flaws, and is definitely not a ‘great’ film. During the 1990s, it seemed that many film studios were convinced that stuffing a cast with big-name stars was enough.
A decent story and credible plot helped, but was not necessarily a requirement.
When I read about a new film starring Anthony Hopkins, Cuba Gooding Jnr, and Donald Sutherland, my interest was piqued. I had seen all three in some memorable roles, and the casting of all of them in one film looked like a recipe for success. So I went to see ‘Instinct’, in 1999.
If you don’t know the film, it is about a man (Hopkins) who has been living in Africa, and studying gorillas. He went so far as to be accepted by the gorilla family, and when it was attacked by poachers, he killed some of the men responsible. When it turns out that the men were apparently Park Rangers, he is arrested for murder.
A psychiatrist (Gooding) becomes very interested in the case, and the strange jungle man is given his day in court.
This is a film that deals with mankind’s treatment of animals, and various issues surrounding our understanding of wildlife. It delves into the reasons behind why someone would choose to live along in a jungle, and how different the modern world is when he emerges. Or is it? Has he replaced one cruel jungle with another?
I will say no more about the film, to avoid spoilers.
And this post is about why it lost a small fortune.
I quite enjoyed it. Hopkins overplayed his role, something he is prone to do. But that didn’t spoil it for me. Some of the characters are very sympathetic, others less so. That is to be expected. If it tried to make a point about human encroachment on animal species, it succeeded. But that wasn’t exactly ‘breaking news’ in 1999.
The critics were unimpressed. Lukewarm reviews, and audiences waiting for it to turn up on DVD, or TV. This wasn’t a film that had to be seen on a big screen to get impact, and it didn’t have enough action to satisfy the mass-market. So it slipped off the viewing radar very quickly, until it found its spot at number 55 on the all-time 100 film flops, losing the backers around $70,000,000.
Daniel of Longshot Press and Thinkerbeat has contacted me. He is looking for writers from the UK and Canada to work on projects.
Here is what he sent me. As you maybe know, I have lived in Taiwan for a long time. Almost 15 years. Recently the Chinese government put a ban on Hollywood movies, due to the trade war. They also issued a new fund to build the sci-fi market. I’ve got connections (friends) in both Taiwan and China who are applying for the money. We’re also working with the copyright office to protect the stories, because the money is big enough that people will take your content, given the chance.
So here is a genuine chance to work with him on projects for the movie market in the Chinese-speaking world.
He is looking for writers with some interest in the following genres.
Robots and Romance
If you think you fit the bill, please contact Daniel Scott White at this email address.
Some of the films listed on the biggest flops ever can be a surprise.
But not this one.
If you ever needed proof positive that throwing a big name director together with a big name cast, then adding a budget of $155,000,000 was never guaranteed to result in a great film, then ‘Alexander’ (2004) is it.
I can imagine the studio licking their lips at the prospect. Seven production companies, guaranteed worldwide distribution, and Oliver Stone in the director’s chair. Then there was the cast. Colin Farrell as Alexander, along with Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Val Kilmer, and Jared Leto. Every generation of fans covered, and all actors with a track record of being big box-office draws.
Stone toured the world with pre-release interviews about just how great the film was. He had hired the foremost authority on Alexander’s army, a man who knew the period, the way battles were fought, and what the people of the time would have been wearing. He took the man along for those interviews, so he could convince the pundits. Historical authenticity was guaranteed. Worldwide film locations included Morocco, Thailand, and Malta.
Carbon footprint was not an issue for this production.
I was excited. After all, Stone had brought us JFK, which was great. Farrell was solid, with ‘SWAT’ and ‘Phone Booth’ showing he could act the part. Kilmer had been fabulous in ‘Tombstone’, and very good in ‘Heat’. Jolie had captivated me in ‘Changeling’. As for Anthony Hopkins, enough said.
But then I watched the film.
Never had a cast been so miscast. They not only didn’t suit their roles, they didn’t seem to relate to each other in any way. Stone’s insistence on that historical accuracy left me (and everyone else) wide-eyed in disbelief, and numerous other historical experts up in arms. It turned out that Oliver’s hired specialist was a self-deluding nut-job who made it up as he went along.
Oliver had been fooled, and we were left wanting.
The critics panned it, and the audiences stayed away. Then Stone added to his folly. He decided to drastically cut and alter the DVD release of the film, to make it less wordy, and more exciting. The resulting mess lost any cohesion, and became a jumble of unconvincing battle scenes populated by extras who looked like they had wandered in from a ‘Mad Max’ film. And I had been stupid enough to buy it, hoping that the much-lauded ‘Director’s Cut’ would be better than the screen version.
This film is just awful.
Small wonder that it lost an estimated $90,000,000, and took the place at number seven of all-time flops.
I am continuing this series of film flops with this completely unnecessary remake, from 2004. As a child, I went to see John Wayne starring in ‘The Alamo’, in 1960. It was a more-or-less factual account of the famous defence of the Alamo Mission in 1836, against the superior Mexican forces led by Generalissimo Santa Anna.
For some reason best known to themselves, Touchstone Pictures, and producer Ron Howard, decided to do a by-the-numbers remake, 44 years later.
They scraped together a decent, if far from stellar cast, including Billy Bob Thornton and Dennis Quaid in the main roles. Both leading men had been in far better films, and it is fair to say that both were in the autumn of their film careers. It is also fair to say that the ‘target market’ for such a film had already seen the 1960 original, probably many times. And like me, they undoubtedly retained a fondness for it. Besides that, it was on TV all the time, dirt cheap on DVD, and there was zero demand for it to be remade.
From anyone, anywhere.
Disney refused Howard’s over-optimistic budget, and the original cast members Russell Crowe and Ethan Hawke left during the financial arguments. The director insisted on complete historical authenticity, and many details were changed from the John Wayne version. Deciding on presenting a ‘serious’ view of the Alamo battle proved to be the film’s undoing.
The critics didn’t like it. The public didn’t like it. Too much detail, too much talking, and action sequences that were not as exciting and involving as the 1960 film. With the critical panning, the audiences stayed away in droves. It wasn’t 1960 anymore, and they had all seen bigger and better historical blockbusters. Then there was that John Wayne original. It was undeniably a better film. More stirring, more involving, and overall more exciting.
The film lost a fortune. It cost $107,000,000 to make, and took less than $23,000,000 worldwide, including DVD sales.
That left it at number six, of the all-time film flops.
I watched the film the year after its US release, and can only agree with the critics, and the public. Another pointless remake.
Will they ever learn? I suspect the answer is “No”.
It might not surprise you to find out that many films have been financial disasters, failing to recoup a fraction of the cost it took to make them. I haven’t seen all of them, but I have watched my share over the years. It is easy to see why some of them failed, but many of the biggest cinema disasters are actually excellent films. In this occasional series, I will be giving my own opinion about some of the cinema industry’s greatest flops.
The Cotton Club (1984)
This film made no impact at the box office, despite the presence of the big star, Richard Gere. It was also written by Mario Puzo of ‘Godfather’ fame, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who made ‘Apocalypse Now’, so the talent was lined up. Along with Gere, we got Bob Hoskins, Gregory Hines, Diane Lane, Lawrence Fishburne, Nicholas Cage, and Allen Garfield. At least the cast list looked promising.
Then there was the story. The Mob, A Harlem Club, famous gangsters, Jazz, great music and dancing. Add to that the faithful recreation of the club itself, and the feel of 1930s New York, and it had to be a winner. When it was released, the critics loved it, and it got nominated for a slew of awards. It won a Grammy for the soundtrack, but that was all.
But the public didn’t get it. They didn’t flock in their droves to see it, and they didn’t rush to buy the VHS tape of the film either. It had taken five years to make, and the notoriously over-spending Coppola had been lavishing in excess of $250,000 a DAY on the sets, costumes, and musical arrangements alone. As well as arguing with the studio, Coppola took money from Las Vegas hoodlums and international arms dealers to keep financing the project. Puzo was replaced as the screenwriter, and one of the investors was killed in an alleged drug gang hit, when he failed to pay them the promised return.
It all started to go wrong, very quickly.
The film grossed less than $26,000,000 worldwide, leaving the investors out of pocket by an estimated $77,000,000.
I went to see the film, and I actually really enjoyed it. It was not by any means a ‘great’ film, but I liked the period atmosphere, most of the acting, and all of the music.
Sadly, my entrance fee wasn’t enough to save it from being number 23 on the list of all-time film flops.
When I was young, films were advertised by posters, shown outside cinemas. They would have some of the film showing that week, and usually one of the next ‘Coming attraction’. There was no film advertising on TV, and it was all but unknown in newspapers. No Internet, so no Social Media, and no other way of really alerting the public to what was going to be shown on our cinema screens. There were a few specialist film magazines, but they were both expensive on a low income, and hard to find everywhere.
The posters did their best to tell the story of the film, but mainly settled for visual impact, to attract audiences. There was an element of psychology in the images chosen to promote their films, as well as a good understanding of what would lead people into parting with their money to watch the latest releases.
This poster was for the 1932 horror film, ‘The Mummy’
The studio took the gamble of showing the film’s horrific ‘big reveal’ of the Mummy’s face, and made sure to headline Boris Karloff, the star.
It also showed a ‘damsel in distress’, to indicate that some eye candy was on offer too.
The Astaire-Rogers musical of 1937, ‘Shall We Dance’, took the option of showing the stars in a drawing, rather than a photograph.
They were so popular by then, an image of the couple was hardly necessary, so money was saved on using photographs.
In 1939, the poster for the epic film of ‘Gone With The Wind’ showed the two stars, and gave some idea of the story’s setting too.
It also promoted the film technique, ‘Technicolor’, to show how modern the studio was.
For 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’, the studio used a drawing, with Orson Welles looming large, but making sure to include two attractive women in the scene too.
The same year, Ida Lupino shared top billing with Humphrey Bogart, in ‘High Sierra’.
But she was ‘reduced’ on the poster, as Bogart was considered to be the star attraction to that film.
In 1944, during WW2, the poster for Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ portrayed the female stars as relying on strong men, who were protecting them as they drifted in the lifeboat.
For the Orson Welles’ film ‘Lady From Shanghai’ in 1947, they didn’t bother to try to explain the film.
A full view of the attractive star, Rita Hayworth, was considered to be enticing enough.
Ten years later, and a male heart-throb was definitely the draw, with Robert Taylor in ‘Ivanhoe’.
Despite the presence of the gorgeous Liz Taylor, her face appears very small on the poster.
Once again, ‘Tecnicolor’ was shown on the poster, this time in a much bigger font.
Just over a year later, and Liz was back. With ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’, the film-makers knew what the audience would want to see on the poster.
Just Liz, in a seductive pose.
Modern film posters began to focus attention on the name of the director, often above the title or stars. As in ‘A Marin Scorsese Film…’, and they also featured the studio or film company more prominently, with headlines like ‘Universal Presents…’.
Do you remember the days of film posters? Perhaps you had a favourite, or one you have never forgotten.