How can we objectively measure how much people hate a film? One test might be the total amount of money the film loses. However, this measure favors big expensive stinkers and shoves from consideration terrible films that might have cost a lot less to make.
A better bet might be the ratio of box office receipts to total film production and marketing cost, but studios don't generally reveal the amount they spend marketing films, and their numbers for how much they spend making them are notoriously screwy. We can't do an objective review by this measure.
A few high points, in any case:
Total Money Lost
This section shows just a sample, not a comprehensive study of big money losers. Also, it is not adjusted for inflation.
1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) cost something like $50 million to make and took in only $4.4 million at the box office. This film had a rock solid cast and crew, but it wasn't the only Columbus film released that year, and audiences didn't care to see any of them. The film was also hurt, in writing and marketing, by continual political turmoil over how to portray the effects of European colonialism in the Americas.
Kevin Costner's The Postman (1997) cost $80 million and brought back under $18 million of it. Many people might expect to see Waterworld in this slot, but it doesn't qualify. I discuss that film below.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the hard work of John Travolta, Battlefield Earth: A Saga of the Year 3000 lost about $50 million.
Supernova (2000) cost something like $60 million to make and took in under $15 million in the theaters. Problems with director Walter Hill are typically blamed for this turkey of a movie.
Monkeybone (2001) cost around $75 million and brought back under $6 million when released. The studio overestimated the drawing power of Brendan Frasier. Also, who wants to see a film with the tagline "If It Yells, If It Swings, It's Got To Be Monkeybone" ?
Studios are apt to pay big money for stars who can "open" a film, and get people to show up to see them before bad reviews and bad word-of-mouth catch up. This technique is not foolproof. Witness Town & Country (2001), which supposedly cost $90 million to make, largely because of a pricey cast that included Warren Beatty, and because of countless reshoots and other delays. Rumors have it that costs might really have hit $120 million, but we'll give the studio the benefit of the doubt on this one. It brought in less than $7 million.
Treasure Planet (2002) cost $140 million to make, brought in a bit over $38 million domestically, and $53.7 million everywhere else.
The all-time winner (loser) among non-Saturday-Night-Live-related films is probably Cutthroat Island (1995), which cost about $100 million to make and brought in a paltry $11 million. It's actually an entertaining film, in a Renny Harlin-ish way.
Highest Percentage Lost
Orphans (1987), a critically favored Albert Finney flick, cost $15 million and made only $100,000 in theatrical release. That's a loss of 99.33%, probably the worst ever for a non-Saturday-Night-Live-related movie.
Heaven's Gate (1980) cost a then-staggering $44 million (including marketing expenses) and was screened for only a week. It lost almost 97% of its cost. In the words of Jerry Esbin, who was head of distribution for United Artists at the time, "It's as if somebody called every household in the country and said, 'There will be a curse on your family if you go to see this picture."
One From The Heart (1982) lost $25.1 million of its $26 million production cost. That's a 96.5% loss, sickening except perhaps when compared to Orphans. The film is important because of the damage that it did to the career of Francis Ford Coppola. In the decade of the 1970s, Coppola directed only four films: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. He also won an Oscar for writing Patton and he produced American Grafitti. All six of these films are giants. I have heard great directors credit Coppola with making two of the five best films ever made, and three of the ten best. They're all on that list.
Then he made One From The Heart and it stopped his career dead. He was a difficult director to work with and as soon as he demonstrated that he could make a money-losing film that audiences hated, studios stayed away. He had produced the film with his own money, and suffered personal financial difficulties for a decade as a result. To this day, he takes terrible jobs for the cash, if they are offered. I mean, this guy directed Captain Eo. Coppola remains a formidable talent, but he will never again have the freedom he had before One From the Heart.
Special Feature: Saturday Night Live Movies
It's Pat (1994) cost $10 million to make and had total global box office receipts of only $60,822. That translates to a loss of 99.39%. The studio would have done better had they thrown the money into a pile and burnt it; eventually the flames would have died down and they would have had more than 0.61% left.
Stuart Saves His Family (1995). Al Franken as a leading man? It is to laugh! Or in this case, not to laugh, or not to show up in the first place. The film cost $12 million to make and brought back $911,000 globally. That's a loss of 92.4%. It seems silly to even specify that these were global recepts. I mean, did the studio really think that people in Japan were going to line up to see this one?
Blues Brothers 2000 (1998). It cost only $28 million to make, a bargain when you consider that the original Blues Brothers had cost about the same amount, twenty years earlier. It is not a bargain when you consider that it brought back only $14 million in domestic release, a loss of 50%.
The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002). I appreciate that Eddie Murphy hasn't been on Saturday Night Live in decades, (he was the only living former cast member not to show up for the 25th anniversary special). However much he might like to forget it, he did start there, and the curse of Saturday Night Live movies strikes him too. The Adventures of Pluto Nash cost just under $100 million to make, and brought in under $4.5 million. Ignoring inflation, no movie has ever lost more money. Given that it opened on 2320 screens, and that each print probably cost $2000 to make, this film did not even recover the cost of sending it to theaters.
But What Did the Audiences Think?
A more interesting metric, and one that does not require us to adjust for inflation, is to study the speed at which revenues drop off for a movie. Even terrible films can open well if they feature popular stars and the studios spend aggressively to promote them. However, that won't buy more than one weekend; once bad word-of-mouth takes hold, these films are dead.
Therefore we can objectively study the stinkiness of a film by measuring what percentage of its total gross was realized on the opening weekend. The larger this percentage, the less people like the film.
For example, Forrest Gump brought in $24.5 million its first weekend, on the way to making $329.7 million. Its first weekend percentage was an impressive 7.42%. Clearly, people liked the film, told their friends, and it continued to bring in business for a long time after it opened.
Steven Spielberg's A.I., on the other hand, brought in $29.3 million in its first weekend and $78.6 million total, so the first weekend was an embarrassing 37.4% of the total.
The normal range for this measure is something like 20% to 35%. Films below that range are showing impressive legs; film higher than the range are probably terrible.
Limitations of this Methodology
I am restricting this study to medium and large films, efforts that brought in at least $12 million in their first weekends. Because of inflation and a huge growth in the number of screens in the United States, this test will strip out most films made before 1990. That's why this node is titled "the least popular films of the last 15 years", rather than "the least popular films ever".
Further, this restricts the study to films that people showed up to see in the first place. If the public didn't care about a film at all, and nobody showed up to see it even when it was first opened, it doesn't appear on my list.
Also, this metric tends to overstate the quality of films aimed at young children. Because they don't control their own schedules, and because they are often willing to see the same movie many times, young children don't pack opening weekends the way that teenagers and adults do.
Horror movies tend to do quite poorly by this measure because people who see them when they first open give away the endings to their friends, thus reducing the incentive for others to pay admission.
Also, I'm ignoring re-issues, even if they pass the $12 million test. Such films have already recovered the cost to make them, even if they lose a little bit on failed reintroduction efforts. (The reissues of Grease and E.T. would otherwise have made the list).
Because films stay open for a while, we don't have complete figures for any 2003 releases. Therefore, the fifteen years contemplated by this writeup are 1988-2002. (For what it's worth, no 1987 films would have made the list, had I extended it back another year). These calculations are based on U.S. domestic revenues only.
The drums roll...
The ten most disliked films of the last fifteen years:
Film Year First Wkd. Total Ratio
Blair Witch 2 : Book of Shadows 2000 13,223,887 26,421,314 50.05
Queen of the Damned 2002 14,757,535 30,307,804 48.69
Crossroads 2002 17,014,226 37,188,667 45.75
Resident Evil 2002 17,707,106 39,532,308 44.79
Pokémon the Movie 2000 2000 19,575,608 43,746,923 44.75
The One 2001 19,112,404 43,905,746 43.53
Alien 3 1992 23,141,188 54,927,174 42.13
Random Hearts 1999 13,012,585 30,980,221 42.00
Jeepers Creepers 2001 15,831,700 37,849,949 41.83
I Still Know What You Did Last Summer 98 16,520,038 39,999,681 41.30
Additional money-losing film trivia
Cleopatra (1963) is widely regarded as a money-pit. It cost $44 million to make, an amount that, when adjusted for inflation, is worth $250 million today. However, by the end of the 1960s it had recovered its costs.
Ishtar (1987), whose name was for years synonymous with "out of control production", did lose a lot of money, but not enough to make any of the lists above. It lost $25.6 million ($41 million in today's dollars), or about 64% of its production cost.
Waterworld (1995) cost $175 million to make and made only $167 million domestically. However it brought in $255 million globally. It was a disaster of a production, but the studio made money in the end, and Costner was able to move on to The Postman (1997), a bigger stinker that I discussed near the top of this writeup.
Hudson Hawk (1991) cost $65 million and brought back only $17 million domestically. This was shocking at the time but was soon exceeded by others. Bruce Willis had just come off Bonfire of the Vanities, which had itself lost $31 million. Later he would do North (1994), which lost $33 million. Pulp Fiction (1994) stablized his career, and of course he had a later home run in The Sixth Sense (1999). Remarkably, when the chits were all counted, Hudson Hawk made $80 million in foreign release, leaving the studio with a profit.
Both Last Action Hero (1993) and The Fifth Element (1997) were controversial when they were made for having cost a lot of money and doing poorly in domestic release. However, both made money globally.
Legendary loser Howard the Duck (1986) doesn't come close to the disaster of the movies listed above. It lost only $13.7 million, 46% of its production cost. Even adjusted for inflation, it lost only $23 million.
Ironically, by the inverse of this metric (and by almost any other financial measure), the original Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of the most successful films of all time. Its financial performance was so amazing that another sequel is planned, despite Book of Shadows being, by my metric, the least popular movie of the last fifteen years.
Thanks to the many people who suggested bad, money-losing films that I had overlooked.
The Twentieth Century (David Wallechinsky, 1995)
Final Cut (Steven Bach, 1985)