Films That Killed Studios

By Helen Cox


The film business is a notoriously volatile industry. Most studios do okay for a while but then then that one picture comes along that breaks the bank and that’s it: finito. Curious to know which films are the most financially devastating of all time? Okay I’ll tell you…

Heaven’s Gate (1980) is the first film on the hit list. This picture got off to a gutwrenchingly poor start when the producers were accused of animal rights violations. According to archival data from the American Humane Association (AHA) people working on set verified that chickens had been beheaded and horses had been bled (their blood was then allegedly smeared over actors and used instead of stage blood) during shooting. As you might imagine this didn’t go down well. By the time the premiere swung round, amidst all the negative publicity, the film didn’t really have a chance. Steven Bach’s book: Final Cut chronicles the making of the film and states that by the interval it was clearly game over in terms of any kind of commercial success: “people didn’t want to be in the lobby and have to talk, but neither did they want to resume their seats.” The reviews were even more damning than the premiere had been “The ridiculous scenes are endless” claimed Roger Ebert, The New York Times called it an “unqualified disaster” and in 2008 Joe Queenan judged it the worst film ever made (has he seen 1982’s Diner I wonder?). The result was a $44 million loss and near bankruptcy for studio Union Artists who ended up selling to MGM.

Goldcrest had a devastating double bill in the mid-80s with Revolution (1985) and Absolute Beginners (1986). Revolution cost $28 million to make and grossed a paltry $346k. Not exactly an advert for choosing King’s Lynn as your filming location. Absolute Beginners was also a dud proving that the hiring of David Bowie does not offset the hiring of Patsy Kensit under any circumstances. Goldcrest were forced to break up and sell the company,  they did eventually manage a relaunch but it took 20 years.

Cutthroat Island and Showgirls (1995) – another disastrous double bill. Who doesn’t want to see Geena Davis prancing about in a pirate outfit? Or Saved By The Bell-er Elizabeth Berkley dance her way to her dreams? Well quite a lot of people it seems. Showgirls didn’t even earn back half the money that was spent on it but at least, I guess, it has had some success as a cult classic. Cutthroat Island doesn’t even turn up in charity shops or bargain bins (I know I’ve checked) and it’s the film that single-handedly destroyed the feminist swashbuckler sub-genre. If it hadn’t been for Harlin and Davis’s cinematic love-in we could be watching a Captain Jill Sparrow on our cinema screens today – not that I’m bitter. Cutthroat Island lost $105million and, unsurprisingly, Carolco studios couldn’t quite recover from that; they had no choice but to file for bankrupcy.

In the case of Titan A.E. (2000) it wasn’t so much the concept or the delivery that was the problem but a failure in the Titan A.E. marketing department. Bluth and Goldman had directed a light-hearted, post-apocalyptic jaunt set in outer space, they had enlisted the vocal talents of Drew Barrymore, Matt Damon and Bill Pulman and they had a perfectly passable script. In short they’d done everything they could to create something that would sell. Unfortunately the marketing execs at Fox HQ just couldn’t decide on an audience and consequently the film simply didn’t find one. Fox paid a heavy price for not reading Max Clifford’s autobiography right through to the end: alongside sacking hundreds of people they also had to close their animation studio.

Charlotte Gray (2001) suffered from a mixture of being a little bit on the insipid side and of marketing departments, once again, not quite thinking things through. A tale filled with conflict? Check. Cate Blanchett hired? Check.  A limited release in the UK, arguably the best market for a WWII resistance tale? Check. Ooops. A less-than-friendly response from critics and an inability to find a cinema that was actually showing the film forced FilmFour to close as an independent studio. Being in the Charlotte Gray boardroom was probably a little bit like watching a bad episode of The Apprentice. Business teaches us some hard lessons, it’s true.

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2 responses to “Films That Killed Studios

  1. Another good example of this is It’s A Wonderful Life. It didn’t do badly at the box office, but high production and marketing costs meant it feel well short of recouping its budget. Frank Capra’s own production company, Liberty Films, produced the film and faced bank foreclosure as a result. They were forced to sell up to Paramount, who now own the rights to the film as a result.

  2. A good British example would be Alexander Korda’s ‘Things to Come’ made in 1936. Korda spent an obscene amount making H. G. Wells’ book into an anti-war sci-fi film that utterly bombed at the box office. Between the financial loss incurred in making that film (exactly to Wells’ specifications) and Korda’s overspending on his swanky new Denham studio complex London Film got in to serious financial difficulties.

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