In the motion picture industry, a box-office bomb or box-office flop is a film that is considered highly unsuccessful or unprofitable during its theatrical run.
Although any film for which the production and marketing costs exceed the combined revenue after release can be considered to have ‘bombed’, the term is more frequently used on major studio releases that are highly anticipated and expensive to produce.
Although this may occur in conjunction with mixed or poor reviews, negative critical reception does not necessarily result in a negative box-office performance.
What are the Causes of a Film’s Failure?
The causes of a film’s failure can be encompassed in two areas:
- External circumstances:
- Occasionally, films may underperform because of issues unrelated to the film itself.
- These issues commonly relate to the timing of the film’s release.
- This was one of the reasons for the commercial failure of Intolerance, D.W. Griffith’s follow-up to The Birth of a Nation.
- Owing to production delays, the film was not released until late 1916, a time when the widespread anti-war sentiment it reflected had started to shift in favour of American entry into World War I.
- Another example of external events sinking a film is the 2015 docudrama about FIFA entitled United Passions.
- It was released in theaters in the United States at the same time FIFA’s leaders were under investigation for fraud and corruption, and the film grossed only $918 at the US box office in its opening weekend.
- Other issues such as many films that open during times of national crisis and just after disasters such as the 2001 September 11 attacks, Hurricane Harvey and 2020 coronavirus pandemic underperform at the box office.
- High production costs:
- A large budget can cause a film to fail financially, even when it performs reasonably well at the box office.
- The 1980’s Heaven’s Gate, for example, exceeded its planned production schedule by three months, causing its budget to inflate from $12 million to $44 million.
- The film only earned $3.5 million at the box office.
- For the 2005 film Sahara, its budget ballooned to $281.2 million for production, distribution, and other expenses.
- The film earned $119 million in theatres and $202.9 million overall with television and other subsidies included, resulting in a net loss of $78.3 million.
- In 2012, Disney reported losses of $200 million on John Carter.
- The film had made a considerable $234 million worldwide, but this was far short of its $250 million budget plus worldwide advertising.
Recovery of Flops
Films which are initially viewed as ‘flops’ may recover income elsewhere.
Several films have underperformed in their countries of origin, but have been sufficiently successful internationally to recoup losses or even become financial successes.
Films may also recover money through international distribution, sales to television syndication, and distribution outside of cinemas.
Other films have succeeded long after cinema release by becoming cult films or being re-evaluated over time. High-profile films fitting this description include Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption, which both lost money at the box office but have since become popular.
Films that Push Studios into Financial Trouble
In extreme cases, a single film’s lackluster performance may push a studio into financial losses, bankruptcy or closure. Examples of this include:
- United Artists (Heaven’s Gate);
- Carolco Pictures (Cutthroat Island); and
- The underperformance of The Golden Compass was seen as a significant factor in influencing Warner Bros.’s decision to take direct control of New Line Cinema.
In 2001, Square Pictures (the film division of Japanese video game company Square, now Square Enix) released its first film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, an animated motion picture inspired by the Final Fantasy series of video games. It received mixed reviews from critics and failed to recover its $145 million cost. Following the film’s struggles, Square Pictures ceased producing feature films.
In 2011, Mars Needs Moms was the last film released by ImageMovers Digital before Disney’s stake got absorbed by ImageMovers to a loss of nearly $140 million – the largest box-office bomb of all time in nominal dollar terms. Despite this loss, the decision to close the production company had been made a year prior to the film’s release.
The Risk for Independent Films
The 2006 independent movie Zyzzyx Road made just $30 at the US box office. The film, with a budget of $1.2 million and starring Tom Sizemore and Katherine Heigl, owes its tiny revenue to its limited box-office release – just six days in a single theatre in Dallas for the purpose of meeting Screen Actors Guild requirements – rather than its ability to attract viewers. According to co-star Leo Grillo, it sold six tickets, two of which were to cast members.
Previously, the 2000 British film Offending Angels had become notorious for taking in less than £100 ($150) at the box office. It had a £70,000 ($105,000) budget but was panned by critics including the BBC, who called it a “truly awful pile of garbage”, and Total Film, who called it “irredeemable”.
In 2011, the film The Worst Movie Ever! opened to just $11 at the US box office. It played in only one theatre.