10 great films that flopped

Now often championed as some kind of a masterpiece, Heaven’s Gate infamously lost a fortune for Hollywood upon release. With Michael Cimino’s epic western back in cinemas, we count down 10 more classic films that crashed and burned at the box office.

1 August 2013

By Chris Fennell

Heaven’s Gate (1980)

Box office failures come as no surprise in Hollywood. It is said that seven out of 10 movies lose money – and, indeed, looking at the frequency with which this year’s big releases alone have flopped that can be believed. But none has failed on such a scale as Heaven’s Gate (1980).

The story of Michael Cimino’s extravagant mega-western has become legend. Its tortuous production and disastrous premiere, which left a trail of critical opprobrium and rubbernecking media coverage, turned it into a symbol of all that was wrong with American movies at the time, and forever altered the relationship between business to art in Hollywood.

The legend of Heaven’s Gate was cemented in Final Cut, a best-selling 1985 book by Steven Bach, who had been in charge of east coast production at United Artists when the ‘middle-budget’ western they agreed to produce nearly put them out of business.

After winning two Oscars for The Deer Hunter, only his second film, Cimino was given free rein to direct his script based on the Johnson County War of 1892. Budgeted at $7.5 million with a release date set for Christmas 1979, Cimino was said to be five days behind schedule after six days of shooting, and eventually spent $44 million, accruing over one million feet of footage by the time it was finished in late 1980.

Troubled production histories and exorbitant running times can often be seen as early warning signs for studios, but for an industry like Hollywood, they can also make for good stories. There is a tragic grandeur about failure in Hollywood that is tied to the American Dream of making it big or not making it at all. All of the films on this list lost money on initial release – some more than others, and some for obvious reasons – but all suggest that success can be measured on a different scale.

The General (1926)

Directors: Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman

The General (1926)

One of United Artists’ first box-office flops was Buster Keaton’s The General. Although the scale of its failure was not quite as spectacular as Heaven’s Gate, a $250,000 domestic deficit led to Keaton’s loss of control over his earlier films and forced him to sign a restrictive contract with MGM. Critics at the time called The General “the least funny thing Buster Keaton has ever done” but it has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest of all silent comedies.

Keaton merges his trademark physical athleticism with emotional pathos as a train driver during the American Civil War, who rescues both his beloved, eponymous engine and his inamorata (Marion Mack) from Union forces. Keaton could never understand why his perfectly engineered masterpiece flopped – he often cited it as his favourite of all his films – but perhaps, as Pauline Kael pointed out, it was just “too perfect”.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Director: Frank Capra

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Now one of the most cherished of all American films, it’s hard to believe that upon release in 1946 – despite garnering five Oscar nominations – It’s a Wonderful Life failed to recoup its $3.7 million production cost. In the early 1970s, Frank Capra’s Dickensian masterpiece fell out of copyright protection and was picked up as a cheap network Christmas special by hundreds of local television stations, soon becoming a perennial holiday favourite.

It’s a success-out-of-failure story that mirrors the redemptive journey of the film’s protagonist, selfless good guy George Bailey (James Stewart), who finds himself deeply loved in snowy Bedford Falls after angel Clarence (Henry Travers) delivers him from suicide. This is Capra’s most winning vision of collective spirit working to help the fortunes of men whose morals are already made, and stands as a genuine American classic.  

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director: Charles Laughton

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

In 1955, The Night of the Hunter – the only film Charles Laughton ever directed – was a critical and commercial failure, consequently putting off the actor from directing for good, and perhaps depriving history of further works of greatness. In the years that have passed since, his film has earned a coveted place in American movies as perhaps the finest example of the Southern Gothic tradition in cinema history.

“A nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale”, as Laughton put it, it’s equal parts Capra, D.W. Griffith and German Expressionism, the photographic play of light and shadow capturing the dread and the dream of the American pastoral. As notorious preacher Harry Powell (with L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed across his knuckles) Robert Mitchum embodied, to use the words of critic David Thomson, ’one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema’.

The Chase (1966)

Director: Arthur Penn

The Chase (1966) poster

Just before Arthur Penn would change the landscape of the American film industry forever with Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he directed The Chase. Derided at the time as an old-style Peyton Place-like potboiler, for contemporary American critics it threatened an unwelcome return to the classical Hollywood hegemony in an industry that was changing and evolving under the influence of the French New Wave.

What they failed to realise, and what some European critics picked up on at the time (including Robin Wood, who called it one of the best films he had ever seen), was that this was as stark a depiction of violence as had ever appeared on the American screen. A Lillian Hellman adaptation from a Horton Foote novel, Penn’s first masterpiece is also one of his darkest works, a portrait of small-town America as a festering backwater stagnant with avarice, jealousy and racism. Marlon Brando, in one of his great mid-period roles, is magnificent as Sheriff Calder, reluctantly assigned to capture escaped fugitive Bubber Reeves, played by future New Hollywood star Robert Redford.

Blade Runner (1982)

Director: Ridley Scott

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott’s postmodern blend of science fiction and gumshoe noir suffered at the box office from the release of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial two weeks earlier, with its more optimistic scenario of alien visitation (this also condemned the commercial prospects of John Carpenter’s The Thing, released on the same date as Blade Runner).

Fortunately however, like It’s a Wonderful Life and other sleeper hits like The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Blade Runner was rediscovered on the video rental market and became one of the first films released on DVD. In all its shimmering incarnations (a Director’s Cut was released in 1992, followed by a 2007 ‘Final Cut’), it’s a spectacularly immersive and densely imagined vision of a decayed urban future. Scott is set to direct a sequel in the near future, with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard, the hard-boiled cop who hunts down ‘replicants’.

One from the Heart (1982)

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

One from the Heart (1982)

Francis Ford Coppola originally conceived One from the Heart as an antidote to the enormous cost, pressures and production setbacks of Apocalypse Now (1979). Coppola, however, has always been inseparable from turmoil, and predictably production costs ballooned from $2 million to $25 million after he insisted on constructing artificial sets on the sound stages of his own Zoetrope studios.

That artificiality, however unwise it proved financially, was crucial to Coppola’s vision of Las Vegas as a world of instant spectacle and private gratification. Coppola alternates between fantastical musical numbers – accompanied by a soundtrack written and performed by Tom Waits – and heavily staged personal encounters, creating parallels with Hollywood itself in this tale of the modest romance between Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr).

Once upon a Time in America (1984)

Director: Sergio Leone

Once upon a Time in America (1984) poster

The only film on this list longer than Heaven’s Gate, and the only one to have also gone through a succession of bastardising cuts, which might account for the apathy with which Sergio Leone’s gangster epic was greeted at the box office. After premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in the 229 minute version available on DVD today, it was cut down to 139 minutes for US audiences, with the flashback narrative structure re-cut by the studio into chronological order against the director’s wishes. Pauline Kael famously complained: “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a worse case of mutilation.”

A misunderstood classic, which should have achieved the same adulation as The Godfather (1972) on initial release, the story of two betraying brothers (underplayed terrifically by Robert De Niro and James Woods) has begun to receive similar praise: as a haunting yet romantic paean to a vanished, idolised world. Thanks to Martin Scorsese, a newly extended 245-minute cut (Leone’s original was 269 minutes) premiered at Cannes in 2012, but has since been withdrawn from circulation pending further restoration work. 

Strange Days (1995)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Strange Days (1995)

Directed by the now Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and co-written and produced by her ex-husband James Cameron, if Strange Days was released today, with those names attached to it, it would surely have recouped its $42 million production cost. Their competing visions are often cited as the reason for the film’s failure (it had grossed less than $8 million by the end of its run), but they also account for its blazing originality.

It’s an uncommon marriage of artistic sensibilities that works in the same way as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s collaboration on AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Cameron is a blockbuster director with a penchant for high-tech gadgetry and bulky romanticism whereas Bigelow, whose roots are in the New York art world, uses the action to explore wider themes of racial tension, feminism and vision. Ralph Fiennes is extraordinary as a former cop turned street hustler who accidentally discovers a conspiracy in 1999 Los Angeles. 

The Insider (1999)

Director: Michael Mann

The Insider (1999)

From the early career disappointment of Manhunter to 2006’s Miami Vice, Michael Mann – who, luckily for studios, has never been prolific – has rarely fared well at the box office. The Insider was no exception, and perhaps represents his most remarkable commercial failure, given its near-unanimous praise from critics and seven Oscar nominations.

Audiences, at first glance, might have been underwhelmed with its real-life story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) and TV producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who encourages Wigand to speak out on CBS’s 60 Minutes. But Mann suspensefully lays out the facts with his usual pulse-quickening panache, exploring again the situational professionalism of broken men against a backdrop of corporate guilt and paranoia.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

One of the most striking of recent commercial failures at the American box office stars Brad Pitt, one of the most bankable box office attractions, in what has historically been one of America’s most profitable genres. The western, however, has lost its popular appeal since Heaven’s Gate, with Disney’s latest The Lone Ranger (2013) once again calling into question its viability as a lucrative commercial form.

Although its cumbersome title, which divulges the ending, shares some of the blame for its failure, it was its promise of elegiac subversion – as opposed to the pulp revisionism of Django Unchained (2012) – that is likely to have turned off audiences. New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik brings an outsider’s sensibility to the boys’ bedtime Jesse James story (which has had more than 50 other screen adaptations), simultaneously revelling in and reimagining the myths of the quintessential American genre.

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