The Flop Formula

Friday 28 June 2013, 10:30

Mark Kermode Mark Kermode

World War Z and After Earth are predicted to be huge financial flops this summer  - but I see things differently.

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    Comment number 1.

    Just looked back if I can find a film that breaks the rule, but even Waterworld seems to have eventually turned a profit when you factor in DVD sales, as did Terminator Salvation, the second thing that came to mind. Huh, this may be a tough nut to crack.

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    Comment number 2.

    What about Cloud Atlas? Big Budget - Check. Visuals - Check. Not a Comedy - Check (whatever it was, it was not a comedy). A-List Star - Check. At least if one still considers Tom Hanks as one.

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    Comment number 3.

    The Golden Compass:

    $180M budget.
    Gorgeous visuals.
    Nicole Kidman's, Daniel Craig's and Ian McKellan's star power.
    Not a comedy.
    AND based on a beloved book.

    Still tanked...
    Because despite all the above, it just wasn't very good.

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    Comment number 4.

    As we know, a box-office flop is determined by bad word-of-mouth. Any big budget movie can reach No.1 through marketing, but only good word-of-mouth will keep it there and make it a hit. If World War Z and After Earth turn a profit, then they must have something going for them - pace and storyline being the two big box-tickers for me.

    As for "why doesn't Hollywood take more risks?" - that's simple... Hollywood doesn't trust, or even respect, its audience, still believing the majority of us will be turned off by a movie if it makes us think too much. They think if we fail to follow or understand what's happening on-screen, we'll get irritated and pass on a damning verdict to the wider world, thus, creating bad word-of-mouth. (I also have another theory about the intelligence of the modern-day Hollywood screenwriter [Christopher Nolan excepted] but I'll save that for another day).

    But there's also a flipside to Mark's question. Surely when Disney went with Taylor Kitsch and its very non-glam cast for John Carter, they WERE taking a risk and must have known it too. Unfortunately for them, it backfired big time - a mistake I don't think Hollywood will be making for many years to come - especially not on a film with a $300,000,000 budget!

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    Comment number 5.

    Got one! The 13th Warrior with Banderas. Made $63M on a $160M budget. Whatever the DVD sales may have been like, there's no way it made up that big of a gap. The only question is whether or not the media were writing how expensive it was at the time, which I really don't remember.

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    Comment number 6.

    A very sound theory Dr K. Now that you mention it some of the most infamous flops in Hollywood history have broken one of the rules you've laid out. Take for instance Heaven's Gate, had the newsworthy budget, had the visuals and it certainly wasn't a comedy. But what it lacked was a major star. In fact the casting of the film drove the then heads of production at United Artists to dispair. Also did you know Heaven's Gate is getting a cinema re-release this August.

    Another rule that needs to be added is the pulling back of arrogant expectation or the egos run wild. Take for instance Last Action Hero, which despite being a comedy, followed your rules. However Mark Canton and Peter Gruber, the heads of Columbia Pictures at the time, let their egos run lose by saying their film will change the course of cinema, and over indulge on the merchandising.

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    Comment number 7.

    I've said it before and I'm going to do it again - there is a brilliant film to be made out of Waterworld. A £150M budget, grittier production values, no stupid musical interllude, a proper, scary villain and a more downbeat ending and Waterworld would be a brilliant film!

    Think Batman as per Nolan, rather than Burton. Mr Pitt would do fine in the role.

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    Comment number 8.

    not sure the rule quite works. hudson hawk never made its money back, neither did battlefield earth. if there's one thing that can guarantee a flop, it's an a-list star vanity project. hence why the studio concerned should have made will smith contribute to the cost of after earth, not pay him. the attempts of the smith family to make their kids stars is nothing short of embarrassing

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    Comment number 9.

    One of the biggest flops ever was Heavens Gate, so bad it ruined United Artists. Just because it was a massive flop does not make it a bad movie. It is now considered by some as a masterpiece. A lot of it's problems were because of Michael Cimino's extravagant spending, he didn't like the look of this or the look of that. Also the editing of the film was a problem. Again a big budget, nice visuals, not a comedy and big stars.

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    Comment number 10.

    Comboys and Aliens, budget was $163M, has made so far including DVD sales $200M. It has to make another $126M to earn double its budget. No way. I'm actually surprised it made that much. It was so disappointing!

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    Comment number 11.

    I am now old and cynical, so I would counter your comment with... if they have a formula that guarantees that they will make a fat profit, why would they bother doing anything other than what they are doing now? Film-making is a business, and the usual studio output would suggest that they have been following this train of thought for many years now.... I agree, it would be great if the studios could use this guaranteed income to take a chance on something a bit more imaginative, but that isn't going to make any money for the shareholders is it?

    You'll have to forgive my cynicism... I've just watched The Hobbit.

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    Comment number 12.

    A good observation Mr Kermode.

    I suppose that is one reason why studios are happy to remake films like Superman and Batman and Spiderman, because they can just release a reimagining every ten years or so (or even less these days) confident that they can recoup their investment.

    I also agree with a point made previously that with John Carter a studio did take a big gamble by not having an A list star, not even as the villain, and they won't make that mistake again.

    But I wonder why the theory doesn't apply to comedy? Why should there be an exception? Or is it that big-budget implies that there must be special effects? I can't think of any adult comedies that have CGI?

    I'm looking forward to another Dredd film with Karl Urban. Hopefully the start to several more!

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    Comment number 13.

    But does "flop" automatically translate as "bad film"? I would argue not: Fight Club is a perfect example, an extremely poor performance at the box office, but now a cult film that isn't about to disappear. And I still like John Carter.

    Seems to me that most "flops" are down to bad marketing decisions.

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    Comment number 14.

    If "World War Z" has only taken $112m in a week then it won't make more than $250m by the end of it's run and that will be a huge flop. Part of the reason for that may be that you can stream 35 episodes of "The Walking Dead" on "Netflix" for half the price of a cinema ticket and it is 10 times as good.

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    Comment number 15.

    With all this in mind one of the Greatest flops of all time Heavens Gate is coming back to the big screen . now that is one film i will be going to see as its one of my fave follies of all time .

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    Comment number 16.

    The reason that so many people hate World War Z is because, in the book that it is based upon, the Zombies are old slow moving variety; not the fast moving bunch that have appeared in the movie.
    In the book, it is a war of attrition. No matter how many you kill, they will overwhelm you with numbers.

    Many fans of the book have put out a lot of hate, because of that fact, alone.

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    Comment number 17.

    The formula reminds me of reading The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex - Just wanna' say how much I enjoyed that book! Kermode certainly hits that nail on it's head!

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    Comment number 18.

    I expect if you are risking that much money your wish to get your money back is stronger than your wish to make something interesting.

    I've started to have a go at writing scripts and it is amazing how difficult it is to come up with anything decent that hasn't been done before, everything is so familiar. It feels like a collage of homage, if there is such a thing. It is actually slightly depressing, and I haven't even submitted any of them yet.

    You have basic rules on what the blockbuster should have in order to get it's money back. You're not the only one with rules. There are other basic script rules and general story writing rules. The people who are going to risk millions are going to know all about the rules that have worked before and follow as many of them as possible, even if that means a less interesting film. They will be going for mass appeal and they will be scared by too much of a risk. They are not just going to trust to your rules.
    It is alright for the creative people involved if they are paid in advance for their work, they won't have the same level of fear and will have an entirely different agenda. They can get on with making a creative work if they are allowed. You have to be very sincere and very brave to put art before the risk of possibly losing millions. It's not a good situation for anyone but it is vey human. The creative people are not the ones in charge.

    I can't quite work out why a film that has a massive budget and effects and is universally judged as average is still more attractive as something to see than a small budget film that is hailed as wonderful. But it is. It is to me and I find that really annoying. Is there a psychology paper on it anywhere? Because I genuinely want to know why. Maybe the people with the money know that a lot of the public won't take a risk on creativity in a film over spectacle so they won't either.

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    Comment number 19.

    Ah, you see the real problem is that Hollywood does buy your formula Mark, but they add a few rules of their own to yours:

    1. The film must be designed by committee. (unless Christopher Nolan is involved, but he's the exception that proves their rule). Committees spread or nullify blame if things go wrong.

    2. It must be really really loud, shot with visuals so fast paced that any continuity will be irrelevant to our attention span deficient audience, and naturally give anyone a headache so that no one can blame the 3D for their pain.

    3. The result must be incredibly stupid, as cinema owners are actively afraid that anything that might seem incomprehensible will cause the troglodytes to become restless, thus rioting and destroying their investment in usher and projectionist free automated screens.

    You see the real problem is getting the execs who are sure they are onto a safe bet with all these rules to relinquish the unnecessary ones. No one wants to be the guy who actively plans a genuine money losing flop by letting go of these talismans. Even if someone merely follows your formula AND does something interesting as well, which doesn't actually lose money, but doesn't knock it out of the ball park -- they'll just say it underperformed. The only real hope is if audiences actively stay away from blockbuster stinkers, and ruin the formula -- everybody might actually have to go back and start from scratch.

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    Comment number 20.

    Ishtar only comes in at #29 in a list of greatest Hollywood flops, John Carter at #50.

    Cutthroat Island leads at #1 followed by The Alamo, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Sahara & Mars Needs Moms. This year has already seen Jack the Giant Slayer (net loss of $97.5 mill).

    One more to worry about this year is Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. A $180-200million budget, veering dangerously close to the Transformers / Battleship genre and starring Idris Elba after Tom Cruise pulled out. Elba has definite screen presence but is hardly an ‘A lister’. (I’d like Pacific Rim to be a success, if only to fund Del Toro’s return to his more personal projects.)

    Then again, just before Titanic was released James Cameron was so convinced it’d lose money he promised the studio he’d direct a Terminator 3 to recoup its losses (it didn’t lose money, so he didn’t), whilst Avatar bucked the Kermode rule by not having any A list stars. (Sigourney Weaver hadn’t been in a big hit since the Alien series & Ghostbusters. Michelle Rodríguez is B list at best.)

    A question: Is Leonardo DiCaprio a genuine star with huge audience pulling power, or is he just very shrewd at choosing to work with A list directors that have good ideas for movies that people want to see?


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