“There’s really not much you can do about a volcano, unfortunately.” – Ranbir Shergill.*
So far 2013 has landed not one, but three movies in the Movie Bomb Hall of Fame:
– (A bomb, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a movie that cost a gazillion dollars, but only made a few pennies at the box office.) –
Despite the trifecta of big names, big marketing campaigns, and big special effects, Jack The Giant-Slayer, The Lone Ranger and After Earth have fallen into the movie theaters with a quiet thud. As they lay there, jiggling like an electrocuted bowl of gelatin, the media and movie executives are attempting to perform a post-mortem examination. And what will they find?
‘You can’t do anything about a movie becoming a bomb, unfortunately.’
If the public is not interested in a movie, chucking more TV commercials, posters, and tie-in cereal boxes at people is not going to change word of mouth, and not going to bring people into the theater.
However, as we learn from Mel Brooks 1967 classic film The Producers, “You can make more money with a flop than with a hit.”
In The Producers (which later became a musical based on the movie, which was followed in 2005 by a musical movie based on the musical based off the movie – Ironically, this one bombed), Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom over-sell to backers for the play “Springtime For Hitler” to raise raise far more than they need. The plan is once the show flops, no one expects their money returned, and Max and Leo can take the remaining money and run off to Brazil.
While this backfires on Bialystock and Bloom, there is good money to be made on films which are never made or completely flop.
CASE 1: In Inchon (Budget: $46 million, US Box Office: $4.5 million), an aging and ailing Laurence Olivier was paid $50,000 per day to play Douglas MacArthur, in addition to other fees.
CASE 2: Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh and directed by Bryan Singer, cost around $270 million. Much of the money was spent by Warner Bros. financing several false-starts and developments (including one with Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel and Tim Burton directing). In each development cycle, the screenwriter, a few producers, lead actor, the screenwriter brought on by the director to re-write the script, and the director attached all had a contract requiring payment, whether or not the film was made.
CASE 3: In their contract for simply starring in Ishtar (perhaps the most famous bomb of all), Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty earned roughly $5.5 million each. Ironically, Hoffman won an Oscar for Rain Man the following year.
To re-cap, why make a flop instead of a hit?
A. As an actor, director, screenwriter, or producer, you will get paid. The studio may go bankrupt and have to sell off its assets, but you will still be paid.
B. Hollywood loves a good underdog story. Follow a bomb with a great movie, and you could go on to be Oscar nominated. How often do careers rise, fall, only to rise again?
C. If a movie is terrible or quirky enough, it could develop a cult following. This leads to endless DVD/Blu-ray/digital sales, as well as t-shirts available at your local Hot Topic. There is a lot more money to be made through merchandising and residual sales than in the box office itself.
Wow! I really want to build a movie bomb! But how do I do it?
Here’s how in 10 easy steps (some steps can be excluded):
1. Attach a large enough studio, actor, and/or director for the film to get press.
See: After Earth starring Will Smith, Lone Ranger starring Johnny Depp, Pluto Nash starring Eddie Murphy
2. Choose a topic people are either ambivalent to, or has a big, commonly known story with a fervant fan base. If you choose the latter, make sure it is clear your film has complete disregard for the fan base, or you are watering down the film as much as possible.
See: After Earth – post-apocalyptic Earth with random pre-historic creatures; John Carter – Base on the book Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, but don’t title it that because it will hurt the films box office numbers; Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – label it Final Fantasy, but make it a generic sci-fi adventure instead of anything to do with Final Fantasy – no moogles, no chocobos, no spells, no swords in sight.
3. Make sure the actor and/or director attached to the project is doing it as a vanity project. They need to be passionate about one aspect of the movie, and so the film is being shoddily built around that one aspect.
See: Johnny Depp really wanted to play Tonto from the Lone Ranger, so Disney built a movie attempting to recapture the Pirates of the Caribbean box office dominance around the role; The Wachowski Brothers loved Speed Racer, so they made a big-budget movie!
4. Hire a creative group whose personalities will clash. The more perfectionists, the better. Have the drama over-shadow the movie itself
5. When designing the film, have it mimic the star or director’s better-known hits (preferably from over a decade ago).
See: After Earth – It is a sci-fi, space adventure, similar to Will Smith’s Men In Black films and Independence Day, mixed with the serious father-son outing The Pursuit of Happyness; The Postman – In a post-Water-World attempt at redemption, Kevin Costner tried to re-earn his good will from Dances With Wolves. Though The Postman is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, it is a western of sorts directed by Costner.
6. Go over budget, over schedule, and push the movie’s release date back.
See: Jack the Giant Slayer, Ishtar, Cleopatra
7. Over-market or mis-market the film
See: The Lone Ranger, John Carter, Speed Racer, Mars Needs Moms
8. Make the running time as long as possible
See: The Lone Ranger at 2.5 hours; Cleopatra at 3.25 hours; Speed Racer at 2.25 hours
9. Set the movie on Mars
See: Red Planet, Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, Total Recall (2012)
10. Add lots of mediocre special effects, especially those lying in the Uncanny Valley
See: Jack The Giant Slayer; Mars Needs Moms; John Carter, Speed Racer
Now that you have all the elements needed, go out there, get millions of dollars of financing, and make your movie bomb. You might have popcorn thrown at you, but you can protect yourself with a shield made of dollar bills.
In case you make too many bombs, here’s a great way to get rid of them:
What movies are your favorite bombs? What should have been a bomb, but succeeded at the box office? What movies do you think deserve better reputations?
I’m currently at 73,000/90,000 words to finish editing. That means roughly 17 hours to go to finish this edit on my Great Novel.