How To Build A Movie Bomb (In 10 Easy Steps)

“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:

They got me this cool armor, but then didn’t give me anything to do in action scenes.

“Serious” Sci-Fi

Lone Ranger: Tell me, Tonto, why did no one go to see our movie?
Tonto: It is a stereotype written in the sky…
and those Minions from Despicable Me 2 are really cute.

– (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

See: Cleopatra

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?

Writing Update:

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.

*From my local newspaper, in which a Mexican soccer team had to postpone a game due to a flight cancelled because of a volcano eruption.

Note: This was partially inspired by this week’s DP Challenge on writing humor.

13 thoughts on “How To Build A Movie Bomb (In 10 Easy Steps)

  1. I actually like “Cleopatra” . . . well, the first part with Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Last year’s “Dark Shadows” was a good in-joke for people who knew the original series and didn’t get upset too much about the Dr. Hoffman character. The first “Star Trek” movie was sort of an anti-matter bomb: big numbers, but wretched plot in ever so many ways.

    And then there was “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” How many of your rules did it follow? I think it may have been good for 8 out of 10.

    • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has so many problems, its difficult to even begin fathoming.
      I’ve tried to sit through parts of Cleopatra, but can’t make it. There are magnificent costumes, and many over-the-top acting moments, which are fun. However, I can’t sit through the full epic.

  2. For me “The Hobbit” was a bomb – and not because Jackson played ducks and drakes with the story. It just didn’t capture the real essence of the original, and I thought it needed a LOT of re-editing. This said, incidentally, from the perspective of someone who’s a huge fan of fellow Kiwi Jackson, and a lifetime Tolkien fan to boot. I know what Jackson was trying to do…but it could have been so much better (and maybe the Directors Cut will be).

    • I found the first Hobbit movie to be long and drawn out, without enough substance to carry it – like watered-down soup. I think if it were one, or even two films, and each less than 2 hours long, then it would be greatly improved.
      It’s a creative bomb instead of a monetary bomb.

  3. I think most sequels are bombs. The movies that make a lot of money when the studio didn’t expect it to blow up (PotC a good example), so then they think the good choice would be to make sequels so they can even make MORE money. Sometimes movies just need to be left as is so that you can savor how amazing it was forever and ever. The first time I ever experienced this was with Air Bud. Loved the first movie as a child! Then the second one sucked.
    With that said, it must be SO hard to do what Lucas did with Star Wars…though we could argue that the OT was the first movie, and prequels were the second, and then it would follow my theory of just letting amazing firsts stay amazing.

    • In the modern world of sequels and reboots, I think more care is being made in creating high-quality sequels. There are still duds and disappointments – the Pirates of the Caribbean as you mention. However, there are also movies like The Dark Knight, Iron Man 3, The Avengers – all sequels, and all highly enjoyable.
      Also, there is a difference between being a bomb and just being a bad movie. Bombs have to implode at the box office and lose money. Many sequels, even all the direct-to-dvd sequels to Air Bud, still make money despite being a terrible movie.

  4. I absolutely love this blog. As well, you’ve been really great to comment on some of my own posts, and I really appreciate it. To show my appreciation, I’m nominating you for the Shine On Award. I think you saw me mention you in my own post a few days ago, but now I’m finally getting around to officially nominating you. To accept this award that recognizes great blogging, just write a post about it and list seven facts about yourself that your readers don’t already know. As well, nominate 15 other blogs you really like. Thanks for the awesome blog posts and comments and I can’t wait to read more!

  5. I cringed when I saw The Lone Ranger trailer. I’m amazed that the studio made the film simply because Johnny Depp wanted to play Tonto. I skipped it and the other two you mentioned.
    I noticed others bringing up League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I saw it and hope never to see it again.

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