Water. It’s an essential building block of life: Up to 60% of an adult human body is water and about 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered by it. Obviously, water is hugely important to survival. Because of that, the U.N. has designated March 22 as World Water Day, focused on tackling the world’s water crisis. We’re all for finding ways to solving our planet’s water problems. But when we think of water, the world and crisis, our minds default to Kevin Costner’s 1995 film Waterworld. Haven’t seen it? Don’t worry. Most people didn’t either. In honor of World Water Day and Waterworld and all the other big-budget films that sank like the Titanic (not the movie, which was a hit), we’d like to offer up the best of the worst movies of all time. Enjoy?
To err is human, to flop divine
So, how do we define a movie flop? Films that fail to earn in revenue more than they cost to make are considered box-office bombs. Even if a movie makes as much as its production budget, it's still a loser. And that’s not even considering marketing costs, which can add lots of dough to the final tally. Basically, films need to make about twice their budget to make money.
So, from best-worst to worst-worst, here are the worst movies ever, based on box office losses (adjusted for inflation). As a bonus, we’ve included some famously bad movies that might not fit the technical “flop” definition, but were still stinkers.
10. Heaven’s Gate, estimated losses: $118,000,000–$121,000,000
This frontier western—directed by Michael Cimino of The Deer Hunter fame—stars Kris Kristofferson as a Harvard grad who becomes sheriff of a Wyoming county when tensions erupt between wealthy cattle farmers and poor immigrants. There are fights, mercenaries (Christopher Walken) and a battle for the heart of a local madam. Roger Ebert called this movie “one of the ugliest” he had ever seen and referred to it as “scandalous cinematic waste” as well as “a study in wretched excess.” Its first cut was over four hours long and reviled by critics. Editing did not help and Cimino’s career never recovered from it. Fun film fact: This movie became a byword for budgetary extravagance and wastefulness and box-office disaster. When our pal Costner was running seriously over-schedule and budget with Waterworld (all well as some of his other films), the industry began speculating about “Kevin’s Gate.”
9. Sahara, estimated losses: $96,000,000–$121,000,000
This film may be best remembered for its possibly illegal financial deals between Hollywood and the Moroccan government, where the film was shot. Also, it simply cost too much. Following a group of adventurers (Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz) as they search west African deserts for a lost Civil War battleship, the film didn’t have terrible reviews and basically had no competition at release. However, its earnings couldn’t catch up with its massive budget—it cost over $130 million to produce, plus $81 million for distribution and marketing—and the film ended up becoming a huge box office flop due to said incredibly large budget (including bribes).
8. The Lone Ranger, estimated losses: $98,000,000–$121,000,000
Between scathing critical reviews, controversial casting (Johnny Depp as a Native American) and a bad and bloated script, no one expected The Lone Ranger to do well. So no surprise for its inclusion in a worst ever list. Its humongous spend—its budget was a shocking $375 million in production and marketing—required that it would need to earn at least $650 million worldwide to be profitable. It didn’t.
7. John Carter, estimated losses: $125,000,000–$209,000,000
Based on science fiction novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs about a military captain mysteriously transported to Mars (honestly, that seems enough to be a bust, but whatever), John Carter was doomed from the beginning due to its budget. The film cost over $350 million to make and Disney spent an additional estimated $100 million in marketing, so it would have needed to make a whopping $600 million to make a profit. Sadly, the studio took a major hit with this flick, leading to the resignation of the head of Walt Disney Studios, Rich Ross. Ouch.
6. The Fall of the Roman Empire, estimated losses: $126,000,000
Sometimes financial flops aren’t really bad movies at all. Case in point, The Fall of the Roman Empire, starring Hollywood legends Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Christopher Plummer. The film does a good job at detailing the decline of Roman civilization, but its modest box office gains could not make up for its lofty budget for the period ($20 million). In addition to being the opposite of profitable, the film also ended large-scale film pioneer Samuel Bronston’s producing career.
5. The Adventures of Pluto Nash, estimated losses: $128,000,000
This film was obviously not Eddie Murphy’s highest moment. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. The Adventures of Pluto Nash tells the story of a revenge-seeking nightclub owner and was billed as a comedy and an action film, but it failed to deliver on either front. Also starring Randy Quaid, Rosario Dawson and John Cleese, the movie had total budget of about $130 million, but it earned a very sad $7.1 million at the box office.
4. Mars Needs Moms, estimated losses: $106,000,000–$137,000,000
Haven’t heard of Mars Needs Moms? No one has. That’s probably part of the problem in terms of its disappointing box office numbers. Another problem? Its hefty budget (approximately $175 million) made it basically impossible for this movie to ever make money, even if anyone knew it existed. Want to know what it’s about? Why? It’s terrible. Carry on. Fun film fact: In addition to the aforementioned John Carter, Mars Needs Moms also led to the demise of Rich Ross at Disney. That guy had some tough times over there (don’t worry, he’s doing ok now). Fun film fact two: This was produced by Robert Zemeckis of Back to the Future fame. Even he couldn’t help it be successful! Fun film fact three: Roger Ebert said of this movie, “Mars may need moms, but audiences didn't need "Mars Needs Moms." Done.
3. Cutthroat Island, estimated losses: $140,000,000
This film about a female pirate looking for booty, arrrggh, is a Guinness World Record holder for dismality! Before retiring the “largest box office loss” world record, Cutthroat Island was it. $10 million earned at the box office minus $98 million in production costs minus $17 million in marketing expenses equals sad trombone. Cutthroat Island remains one of the worst financial bombs in film history.
2. 47 Ronin, estimated losses: $101,000,000–$154,000,000
We all know that Keanu Reeves is doing ok in the career department, so there’s no reason to feel bad for him over 47 Ronin. Anyone else involved with this movie, however, could probably use a hug. 47 Ronin had some problems. Where do we start? First, despite being based-ish on and sharing the title of a famous Japanese epic movie, the story only loosely hung to the original, so it simply confused that version’s fans, making any connection they might have to the original might disappear. Second, increasing production costs caused its release to be delayed, so by the time it came out, it had to fight flicks like The Wolf of Wall Street for attention (lost that battle). Third, its reviews were bad, with critics calling it things like “a visually dazzling but thoroughly bogus update of one of Japan's greatest legends,” and “confused and dreary.” Finally, its budget reached to about $225 million, and, not being able to attract audiences, it just did not make enough to make a difference.
1. The 13th Warrior, estimated losses: $99,000,000–$185,000,000
This movie made Omar Sharif, one of its stars, consider retiring from acting. That’s pretty bad. Based on a Michael Crichton novel, The 13th Warrior is a loose retelling of Beowulf starring Antonio Banderas and poor Omar Sharif. While the amount has been debated, most agree that it cost around $160 million to make, which was basically unheard of in 1999 (it would equal over $300 million today). It would’ve needed to be a box office phenom to make a profit, and it surely wasn’t, making it likely the biggest box office flop of all time. The end.
Looking for more horrible films to check out? Stock up your bar, invite some pals over for a watch party, set up some snacks and get ready to be underwhelmed. The following will never fail to disappoint. And don’t underestimate how entertaining it can be to make fun of movies in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way.
Water, water everywhere, at least where Costner goes
You didn’t think we’d end this thing without any fun film facts about Waterworld, did you? Oh ye of little faith. While none of this has anything to do with World Water Day, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think of things you can do to help with the water crisis. In the meantime though, here are some silly facts about Waterworld.