It’s been said that much of Hollywood history is more luck than anything carefully planned out. Casablanca was meant to be just a run-of-the-mill studio drama, not a revered classic. Star Wars was a forgettable sci-fi picture. So many times, movies never intended to be a big deal turned out mega-hits beyond their studio’s wildest expectations. On the flip side, there are movies the studios had massive hopes for only to turn into mega-flops. It’s tricky to figure out and proves William Goldman was right on how Hollywood is a town where “nobody knows nothing.” However, in many cases, it’s astounding to see what could be perfectly good or even great movies are totally wrecked by the very studios that want to release them.
There are so many reasons for such choices. Studios overact to test screenings, they fail to understand the point of the film, they make major mistakes with the budget and such. In some cases, it’s the studio wanting to exert too much control which can make sense. Heaven’s Gate became an epic bomb because the studio let the director run it out of control. However, in their efforts to “fix” what wasn’t really broken in the first place, the studios can wreck these movies badly. From reshoots to edits to a terrible marketing campaign, too many good movies have met a horrible fate at the box office thanks to their own studios. Ridley Scott seems to hit this constantly with his movies and it’s remarkable how supposedly smart professionals can fall into this trap so much. Occasionally, it can work as Superman II overcame massive reshoots to turn out well, but that’s an exception rather than the rule. Here are 20 movies that could have been revered by fans and critics alike as truly fantastic, but ruined by their own studios and how crazy the business can be.
Warning of some SPOILERS for movies.
For years, this movie had to put up with the label of one of the worst comic book films ever. However, time has treated it better, especially with the talk of how it was marred. Originally, the film stuck close to the work of Frank Miller, moody and dark with Ben Affleck’s DD a tortured hero and keeping to the mythos. Fox decided they wanted something lighter like Spider-Man, ordering numerous cuts like an entire subplot of Matt Murdock defending an innocent man in court that was tied to the Kingpin. They wanted it lighter with jokes and also an emphasis on Jennifer Garner’s Elektra, who they were already priming for a spin-off movie. The film was a box office success, but not as big as hoped and the reaction to it mixed. The release of a director’s cut featuring the lost footage and original vision has redeemed the film, seen as a great effort and even a good influence on the genre. While many prefer the Netflix TV show, this movie could have done true justice to the Man Without Fear if not for the studio bungling.
19. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
That Terry Gilliam would make another studio movie after the infamous treatment of Brazil is amazing, but he did it in 1989. This bizarre film takes on the famous story of the legendary liar and adventurer and the production became infamous for its troubles (even by Gilliam’s standards). The budget was soon skyrocketing, the animals were dying, a customs strike caused most of the props and costumes to be lost and the UK and Italian crews were at each other’s throats. Amazingly, the movie hit its biggest problems when it was finished as Columbia was undergoing a shift in management and the movie became used to get back at the previous management. The film was marked by a terrible marketing campaign, emphasizing Uma Thurman and Robin Williams, who had only cameo roles and offering it more an action comedy than the sharp satire it was. The critics adored it as a clever comedy, but it was a sizeable bomb as well. Gilliam was never happy about how the studio failed to back him and made one of his better films a terrible flop.
18. I Am Legend
This 2007 movie brought to life the classic story of a man who’s the sole survivor in a world where a virus has turned humanity into vampire like creatures. Will Smith‘s star power made it huge and the shots of a deserted New York were gripping. The movie seemed to be going well until test screening showcased the ending where Smith is targeted by creatures in a lab as he’s created a cure for the disease. The creatures reveal they’re actually intelligent and Smith’s character realizes they’re not monsters, just mutated and to him, he’s the monster for killing them off. That was the point, to show who is the monster really. However, the studio decided to shoot a new ending where Smith sacrifices himself to stop the murderous beasts. While the movie was successful, many feel the changed ending ruins the entire tone and how Smith’s character is the “legend” of killing innocent beings. It’s a bad move that marred the film and how a knee-jerk reaction can do major damage.
17. Spider-Man 3
Sam Raimi was riding high after making the first two big-screen adventures of the Wall-Crawler that were major hits that fans loved. He had big plans for the third with the idea of Peter Parker taking a darker persona and battling the Sandman and the Vulture. It would have culminated in the battle with Harry Osborn and Raimi mulled shooting two movies back to back to bring the saga to a close. However, the studio insisted that Raimi bring in Venom, a major Spider-Man villai,n but one Raimi was never happy with. Indeed, some claim that the casting of Topher Grace in the role was Raimi taking a big shot on how he hated the character. They also insisted on bringing in Gwen Stacy despite how the film was already getting rather bloated. To fit in Venom, Raimi had to cut back on Sandman (whose struggle is regarded as the best part of the film) for the now-infamous “dark Peter” segments that have been ridiculed. The movie became a bloated three hours trying to squeeze so much in and while it was successful at the box office, nowhere near as well as the first movies and the fan backlash led to the property being rebooted just five years later. A shame the man who gave us two of the greatest super-hero movies ever ended up providing one of the worst thanks to studio mismanagement.
More than a few people have half-joked that this movie is less a satire today and more a documentary of modern times. Mike Judge’s comedy imagines a man of average intelligence waking up 500 years in the future where mankind has become incredibly stupid. From watering lawns with Gatorade to having a wrestler as President, it shows how rampant commercialism and relying on mass media can lead to disaster. It was a hard sell, but Judge still couldn’t believe when the movie was finished and the studio started fighting him on it. Executives said they didn’t “get” the material and wanted ultra-cheap special effects for the film. The marketing was bad, trying to spin it into something more epic when the story was simple and Judge soon realized they were trying to bury it totally. When finally released, it got good reviews and its following has only grown thanks to recent events. Judge has noted the irony that a movie about the idiocy of mankind could fall prey to studio’s own stupidity and show his work was ahead of its time.
15. John Carter
For a century, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pioneer sci-fi hero has baffled moviemakers. On paper, the idea of a Civil War soldier finding himself becoming a hero on Mars sounds perfect, but attempt after attempt to bring it to screen had failed. In 2012, Disney finally got around to releasing a major release with Andrew Stanton directing and Taylor Kitsch in the title role. The budget was massive, growing up to a reported $350 million, a crazy sum but showed the studio had faith in it. But once the film was completed, Disney appeared to go out of its way to ruin this monster effort. First, they removed the name of “Mars” from the title, somehow thinking that was the reason Mars Needs Moms had been an epic flop. They then saddled the film with one of the absolutely worse marketing programs in recent memory. Absolutely none of them mentioned the character’s history or how it’s influenced all of science fiction and thus the film came off as a rip-off of Avatar. Pushing it for mid-March rather than summer was another odd move as Disney just seemed to not grasp how to give the movie its due. In the end, the film was one of the greatest box office disasters in Hollywood history with Disney taking a $200 million write-off from it (good thing they had The Avengers coming). Those who have seen the film insist it really is a good flick that should have kicked off a franchise but Disney’s idiotic marketing helped turn it into a historical film…for all the wrong reasons.
For such a great director, Ridley Scott has a pretty bad track record when it comes to his movies being messed up by their studios. The “Collector’s Edition” Blu-Ray makes the excellent case that this Alien prequel could have been a truly fantastic film. The early script made the connections to the franchise clear, offered great drama and sci-fi and a clear ending. Fox okayed it and Scott began production only to have the studio suddenly decide to spice it up. Damon Lindeolf was hired to rewrite the script, his “mystery” just turning a clear storyline into a muddled mess. The studio wasn’t happy with Scott’s insistence on mostly practical effects rather than CGI to boost the movie’s budget up higher. There were also bits like Guy Pearce in old age makeup, meant to play a younger version of his character only to have it dropped during filming. Even actors Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace seemed a bit lost trying to make sense of things. The movie failed to live up to expectations as fans and critics found it a bit convoluted but made much clearer by a director’s cut. It showcases once again how attempts to “fix” a movie just end up running it.
13. The Island of Doctor Moreau
The subject of a full-scale documentary on how horrific a production this was, Island has become legendary in Hollywood. Adapting the H.G. Wells story of a doctor creating human-animal hybrids, Richard Stanley had been working on the film for years, but upset the studio wanted Roman Polanski to direct instead. Marlon Brando was hired for the title role and quickly established himself for some truly eccentric behavior on screen and behind the scenes. Val Kilmer was hired and immediately demanded forty percent less working time and showed up on set late. The shoot was marked by horrible weather and problems on set with Brando and Kilmer so New Line decided to fire Stanley…by fax. This just made things more of a mess with the story of Fariuza Balk leaving set and driving 200 miles in a studio limo. John Frankenheimer was hired, but quickly drove the crew and cast crazy with his dictatorial style. Brando and Kilmer seemed to be competing as to who could be the bigger on-set diva, at one point keeping the cast waiting in the heat for hours refusing to exit their trailers first. The movie endured multiple rewrites and at one point David Thewlis was writing his own dialogue while Brando kept acting up. The topper is that Stanley managed to sneak onto the set (despite banned by the studio) disguised as one of the “dog-men.” A six-week shoot dragged over six months and the movie was ravaged by critics as one of the biggest bombs of 1996. While much of the circumstances were on the actors, the studio’s lack of control and firing Stanley helped create one of the biggest train wrecks Hollywood has ever known.
12. The Golden Compass
After The Lord of the Rings became a smash, it’s no surprise New Line would go for any other fantasy project. They selected Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, no doubt thinking it could work due to its popularity. The major issue was that the books were dark, the idea of animals representing souls, and a not-thinly veiled attack on religion. The original cut ran nearly three hours and did keep to the book’s gut-punch ending. However, the studio balked (not helped by audiences confused by the work) and so demanded cuts of up to 45 minutes. They also went through reshoots that added actors like Christopher Lee and Derek Jacobi for brief cameos as well as Ian McKellan completely redoing the voice work for a talking bear another actor had handled. This added to its budget to the point New Line had to make an agreement to give up the box office for any international take. Thus, the $180 million movie made only $70 million in the U.S. and because of that deal, failed to profit off its much bigger international gross. The movie was a mess with lost plot points and character bits and yanking the ending for the opening of a second film threw fans off the book. The entire project was a disaster that basically ended New Line as a singular studio, showing how you can go from box office, Oscar-winning glory to bankruptcy incredibly fast.
11. The Bonfire of the Vanities
You know a production is a train wreck when someone writes a book about it. The Devil’s Candy excellently shows how the movie version of Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel turned into one of the biggest bombs of its time. First, the decision was made to try to make the characters more “likeable,” missing that unlikeability was the reason the book was a hit. They then had Brian DePalma, a man better known for violent thrillers, direct a dark comedy. Then there was the casting: A young pre-Oscar Tom Hanks as a ruthless Wall Street trader; Bruce Willis as a reporter who in the book is middle-aged and British; Melanie Griffith as the supposedly irresistible mistress while Kim Catrall played a frigid society wife; and Morgan Freeman as a judge who in the book was white and Jewish. The shoot was marked by such things as Griffith getting a boob job midway through filming and a massive lawsuit over a scene that ended up cut from the film while the studio insisted on making it more likeable for audiences. The critics were harsh as the $45 million movie (a sizeable sum for 1990) failed badly and nearly broke DePalma. A true case of how a studio’s attempts to micromanage ended up ruining the product and the story behind the film better than the movie itself.
10. Suicide Squad
Yes, this movie has become a major box office hit. However, that’s been matched by a horrible critical and fan reaction that slam the storyline and how the mood shifts. As it happens, there’s a good reason for that. The original take was a dark piece, as fitting a story about super-villains with Jared Leto’s Joker getting more screen time and showing the broken personalities of the Squad. The first problem came when Batman v Superman was criticized for being so dark and so Warner Bros told director David Ayers to shoot some scenes to add a bit more humor and reduce the violence. He did so, but WB was still not happy with his finished product. They thus gave Trailer Park editing duties to try and mix it up for more of a “Marvel movie” feel. After screening both cuts, Warner Bros decided the only logical choice was to mix them together into one movie. The result was a film with bad pacing, crazy cuts, most of Leto cut out and a confusing plotline while the character beats for the Squad are lost. Most in Warner Bros contend the original cut would have been far better received and shows once again how the studio seems to not understand how to make their DC Cinematic Universe work properly.
9. Alien 3
This movie is practically the go-to answer for studio meddling and ruining a franchise. The teaser trailer promised the perfect idea of the Aliens attacking Earth and fans were excited for it. But then came the rewrites, the constant, seemingly never-ending re-writes which included the idea of Ripley crashing on a planet of trees and meeting alien monks. It took almost until shooting started for Fox to finally say they couldn’t afford that, firing director Vincent Ward and bringing in David Fincher for a storyline of Ripley on a mining colony packed with convicts.
The battles between Fincher and Fox have become legendary, ably documented in the “making of” piece on the Alien Blu-Ray collection and you’d need a separate list to fit them all in. From script to budget to even the cast, Fincher and the studio never agreed and at one point, the production was shut down to fix story elements. Fincher left during editing and thus the theatrical cut was a mess fans hated, leading to a huge box office bomb. An “Assembly Cut” released on that Blu-Ray set is better (despite most of it unfinished) and showcases one of the shining examples of how a studio can screw up a perfectly good franchise entry.
8. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Despite how some thought a reboot wasn’t totally needed, the 2012 entry by David Webb did get Spidey back on track as a huge hit and fans enjoyed Andrew Garfield in the role with Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Naturally, a trilogy made sense and Webb was ready for it. Unfortunately for him, Sony was less interested in just two more movies; they wanted their own comic book universe. Thus, the screenplay was reworked to add in Harry Osborn, the Green Goblin, and references to set up a big movie of Spider-Man villains like the Sinister Six. It also changed Electro from a truly sinister and scary character to more of a cartoon and shoehorned the Goblin in a bad way. Shailene Woodley shot several scenes as Mary Jane Watson only to have them all deleted with plans for her to arrive in a third film. Sony seemed less interested in this and more about spin-offs on Venom, the Black Cat, even an Aunt May movie. It was the classic case of “not seeing the forest for the trees” as Sony was so dedicated to this “universe” that they failed to realize ASM 2 was turning into a bloated, incoherent mess. Finally released, the movie was savaged by critics and fans and its box office take much lower than expected. Not only did this ruin Sony’s plans for a “Spider-Verse” but it ended up getting the character to Disney/Marvel with most agreeing Tom Holland was a better Spidey in five minutes of Civil War than Garfield was over two movies. An astounding example of how Hollywood’s need to “franchise” everything misses making one movie alone work.
7. Kingdom of Heaven
Coming off 2000’s Oscar winning Gladiator, Ridley Scott had a lot of push for a new historical epic. He chose this 2005 drama with Orlando Bloom as a blacksmith pulled into fighting in the Crusades. It was a monster production with Scott going to massive lengths to recreate the period from costume details to building a full-scale model city. The budget was $130 million and Scott was rather pleased how this drama turned out. However, Fox wanted the movie to be more of a summer action piece and forced Scott to trim over 45 minutes of story, mostly subplots and character development. Thus, the finished product was slammed by critics as lifeless and without any real push to it. The movie was a notable bomb of that year, only grossing $47 million in the U.S. although better overseas. The proof of the studio bungling came the next year when Scott released a director’s cut that added in all that footage. This version has been met with universal acclaim as possibly the best director’s cut of all time, transforming the movie into a fantastic piece that ranks among Scott’s best work. Many claim had this been the version released, the movie would not only have been a bigger hit but a serious awards contender that year. He’s been messed with a lot of times but Scott is clearly hurt one of his best films got treated this badly.
6. Dark City
A movie truly ahead of its time, Alex Proyas’ 1998 film was doing “ the world is an illusion” long before The Matrix came out. A dark murder mystery in a city where it’s always night and rainy, a man realizes it’s all a massive alien experiment that literally reworks lives around them. Influenced as much by crime noir as The Twilight Zone, Proyas wanted to explore identity and took great pride in its design work. However, the studio felt it was too “cerebral” for audiences to get into, wanting a more mainstream movie with more action to it. Thus, they reworked a scene from midway through the movie to serve as its opening with Keifer Sutherland doing narration…which completely gave away the movie’s entire twist plotline. Proyas loathed the change and felt it contributed to the movie becoming a bomb upon its release. It was well received by critics with Roger Ebert going out of his way to champion the film, even naming it his favorite movie of 1998. In 2008, Proyas finally got around to releasing his director’s cut, excising the narration and restoring 15 minutes of footage. With a commentary by Ebert, this version has been hailed as a modern masterpiece and showing how a studio can’t see what a gem it has going for it.
5. Fantastic Four 2015
Many will claim Josh Trank does deserve blame for how the reboot of the comic book franchise turned into a disaster. After all, he refused to let the cast read the comics and some segments of his script were rough. However, the stories make it clear Fox’s interference was what really messed this movie up. Trank’s original script had ideas of making the FF real explorers and wanting some great sci-fi vistas. It was Fox who forced on him casting like Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch and cut his budget constantly. Even so, the original cut had promise, but the studio disagreed. Thus, massive reshoots were made over Trank’s objections with producer Simon Kinberg directing them. It’s pretty obvious where they take place (look for the horrible wig on Rooney Mara) and mixed in darker elements while cutting out plot points and character beats and moody bits (the Thing gets his “it’s clobbering time” catchphrase from beatings by his brother). The conflict of the studio wanting a more “Marvel” movie and Trank wanting something darker ended up culminating in a horrific mega-bomb that’s buried the franchise. Trank’s version remains unseen but many believe if it sees the light of day, it will prove how much Fox managed to ruin a fantastic film.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Movie
The beloved cult TV show has an irresistible hook: A man and his robot sidekicks are forced to watch the worst movies ever made and skewer them with clever remarks. It was a huge hit, growing more in popularity on Comedy Central and then the Sci-Fi Channel. Thus it made sense for it to become a full-screen movie in 1996. It kept to the show with the set-up, some skits, and taking on the classic film This Island Earth. However, Grammercy didn’t seem to understand the movie’s unique audience and insisted it be more a “regular” comedy. They dropped the fun opening theme song and forced the movie to only be 87 minutes long (which is far shorter than a regular MST3K episode). As such, Earth was cut down with missing segments to make it look far worse a movie and baffling to follow. Worse was that the studio told the creative team (“The Brains” as fans call them) to make the jokes common and accessible, ignoring how the random and obscure lines were key to the show’s humor. To top it all off, the film was barely released into any theaters, slipping under the radar and the studio clearly wanting to bury it. A recent DVD release restores the deleted footage and discussions from the Brains on how they hated the entire process and that the studio’s treatment was a bigger joke than anything the Brains could come up with.
3. Once Upon a Time in America
How important was this movie to Sergio Leone? The man turned down a chance to direct The Godfather to work on it. Starring Robert DeNiro and James Woods, the movie tells of Jewish youths who rise up to become major gangsters in the 1920s and how their friendship breaks apart under the stress of their crime life. It was a daring movie, bouncing around its timeline and eventually so big that Leone planned to release it as two nearly three-hour movies. The Ladd Company argued with that so Leone cut the movie down to 229 minutes. However, Ladd still thought that wasn’t commercial enough. So without Leone’s permission or knowledge, they cut the movie again to 139 minutes and placed the film in chronological order. This actually made the film more confusing for viewers, clashing the plotlines too much and failing to underscore the themes of how corruption changes someone. Upon its 1984 release, the film was a box office bomb and ripped by many critics, especially those who’d seen the uncut version at Cannes and praised it as the superior version. Until his death in 1989, Leone contended the movie’s failure was his greatest regret. After years of talk, the uncut version was finally released on home video in 2014 and has been hailed as a true crime classic. It may be Leone’s greatest work and a shame he didn’t live to see it prove its studio’s treatment wrong.
The story behind the studio’s interference with this movie is more famous than the film itself. Terry Gilliam’s wild take on a dystopian future was pretty crazy already (no surprise, given it was Gilliam) and pretty damn dark in places. The studio didn’t enjoy his take at all and thus a battle began between Gilliam and Universal COO Sid Sheinberg. Among Sheinberg’s ideas were replacing the orchestral score for a rock one “to bring in the teens,” cut its 142-minute running time to 97 minutes, make it more “relatable” to audiences and, biggest of all, take a dream sequence from earlier in the film to serve as the real “happy ending” rather than Gilliam’s darker one. The conflict was so big, it inspired a book and Gilliam took out a full-page ad in the trades demanding Universal release his cut. He ended up doing it himself at colleges and it took off, eventually the version released on DVD and critics and fans were united in their praise for it. The movie is regarded today as a true classic but its initial failure can be blamed on the studio turning this into one of the greatest cases of executive meddling in Hollywood history.
1. Blade Runner
That this movie survived to become a sci-fi masterpiece is astounding given how the studio seemed to go out of their way to screw it up. True, a writer’s strike did shift things up, leading to the cut of characters already cast and the constant night shoots were rough. Still, it seemed to go well, a nice future crime noir story with Harrison Ford tracking runaway robots and the movie completed. But when Scott put together a “workprint” for Fox, things started to get out of control. The studio found the tale hard to follow and insisted on Scott making reshoots. That included a “happy ending” that undid much of the film’s plot and characterization. They also insisted on a voice-over by Ford to “explain” things better for the audience. The result was the movie a major flop upon its release. As time went on, many began to appreciate it better and in 1992, Scott finally released his first Director’s Cut which dropped the narration and restored the original ending. This was hailed by many as terrific and Scott would go on to release the “Ultimate Cut” in 2007 which restored plot holes and now seen as Scott’s greatest film. Had Fox just had an eye for the future in 1982, Runner would have been a serious Oscar contender rather than the best case of a movie that took years to find its place as a classic.