It’s all about the money. We know this. It’s hard to be naive about how movies get made and how they get marketed. Hollywood movies are big operations. As movie goers, we want them all to be classics. But for the companies that produce them, they are huge (and expensive) undertakings.
Budgets for big summer blockbusters can now push up to a quarter billion dollars. That is to say that the directors of blockbusters are managers more than anything. They are the heads of operations valued in hundreds of millions of dollars, and their priorities are often something other than purely artistic. Indie directors spending $100,000 they raised from their parents’ friends can afford to experiment and aim for “art” – in fact, that’s their best bet for getting the movie some distribution. Being sufficiently arty is the only way to build buzz. But big Hollywood movies need to be about overseeing a corporate investment. The movie makers would like a good movie, but quality is often beside the point. So the goal is to make a good movie, but studio executives would just be happy for something that made money.
Because of this, there is often a disconnect between a movie’s quality and its earning potential. There are blockbusters that are great, and there are terrible, expensive movies that are flops. And there are terrible, expensive movies that make enough money to fill a Na’vi forest. This is a list of that last group of movies. And who’s to say that making these kinds of movies isn’t a particular skill in itself? After all, Michael Bay is on this list a lot.
15. The Rock
This one might be a matter of personal taste. Some people really like The Rock. It has its own Criterion DVD, just like art-house classics The 400 Blows or My Dinner with André. It got three-and-a-half out of four stars from famed movie critic Roger Ebert. And of course, it made a ton of money. The Michael Bay-directed flick (see, that’s already one mention) starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, brought in box office of more than $330 million on a budget of less than $100 million. It may be Michael Bay’s masterpiece. But Michael Bay is a terrible filmmaker – the patron saint of the bad movie/big box office phenomena. We’ll hear more about him later, but don’t be fooled: The Rock is still bad.
14. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas
This is, of course, not the delightful animated version that is a Christmas classic in pretty much every home. This is the cynical money grab that turned a 70 page children’s book into a 104-minute slog of Jim Carrey preening and digital overload. But because it’s a Christmas movie, and because it’s for kids, and because it was directed by the well-respected Ron Howard (who makes another appearance on this list, by the way), and because it starred Carrey at the height of his fame, it was able to draw in nearly $350 million in box office.
13. Van Helsing
Van Helsing tried to take advantage of the early 2000s trend toward action remakes of classic horror films. The director, Stephen Sommers, had made a mint for studio execs with 1999’s (relatively watchable) The Mummy and with 2001’s (starting to get worse) sequel The Mummy Returns. With (now it’s starting to get terrible) Van Helsing, the trend began to jump the shark. At least that was true creatively. Financially, the movie, starring the very likable Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, was a hit. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 23%. However, the movie managed to make more than $300 million on a $160 million budget. As recently as 2015, there were talks of rebooting the franchise.
12. Grown Ups
Adam Sandler movies are hit or miss. He basically puts out at least one movie every year, usually co-starring some of his friends. The guy obviously just likes to make movies. So it’s hard to get too upset if the quality isn’t always there. He seems to mean well. In 2010, he starred in, co-wrote and co-produced Grown Ups, about a group of childhood friends reuniting at a lake house. It would be diplomatic to say that it wasn’t one of his funnier efforts – its Rotten Tomatoes score is 10%. But it scored at the box office, bringing in more than $250 million (almost unheard of for a comedy). Predictably, this led to a sequel, 2013’s Grown Ups 2, which received just 7% from Rotten Tomatoes, but still brought in a couple hundred million in box office. Whose up for Grown Ups 3?
11. Spider-Man 3
Now that they reboot the Spider-Man franchise every couple of years, it’s hard to even remember that it was originally a trilogy. Before the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight cycle of Batman movies, Evil Dead auteur Sam Raimi was well into his three-part Spider-Man opus. The difference? A huge drop-off in quality by the third movie. The original Spider-Man was one of the best superhero movies, certainly one of the top offerings up to that time. People liked Spider-Man 2, though the story was starting to show some signs of wear. By Spider-Man 3, though, there wasn’t much left in the creative tank. Major critics like Roger Ebert and The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis, panned the movie, but it still drew in nearly $900 million at the box office. There had been talk of a fourth installment with the original crew – Raimi directing and Tobey Maguire once again as the lead – but eventually the franchise was rebooted in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield.
Sony, the studio that produced the 1998 version of Godzilla, has always been a little squirrelly about whether the movie made money. It certainly brought in a fair amount of box office – nearly $400 million versus a reported budget of $130 million. However, it was one of the most hyped movies up to that point. It was meant to be the tentpole action extravaganza of the summer of 1998. Ads, merchandising, tie-ins – audiences were inundated with pre-release Godzilla hype. With that marketing budget in mind, it’s unclear whether the movie was a financial success. One thing is clear: it certainly wasn’t an artistic success. It has a 16% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Roger Ebert gave it just one-and-a-half out of four stars. It was eventually remade in 2014 in a vastly more well liked version.
9. Pearl Harbor
Michael Bay again. As noted in the entry on The Rock, Bay is pretty much the patron saint of this category. This isn’t his last entry on the list. Pearl Harbor gets extra terrible-movie points for tying the Bay aesthetic to a real-life event where real people died. The movie was made in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, which redefined the classic WWII movie and was one of the most accomplished pieces of movie making of its time (it also made a lot of money and brought in a few Oscars). Pearl Harbor was basically an attempt to cash in on the same vibe. And it worked: $450 million at the box office, despite generally bad reviews – in fact, one of the worst reviewed movies of Bay’s career.
8. Patch Adams
Most movies on the list are there because of the cynical nature of Hollywood. Producers and compliant directors are interested in slapping together a product that can play well on the first weekend and draw in viewers overseas. It’s rare that a movie that seems like an honest attempt to create an emotional experience turns out to be both bad and a hit. But there is Patch Adams. The movie tells the story of a doctor who works to make sick children laugh. It stars Robin Williams. It’s syrupy and generally ineffective, earning bad reviews when it was released. But it earned more than $200 million – a hefty sum for comedy-drama biopic – suggesting it found an audience somewhere.
7. Angels & Demons
Honestly, The Da Vinci Code, the first Dan Brown thriller to make it to the big screen, wasn’t very good either. But at least that was a relatively faithful adaption of a runaway best seller, which seemed to get the best efforts of director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks, both of whom can usually be counted on for a professional effort. However, the sequel, Angels & Demons, suffers from being a tired retread – similar plot, same director, same actor, same general vibe. Still, it was another hit, earning nearly $500 million at the box office. Critics were generally unimpressed but the money was enough to spawn another sequel, this year’s Inferno.
Pick a Twilight movie. Any Twilight movie. Maybe it’s best to think of them as one long (really long) flick. But for the purposes of this list, we’ll let the original 2008 movie stand in for the series, which would eventually gross more than $3 billion in total. To be fair, a lot of the nonsense comes from the novels (a grown wolfman falls irretrievably in love with a newborn at one point). So we’ll let the filmmakers off the hook for anything dealing with story or plot. But the special effects are also cheap looking and all the actors (a lot of them are good actors, too) are universally better in other movies. In short, the series was fan service and a way to print money for the studios, not an attempt at high art.
We’ve already discussed it, but it might be important to repeat: in Hollywood, making money is more important than making art. Woody Allen makes one movie a year. Some are good. Some are bad. Even with the variation in quality, Allen is considered a genius – a moviemaker’s moviemaker. Michael Bay keeps up a similar pace (an average of a movie about every other year). He doesn’t hit the artistic highs as Allen, but he makes a lot more money. This makes him hated by cinephiles the world over. But who’s to say? As judged by people handing over hard-earned cash to see his films, more people seem to like Bay movies than like Allen movies. You can pretty much put any of the Transformers movies in this slot. They are all terrible. But the first one spawned three sequels (with another slated for 2017), so it’s got to be seen as the real money maker.
4. Star Wars: Episode I
Now that more than a decade and a half has passed since the release of the Star Wars prequels, and bolstered by the good feelings generated by the widely praised relaunch of the series, The Phantom Menace and its two sequels have started to pick up defenders. Still, the arguments that people give in favor of the movies tend to fluctuate between “they aren’t that bad” and “they’re movies for kids, what do you expect?” At the time they were released, however, the movies were massive disappointments. That is, everywhere except at the box office. The first installment alone brought in more than $1 billion. Maybe in retrospect, they aren’t as bad as many people had initially thought. Perhaps they were victims of massive expectations. But it’s hard to play down how upset many fans were with the prequels, especially the first one – the one that heavily featured the maybe-quasi-racist, definitely-super-annoying Jar Jar Binks. That’s about all the evidence critics should need.
3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Speaking of legendary franchises originally conceived by George Lucas that saw the release of an epically disappointing installment…
Lucas had a tough artistic decade roughly between 1999 and 2009. He wrote and directed the three generally disliked Star Wars prequels. Then he provided the story for the almost universally reviled Indiana Jones update. But while artistically he was doing all he could to destroy his legacy as the brainchild of some of the most beloved franchises of all time, he was having a great decade at the bank. Billions from Star Wars, and another $800 million in box office for Indiana Jones.
Four times! Michael Bay made this list four times…
No one in Hollywood history has so consistently made movies that critics and film buffs despise so much, and yet audiences empty their wallets out to see. He’s the Michael Jordan/LeBron James (depending on when you were born) of crap blockbuster production. As suggested before, it’s hard to be mad at him for this. The man has a skill. Not one that the makers of year-end best movie lists tend to appreciate. But if you are a studio head and you want to protect your hundred billion dollar investment, no one is better than Michael Bay.
1. Batman Forever
Batman & Robin, the fourth installment in the initial run of Batman movies, killed the franchise. That is, at least until Christopher Nolan came around to reinvigorate it. The only shocking thing about this fact: the franchise wasn’t killed earlier by Batman Forever. The first two Batman movies were quality offerings. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Michael Keaton, they helped solidify the superhero genre and in many ways set the stage for the way our summer blockbuster season unfolds now. For the third installment in the series, Burton and Keaton were replaced by Joel Schumacher and Val Kilmer, respectively. A dark, brooding, comic book sensibility was replaced by a loud, campy mess. Still, it made almost $350 million, enough to sponsor the sequel, which eventually ended the series with a hard thud.