Movies carry a veritable array of purposes. They entertain, they amuse, they surprise, they compel and they challenge. People not only use movies as an escape, but also a window into different facets of both life and the world around us. These wide-ranging roles provide Hollywood producers with something of a blank slate. Sure, they are bound by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its corresponding rating system, but artistic freedoms can tend to offer a fair degree of leeway.
Some films use that free rein to create thoughtful pieces of cinema that push boundaries, challenge conventional wisdom and generally serve as powerful and effective pieces of art. Of course, not all films use their editorial freedoms for reasons as noble as to provide food for thought. Others aim to get a rise out of their audience, be it through overtly violent, sexual or just plain offensive content intended to rile people up. After all, controversy can be a cheap and easy marketing ploy for creating buzz.
The danger in creating films that toe the line between good and bad taste is that they have the potential to leave people more irritated than intrigued. Hollywood has seen many a movie fall by the wayside even before its release, earning the type of momentum-killing backlash that serves as the stuff of nightmares for producers and can prove awfully hard to come back from.
Most of these 15 films that pissed people off before their release knew that their offerings had the potential to offend and, to be fair, some of them even made a fair amount of money. But each of these films suffered from bad buzz tied to either production controversies, troublesome content or plain old bad timing. These movies serve as something of a worst case scenario for ambitious cinematic efforts before they actually hit the big screen.
15. South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
All South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone had to do to get the public worked up was to announce a movie based on their offensive cartoon comedy series. In keeping with the long-running Comedy Central series, those who liked the movie really liked it, while those who took offense to some of its biting satire were outraged by the film. It managed to gross $83.1 million, then a record for an R-rated animated film, but also had not shortage of enemies.
It is hard to imagine that Parker and Stone would have anticipated anything else when writing the script. In addition to its suggestive title, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the film featured gratuitous swearing, jokes mocking just about every cultural and religious group known to man and a gay sex scene involving Satan and Saddam Hussein. The public response once the film was released was surprisingly tempered. Those who had seen the film largely knew what they were getting into and the rating deterred most from believing the film to be more innocent than it actually was.
14. The Watch
Another case of less than ideal timing struck the 2012 sci-fi buddy comedy The Watch. Originally titled “Neighborhood Watch”, the irreverent Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller and Jonah Hill alien flick found itself in a precarious situation following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Amidst the extra-terrestrial components, the basic premise of four guys forming a neighborhood watch group proved hard to swallow for some Florida residents.
The rejection of some of the early marketing for the film in Florida prompted 20th Century Fox to go into damage control. In particular, there was a trailer scene featuring Hill’s character making a gun symbol with his hand and pretending to shoot teenagers and a promotional poster featuring a bullet-ridden neighborhood watch sign. As a result, the production company quickly changed the tone of their promotional campaign to focus more on the science fiction elements.
Now that we are 11 years removed from the 2006 theatrical release of Sacha Baron Cohen‘s Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, the film seems to be most remembered through the prism of mini soundbytes spoken in the phony Kazakh accent of the titular character. Gone, for the most part, is any of the outrage stemming from Cohen’s xenophobic take on Kazakh culture and the overt racism and sexism that Cohen tries to excuse away as cultural misunderstanding on the part of Borat.
This wasn’t the case back in 2006. The film practically caused an international incident, being banned in Russia and Uzbekistan and nearly eliciting a lawsuit from the Kazakh foreign ministry. Stateside, the film managed to stir up plenty of ill will among those that were unknowingly featured in the film and, as such, weren’t compensated for their participation.
12. Let’s Be Cops
As you will see a few times on this list, a perfectly well-intended film can be undone by poor timing. The Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. cop comedy vehicle Let’s Be Cops might have opened to negative reviews, but there was hardly anything outwardly offensive about the mildly amusing story of two loser friends who dress up as police officers for a costume party and soon learn to enjoy a level of respect and admiration that they were never able to achieve in their regular lives. Pretty harmless, right?
The film’s premise would have been harmless were it not for a release date that came on August 13, 2014, four days after the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting ignited racial tensions and protests throughout the United States, leaving few with an appetite for a light-hearted buddy cop comedy.
11. Batman & Robin
For most Batman fans, Christopher Nolan’s trio of films with Christian Bale in the batsuit serves as the benchmark by which others are measured. While that doesn’t leave the many other big screen adaptations looking particularly strong by comparison, there is more to the Batman canon than Nolan and Bale. Tim Burton scored big by pitting Michael Keaton’s Batman against Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Joel Schumacher benefited by the casting of Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee-Jones as charismatic baddies The Riddler and Two-Face in Batman Forever. But Schumacher couldn’t duplicate that success with his other Batman offering.
After adding some camp to Batman Forever to serve in contrast to Burton’s film and pay homage to the 1960s TV show, Schumacher doubled down on the cheese with Batman & Robin. For all the potential of a big budget film that starred George Clooney opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, both were rendered as little more than hams spouting out corny, cartoonish, groan-worthy puns. On a re-watch, its hard to reconcile this hokey version of the caped crusader with the sharp, smart version that Nolan would unleash a decade later (the less said about Dawn of Justice, the better).
10. Team America: World Police
Trey Parker and Matt Stone find themselves on this list again thanks to their high concept 2004 puppet (???) comedy, Team America: World Police. The puppetry gimmick was unique, but did little to soften the scathing satire of this patriotic propaganda parody. In true Parker and Stone fashion, the film managed to offend both for politicized humor and for its sexualized, racial and foul-mouthed content.
At a time when American patriotism was still at a fever pitch post-9/11, the South Park producers served up a send-up so over-the-top that it even included the song, “America, F*ck Yeah!”. The many targets of ridicule in Team America include Kim Jong-Il, Hollywood actors (none moreso than Matt Damon), Michael Moore and even movies, themselves. But for the countless offensive (and often hysterical) lines of dialogue in the script, Team America is sure to be best remembered for its bizarre puppet sex scene, complete with urination and defecation for maximum vulgarity.
9. A Dog’s Purpose
A heart-warming and heartbreaking family-friendly tale about the many lives of a dog— what could go wrong? In the case of a recently released A Dog’s Purpose, few things could derail a feel-good weeper for dog lovers like the revelation that the dogs involved in the making of the film weren’t treated so well. Specifically, video footage surfaced in the days leading up to the film’s release that purportedly showed a clearly terrified pup being forced into a whitewater river as part of a scene.
As expected, the dog-loving community reacted swiftly and angrily, calling for boycotts of the film and generally creating a marketing disaster for producers. Universal Pictures opted to cancel the film’s Los Angeles premiere, while movie theater chains offered to refund deposits placed by animal-loving groups who had pre-booked A Dog’s Purpose screenings. To date, the film has still managed to double its budget in box office earnings, but the strategically timed leak of the footage has clearly done its damage.
8. The Adventures Of Pluto Nash
Hollywood’s rich history is littered with stories of movies that almost never saw the light of day but went on to attain cinematic classic status. The Adventures of Pluto Nash… is not one of those films. For all the great scripts that somehow fall through the cracks, here was one movie that seemingly had nine lives despite hardly being deserving of them. Originally conceptualized in the 1980s, it wasn’t until 2002 that the film saw the light of day.
It was probably better off left buried. As if the numerous script revisions weren’t enough of a sign that things weren’t going well for this futuristic comedy, Jennifer Lopez reportedly bowed out of the project midway through filming. In the end, Eddie Murphy and Rosario Dawson starred in a film that cost $100 million to make and brought in a meager $7 million during its widely panned theatrical release. Even Murphy, himself, has joked about knowing two or three people who liked the movie.
7. United 93
The 9/11 terror attacks had the distinction of being not just a national tragedy, but one of the first global news events to play out within the 24-hour news cycle and the digital media age. This meant that there was no shortage of footage of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and no lack of available outlets to broadcast said footage on. It is difficult to fathom how anyone watching CNN or checking online during that time could be wont for more 9/11 content than they were already being exposed to.
Five years later, with a populace tired of George W. Bush’s ensuing War on Iraq, there still wasn’t much clamoring for more attention on the attacks. Yet, that still didn’t stop Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass both releasing separate feature films tied to 9/11. Stone’s World Trade Center was a commercial success, but audiences weren’t as eager to embrace Greengrass’ United 93, a look inside the ill-fated hijacked plane that targeted the US Capitol but was overtaken by heroic passengers. Intense scenes that were supposedly an accurate re-enactment based on recordings rescued from the crash site, coupled with the discomfort of family and friends of the deceased, proved a little too much, too soon for audiences.
6. The Interview
The saga of Sony Pictures’ release of the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview should be a movie in and of itself, and could very well be one day. Remarkably, the 2014 stoner comedy about an interview host who gets time with Kim Jong-Un and is tapped by the CIA to assassinate the North Korean dictator actually carried real-life consequences. Touching a nerve within the North Korean government, representatives from the country deemed the film to be an “act of war” and demanded that the film be pulled from wide release.
Though the demand initially seemed to be little more than a joke among American movie-goers, things took a stunning turn when an anonymous group known as the Guardians of Peace took credit for a hack that leaked internal emails, employee records and unreleased scripts from Sony Pictures and threatened to attack the film’s New York premiere. Following the hacker threats, Sony cancelled the wide theatrical release of the film along with all promotional platforms, thereby bowing to the pressure of the hackers.
5. Fahrenheit 9/11
Director and documentarian Michael Moore has never been one to shy away from controversy. Be it Bowling For Columbine, Roger and Me or Sicko, Moore hasn’t hesitated when it has come to delving into hotly contested political and social issues. But even as he’s tackled school shootings, Nike and the US health care system, 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 stands as what is likely his most emotionally charged documentary.
The film, a critical look at the US response during and after the September 11th terrorist attacks, received a wide range of mixed reviews. On one hand, it won the coveted Palme D’Or upon debuting at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. On the other hand, it was actually barred from consideration for the Best Picture category at the 2005 Academy Awards based on unsubstantiated claims that the Bush Administration was directly involved in the attacks. It even prompted a response documentary titled “Fahrenhype 9/11”.
4. Passion Of The Christ
A deeply religious biblical epic was always going to be a tough sell in Hollywood, let alone one that featured the kind of visceral violence as Mel Gibson‘s independently-funded film. With particular interest in getting his movie made, Gibson and his production company, Icon Productions, assumed the entirety of the estimated $30 million needed. That also afforded Gibson the freedom to make the film as he saw fit, creating a bloody and aggressively realistic tale to really hammer home the sacrifice and suffering of Christ.
Not everyone was a fan. The overt religion turned some off, as did the violent nature of the film and what some suggested were anti-Semitic undertones. As Gibson, himself, acknowledged, “This is a film about something that nobody wants to touch, shot in two dead languages. In Los Angeles they think I am insane, and maybe I am.” Still, even amidst the public backlash, support from church groups and other religious organizations helped spur The Passion of the Christ to over $600 million in box office earnings, the most for any R-rated film in US box office history.
3. The Avengers
No, we aren’t referring to the money-printing Marvel superhero team-up franchise. An adaptation from different source material that bore the same name came a few years earlier, as Uma Thurman and Ralph Fiennes starred in a live action reboot of the popular 1960 spy television series. Unfortunately for the makers of the film, nobody really remembered or cared about the original series in 1998 and few were anxious to see it play out on the big screen.
The real problems for the film began when director Jeremiah S. Chechik provided Warner Bros with a 150-minute cut, resulting in poor test screenings from impatient and disinterested audiences. Warner Bros insisted that Chechik cut his film nearly in half to 87 minutes. As you might imagine, this led to some considerable plot holes, missing information, inconsistencies and rampant continuity errors. For the few film-goers that actually cared to see the film initially, this was another strong sign not to bother.
2. Nothing Lasts Forever
Here is the IMDb synopsis of the 1984 science fiction fantasy/comedy Nothing Lasts Forever: “An artist fails a test and is required to direct traffic in New York City’s Holland Tunnel. He winds up falling in love with a beautiful woman, who takes him to the moon on a Lunar Cruiser. ” If that seems excessively strange and confusing to you, you’re not alone. A downright bizarre plot, coupled with a disastrous press screening, prompted MGM, still reeling from some recent box office flops, to shelve the Bill Murray-starring film permanently.
Of course, in keeping with the film’s title, what was once left for dead has grown intriguing to hardcore cinema-goers over time. Now dubbed as “the Bill Murray film you’ve never seen”, it has enjoyed a second life on the art house circuit. It was initially rediscovered in 2004 when Murray, himself, insisted that it be included in a retrospective of his work at the BAMcinématek in New York. Since then, it has been screened at various film fests, including serving as the opening night film at the 2015 Olympia Film Festival.
1. Kiss The Girls
While a film about women being kidnapped by a serial killer may not seem like fun for the whole family fare, there was nothing outwardly controversial about Kiss the Girls, the big screen adaptation of James Patterson’s best-selling novel of the same name. The movie didn’t curry much favor with film critics, but few found much cause for outrage upon its 1997 release.
That wasn’t the case in Virginia, however. The state had seen a rash of murders of teenaged women during the mid- to late-nineties, so the notion of a film about a murderer targeting young girls didn’t seem like much of an entertaining escape. Local Virginians objected to the airing of the film in nearby theaters, suggesting that it would incite fear-mongering. As a result, it was banned in several theaters in central Virginia out of respect for those in the local communities.