Movies are expensive to make. Productions on some of our favorite films can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and in some cases, these are costs that are extremely hard to earn back. Unless a producer sets out to make the most inexpensive film possible, a movie studio needs to have a blockbuster on their hands to recoup some extremely high costs and sometimes, even that isn’t enough.
When you consider that some of our favorite films have A-list actors who demand mega-money or these movies include marketing campaigns that are so aggressive that promoting the film can cost more money than making the film, it’s no wonder why some of these extremely good movies struggle to earn a profit. Then, when you consider that some of the best films of all time don’t receive the adulation they deserve or find the cult-like following they do until after they’ve been released, it makes predicting a hit even more tricky.
Of course, even movie home runs can report losses, thanks to “Hollywood accounting.” It’s frankly amazing when you think about how many movies “lose” money that there are any profitable movies at all. You almost have to be Disney to ensure that you don’t lose your shirt with any one film. Even then, you might not be immune. Want to know which 15 films became huge hits but lost money? Keep reading to see if you’re as shocked as we were. It may make you look at these films a bit differently.
15. Blade Runner
One of the most iconic science fiction movies ever didn’t make any money until it was discovered well after its release in 1982. It had to compete with movies like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and it made a mere $6.5 million in its opening weekend. No one thought it would amount to much and it lost out to other competition. After Warner Bros. re-released the film, it was through home video viewings almost a decade later that the film became the cult classic that it is now.
The movie became so popular. In fact, there is a sequel being released this year entitled Blade Runner 2049. The film stars Ryan Gosling as a new blade runner and a returning Harrison Ford reprises his role as Rick Deckar. The film is set to take place some thirty years after the first Blade Runner did.
When Warner Bros. decided to make Batman in 1989, they wanted Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson to play the character of Batman and Joker, respectively. They also wanted Tim Burton to direct the film. To get these big actors, the studio had to promise a percentage of gross profits. For Nicholson, that number was escalated each time the movie did better at the box office. Needless to say, he did quite well. Those who were stuck with net profits, like two of the producers who actually sued the film over the money they thought they were due, never really got their money.
The first Batman movie was a combination of paying way too much money for the actors and director, an outlandish marketing campaign and a bit of movie accounting to make the blockbuster film seems not so big a hit. Since it “appears” like Batman lost money, why did they make so many more?
13. It’s A Wonderful Life
When the film was released in 1946, it didn’t get much attention from its audience. Despite earning five Academy Award nominations, the film actually lost $525,000. Calling the film a flop, National Telefilm Associates didn’t renew its copyright and it became public domain, which then allowed cable companies to start airing the movie on television royalty free. Other companies picked up the film for video release and over many years, it became one of the most recognized holiday movies ever. People who worked on the film have said that they are amazed at what the movie has done in the years following its release. Many didn’t even consider the movie a holiday film considering how dark the undertones were in the story. It’s A Wonderful Life took years before it ever made a profit.
12. Return Of The Jedi
The third installment of the Star Wars trilogy was a massive box office success. Yet somehow, David Prowse (the actor who played Darth Vader) continually received notices in the mail that there were no forthcoming payments based on net profits or residual cheques to cash because Lucasfilm said the movie had never gone into profit, thus there was nothing to send. Some of this may have been due to high production and marketing costs, but most of it is because of something known as “Hollywood accounting.” It’s the first of a few times this phenomenon will come up on our list.
Hollywood accounting refers, in part, to the whacky way bookkeeping is done to exclude those who have a share of net profits from ever seeing their money. Studios in these scenarios only pay out profits after deducting all their expenses. Most of the expenses are purr garbage, but no net profits mean no official payouts are required.
11. Shawshank Redemption
Considered one of the best films ever made and #1 on IMDb.com’s Top 250 list, The Shawshank Redemption was a box office bomb when it was released in 1994. It received tons of critical adulation and was nominated for an Academy Award, but it wasn’t until it was released on VHS and purchased by TNT for airing on television that audiences everywhere got to see how fantastic of a film this really was.
Most people have seen the film so many times that they’ve lost count. It’s a far cry from the days the movie first appeared and no one saw it. This movie is one of the reasons to still own regular cable since TV stations still show the movie on a regular basis. It’s hard to imagine what movie life would be like without the Andy Dufresne character.
10. The Big Lebowski
I’ll bet you can quote a line from one the most quotable movies ever made. After all, who doesn’t know “the Dude?” Film geeks everywhere list The Big Lebowski as one of the all-time faves and the Coen Brothers’ slacker comedy only cost $15 million to make, which makes it even more idolized by the underground community. All that said, when released in theaters, the film made a mere $2 million profit. Ouch!
Later, this cult favorite found its audience on DVD/VHS and over time, became known as one of the best comedies of the last 20 years. Today, it is one of the most idolized films ever, with its own festival and millions of adoring fans. Like the Dude who somehow ends up victorious despite all his shortcomings, the film seems to do the same.
9. Office Space
If you’ve ever felt like you hated your job, your boss, or your life, then you probably know the movie Office Space. Almost everyone who loves funny movies has now seen the cult comedy masterpiece, but it took them a while to make it as popular a film as it is now. Fox did a lousy job of marketing and releasing the film and poor timing caused the film to enter and leave the theater without much attention. It, by all measures, was a box office bust until it became popular on cable TV channels. It took about two years for the film to make any money. But by 2006, DVD sales had reached over six million in the US alone. With the right initial marketing campaign, this film would have done much better financially.
8. Wizard Of Oz
Still one of the all-time movie classics, The Wizard of Oz was a stinker when it first came out in 1939. It didn’t help that the giant sets and elaborate special effects cost the studio so much money and in that day and age, the budget for the film could be equated to the massive budgets of major productions today.
The movie did win two Oscars for Best Score and Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow,” but that wasn’t enough to make it profitable. For ten long years, the film fizzled, losing money for MGM. When it was re-released in 1949 (the 10th Anniversary re-release), it finally started to make money. Warner Bros. now owns the rights to the film and it’s one of the most watched and decorated movies in the history of film.
7. Fight Club
Few films have the cult-like following that Brad Pitt and Edward Norton’s action/drama movie, Fight Club, did. When it was released in 1999, audiences received the film with mixed reviews and the premise of the film was a bit hard to market. To make matters worse, a stubborn and pig-headed Rosie O’Donnell used her large talk show audience as a way to shun the film by revealing the plot twist at the end. Her audience decided not to see it since she’d spoiled the ending. She reached so many people that it cost the movie millions of dollars.
Fox eventually released the film on home video and it snowballed into the success it is now. It eventually made a ton of money, but it took way longer than it should have. I’m sure Brad Pitt is still upset about O’Donnell’s actions. It probably cost him millions too.
6. Citizen Kane
Considered one of the greatest films in history, Citizen Kane was introduced to the world amidst some very controversial circumstances. The movie was dark and unique which made it an uncommon film for the time. So too, media tycoon William Randolph Hearst didn’t like that the movie was an adaptation of his life and he banned mention of the film in his newspapers and radio networks. Theaters decided not to carry the film as a result.
The movie won nine Academy Awards but lost almost $200,000. Of course, the Orson Welles classic has gone on to see much better success but it still never earned the kind of money it deserved. In fact, Welles never made a movie that turned a profit and he died broke and alone in 1985.
5. Lords Of The Rings
Lord of the Rings grossed a ton of money, but the producers blamed taxpayer fees for shooting in New Zealand and Peter Jackson‘s ridiculous fees for directing the film as partial reasons for the loss. In reality, it was the fact that New Line Cinema was owned by Time Warner which also owned AOL, and the companies just simply paid each other to avoid paying additional taxes. It’s easy to see how on paper, the film looked like it reported a loss and why Peter Jackson ended up suing.
Even though the money stayed in house, the film did not turn a profit on paper. Subsequently, when the author’s estate of The Hobbit was approached about selling the new book to the producers of a Lord of the Rings franchise that lost money, the estate demanded $150 million or the deal was off. Funny how a studio that lost money so quickly paid for such a crazy amount for the right to make the new film.
4. Dazed And Confused
Dazed and Confused grossed a mere $1.1 million upon release in the US. While the movie didn’t garner much attention at first, the success of the film came from its widely acclaimed soundtrack which features bands like KISS, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath. As people fell in love with the songs that shaped the film, people fell in love with the film itself and through DVD sales, Dazed and Confused added more than $30 million worldwide to its bottom line. To know the movie means to know the music that shaped the movie. But you probably didn’t know that the movie made literally no money for the longest time. It hardly seems fair for a film that so accurately described school life in the seventies for so many people to do so poorly.
3. Iron Man
The director of the first Iron Man film, Jon Favreau, took home a pretty good chunk of change for directing the smash hit. His contract was worth about $4 million guaranteed. Not bad work if you can get it. Apparently, for Favreau, that wasn’t quite enough. He has said that he’s also due 10 percent of the movie’s net profits. Despite this fact, he came to expect that he’d likely never see a dime of that money.
Again, the idea of “Hollywood accounting” rears its ugly head. Iron Man wouldn’t have had two sequels and the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t be as vast as it is if the film didn’t turn a profit. The one thing everyone knows is that if you want to make a film that’s a virtual lock to make millions, make a Marvel superhero film. It’s the equivalent of free money no matter how much you spend in production.
2. Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump is now a movie that has become profitable. In fact, quite profitable. For the longest time, that wasn’t the case. It starts with the fact that Tom Hanks got well over $30 million for his role in the film. Huge expenses, the cost of making the film ($50 million) and promotion ($72 million), distribution fees ($62 million), and other big sums of money paid to Robert Zemeckis, were also to blame. Both Hanks and Zemeckis had worked into their contracts’ payouts based upon gross rather than net profits. As the movie made more, so did the stars.
Two producers and a screenwriter didn’t see payouts for the widely-adored film because of the accounting which excluded their net profit deals from cashing in. Those huge amounts of money have long since been paid and advances on those chunks of money were even provided. But it’s amazing how such a hugely successful movie appeared to be in the red for so long.
1. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix
This is one of those movies (the entire Harry Potter franchise, actually) that was so successful that it makes absolutely no sense to suggest it lost money. Again, “Hollywood accounting” made it appear possible…at least for a little while. It was this particular film that was one of the movies that brought to light the controversial topic of Hollywood’s cooked books because an accounting document for the film leaked online. It opened the door to a number of lawsuits filed by television actors and businesses who were owed money on net profit contracts.
Among the propped up expenses for the wizard film was a $212-million distribution fee (Warner Bros. was paying itself). There was also $130 million in advertising and $57 million in interest. Essentially, the studio moved around $350 million to look like it lost money on paper. Like some of the other movies on the list, this one actually made money, just not on paper.