The movie industry is one full of secrets and shrouded in half-truths. Perhaps, no area is more mysterious than the accounting. We only ever see the rough numbers that the accountants want us to see. Studios often inflate how well good movies do and rarely let it be known how bad the bad films do. Because of this, we have to go off only what we’re given. The process for funding most films is pretty straightforward. Studios and investors finance the making of a film and then they sell the film to various distributors. But what happens if a film production needs more money than the studios and financiers are willing to give? Who gives what? Well, sometimes, the producers and the stars themselves put forward a large chunk of money to have the film made, betting on themselves if you will. These are the occasions we’re most interested in today.
When a star puts their own money on the line, they appear to really believe in the film. For whatever reason, they believe that this film is a vehicle that has to get made. These days, many stars have their own production companies, so they often pull from here rather than invest directly from their own pocket. But the risk is similar. Since the movie industry is so profitable, these risks often pay off. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, films that are privately financed by actors and their companies flop. These box office bombs can have major lingering effects on their stars and their production companies. Let’s look at the worst examples. Here are 15 Actors Who Personally Funded Box Office Disasters.
15 John Travolta – Battlefield Earth
When Scientology founder Ron Hubbard wrote Battlefield Earth in 1982, he sent famed Scientologist John Travolta a copy. It was Hubbard’s hope that Travolta would turn the book into a film someday. In 1995, following Travolta’s career resurging performance in Pulp Fiction, he started work on getting the project made. After a few years of unsuccessfully trying to get any major studios to finance the film, Travolta went with a small production company and co-financed the film himself. It was made and released and it was an unmitigated disaster. Not only was the movie one of the worst things ever made, but it was a massive flop at the box office. Filmed on a budget of $73 million, Battlefield Earth made back less than $30 million. While Travolta probably had enough money to burn, the incompetence in his performance and his ability to gauge what’s a good film and what’s not, set his acting career back significantly.
14 Demi Moore – The Scarlet Letter
Demi Moore and her production company, Moving Pictures, made out like bandits on the Austin Powers franchise. But it wasn’t all good for Moore as a producer. In one of her big pet projects, The Scarlett Letter, which she produced, helped fund, and starred in, the results were terrible. The film bombed at the box office. Filmed on a budget that was close to $50 million (much more than that with distribution and marketing costs), The Scarlett Letter made just over $10 million back. If you struggle with math, that’s over $40 million in losses. It’s unclear if Moving Pictures is even a company anymore. There seems to be no trace of them online. Perhaps The Scarlett Letter was the film to sink them.
13 George Clooney – Leatherheads
When George Clooney mortgaged his house and took a $1 salary to fund a film that he was going to star in and direct, people thought he was crazy. When the result was Good Night, and Good Luck, where Clooney made back his money nearly tenfold, he looked like a genius. Later, Clooney would try to capture lightning in a bottle twice. With Leatherheads, Clooney wrote, directed, starred, produced, and helped fund the film. The result was not nearly as good. Making only $41 million at the box office, Leatherheads failed to recoup the entire $58 million budget. This was also the first film for Clooney’s new production company, Smokehouse Pictures. They would be alright though. Basically, everything they’ve made since has been a success of some level.
12 Matthew McConaughey – Sahara
Being a producer or an executive producer on a film doesn’t always mean you spend your own money. For Matthew McConaughey, the title of ‘producer’ always scared him because of the amount of work, dedication, and commitment that was required for one film. Well, when he landed the lead role in what promised to be one of the bigger budget films of the decade, Sahara, he took on the role knowing it could pay huge dividends. McConaughey drove across the country in a trailer promoting the film. He spent a year working insane hours to make this the biggest film it could be. It made good money too, earning almost $120 million at the box office. The issue was that it cost over $200 million to make.
11 Tina Fey – Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
For most of her career, Tina Fey has been a sure thing. Her production company, Little Stranger, is responsible for both TV hits 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Now, it’s not like Fey is fronting the entire budget for her films and shows from her own pocket, but producers are often on the hook for whatever the studios don’t pick up. There’s also a significant amount of lost revenues in failed films as well. That’s why the film Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which Fey co-produced with Lorne Michaels, was such a disaster. Even though the budget was kept small, under $50 million after everything, the film was unable to break even, earning less than half of that budget back.
10 James Franco - Classics Trilogy
James Franco has eclectic tastes, that much we know. When he took on two of the literary world’s greatest, William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying and Sound and the Fury and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, many people had their doubts. After all, if the greatest screenwriters and directors in the world struggle so mightily in adapting literary genius to film, how the hell would James friggin’ Franco do it? Well, first came the financing issues. Franco learned just how hard it is to get film funding for anything, let alone three consecutive adaptations like these. Franco would invest some of his own money into the pile. Now, none of these films were colossal disasters, but none of them made much money either. This is probably why Franco has now resorted to crowdfunding for the financing of his new films. After all, rich people don’t stay rich by losing their own money.
9 Will Smith – After Earth
When you look at the box office numbers for After Earth, it appears that the film did fairly well. But after all the costs are included and considered, the film actually lost a lot of money. The marketing budget alone was more than $100 million. That’s on top of the nearly $150 filming budget. Now, we’re not suggesting that Will Smith fronted any of this money, but his production company, Overbrook Entertainment, were on the hook for the film. Overall, the film was a disaster both financially and critically. Perhaps the worst of all is that is was a family affair for the Smiths, as Jaden Smith starred in the film as well. There’s also the film’s heavy Scientology themes, which made it seem like it was a pet project for Smith and nothing more.
8 Madonna – Swept Away
Technically, this one is on Madonna’s then-husband, Guy Ritchie, because he was the one pushing to have Madonna star in this vehicle. Still, the two were a team, so we’ll hold them both responsible. Produced by Matthew Vaughan, Ritchie and Madonna figured this film would be a major success, so they fought to have it made, helping out financially where they could. The film bottomed out in a massive way. Filmed on a small $10-million budget, Swept Away earned just over $500,000 at the box office. That’s 20 times less that the money it took to make the damn thing. It also virtually ended Madonna’s abysmal acting career.
7 Kevin Costner – The Postman
By now, you’ve probably heard of how big of a failure The Postman was. On an $80 filming budget, The Postman made back less than $20 million. That’s quite a hit. It’s even worse when you consider that Kevin Costner was the lead actor, the director, the producer, and co-funder for the film. Costner was also partly on the hook for Swing Vote, which also lost quite a bit of money. Both production companies that Costner is/was a part of, Tig Productions and Treehouse Films appear to have been dismantled. But Costner has had his successes in funding films as well. Films such as Dances with Wolves made tons of money, but we wouldn’t be surprised if this rich man is a little gun shy nowadays when it comes to financing films.
6 Mariah Carey – Glitter
Though Mariah Carey never funded the making of Glitter in the traditional sense, this was her baby. Carey first started working on the film and soundtrack back in 1997. It did take a while to get off the ground, but Carey was said to have complete creative control over the film, even writing parts of it. The result was one of the worst movies ever made. It’s almost laughable how bad this film is. Many people thought it was a joke. We even wrote it in our diaries. It wasn’t a joke though. Carey was trying her hardest. The $20-million budget was shot to hell. They only made back about $5.3 million, which is peanuts to Carey, but still, it’s the principle.
5 Nia Vardalos – I Hate Valentine’s Day
Nia Vardalos is better known as “that girl who was in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She not only starred in that film, but she wrote it for the stage and then adapted it for the big screen. It was a monumental success. Years later, Vardalos decided to give directing a go. She found her film, helped fund it, and starred in it. The film was I Hate Valentine’s Day and this one was a monumental failure. It earned less than $2 million at the box office. Thankfully, it only cost a few million to make. But when you put all your eggs in one basket, like Vardalos did with this film, failure can hurt quite a bit.
4 Mel Gibson – Get The Gringo
Mel Gibson has been on the winning side of financing films before. He financed The Passion of the Christ and it brought in 20 times the budget. He followed that up by financing Apocalypto and it also did incredibly well. The next film he financed didn’t go so well. The film was Get the Gringo. Honestly, this movie is not that bad at all. The problem with it comes in that its star and producer, Gibson, was going through the bulk of his very public personal issues at the time. They also bypassed any major theatrical release for a video-on-demand release and it didn’t pay off the way they’d hoped. These days, Gibson has all but written off any chance that he’ll fund his own projects again. He feels the studio system doesn’t reward financiers honestly.
3 John Wayne – The Alamo
When John Wayne started up his production company, Batjac Productions, The Alamo was to be their first film. The goal was to have Wayne direct and produce the film, but he didn’t want to star in it. When he went to secure funding, however, the studios demanded his star power in the lead role. After trying some other options, Wayne agreed to take the part. His company invested a couple of millions into the film and Wayne put up $1.5 million of his own money. The rest of the supposed $12-million filming budget was secured from the studios. The movie then came out and Wayne was happy with the finished project. He saw his financial decision as a smart investment. It wasn’t. The film made absolutely no money. It’s unclear how much Wayne got back from his investment, if any.
2 Kevin Spacey – Beyond The Sea
Back in 1994, Kevin Spacey set his sights on the lead role in a Bobby Darin biopic. At that time, Spacey was told that he was probably too old for the role. Still, he waited and hoped. In 1999, it looked like the film was moving forward and Spacey wanted the lead, but it didn’t work out. The following year, Spacey bought the rights on his own and got the wheels moving. In 2000, Spacey sought out help from the studios but they said that they didn’t want him as the lead because he was too old. To fight this, Spacey took complete control over of the film. When production was finally underway in 2003, Spacey was slated as the lead actor, co-writer, producer, and director of the film. All for no money whatsoever. He also put some of his own money down. His production company, Trigger Street Productions, put forward the rest. The film made back just over $8 million on a $25-million budget. It turns out that Spacey was just too damn old for the part. We bet he wishes someone told him that.
1 Tommy Wiseau - The Room
People have made Tommy Wiseau into a giant ever since his disastrous film, The Room, came out. Because we like to celebrate the really terrible, this brutal film became something of a cult hit. Still, when the independently rich Wiseau sat down to make his play into a film, he honestly believed he had something good on his hands. Wiseau should have clued in when no one would publish his book based on the play. He should have clued in when he saw the quality of the very first shot. The truth is, Wiseau doesn’t know what a good film is, so he thought he was making something good. These days, Wiseau claims that the film is meant to be a comedy, but really, it’s not. It couldn’t be. If the people were aware that they were making a terrible film, it wouldn’t turn out the same. After spending $6 million of his own money, the film was released quickly and was ushered out of the few theaters it was allowed in almost as soon as it got in. But then, it made a comeback all because of how bad it was—midnight showings and plenty of free press. The film started selling. It’s unclear if he’s made money on the film, but this story has a happy ending. What looked like a major failure turned into at least some good publicity and some staying power for the film.
Sources: Wikipedia; IMDB; Box Office Mojo; The Numbers