Just ask Michael Cimino. Recognize the name? He is an Academy Award winner director, and he won his trophy back in 1979 for the classic “The Deer Hunter.” In the late 70s, he was considered in the group of new wave American directors like Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese and Spielberg that were set to change the American film industry for the ensuing decades. Then came his debacle known as “Heaven’s Gate.” Cimino’s three hour plus tale about a land dispute in 1890s Wyoming suffered from a labored production. Thanks to his perfectionism, the shoot quickly fell behind schedule and the budget quadrupled from $11 million to $44 million. $44 million barely covers the trailers for the cast and crew these days, but in the 70s that was a big budget. That number gets even bigger when you consider that the movie ended up grossing only $3 million back. As a result, United Artists, a studio that had found large success in the 70s, went belly up and was put up for sale. All because of one movie. Needless to say, Cimino hasn’t worked much since.
This is not a singular incident. Other studios have gone bankrupt due to box office bombs. Whereas James Cameron’s “Titanic” became the highest grossing film of all time (only to be surpassed twelve years later by James Cameron’s “Avatar), the 1980 film “Raise the Titanic” sank (sorry, had to do it) ITC Entertainment. “Cutthroat Island” was the final nail in the coffin for Carolco Pictures in 1995, after losing roughly $80 million. A more recent example would be “The Golden Compass,” which wasn’t even that big of a bomb. New Line spent $180 million on the 2007 epic, and the film grossed $370 million. So what was New Line’s problem? Well they sold the international rights to the movie, which is where the movie made 81% of its revenue. New Line made a measly $70 million on their investment, and ended up being picked up by Warner Brothers.
Box office bombs will affect the films that studios make in the future as well. Disney had a long reputation as the animation studio, producing classics like “Fantasia” and “Beauty and the Beast.” In 2002, the studio released “Treasure Planet,” a sci-fi interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Though the film received decent reviews, it was clear that audiences were growing accustomed to the computer animation provided by studios like Pixar and Dreamworks, and Disney ended up losing roughly $70 million on the film. Ever since, hand drawn features have been a scarcity at the multiplex, and Disney became dependent on Pixar for its animated product. Going back to “Heaven’s Gate,” many attribute the film’s failure to a change of ethos in the industry. Critics at the time blamed the film’s disastrous performance in theaters on an excess of creative freedom given to Cimino. As a result, studios reigned in directors during the 80s and well into the 90s, until the Tarantino generation took over. And as a result, many film scholars cite the 80s as the least interesting decade of American cinema.
Even though the public assumption is that these studios come equipped with a hoard of money, they really can suffer from their own failures, and audiences can suffer the results too. Although if studios learn to not make movies based off of board games and starring Rihanna after the “Battleship” mess, maybe audiences won’t suffer too much.