TotalFilm.com recently put together a list of the "50 Flop Movies That Deserved Better." This list includes a good sampling of my DVD collection: Fight Club. Dredd. Citizen Kane. Serenity.
I agree with the sentiment on nearly every one of them. These are fantastic films that deserved to be seen at the theaters by millions. But it's the very idea that many of these films were flops, and didn't make money is not only wrong but that makes it more difficult for filmmakers to get sequels of the films made - and to get other films like them made in the first place.
Many of the films on this list (and I'm not going after this list or Total Film - these lists are made all the time) made money--and not just a couple bucks over the top but MILLIONS.
Let's take the most over used example of a "bomb" (after Ishtar, of course): Waterworld. Kevin Costner's epic enviro-action-tragedy-on-water film. It was famously the most expensive film of its time - 175 million bucks. It's considered just a bomb that one of the richest men in the world Daniel Loeb used it as an example of why Sony's CEO should be removed in an investor letter:
“We find it perplexing that Mr. Hirai does not worry about a division that has just released 2013’s versions of Waterworld and Ishtar back-to-back, instead giving free passes to Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-CEO’s Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, the executives responsible for these debacles … under Mr. Lynton and Ms. Pascal’s leadership, Entertainment’s culture is characterized by a complete lack of accountability and poor financial controls.”
Except one small detail. Waterworld made millions... like a LOT of millions.
US Gross: $88 million
US Rentals: $42 million
International Gross: $175 million
I'm not sure what type of math the kids now are learning in school but according to my rough calculations that's $130 million in the black. Now if that's a flop... I'm not sure what you have to do these days to be called a blockbuster.
Now, yes, of course we can factor in costs of ads and a lot more but at the end of the day Waterworld, the go-to example of box office disasters, was in fact quite a bit of a profit maker.
Okay - so thats an example of a film that was likely going to make money eventually one way or another with the sort of ad budget and such that it had on it's side... let's look at a relatively smaller picture, like Fight Club.
US Gross: $37 million
International Gross: $63 million (note: That's the budget of the film ALONE)
This time you're just working off of the theatrical gross vs budget you're looking at being a cool $37 million in the black, and that's not even looking at the long term profits on rentals at $55 million.
OH. And that's not counting 6 MILLION COPIES OF DVD'S SOLD in the first 10 years. Making it one of the biggest sellers in home videos in 20th Century Fox's history. I'm not sure what the profit is for Fox on DVD sales but I paid $30 bucks for my first copy of Fight Club... even at about $10 a disc they break even.
And it's a smaller film--that $63 million isn't a back-breaker for a Hollywood feature, even in the late '90s. The promotional budget, often cited as an example of why some massive blockbuster tentpole didn't make money in spite of appearances, is next to nothing on a film like Fight Club.
So. Why am I gassing on about this? So, some companies actually did make money on things that entertainment reporters and film reviewers like to harp on about. Shock! People like to exaggerate things!
Well here's why I care.
Studios and "Hollywood" say things like "People don't want to see a film about two guys that beat each other up as a metaphor for our commercialization of society... they just want to see two people shoot eachother." Or, "they don't want to see a dark, depressing action film where the main Hollywood star doesn't take off his helmet the entire time and we never see his face."
Dredd is a bit more difficult fight, when the numbers are laid out.
Budget: $40-$50 million
International Gross: $27 million
DVD Sales: $10 million at last count (very incomplete)
Here we're breaking even... I can't find current data on Dredd's rental/streaming sales but I doubt we're looking at any game-changing financial figures. But the question I ask: What is the likely long-term impact of a film that builds a passionate fan base who are actively engaged with trying to make the movie a bigger success? That's Fight Club all over again, and while the DVD market isn't as strong as it was back then (not by a long shot), we also have more avenues for the studios to make a bigger chunk of the money (brick-and-mortar video stores used to take a heftier percentage than Amazon and iTunes get, along with middlemen who no longer exist), and we have bulk-sale deals that used to be limited only to cable networks. Now, you get that money over and over again--from cable, from satellite, from Netflix and Amazon and iTunes and more.
And the end of brick-and-mortar as the standard way to acquire non-new release movies is a game-changer: home video has become a much longer-term game, because even older product is always in stock.
Add that to the fact that the $10 million cited above is a soft number. There have been at least two major "Dredd Day of Action"-style events since then, when consumers bought Amazon out of their on-hand stock and made it a top ten seller and renter around the world.
Of course, this is all a bit of rationalization, but the need to rationalize the film as a "success" comes from the fact that it's a film that has a lot of very passionate fans. And, as Joss Whedon will tell you, a passionate fan base is half the battle when it comes to long-term profitability.