Box Office Disappointments That Might Surprise You

10 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

While there are exceptions, it’s never easy to predict which movies are going to find enormous financial success at the box office and which ones will fall short of expectations in a given year. Hollywood execs like to act like they know what they’re doing when it comes to convincing audiences to spend their hard-earned money on their products, but the truth is that moviegoers can be fickle and even movies that seem like sure bets can end up failing. It’s easy in retrospect to point to various factors for why individual movies had disappointing box office runs, but it’s much more difficult to predict flops before they happen.

These are the movies I want to highlight today – the ones that seemed positioned well to see big returns on investment but ended up doing much the opposite. The following are 12 of the most surprising box office disappointments. Enjoy!

12. Justice League (2017)

While the DC Films Universe has had a rough go of it when it comes to critical reception (except for Wonder Woman, of course), the franchise as a whole has put up impressive box office figures. Released in late 2017, Justice League looked like it would be yet another money-maker for Warner Bros and with Wonder Woman having proved both an overwhelming critical and commercial success earlier in the year, it was hard to escape the feeling that the franchise was at a turning point in terms of quality. Unfortunately, Justice League turned out to be a worst-case scenario, in that it not only got lousy review scores but fell well short of box office projections.

With a worldwide gross of $657.9 million, Justice League managed to break even but the expectation was that the film would turn a big profit, and given it was the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers crossovers, it should have earned more than the likes of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman. Instead, Justice League now sits as the lowest-grossing film in the franchise and a lot of the blame can be leveled at the studio’s behind-the-scenes tinkering, which turned Justice League into a lesser Avengers imitator.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros

11. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World is perhaps one of the biggest cult movies of the past decade, but Universal Pictures was betting that it would be a big summer hit when it was released in 2010. Although Universal noted at the time that they had “been aware of the challenges of broadening [the] film to a mainstream audience,” it was clear that the studio had high hopes for Scott Pilgrim and it’s easy to see why.

Sure, the film was based on a then-obscure Canadian comic series but it had an auteur director in Edgar Wright and had shown well when the trailer was unveiled at Comic-Con that year. Plus, it was a film about slackers and video games starring Michael Cera and a whole bunch of young actors. Surely that would play well with millennials?

While Scott Pilgrim did eventually find its audience, the film tanked at the box office, opening in fifth place with just $10.5 million in ticket sales. The film wound up only making $47.6 million worldwide, which was nowhere near enough to cover its $60 million budget.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

10. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

Before the release of Denis Villeneuve’s incredible Blade Runner 2049, much of the concern surrounding it had more to do with its very existence rather than its potential to sell tickets. After all, Ridley Scott’s original film had slowly built a reputation as one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made since its 1982 release, so the thought of a sequel was considered blasphemy to some. When 2049 was finally released, it was hailed as a worthy follow-up and a grand artistic achievement in its own right.

Yet, even with all the praise heaped upon it, the film ended up as a money loser for Warner Bros, failing to break even and falling well short of the $100 million marks in its domestic haul. While Blade Runner 2049 generated a lot of hype with the film enthusiast crowd, what was overlooked by many is that the original Blade Runner was also a box office disaster and took years just to break even thanks to numerous re-releases. Unfortunately, Blade Runner 2049’s failure only reinforced the fact that cerebral science fiction has historically been a box office nonstarter and something that studios shouldn’t invest heavily in.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

9. Cars 3 (2017)

Older Pixar fans tend to write off the Cars series as the studio’s lowest tier offerings, but the franchise has proven to be such a merchandising goldmine that Disney has churned two sequels out in less time than it took to get one follow-up to the infinitely superior The Incredibles. But whereas Cars and Cars 2 had global takes of $462 million and $562 million, respectively, Cars 3 fell well short of these figures with a global haul of $383.9 million.

Given that none of the Cars films have been particularly well-reviewed, the lackluster showing of Cars 3 may have reflected a growing disinterest among the young fanbase. Not only was Cars 3 one of the worst-reviewed films in Pixar’s catalog, but it also was one of the studio’s weakest ever openings and while it ultimately turned a profit, the future of the franchise (at least on the film front – the toys probably aren’t going anywhere) is now well in doubt.

Source: Screenshot via Walt Disney Studios

8. Tomorrowland (2015)

A Disney-produced fantasy-adventure film directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) and starring George Clooney has the appearance of a summer box office hit, but Tomorrowland released to middling reviews and financial success back in 2015. The film just barely scraped together $200 million worldwide but with a huge $180 million budget, Tomorrowland ended up being a huge loss for Disney.

According to Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis, the problem Tomorrowland faced is that it was an original movie, which can often be a big gamble in Hollywood. Of course, spending nearly $200 million on an unproven concept may seem like a huge mistake in retrospect, but Disney saw franchise potential in Tomorrowland, which also had a writer-director with a proven track record on board. Unfortunately, the studio ended up losing approximately $140 million on it, all but ensuring that Tomorrowland 2 will never see the light of day.

Source: Screenshot via Walt Disney Studios

7. War For the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Compared to the majority of films on this list, War for the Planet of the Apes was a box office success. While the third installment in Fox’s rebooted Planet of the Apes trilogy didn’t put up impressive figures domestically (a $146.8 million haul against a $150 million budget), it performed much better overseas and finished its theatrical run with close to the half-billion-dollar mark. However, when measured against its predecessor, War was a sizable disappointment for Fox, as Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raked in $710 million worldwide back in 2014.

So what happened? Well, a stiff competition played a significant role. Whereas both Rise of the Planet of the Apes and its sequel benefited from releasing in the typically slow month of August, War hit theaters in July and had to compete with big moneymakers such as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Dunkirk. Like its predecessors, War scored overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and audiences but wound up becoming the lowest-earning installment in the trilogy.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Century Fox

6. Baywatch (2017)

There are very few stars as bankable as Dwayne Johnson in Hollywood these days, but even The Rock can’t always be relied on to carry a movie to box office gold. Such is the case with Baywatch, which was marketed as an irreverent take on the 90s TV show in the vein of Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s uproariously funny 21 Jump Street. Unfortunately, Baywatch ended up performing a belly flop at the box office, a result of terrible review scores, a historically slow Memorial Day weekend, and stiff competition from films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, and Alien: Covenant.

Factor in that Baywatch’s hard R-rating and raunchy humor offered a much different viewing experience than the relatively tame action-drama offered by the original series and it’s easy to see why even the Rock couldn’t keep Baywatch from drowning.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

5. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Before the likes of Deadpool and Logan came along to prove that R-rated superhero movies could turn a profit, Matthew Vaughn’s low budget black comedy film Kick-Ass shattered expectations with an impressive worldwide haul of $96.2 million in 2010. Based on Mark Millar’s ultra-violent comic series of the same name, Kick-Ass was warmly received by both critics and audiences alike and helped launch the careers of young actors such as Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Evan Peters, and Chloë Grace Moretz. Naturally, expectations were high for the sequel, which swapped Nicolas Cage for Jim Carrey in the elder statesman role and made its way to theaters in 2013.

Unfortunately, Kick-Ass 2 – which was directed by Jeff Wadlow rather than Vaughn – proved to be a lesser film than its predecessor in pretty much every way and this was reflected in the review scores, which no doubt turned many fans of the original away. Though the film ended up finishing its theatrical run to the tune of $60.8 million, this was much lower than the total put up by the first film and puts Kick-Ass 2 firmly in the realm of shocking box office disappointments.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

4. The LEGO Ninjago Movie (2017)

The LEGO Movie’s massive financial success still stands as a huge box office surprise, as even though it had the name recognition of the LEGO brand, it was still an audacious animated movie that featured primarily original characters. On the flip side, the success of The LEGO Batman Movie can largely be attributed to the popularity of the Batman brand. Still, Warner Bros. was 2/2 heading into the release of The LEGO Ninjago Movie, so there was every reason to think that it would also post impressive financial figures.

However, Ninjago proved that just slapping the LEGO name on a movie isn’t enough to make people care about Ninjago, which is only really popular with children. Adult fans of the previous LEGO movie had little interest in seeing a Ninjago spinoff, especially when negative reviews started rolling in, which is why the film ended up being a major disappointment, ending its theatrical run with a global total of $123 million – hundreds of millions off the total earned by both The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

3. Waterworld (1995)

Nowadays, Waterworld has become shorthand for box office bust, but back in 1995, there was every expectation that the action-packed dystopian adventure would be a summer smash hit. After all, the film had one of the biggest movie stars of the era in the lead role, but even Kevin Costner couldn’t save this ship from sinking. While it’s since attained guilty pleasure status among film buffs, Waterworld received only mixed reviews from critics, which convinced many people to avoid sitting through over two hours of Costner sailing around the vast oceans of a post-apocalyptic Earth.

Thanks to success overseas, Waterworld was able to recoup its production costs but the situation may not have been so dire had Universal Pictures not produced the (at the time) most expensive movie ever made. Due to behind-the-scenes conflicts and a production plagued by numerous setbacks brought about by shooting primarily on an artificial seawater enclosure, Waterworld’s budget ballooned to $172 million (around $280 million in today’s dollars), which meant that the film had to be a massive hit to be profitable. Thanks in large part to home video sales, Waterworld eventually turned a profit.

Source: Screenshot via Universal Pictures

2. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz is widely regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, as the film set new benchmarks in everything from set design and costuming to music and storytelling. Praised by critics and nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Wizard of Oz is a cultural marvel … which makes it all the more surprising that it was something of a box office flop upon initial release.

At the time, The Wizard of Oz was the most expensive movie ever produced by MGM, but it disappointed at the box office. The film didn’t turn a profit until its re-release in 1949. Despite this, MGM still considered The Wizard of Oz a relative success and convinced the studio to sign star Judy Garland to a new contract with a sizable salary bump.

Source: Screenshot via MGM

1. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

As of this writing, Solo: A Star Wars Story is still in theaters and on track to lose anywhere from $50-80 million when it finishes its theatrical run. The film’s disappointing box office performance comes as something of a surprise in large part due to the Star Wars name, which has historically equated to guaranteed financial success.

Solo stands as the only Star Wars movie to not turn a profit (assuming its current performance stays on pace with projections, of course), which surely came as a shock to Lucasfilm and its parent company, Disney. Answers are still being sought for why Solo didn’t take off as expected but the consensus from industry analysts is that a poor marketing campaign, a crowded release window, and a premise that no one but hardcore fans seemed all that interested in are to blame.

Source: Screenshot via Walt Disney Studios

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)