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Five legendary cinema box office flops


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There are many reasons why films flop at the box office – poor reviews, bad word of mouth, obscure subject matters, and bad timing.

Since movies are driven by money as much as the desire to entertain, flops are not only a disappointment to those involved in the film’s production, but also a disaster for the studios that release them. Many can end the careers of once-promising actors and directors.

Movie boffins can tell you of the complicated ways in which flops are calculated and categorised, but we’re not going to bother with the maths. The following is simply a list of five of the most infamous cinematic disasters of all time.

1) 47 Ronin

First up is 47 Ronin, a fairly recent movie with Keanu Reeves in the starring role as the leader of a group of 18th century avenging Samurai. The terribly-titled film was initially released in Japan, its poor reception there being a bad omen for the subsequent unleashing on the audiences of the United States, who were predictably no more welcoming.

47 Ronin, which went on to lose $152 million, was a classic case of a major picture struggling to be heard in the busy December release period, but the bad reviews can’t have helped, either. Matrix star Reeves likely took little consolation for the nomination of best costumes, which in any case the film lost to that other inexplicably successful series, The Hunger Games.

2) The Fall of the Roman Empire

Next up is The Fall of the Roman Empire, a 1964 classic in the style of Cleopatra which is testament to the fact that some very good movies can still be financial disasters. The three-hour epic elegantly tells the story of the corruption and decadence that led to the decline of the once-mighty Romans, and features Hollywood legends Sophia Loren and Alec Guinness in the starring roles.

Despite featuring one of the largest outdoor sets in the history of film, a 92,000 square meter replica of a Roman Forum, and receiving a strong critical reception, the failure of the film to find an audience effectively ended the career of producer Samuel Bronston, a legendary name for anyone who knows their Sixties epics.

3) The Lone Ranger

Bombs can often be the result of greedy movie moguls wanting to re-tell the stories of older heroes that many modern cinemagoers know little about. Such is the case with The Lone Ranger, based on the 1930s radio adventures of masked former Texas Ranger fighting outlaws in the American West. The film promoted the Ranger's Native American sidekick Tonto as the star, giving Johnny Depp yet another chance to portray a creepy weirdo.

The movie's mediocre script and action sequences couldn't successfully introduce the old heroes to a new generation, while many critics commented nervously on the decision to cast Depp as a Native American from the Comanche tribe. The Comanche Nation College even got in on the act, dismissing Depp's attempts to mimic their local language. He can't have worried too much, however, seeing as there's less than forty living native speakers.

4) Cutthroat Island

In the film business a prolonged and troubled pregnancy is often the sign of the impending birth of a turkey, as was the case with 1995’s Cutthroat Island. The swashbuckling adventure was a disaster in the making even before production began, requiring countless casting changes and several major re-writes. But the film couldn’t be shoved off the plank due to pre-arranged funding agreements from foreign investors, who doubtless weren’t happy when it made only a tenth of the budget back at the box office.

Film critic Roger Ebert, known for giving fair reviews to otherwise derided films, said Cutthroat Island was unremarkable but worth seeing only if you’re really into the adventures of one-eyed sea dogs. The film was thought to have spelt the end of the pirate genre of movies, only for Johnny Depp’s more successful Captain Jack Sparrow to save the day a decade leader.

5) Heaven's Gate

Last, but by no means least, is Heaven’s Gate, a 1979 release which has since become a byword for titanic cinematic disasters. The film sounds like it has a lot going for it – set in the wilds of 1890s Wyoming, the story of a contentious dispute between land and immigrants features Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Willem Dafoe and many others.

However, Heaven’s Gate was yet another film that was doomed before it was released, with rumours of animal abuse and director Michael Cinimo’s abrasive behaviour ensuring that it bombed so heavily that it bankrupt the parent studio, United Artists. At the movie’s subdued premiere Cinimo is reported to have wondered why, during the interval, nobody was drinking the champagne, only to be told by a publicist: ‘because they hate the movie.’

Had there been more such blunt voices on hand during the production of each of these and many other movies, such box office disasters could have been minimalised or avoided altogether. It would have saved a lot of people a lot of money, to be sure, but would have deprived cinema connoisseurs the schadenfreude of watching such hulks sink to the bottom of the howling depths of movie infamy.

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