From Triumphs To Flops: Hollywood’s Biggest Winners & Losers

Over the years some films have made Hollywood, others have nearly broken it? In “From Flops To Triumphs: Hollywood’s Biggest Winners & Losers”, Top 10 Films looks at the profit-makers as well as the loss-makers, and how popular commercial appeal is a hugely difficult, unpredictable goal.
Avatar, Top 10 Films

Avatar made a $2.5bn profit at the box office.

Hollywood is a commercial machine. It churns out movies every year for a single purpose: to make lots of money. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of value in the films we choose to see. Indeed, many filmmakers and other talented people – in front of and behind the camera – who work within the Hollywood system want to give their audience life enriching cinema, films that help us discover more about the human condition as well as inform, excite and stimulate culturally, politically and historically through entertainment.

In other words, within that commercial machine, Hollywood cinema can, and is often, wondrously bewildering, invigorating and awe-inspiring, hilarious and moving, romanticised and romantic. Movies make us happy, sad, frightened, shameful and sympathetic, turned off and turned on. When film delivers one, two or all of these emotions we’re happy to pay for the ticket. Again, and again, and again. That makes the profit-driven movie business one committed to inciting an emotional reaction, its margins dependent on an ability to entice the biggest audience possible through the most satisfying and widely attainable emotions.

The whole “blockbuster” phenomenon inspired Hollywood to pump lots and lots of money into films it could predict would make a huge profit in return. That’s why every year we see tent pole movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win back their investment and double, triple or quadruple costs through the box office. Studios hope they’ve gambled correctly, be it a sequel to a hot property (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Bridget Jones’ Baby), a re-booted franchise (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Ghostbusters), a trend such as a comic book adaptation (The Avengers, Suicide Squad), or a popular genre with recognisable, bankable star names (for example, romance-comedy The Proposal with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock).

But one thing we know (and love) about cinema is that money can’t buy that intangible quality that turns a film from mere entertainment into something we can call a “favourite”. A film costing a few thousand dollars could turn into a much-loved classic and, like horror Paranormal Activity, make a huge profit at the box office despite costing a fraction of Hollywood’s average tent pole movie spend.

My interest was recently peaked by an interesting graphic detailing Hollywood’s biggest triumphs as well as its worst flops since 1963’s Cleopatra. Hire Intelligence, market leaders in the UK, Ireland and Australia for renting IT, AV and electronic equipment, produced the graphic from a pool of 84 films across all genres. The pool includes several independent releases including non-US movies such as 1979’s Aussie effort Mad Max but the list is certainly dominated by big budget Hollywood.

From record-breaking successes to absolute disasters the graphic compiles the biggest movie flops and triumphs of all time.

From record-breaking successes to absolute disasters the graphic compiles the biggest movie flops and triumphs of all time.

It makes for fascinating viewing, particularly because you can sort by genre which reveals that action and adventure prove to be a winning combination for box office success. Just look at some of Hollywood’s most successful big budget films – sci-fi epic Avatar, the sinking of the Titanic, James Bond thrill-ride Quantum of Solace. This combination of genres also play a crucial role in comic book film adaptation with The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, Man of Steel and The Avengers all appearing in the top 15 “triumphs” in the list.

But Hollywood must be careful. As the graphic shows, the action-adventure genre isn’t a guarantee of anything if elements – such as performance, dramatic direction or tone – don’t win over audiences. The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which is one of Hollywood’s biggest flops had both genre and a bankable star (Eddie Murphy) on its side but was a massive flop at the box office (it made a $93m loss). Similarly, Mortdecai and 47 Ronin (with stars Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves on board) made huge losses too.

While limiting its audience by virtue of its restrictive rating, horror has proven it is a type of film that can earn massive box office returns. This is primarily because the genre must work within the constraints of much smaller budgets. New Line Cinema and distributor Warner Bros. Pictures threw $20m at talented director James Wan to make the excellent The Conjuring. It made a $298m profit.

Paranormal Activity, which was independently produced before being picked up by Paramount for distribution and given a hefty marketing budget, made a profit of $248m having cost just $15,000 to make.

Horror gets into muddy water when Hollywood puts millions of dollars into making a blockbuster scary movie and, in fighting for a bigger audience, waters down its adult material thus sapping it of its full potential. Case in point: Universal put $150m into The Wolfman remake only to see it make a loss at the box office.

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More unpredictable is comedy. What is funny to one person might not be to the next. Of the nine comedy movies on the list, four are profitable triumphs and five are listed as flops (four of which make a financial loss).

Outside of the action-adventure genre (and we’ll include fantasy in that too), its unsurprising that the first film to break the mould (Men in Black III, which is listed as a comedy), combines elements of action and fantasy to bring its tale of secret alien-hunting government agents to life.

The top performing film that really does break that commercial blueprint is historical drama The King’s Speech (a British film but backed by Hollywood’s Weinstein Company during distribution). It turned its comparatively tiny budget into a $399m profit.

So what makes a movie a triumph at the box office? Well, that’s as difficult to answer as the chicken or egg enigma. A huge investment doesn’t guarantee success but Hollywood’s financial strength does give it a helping hand to profitability.

Written by Dan Stephens

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Fraser Reply

    Back in 1996 Empire ran a piece by Ian Nathan (called Laughing All the Way to La Banque) in which the writer pointed out that the 1995 Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld – while considered a flop during its initial release – did end up making good money because of the international market. According to Nathan, although it only made $87 million in the US, it pulled in $139 million from foreign ticket sales, giving it a total gross figure of $226 million (Dan’s above article lists its gross as $264.2 million, so it must have pulled in another $40 million during the intervening years assuming these numbers are all using the same currency).

    Nathan pretty much attributed this overseas success to two key factors – expanding markets (at the time it was Eastern Europe, China and India) and star power. The Bridges of Madison County, for example, made $73 in the US and $71 million abroad – thanks, in no small part, to Clint Eastwood’s global popularity. Ditto Mel Gibson and Braveheart – $81 million at home; $67 million elsewhere. This kind of thinking also explains how Apollo 13, with stars like Hanks, Bacon, Paxton and Harris – made $113 million in the US, but topped this internationally with $171 million.

    Of course times have changed. Avatar, for example, didn’t really have a big drawcard star (if one discounts Sigourney Weaver) while the popularity of Johnny Depp sort of cancels itself out if one compares the highs of Pirates of the Caribbean against the lows of Mortdecai.

    “So what makes a movie a triumph at the box office?”

    Nathan’s now almost 21-year article reached this conclusion: ” … the powers that be are realising that they have to think wide when it comes to pitching their latest blockbuster. The globe is shrinking, the market place expanding. There are parts of the world where the media fed cynicism of Hollywood doesn’t sway box office queues, and popcorn munchers remain blissfully open minded about their movie choices.”

    Of course this is old news, and the arrival of digital media has somewhat changed this dynamic. Nevertheless, had the brains trusts who made star-driven things like 47 Ronin and Pluto Nash kept their international audiences a little more in mind, maybe they wouldn’t have taken such a hit at the box office.

    Another great read BTW Dan.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Thanks for reading Mark. I hadn’t seen Ian Nathan’s article prior to writing this so it’s interesting to see his thoughts. You are right about the new digital market changing things completely.

      With more choice and availability that will undoubtedly impact our desire to travel to the theatre, pay for an overpriced ticket and sit with a bunch of other people in a dark room.

      I look at the comparatively low budget horror films and can’t help but feel Hollywood needs to think about spreading its money wider. There’s no reason films should cost $200m+. That money could surely be split five or ten ways: it gives more filmmakers the chance to achieve their vision, it gives us more choice, and crucially, spreads the industry’s risk, giving it more chance to succeed and surely less chance of failure.

  2. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Really fascinating article Dan. The box office is one of my interests as well. Your article is bang on in pretty much every facet but just one thing I wanted to mention is that the films final gross is not net profit for the studio. The general rule is that whatever film makes it nets about a 50% return for the studio. So when you see a film like The Conjuring makes three hundred million dollars worldwide off of 20 million dollar budget, generally speaking a hundred and fifty million dollars that goes back to the studio. Now the cost that we see probably never includes the marketing for a film which for tent poles can add another hundred or two hundred million dollars to the budget as well. It’s a fascinating topic because there’s so many areas that we really don’t know anything about. Home video sales have plummeted and digital sales are now on the rise. Television rights used to be around 15% of the gross is what is Studio would get from the television network that wins the rights to broadcast said film. The truth is the profitability of a film is really hard to gauge because there are so many x-factors. Your article was really well done really well written and fascinating and I thank you for taking the time to write it.

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