A Box Office Bomb (or less severely, a flop) is a movie for which production and marketing cost greatly exceeds its gross revenue, ergo fails to turn a profit for the studio behind the film. While in the press the two terms have some crossover, a flop may be applied to all disappointing results, but a bomb is outright failure costing studios millions. With today's budgets, you can even see losses in the hundred-million-dollar range.
So, how can you tell when a movie has bombed? This depends on several factors. First is how much the studio paid to make the movie, paying all those people and companies you see in the credits at the end, which is generally public information. How much the studio paid to promote the movie is also an important factor. The marketing budget is generally not public information but is generally a significant percentage of the film's overall cost. A $150-million production may well have had $75 million spent to advertise it. Furthermore, since movie theaters don't just show movies for free, a portion of every ticket sold goes to supporting the theater itself. And of course, if the film is based on something, like a video game or a comic, somebody's got to shell out for the rights to use the names and setting, and that can really rack up the bills. Put these together, and you can see that a movie mustn't merely cover its budget but probably needs to make at least twice that before it can begin paying for its marketing costs, much less become profitable.
A common objection at this point is to bring up the international box office. After all, the film made several hundred million more than its budget around the world; clearly these studios just want us to think only America matters and the Hollywood press keeps buying it! Right? Well, actually not really. Or at least, not always. While the rest of the world is a much bigger market and can rack up film returns in the billions, behind these numbers, overseas distribution is actually a lot less profitable for the studios themselves. Like with domestic theaters, foreign theaters need to make money off of ticket sales, and they're more inclined to support movies made locally as opposed to internationally-made movies. As such, films shown overseas will often see even less of a return than the domestic gross and may have additional costs like needing a local dub track. How much the international box office helps can also vary depending on the country in question. So studios still count on covering their costs domestically and judge a movie accordingly. While it's possible in practice, aversions tend to be from marginal cases. Around the world, taste in American movies tends to favor the same films, and the biggest hits at home are also the biggest hits around the world.
Commonly cited possible reasons for box office failures:
- Misreading the market: Probably the biggest reason that a movie fails is that it's just plain hard to know what people will like. Worse, what the public likes changes all the time. Something that was innovative two years ago when you tried to Follow the Leader and greenlit the movie is now a tired old cliché nobody will see. Maybe you underestimated the audience or overestimated them, or maybe you don't even know which audience you want to attract. The point is: sometimes even your best efforts fail.
- Bad word of mouth: Sometimes a movie does poorly because everybody's just expecting it to be a bad movie - maybe it's a sequel to a bad film, or it's in a genre that the director isn't known for, or it might involve a director/actor/producer who turns off viewers for one reason or another, or it's assumed to be a rip-off of an older movie, or a remake, or another Continuity Reboot, or the trailers were terrible... and often people just don't want to go to see a movie that they aren't sure they'll enjoy. This doesn't mean the movie is bad, just that enough people think it is to cause the movie to fail.
- Competition: This is particularly often in effect with summer blockbusters. People have a limited amount of brainless action they would watch, and if there's a lot of that available, some titles may be neglected. They also tend to be high-budget, and as such if the movie flops, it costs a lot. There is, however, often a principle similar to Award Snub in nature: several good movies (with similar target audiences) are released simultaneously, thus one of them performs truly spectacularly, another one flops, but both are considered great in hindsight (the hit E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and the flop Blade Runner, for example).
- Poor marketing: Many a bomb became so despite (or due to) being an excellent movie in general. Incorrect or misleading information about them (or just plain lack of marketing) makes audiences rely exclusively on word-of-mouth, which is generally not enough for a movie to successfully perform. The internet has made this situation a bit better, but not that much. These movies almost always achieve cult status and can later become profitable on DVD.
- Poor budgeting: With the amount of money spent on big releases, this is an increasingly large risk. Even good movies can effectively fall down at the box-office if they cost too much to make. Tens of millions are spent on special effects that last a few minutes or sets that will inevitably be blown up, an actor's paycheck is extortionate, and if it all costs too much, you're going to reach a point where no matter how good a movie is, it just can't make back what was spent on it. The creators can only hope for good DVD sales and reviews and take home a little lesson for next time.
- Limited releases: Many independent films are released in less than a few hundred theatres in the USA, which makes it very unlikely for expensive indies to recoup their budget. Also if the movie was released direct-to-video in one territory.
- The movie sucks: Let's face it. For all the other reasons a movie can bomb, sometimes a movie fails because it's just a bad movie. The story, the editing, the acting, it all sucks. Somebody put a lot of money into this thing, and man, was that a terrible idea! Maybe the director was phoning it in, or he made poor creative choices because he was blinded by his ego. Maybe the producers were so bombed out of their skulls on coke that they never stopped to think if making the movie was a good idea in the first place. It failed, sucks to be you, better luck next time...if there is a next time.
- Other circumstances: Sometimes movies flop due to something that's not directly related to the movie itself or the movie industry as a whole. For example, the first film to lose over a million dollars, Intolerance, came out at a time when its anti-war sentiments (which were widely held just months earlier) were going against the popular pro-war wave of late 1916. Maybe the director or headlining actor made a derogatory comment that leads to a boycott of the film. Funny Aneurysm Moments tend to hit disaster movies' sales very hard when bad timing happens; the September 11th attacks and the Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, killed a lot of those even though they were obviously filmed prior to the catastrophes. The same effect involves comedies lampooning airports, airlines, and the security process, which all brought down the film adaptation of Big Trouble, which was bumped to the Dump Months from its original position ten days after the 11th. Another example of unfortunate timing is if a movie's genre is killed prior to release. More recently, the COVID-19 Pandemic forced many theaters to shut down all over the world (China closed their theaters in January, and most other countries followed suit in March); films such as Bloodshot and Pixar's Onward suffered from it so badly that major studios temporarily halted reporting box office numbers. Several tentpole films even had their release dates changed when the pandemic hit since almost nobody would be going to the theaters any time soon, and films that couldn't do so ended up getting early digital releases. Tenet was the most high profile theatrical release during the pandemic as theaters started reopening in limited capacity, and ended up a valiant failure.
Please remember to take inflation into account when looking at films made decades in the past. Cleopatra's $44 million budget in 1963, while nothing impressive today, would be equivalent to $345.1 million in 2016 dollars. Furthermore, an independent film or studio is less able to absorb huge losses than a major studio, so the threshold for a bomb is lower for them. The lower figures (both budget and box-office) for older films and indie films can be deceptive.
Has nothing to do with Hollywood Accounting, where the movie is not actually a flop but the real revenue is hidden in various ways to let studios weasel out of agreements to pay certain people a percent of the profits. Unless maybe someone is trying for a Springtime for Hitler sorta scheme and other sorts of fraud.
Flops tend to become Franchise Killers, Genre Killers or Creator Killers (or some combination of the three), or 'spawn' a Stillborn Franchise. Critical Dissonance is often at full force here if critics liked it. Vindicated by Video often helps (especially with Better on DVD thrown in), as does Vindicated by Cable. For when the critics and the (too small) audience love the movie, yet it still fails commercially, see Acclaimed Flop.
According to The Other Wiki, the biggest bomb of all time, according to the Guinness Book of World Records (before the category was retired), was Cutthroat Island with an inflation adjusted loss of $176 million. This catastrophic failure along with Showgirls instantly crushed Carolco Pictures as a result. The current largest confirmed loss is Mortal Engines, with a $178 million loss that has pushed Island into joint second place with The Lone Ranger (2013) which is at least equally the second biggest loss after losing at least $176 million at the box office but may have lost up to $209 million making it a contender for the biggest bomb of all time. Just outside the top three is Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas which lost $174 million.
There is some ambiguity however in that there are two other films that may have lost even more: The 13th Warrior with a loss ranging from the fairly depressing $106 million to an eye watering $198 million, and John Carter with a range from a pretty dire $127 million to an insane $223 million lost. Both of these, as well as The Lone Ranger (2013), were from Disney (though the former most has the Touchstone Pictures label attached to it, due to its more adult content), a multibillion-dollar company that easily weathered those losses unlike Carolco.
Please do not add any examples which have not finished their initial theatrical run, as it can be possible for films, still running theatrically which seem like box office bombs, to be able to recoup their budget slower than other films.
Because there are so many instances of this happening, the pages have been separated into seven sections:
"Bomb Report" contains many examples box office bombs released since 1997 in further detail.