Top 10 Box Office Busts Top 10 Selections

#8 Box Office Bust: The Alamo (2004)

Synopsis: Like many other failures, The Alamo (2009) had numerous problems throughout production. The replacement of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard and Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe didn’t help. Missing its anticipated release date didn’t help. Replacement director John Lee Hancock’s inexperience making a big-budget movie didn’t help. Regardless, the movie’s biggest problem related to its actual content. While lauded for its historical accuracy, the movie failed to be entertaining. After a weak opening, the film absolutely cratered due to negative word of mouth. With a budget of almost $110 million and worldwide ticket sales of only $25 million, The Alamo has been named the #8 Box Office Bust.


MOVIE SUMMARY

Plot: A historical account of the 1836 Battle of the Alamo as part of Texas’ war for independence from Mexico. The movie focuses on famed politician Sam Houston, frontiersman Davy Crockett, knife enthusiast Jim Bowie, and Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

Producers: Ron Howard, Brian Glazer, Mark Johnson

Director: John Lee Hancock

Writer: Leslie Bohem, Stephen Gaghan, John Lee Hancock

Actors: Dennis Quaid, Billy Bob Thornton, Emilio Echevarría

Metacritic Score: 47 (mixed review)

BOX OFFICE NUMBERS*
Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
The Alamo April 9, 2004 $107 million $9.1 million 2,609 $3,500 $22.4 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com

** Information provided by IMDb.

THE ALAMO: SET-UP
HISTORICAL CONTEXT

With respect to monumental catastrophes, the Alamo has elite company. Of note, it can be used interchangeably with Waterloo, the Titanic, or the Hindenburg. Any films about these historical events generally should be reserved for the small screen (e.g. PBS or the History Channel). Moviegoers want to be entertained and movies with predictably depressing endings usually don’t fit the bill.

Accepting the challenge like a narcissistic egomaniac, James Cameron took a big risk making Titanic (1997). With production costs in excess of $200 million, the movie could have become as big of a failure as its subject matter. In case you’re wondering, the actual ship cost less. Equally ego maniacal, White Star Line built the cruise liner for $7.5 million, or $170 million on an inflation-adjusted basis.

Unlike the ship’s captain, Cameron avoided a proverbial iceberg by combining incredible special effects with an epic love story. Thanks in part to the millions of teenage girls who saw the movie multiple times, it went on to gross almost $700 million domestically and $2.2 billion worldwide. Furthermore, it won a record-tying 11 Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director). Clearly, Cameron’s gamble paid off.

THE ORIGINAL DIRECTOR: RON HOWARD

Perhaps inspired by Titanic’s success, Ron Howard decided to tackle another catastrophic event by making a movie about the Alamo. Just like Cameron, Howard showed he could make critically acclaimed movies with commercial appeal. For instance, Apollo 13 (1995) won two Oscar Awards and grossed over $350 million. In addition, A Beautiful Mind (2001) won four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and grossed over $310 million.

THE ORIGINAL LEAD ACTOR: RUSSELL CROWE

To help get the movie green lit, Howard recruited Russell Crowe to star in the role of Sam Houston. Over the previous three years, Crowe had been nominated for three consecutive Academy Awards as Best Actor. In between nominations for The Insider and A Beautiful Mind, Crowe won for Gladiator. That last movie proved to be a critical success (12 Oscar nominations / five wins) as well as a commercial success ($460 million in worldwide ticket sales). Without a doubt, Crowe was the hottest actor in Hollywood at the time.

HOT

ALAMO - ORIGINAL STAR
Filming The Gladiator in 1999
THE VISION

Despite going to the studio with a formidable director/lead actor tandem, Howard ultimately didn’t get the green light for the movie he wanted to make. According to a FoxNews.com article from September 2002, Howard commented:

I wanted to do a gritty, no-holds-barred film about the wild gang at the Alamo. It would not have been the Cocoon version. It was going to be very graphic — and Disney said no. They wanted a PG movie. They didn’t want an R movie with controversy, so it became this battle that was brewing. . . . With a movie like that, everyone has to be working together with the same goals.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

I don’t doubt that Howard disagreed with the studio about the type of movie to make. However, I believe it came down to what it always comes down to.

According to an Entertainment Weekly article from August 2002, the Howard / Crowe tandem required $37 million in up-front money. Specifically, Crowe wanted $20 million to act, while Howard wanted $10 million to direct and $7 million to produce. In addition, they wanted a back-end fee that equated to 18.5% of all ticket sales above $200 million. Given the expected budget of $125 million, the movie would have had to gross over $280 million at the box office before the studio would have made any money on it.

Showing fiscal restraint, Disney accepted a $75 million budget with John Lee Hancock as the director and Dennis Quaid as the lead actor. Of note, Hancock and Quaid had success for the studio earlier in the year with The Rookie (2002). That movie received positive reviews (Metascore of 72) and grossed over $80 million on a $20 million budget. Apparently, the studio executives believed the new team offered a better risk profile. Well, they thought wrong.

THE ALAMO: DOWNFALL
PENNY WISE, DOLLAR FOOLISH

After balking at Howard’s original proposal for a $125 million project, Disney opted for a less expensive film with a less experienced director. Hancock turned a nice profit for Disney with The Rookie but had never directed a big budget film. As such, he suffered from having too much instead of too little. For an article in the New York Times, Hancock admitted,

I was frightened. I’d never done anything like this before. Some days we had 12 cameras going, at once. Sometimes it was like directing the “Monday Night Football” game from the booth. It’s big.

By the time the cameras stopped rolling, Hancock had over 1 million feet (approximately 180 hours) of film. After many weeks in the cutting room, he created a three-hour movie. When the studio realized that the film dragged and needed more editing, its projected release for the 2003 holiday season had to be delayed. Arguably, movies are like home renovations. They generally take longer and cost more than budgeted. Similar to first-time contractors, first-time directors are more likely to miss deadlines and budgets.

Interestingly, the movie’s production costs easily passed $75 million and ended up at approximately $110 million. The studio hoped to save $50 million by switching from Howard/Crowe to Hancock/Quaid. In the end, the savings may have been as low as $15 million. Even assuming Disney saved $25 million from the change, the lost revenue at the box office might have been multiples of that sum.

SAVE TEACHING FOR THE CLASSROOM 

Unlike most other Top 10 Box Office Busts, The Alamo wasn’t panned by the critics. Instead, they gave it mixed reviews and even praised it for its factual accuracy. William Arnold from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showed his admiration with the following quote. 

It’s a well-crafted, intelligent, no-nonsense western epic that zips us through the famous siege and the birth of Texas with style, verve and impressive historical accuracy.

In contrast, Mike Clark of USA Today believed that the realism of the movie detracted from the experience. In particular, he provided the following assessment.

Interesting, but not in a good way, is that the final charge is not particularly effective. Poor filmmakers: They try to be true to history by staging the battle in the predawn darkness, whereas John Wayne’s often windy and inaccurate version transformed it to daytime. Partly because we could actually see what was going on, Wayne got one of the greatest action scenes in movie history.

Clark referred to John Wayne’s version of The Alamo (1960), which has been criticized for being too detached from reality. In an attempt to stir patriotism during a time of tense US/USSR relations, Wayne made a politicized movie with little regard for the truth. When comparing Wayne’s approach to Hancock’s, Clark commented, “It’s a tough call, but sometimes, there’s something to be said for myth.”

THE ALAMO: CONCLUSION

Not surprisingly, most critics took advantage of the slogan “Remember the Alamo” when writing their reviews. For example, one wrote, “Remember the Alamo? Disney doesn’t.” Earning originality points by referencing Alamo Rent a Car instead, Clark wrote,

The movie is a mild compeller for history buffs, and occasionally it’s better than that. But the teenage mall rats, on whom box office success largely depends, are more likely to zoom away in Alamo rental cars.

Although corny, Clark’s point that the movie failed to resonate with a fan base willing to pay for tickets was quite relevant. Echoing that thought, Arnold also questioned the movie’s marketing strategy. Specifically, he expressed the concern:

With no central female characters and little humor, it may suffer the same box-office fate as Master & Commander.

Of note, Crowe decided to star in Master & Commander (2003) after passing on The Alamo. Crowe’s alternate movie grossed over $210 million worldwide but still lost money given its $150 million budget. With only $25 million in ticket sales worldwide, The Alamo actually suffered a much worse box-office fate.

SLOW START FOLLOWED BY SLOWER FINISH

Despite all of its problems, The Alamo grossed approximately $9 million during its opening weekend. The studio couldn’t have been excited by that total, but the movie became an all-time bust because of the dramatic falloff from there. As a comparison, Titanic generated three times more ticket sales in its opening weekend but 30 times more in total. While staying true to the actual sinking of the ship, Cameron took extensive liberties writing the story. By appealing to teenage mall rats as well as history buffs, Titanic had unprecedented longevity in the theaters. In essence, the less accurate movie survived ten times longer than the more accurate one.

After recently watching The Alamo, I believe the subject matter and storytelling could have been a very compelling miniseries. While television production budgets tend to be smaller, HBO provided $120 million to Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg for their passion project Band of Brothers (2001). Given the critical and commercial success of that series, HBO might have been willing to fund Howard’s passion project. Specifically, Howard could have told the story exactly how he envisioned. The famed director’s desire to focus on multiple characters proved challenging in a 2-hour movie. However, it would have been much easier as a 10-hour cable TV series.

THE ALAMO: POSTSCRIPT

Despite missing out on making The Alamo together, Howard and Crowe reunited to make Cinderella Man (2005). Nominated for three Oscars, the movie grossed over $60 million domestically and almost $110 million worldwide. Given the film’s $90 million budget, it lost money at the box office. However, it probably broke even given all other revenue channels.

Separately, both men have continued to succeed. Howard received an Oscar nomination for directing Frost/Nixon (2008). In addition, he directed box-office juggernauts The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009), which combined to gross over $1.2 billion worldwide. While not the Oscar threat that he used to be, Crowe still has commercial appeal. His movies Robin Hood (2010) and Noah (2014) combined to gross almost $700 million worldwide. Somehow though, he just doesn’t seem to be as hot anymore.

OR NOT?

crowe update
Apparently, looking like Noah is not as demanding as looking like a gladiator.

Whether by his own choice or not, Hancock hasn’t directed another big budget film (i.e. over $75 million) since The Alamo. At the same time, he directed The Blind Side (2009) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013). Both movies had megastars (Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks, respectively) and budgets ranging from $30-$35 million. The Blind Side generated over $300 million worldwide and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Movie. Saving Mr. Banks generated $120 million worldwide and won AFI’s Movie of the Year. Hancock hasn’t been a prolific movie maker over the last ten years, but he has shown an ability to make good, profitable movies when given the chance.

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