Top 10 Box Office Busts Top 10 Selections

#3 Box Office Bust: Cutthroat Island

Synopsis: On an inflation-adjusted basis, Cutthroat Island (1995) continues to be the biggest box-office flop in history. While that distinction alone may be worthy of the top position in my countdown, I just couldn’t rank it higher than #3. In particular, the film lacked true star power and suffered from its studio’s financial difficulties. For me, those qualifications make it less bust-worthy. At the same time, I recognize that the damage created by the movie’s wake has been significant. Of note, the director (Renny Harlin), lead actress (Geena Davis), and lead actor (Matthew Modine) all have been relegated to the small screen. If you don’t recognize those names, you now know why.


#3 BOX OFFICE BUST: CUTTHROAT ISLAND

Plot: A female pirate (Davis) and a conman (Modine) search for a hidden treasure buried on Cutthroat Island.

Producers: Mario Kasser, Renny Harlin

Director: Renny Harlin

Writers: Robert King, Marc Norman

Actors: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine

Metacritic score: 48 (mixed reviews)

BOX OFFICE NUMBERS*
Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
Cutthroat Island Dec. 22, 1995 $98 million $2.4 million 1,619 $1,500 $10.0 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com.

** Information provided by IMDb.

BACKGROUND

From the early ’80s to the early ’90s, Carolco Pictures repeatedly demonstrated an ability to make big-budget films that people wanted to see. Of note, the studio produced First Blood (1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), Rambo III (1988), Total Recall (1990), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), Basic Instinct (1992), and Cliffhanger (1993). Each of these films had two things in common.

  1. It starred a bankable A-List actor (e.g. Sylvester Stalone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael Douglas).
  2. It relied more on action than dialogue. Without translation as a barrier, it could perform well internationally.

This strategy clearly worked given that these seven movies combined to gross approximately $2.0 billion worldwide. In addition to drawing large audiences, these movies earned significant profits for the studio. Based on total production costs of $300 million, the seven films combined to generate almost $700 million in profit from the box office. Including merchandising and video sales, they likely made well over $1 billion for the studio. 

Despite the significant cash flow from these blockbusters, Carolco didn’t manage its finances well. Instead, the company celebrated its successes by paying large dividends to investors and spending money like a drunken sailor on shore leave. For instance, Chairman/CEO Mario Kasser gave Schwarzenegger a G-III jet worth around $15 million as a gift for signing on to do Terminator 2. Then again, perhaps The Guvenator simply took a trip into Les Grossman’s Goody Room.

LES GROSSMAN – TOM’S CRUISE’S BEST ROLE
Tropic Thunder is no Cutthroat Island
If you didn’t get the reference to Les Grossman, perhaps this picture will help. If you didn’t click on the previous link (in blue), may sure you click on this one.

Apparently, Carolco ran its business on the premise that one blockbuster per year could keep the money flowing and the doors open. Unfortunately, the studio bet the ranch on Cutthroat Island in 1995. If didn’t guess by now, it lost.

DOWNFALL
CHANGING THE RECIPE

Unlike for its other bet-the-ranch movies, Carolco greenlit the project based on an A-List Director (Renny Harlin) instead of an A-List Actor. In the early 1990s, Harlin directed blockbusters Die Hard 2 (1990) and Cliffhanger (1993). Both proved to be very profitable given that they each had ticket sales of approximately $250 million and production costs of $70 million.

Interestingly, both movies followed the Carolco recipe of films starring A-List actors (i.e. Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2 and Sylvester Stalone in Cliffhanger) with a lot of action and minimal dialogue. Based on the following still shot from Die Hard 2, accuracy didn’t matter.

JOHN McCLANE – BRUCE WILLIS’S BEST ROLE
Diehard 2 was no Cutthroat Island either
Despite all of the unrealistic moments in the movie, this oversight bothered me most.

Furthermore, Carolco produced Cliffhanger so the studio already made a lot of money with Harlin at the helm (pun, and foreshadowing, intended). Unfortunately, Harlin couldn’t strike gold twice (another pun intended).

LACK OF TRUE STAR POWER

Perhaps blinded by love, Harlin demanded that his to-be wife, Geena Davis, co-star in the movie. At the time, Davis had recently received an Oscar nomination as Best Actress for the critically acclaimed and financially successful Thelma and Louise (1993). As such, his demand didn’t seem completely unreasonable. Still, the studio proceeded assuming that the movie would get an A-Lister to play opposite Davis.

Initially, the studio had targeted Michael Douglas with whom it made a lot of money on Basic Instinct (1992). Douglas originally agreed to star in the new film but required equal screen time as Davis. When that condition apparently couldn’t be met, he walked. Without Douglas, the producers contacted a select group of replacements.The list of actors who turned down the role included:

  • Tom Cruise (post-Maverick, but pre-Les Grossman).
  • Daniel Day-Lewis (after his Oscar win for My Left Foot but before his Oscar wins for There Will Be Blood and Lincoln).
  • Ralph Fiennes (after his Oscar nomination for Schindler’s List, but pre-Voldemort).
  • Liam Neeson (post Schlinder, but before Taken).
  • Michael Keaton (post-Batman, but pre-Birdman)
  • Tim Robbins (post Shawshank, but pre . . . I don’t know, I’m still waiting).
  • Charlie Sheen (post Platoon, but pre-Tiger Blood). Yeah, even he declined.

Eventually, Matthew Modine signed on for the role. I really liked Modine in his role as Joker in Full Metal Jacket. Well, at least I liked him in the first half of the movie. I also thought he did a good job as Captain Dennis Dearborn in Memphis Belle. Still, no one ever would have considered him an A-Lister.

BANKRUPTCY

Distracted by his search for a lead actor, Harlin apparently didn’t realize that the studio authorized the building of sets and ships before he had finalized the script. Once the director found out, he ordered a set redesign and then a script rewrite. No wonder why production costs soared.

After connecting a few dots, I believe Carolco prematurely moved forward with production in order to secure the sale of foreign distribution rights. Clearly, the studio had financial difficulties and needed to do whatever it could to keep its proverbial ship afloat. Unfortunately, it had taken on too much water and declared bankruptcy one month before the release of the movie.

CONCLUSION 

In addition to the cost of the set redesign and script rewrite, the film experienced other cost overruns. Go figure. Ask Kevin Costner (Waterworld) or James Cameron (Titanic) how budgets become irrelevant when filming occurs on water instead of on land. Ultimately, Harlin’s unrelenting standards simply didn’t create a good enough movie to attract an audience. 

Despite convention wisdom, Waterworld wasn’t a complete failure. With production costs of $175 million and worldwide ticket sales of $270 million, the movie flopped. Still it wasn’t worthy of being called a Top 10 Bust. On the other hand, Titanic remains the highest grossing ($4 billion) and most profitable movie ($1.6 billion) of all-time on an inflation-adjusted basis. Cameron’s movie garnered a much higher Metacritic score (74) than Costner’s (56). However, Titanic performed so much better because teenage girls couldn’t get enough of heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio.

Cutthroat Island had a mediocre Metacritic score (48), which wasn’t much worse than Waterworld’s. Roger Ebert did a good job (per usual) summarizing the movie.

Cutthroat Island is everything a movie named “Cutthroat Island” should be, and no more. It is a pirate picture, pure and simple, and doesn’t transcend its genre except perhaps in the luxurious production. Leaner and meaner pirate movies have worked more or less as well, but this one gets the job done.

Then again, Harlin’s movie came out six months after Waterworld so audiences may have been saturated by movies involving water. For me, the biggest issue involved the lack of studio support given Carolco’s financial difficulties. 

POSTSCRIPT

If you’ve never seen the movie, Cutthroat Island shouldn’t disappoint. Of course, I’m assuming you have a couple hours and nothing better to do. It only made my countdown because of its tremendous financial loss. In fact, it still holds the record for the largest monetary loss on an inflation-adjusted basis. For me, the movie slipped from the #1 spot as a Top 10 Bust because its failure could have been predicted (e.g. no star power, studio bankruptcy, etc.). At the same time, it earned bonus points because of the damage created from its wake.

Of note, the movie’s stars (Davis and Modine) have been relegated to minor TV roles for the last two decades. Davis starred as the President in the TV series Commander in Chief (2005-06), but the show got canceled after one season. Modine had a supporting role in the TV series Proof (2015), but the show got canceled after 10 episodes. It aired on TNT so I never saw it. Heck, neither did you. 

According to Harlin’s IMDB bio, he’s the “most successful Finnish film director in the history of Hollywood.” Based on that standard, you can call me the most successful blogger hailing from Masfjorden, Norway. More realistically, Metacritic has declared Harlin one of the worst film directors of the 21st century. In support of its claim, Metacritc quoted Josh Rosenblatt from the Austin Chronicle. 

When critiquing the director’s work on The Covenant (2006), Rosenblatt wrote:

Surely nothing Hollywood did in its darkest, most debauched hour could possibly justify the penance we’re paying that allows Harlin to continue directing movies.

What else is there to say?

Oh yeah, Harlin and Davis made another movie together in 1996 (one year after Cutthroat Island) before getting divorced in 1998. Surprised? If so, that makes one of us.

#3 BOX OFFICE BUST: CUTTHROAT ISLAND
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