#10 Box Office Bust: Ishtar

Synopsis: With A-List actors Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as headliners, Ishtar (1987) failed to deliver at the box office. Even though the movie opened at #1 with over $4 million in domestic ticket sales, it faded quickly and finished with only $14 million. Due to production problems caused by an inexperienced director filming in the middle of the Sahara Desert, the movie suffered tremendous cost overruns and lost Columbia Pictures over $40 million. With an inflation-adjusted loss exceeding $90 million, the movie is often regarded as one of the biggest flops in history. At the same time, it had so much potential given the critical and commercial success of its stars and production team. Arguably, its failure even led to Coca-Cola’s decision to get out of the entertainment business by selling Columbia four months after the movie’s release. 


Plot: On their way to a gig at a Moroccan hotel, two no-talent New York lounge singers get involved in a rebellious uprising in the fictitious country of Ishtar.

Director / Writer: Elaine May

Actors: Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, and Isabelle Adjani

Metascore: 52 (mixed review)


Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales


May 15, 1987 $51 million $4.3 million 1,139 $3,800

$14.4 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com

** Information provided by IMDb.

Set-up: Originally envisioned as a new take on the “Road to . . .” movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby from the 1940s, Ishtar was greenlit because of its star power. To start, the movie was seen as a collaboration between Warren Beatty and Elaine May, who achieved critical and commercial success working together on:

  • Heaven Can Wait (1978) – which received nine Oscar nominations (including two for Beatty individually as Best Director and Best Actor, and one for Beatty/May jointly for Best Screenplay) with one win, and grossed $81 million domestically ($287 million based on 2015 ticket prices); and
  • Reds (1981) – which received nine Oscar nominations with three wins (including one for Beatty as Best Director), and grossed $40 million domestically ($121 million today).

Joining Beatty as a co-star on the film was Dustin Hoffman, who had his own share of critical and commercial success. For instance, Hoffman’s résumé at the time including recent hit films:

  • Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) – which received 10 Oscar nominations with five wins (including one by Hoffman for Best Actor), and grossed $106 million domestically ($353 million today); and
  • Tootsie (1982) – which received nine Oscar nominations (including one for Hoffman as Best Actor) with one win, and grossed $177 million domestically ($502 million today).

Furthermore, Vittorio Storaro had been hired as the cinematographer for the film. All that you need to know about Storaro is that he won Oscars for Best Cinematography for Apocalypse Now (1979) and Reds (1981) before Ishtar, and won another one for The Last Emperor (1987) afterwards. Perhaps the best way to set up the movie in modern terms would be as if Leonardo DiCaprio and Ben Affleck agreed to co-star in a movie written and directed by Gillian Flynn, and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki. For those of you less familiar with Hollywood stars who excel behind the camera, Flynn was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Best Adapted Screenplay for Gone Girl (2014) while Lubezki won the last two Oscars for Best Cinematography for Gravity (2013) and Birdman (2014).

Downfall: So how could such a movie fail? To the extent you really want to know, Peter Biskind wrote a book titled How Warren Beatty Seduced America, which contains exhaustive details regarding the fiasco. Vanity Fair published an excerpt from the book which can be found through the following link. For most of you though, the following summary should suffice.

  • Wrong reason to make a movie – Spawned as May’s brainchild, the movie was seen by Beatty as a return favor for all the help she provided him on his hit movies Heaven Can Wait and Reds. She was a talented writer, but unproven as a director of a big budget film. Regardless, Beatty wanted to give her a chance so he supported her as a writer/director on the project.
  • Unrealistic budget – A significant portion of the original budget of $27.5 million was allocated to pay its stars. In particular, Beatty and Hoffman received $5.5 million each for acting in the movie, Beatty received an additional $0.5 million for his role as producer, and May received $1.0 million as writer/director. In essence, almost 50% of the budget was used up before production even started.
  • Headless horseman – Whereas the studio viewed Beatty as the producer who would oversee the project, he viewed it as May’s baby. As such, he acquiesced when she decided to film on location in Morocco instead of somewhere much closer to home. Let’s play a quick game. With respect to distance from Los Angeles, one of these pictures was taken in a desert a few hundred miles away while the other one was taken in a desert 6,000 miles away. Guess which is which.

morocco desert


mojave desert

As a hint, take a look at the featured image at the beginning of this post. Regardless of which was which, the choice of location was inconvenient and cost millions of dollars more than it should have. Almost everyone involved with the movie agreed that the decision to film in Morocco was a really big mistake.

  • The Peter principle – Developed as a management theory by Laurence J. Peter, this principle can be summarized with the observation that people tend rise to their level of incompetence. As detailed by Biskind, many people on the set questioned May’s ability as a director. According to Storaro (the film’s cinematographer), May didn’t seem to know where to position the cameras. When he would offer his assistance, she stubbornly put them somewhere else. In addition, she was ill-equipped to direct extensive scenes which required substantial coordination and choreography. Unsure of herself throughout shooting, she ended up with almost 110 hours of film, which was almost four times more than what was typical for this type of movie.
  • Don’t mix business with pleasure. Beatty was a notorious ladies’ man who often seduced women (e.g. Jane Fonda, Joan Collins, Julie Christie, Diane Keaton, Madonna, etc.) on the set of his movies. In this case, he reversed the trend by getting then-girlfriend Isabelle Adjani a role in the film. Unfortunately, May didn’t interact well with Adjani. Since Beatty didn’t want to get in between the two, his relationship with both women suffered.
  • Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – After returning to the U.S., Beatty complained to Columbia Pictures President Fay Vincent (yes, the same one that became the commissioner of Major League Baseball) that May was an incompetent director. When told by Vincent to fire her, Beatty responded, “I can’t. I’m a liberal Democrat, a progressive on women’s issues. I can’t fire her. But she can’t direct at all.” And when Vincent offered to fire her instead, Beatty countered, “Then Dustin and I will walk off the picture.”
  • Too many cooks in the kitchen – Although Biskind offers some conflicting accounts, he contends that May, Beatty and Hoffman all had a say in the final editing of the movie. Instead of collaborating, each one had a separate team of editors working on creating a different version of the film. Arguably, Hoffman edited the scenes with a focus on himself while Beatty edited the scenes for his and his girlfriend’s benefit. Ultimately, a lawyer had to oversee the final cut acting as a mediator between the director and the leading actors.
  • The saying “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is not always true – Throughout Hollywood, rumors circulated regarding delays and cost overruns during production and post-production. Those rumors were substantiated when the movie’s release date was postponed from the 1986 holiday season to late spring 1987. In addition, new Columbia Pictures Chairman David Puttman wasn’t a fan of the movie and may have been leaking damaging information to the press. Regardless, the stage was set for the movie to bomb.
  • Bad movie – Despite all of these problems, moviegoers generally will show up if the end product is good. In this case, they didn’t because the movie sucked. Stated more eloquently by the late, great Roger Ebert,

“Ishtar” is a truly dreadful film, a lifeless, massive, lumbering exercise in failed comedy. Elaine May, the director, has mounted a multimillion-dollar expedition in search of a plot so thin that it hardly could support a five-minute TV sketch. And Beatty and Hoffman, good soldiers marching along on the trip, look as if they’ve had all wit and thought beaten out of them. This movie is a long, dry slog. It’s not funny, it’s not smart and it’s interesting only in the way a traffic accident is interesting.

Conclusion: With an estimated loss of almost $44 million (over $90 million adjusted for inflation), Ishtar was considered one of Columbia Pictures’ biggest bombs. Adjusted for inflation, the loss would have been approximately $93 million. Within four months of the movie’s release, Coca-Cola (Columbia’s parent company) decided to get out of the day-to-day operations of the movie business and sold the studio to Tri-Star Pictures in return for stock in a separately traded public company. Within two years of that transaction, Coca-Cola had sold its remaining interest in the new entity. It’s unknown whether the financial loss or negative publicity surrounding Ishtar led to the initial decision, but it couldn’t have helped. Despite having tremendous potential, the movie failed miserably and let to its selection as the #10 Box Office Bust.

Postscript: As is often the case for actors, Hoffman and Beatty escaped the stigma of a being involved with a box office fiasco. In particular, Hoffman went on to win the Best Actor Oscar for Rain Man (1988) while Beatty received Beat Actor and Best Piciture nominations for Bugsy (1991). Perhaps more important for Beatty, he settled down and married co-star Annette Bening after making the movie. May never directed another movie again; however, she did return to glory as a screenplay writer and received an Oscar nomination for Primary Colors (1998).

In case you made it this far and still wondered about the game from earlier, Desert A is in Morocco (i.e. the Sahara) and Desert B is in the United States (i.e. the Mojave).


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