#7 Box Office Bust: Supernova

Synopsis: Supernova (2000) seemingly had the ingredients to become a hit movie. First, it starred the incredibly talented James Spader and Angela Bassett. Second, it had state-of-the-art visual effects. Unfortunately, the film suffered because the studio failed to control the creative process. In particular, it endured numerous rewrites and leadership changes while stuck in production for eight years. Despite a budget of over $90 million, it earned less than $15 million at the box office. As a horrendously produced film with a financial loss of over $80 million, Supernova earned the distinction of #7 Box Office Bust.  


Plot: While patrolling outer space, a six-person paramedical crew responds to an emergency distress signal. From there, danger ensues.

Producers: Daniel Chuba, Jamie Dixon, Ash R. Shah.

Director: Walter Hill (as Thomas Lee), Francis Ford Coppola (uncredited), Jack Sholder (uncredited)

Writer: William Malone (story), Daniel Chuba (story), David C. Wilson (screenplay).

Actors: James Spader, Angela Bassett, Lou Diamond Phillips.

Metacritic Score: 19 (overwhelmingly dislike).

Movie Release Date Estimated Production Costs** Opening Gross Ticket Sales Theaters Opening Gross / Theater Lifetime Gross Ticket Sales
Supernova January 14, 2000 $90 million $5.8 million 2,280 $2,500 $14.8 million

* Information provided by boxofficemojo.com.

** Information provided by IMDb.


Although released in 2000, Supernova was conceived by William Malone more than ten years earlier. Up to that point, Malone’s credits included writing and directing two micro-budget sci-fi/horror movies. Hoping to graduate to the next level, he wrote a script for a small-budget movie titled Dead Star. Unfortunately, the original studio balked at the $5 million budget and decided to sell it to United Artists (UA).

Probably no one realized it at first, but the making of the movie mirrored the actual movie. Of note, Supernova involves the recovery of a lost spaceship nearing the event horizon of a black hole. Instead of responding to an alarm, the rescue crew just should have let gravity do its job. As a real-life parallel, MGM/UA spent $90 million trying to rescue a film that should not have been saved.


After years of rewrites to the script, the studio green lit the movie with Geoffrey Wright as the director. As his claim-to-fame, Wright had directed the low-budget film Romper Stomper (1992) starring a young, unknown Russell Crowe. With the director on board, the producers attracted James Spader to star in the film.


At the time, Spader had co-starred in movies like Bad Influence (1990) and Stargate (1994) to some acclaim. Still, he hadn’t been asked to carry his own film. The actor’s performance as the quirky Dr. Daniel Jackson in Stargate notably overshadowed the yet-to-be-named lead actor. In case you need a hint, he played Dexter Riley in Disney’s The Strongest Man in the World (1975).

Better Kurt Russell Role: Dexter Riley 
kurt russell
For any kid growing up in the 70s, Russell rocked.
or Snake Plissken?
Still, Russell redefined cool in Escape from New York (1981).

With all due credit to Russell, Spader carried the critically and commercially successful film. To start, Stargate won the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. Furthermore, it grossed over $200 million worldwide at the box office.


Joining Spader, Angela Bassett and Vincent D’Onofrio served as the co-stars of Supernova. Several years earlier, Bassett wowed audiences with her Oscar-nominated performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993). Soon after, she wowed moviegoers with her portrayal of a “cougar” in How Stella Got Her Grove Back (1998).

Better Angela Bassett Role: Tina
or Stella?
Since I’m not a middle-aged woman, I didn’t see either movie so you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Even though the slang term for an older woman on the prowl for a younger mate hadn’t been coined yet, Bassett’s character certainly qualified as a cougar. Furthermore, she likely contributed to the cultural acceptance of the phenomenon.

Just prior to filming, Wright quit over “creative differences” with the studio. Perhaps sensing greater problems to come, D’Onofrio left in solidarity with the director. In case you’re not familiar with the actor, go watch the first half of Full Metal Jacket (1987). Once D’Onofrio’s role ends (you’ll know when), spare yourself and find something else to do. Specifically, don’t fall victim to the Supernova fallacy. 

Full Metal Jacket – The Final Scene . . . . worth watching



After regrouping, the producers recruited Walter Hill to direct the already problematic film. Unlike his predecessors, Hill had experience making a big-budget film. Of note, he directed both 48 Hrs movies and served as a producer for the Alien franchise. Furthermore, he earned writing credits for three of these movies: 48 Hrs (1982); Aliens (1986), and AliensĀ³ (1992). Combined, these movies grossed over $700 million worldwide. Presumably, Hill had an acceptable pedigree.

Before accepting that last statement too quickly, you need to realize that he also directed box-office fiasco Wild Bill (1995). That movie, which starred Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, generated only $2 million in ticket sales. On a percentage basis, it lost more money that nine of the Top 10 Box Office Busts. On an absolute basis, the movie’s inflation-adjusted loss of $55 million didn’t reach the threshold needed to qualify for the countdown. Regardless, it definitely deserves an Honorable Mention.

Unswayed by the movie’s troubled history, Hill signed on because he saw potential in the story. In addition, he wanted to work with Spader. Considered a brilliant actor today, Spader didn’t have the same reputation back then. Apparently, Hill saw something special in the future star.

The Evolution of James Spader
Jacked as Nick Vanzant in Supernova


james spader before and after 01
Much less so as Robert California on The Office.

After getting hired, Hill heavily recruited Lou Diamond Phillips to join the film. Still to this day, the actor is best known for portraying Ritchie Valens in La Bamba (1987). However, I’ll always appreciate him for his role as “Jose” Chavez y Chavez in Young Guns (1988). Phillips previously had turned down a part but respected Hill’s work and liked the rewritten screenplay.


Also noteworthy, the studio hired Digital Domain to produce the special effects. The project’s supervisor, Mark Stetson, had been responsible for the visual effects in movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Bladerunner (1982), Batman Returns (1992), and The Fifth Element (1997). Furthermore, the firm had won an Oscar for its work on Titanic (1997). Given the budget and the firm doing the work, the movie boasted an enviable visual effects team.


Generally, even bad movies start out with some promise before failing for any number of reasons. However, Supernova was a mess from the very beginning. Lest you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, it could and it did.


Supposedly, the suits at United Artists continually rejected the visions of the film’s numerous directors. As such, the studio didn’t let them do what they were hired to do. Writers write and directors direct. So, I guess studio executives must  . . . . execute studios? Actually, I have no idea what they do besides take credit for good movies and lay the blame for bad ones. By not letting people do their jobs on Supernova, the studio deserves most of the blame for the fiasco that ensued.


As the third director hired to make the film, Hill probably should have evaluated the situation better. Instead, he proved to be naive and/or desperate. Apparently, any desperation disappeared when the studio decided to test the movie without his approval. Specifically, he objected to showing the movie before adding the special effects. When the testing came back negative, he walked.

Without a director and still in need of re-shoots, the studio hired Jack Sholder. Previously, Sholder had achieved commercial success making A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) and critical success making The Hidden (1987). However, he spent most of the 90s directing a variety of made-for-TV sci-fi/horror movies. Given the trajectory of Sholder’s career, the producers assumed they found someone who would be more amenable to their desires. What do they say about people who ass u me?

Despite improved audience testings after Sholder’s contributions, the studio decided to shelve the movie anyway. Eventually, the studio got an offer it couldn’t refuse when MGM board member and legendary movie maker Francis Ford Coppola agreed to help.

Overall, the movie went through at least five incarnations with different directors or film editors. Who knows if any one of the first five would have been successful. However, we do know that the sixth wasn’t.


With a Metascore of 19, the movie failed to impress the critics. In fact, they absolutely hated it. On the other hand, moviegoers seemed to have mixed opinions. Thanks to having a daughter savvy enough to get international access to Netflix, I recently watched it so I could decide for myself.

Starting with the positive, I thought the visual effects were commendable and the acting was acceptable. Unfortunately, that’s the extent of it. On the opposite extreme, the editing was exceptionally bad. While watching the film, I had a recurring sensation that the most relevant parts of the story were occurring outside of the frame. Furthermore, the scenes seemed disjointed and/or incomplete. 

In my mind, Coppola shouldn’t be blamed for poor editing because the footage may not have existed. Interestingly, he knew enough to refuse to have his name credited to the film. Following the famed director’s example, Sholder also refused credit for any involvement with the film. Taking a different route, Hill used the nom de plume Thomas Lee instead of using his real name. Movie critic Michael Atkinson did the best job summarizing the sentiment with the following line.

This poor movie is like an abandoned car without plates: Nobody wants to admit it’s theirs.

Clearly, everyone affiliated with the film knew it reeked of merde. For those of you who don’t speak French, this picture should help.



Fortunately, the audience didn’t waste their hard-earned money on the failed project. After generating less than $6 million at the box office during its opening weekend, the movie grossed less than $15 million during its entire run. With an estimated loss of over $80 million, Supernova qualifies as the #7 Box Office Bust


Despite Hill’s failure with the western movie Wild Bill, he successfully helped bring the genre back to the small screen. In particular, he won an Emmy directing the pilot episode of the HBO series “Deadwood.” Additionally, he won another Emmy as a producer of the miniseries “Broken Trail.”

When United Artists acquired the rights for Dead Star, Malone missed out an having an opportunity to direct a major studio film. Fortunately, he didn’t get caught up in the mess which became Supernova. Instead, he directed House on Haunted Hill (1999) for Warner Brothers. That film, which had a budget of $20 million, grossed over $40 million at the box office.

Perhaps due to the failure of Supernova, Spader shifted his focus to television. Of note, he won three Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Alan Shore on The Practice and Boston Legal. Currently, he stars as Raymond “Red” Reddington on Blacklist. While not quite Emmy worthy, the role confirms that Spader still ranks as one of the best actors in Hollywood.

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