In the motion picture industry, a "box office bomb" or "box office flop" is a film that is viewed as highly unsuccessful or unprofitable during its theatrical run, sometimes preceding hype regarding its cost, production, or marketing efforts. Generally, any film for which the production and marketing costs exceed the combined revenue recovered after release is considered to have "bombed".
- Negative word of mouth
- External circumstances
- High production costs
- Recovery of flops
- Studios pushed into financial trouble
- Independent films
- Publicly financed films
Gauging the financial success of a film is difficult, and because there is no reliable definition, what makes a box-office bomb can be very subjective. Not all films that fail to earn back their estimated costs during their theatrical runs are bombs, and the label is generally applied to films that miss earnings projections by a wide margin, particularly when they are very expensive to produce, and sometimes in conjunction with middling or poor reviews (though critical reception has an imperfect connection to box office performance).
Negative word of mouth
Beginning in the 1980s, cinemas started to drop movies that suffered a poor opening weekend. This made the performance of a film on its opening weekend much more crucial to its perception. With the growth of the Internet during the 1990s, chat rooms and websites enabled negative word of mouth to spread rapidly.
A troubled production history is sometimes also the case, as it was with Heaven's Gate, which famously went three months over schedule and saw its budget mushroom from $7.5 million to $36 million. These facts caught the ears of journalists and critics who were refused access to the film's set by director Michael Cimino, and upon its release the film was abhorred by the American press.
Films may attract low ticket sales if they are released against heavy competition from other movies also in theaters at the same time. A notable example of this was the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life. The film was a financial loss for RKO because it was pitted against the highly successful films Miracle on 34th Street and The Best Years of Our Lives. However, it became highly popular during the television era and is now considered a Christmas classic.
While it is rare, films which might otherwise have fared well may under-perform because of issues unrelated to the film itself, with the timing of the film's release being perhaps the most common. This was one of several reasons for the commercial failure of one of Hollywood's first "flops", Intolerance. Owing to production delays, the film was not released until late 1916, by which time the widespread anti-war sentiment it reflected had started to shift in favor of U.S. entry into World War I. While the film would later be considered groundbreaking, its failure drove D. W. Griffith's production company, Triangle Studio, out of business. Other examples include MGM's The Wizard of Oz and Walt Disney's Pinocchio, Fantasia and Bambi all of which under-performed merely because they were released during World War II, which cut off 60% of Hollywood's international release market. However, these films became popular and critically acclaimed in later years, especially the first, which has gone on to become one of the most iconic films in history.
A 2015 docudrama about FIFA entitled United Passions, which was released to theaters in the United States at the same time FIFA's leadership were under investigation for fraud and corruption, grossed just $918 at the U.S. box office, an example of external events sinking a film.
Other issues such as general economic malaise may cause less disposable income for potential film-goers, resulting in fewer ticket sales. Also, many movies that open during times of national crisis and just after disasters such as the Pearl Harbor, the 2001 September 11 attacks, and hurricanes under-perform at the box office. In the case of the 9/11 attacks, three movies that dealt in various ways with the subject of terrorism and were scheduled for release in the time period between September 12 and December 31, 2001 (Collateral Damage, Big Trouble, and Bad Company) were moved to new release dates in 2002, and none of them performed well at the box office.
High production costs
Sometimes, a film may do reasonably well at the box office, but still be considered a bomb due to a large budget. For example, 2005's Sahara cost over $241 million to make (including marketing and distribution), due in part to exorbitant production costs. It took in $122 million, usually enough to be successful. However, in this case, this accounted for barely over half of its expenses. In 2012, Disney reported losses of $200 million on John Carter; at that time the film had made a considerable $234 million worldwide, but this was far short of the $250 million budget plus worldwide advertising. 47 Ronin, which was released in 2013, made over $151 million at the box office. However, the film cost a total of $225 million to make due to its exorbitant production costs, and its box office gross accounted for barely over 2/3 of its expenses.
Recovery of flops
Films which are initially viewed as "flops" may recover income elsewhere. Several films have under-performed in the largest market (USA) but been sufficiently successful internationally to recoup losses or even become financial successes. Films may also recover money through international distribution, sales to television syndication, and distribution outside of cinemas (download, DVD, pay-per-view). Other films have succeeded long after cinema release, becoming cult films or being re-evaluated over time. High-profile films including Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption lost money at the box office but have since become highly popular.
Studios pushed into financial trouble
In extreme cases, a single film's lackluster performance can push a studio into financial losses, bankruptcy or closure, as happened with RKO Pictures (The Conqueror), United Artists (Heaven's Gate), Carolco Pictures (Cutthroat Island, once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest box office loss of all time), Fox Animation Studios (Titan A.E.), The Ladd Company (Twice Upon a Time and The Right Stuff), Fleischer Studios (Mr. Bug Goes to Town), Hanna-Barbera (Once Upon a Forest), and ITC Entertainment (Raise the Titanic). The under-performance of The Golden Compass was seen as a significant factor in influencing Warner Bros.' decision to take direct control of New Line Cinema.
When a failed attempt to revive a genre is particularly costly, all studios may subsequently balk at producing similar films, as was the case with Gold Circle Films' horror-comedy Slither, which made less than a quarter of its $29.5 million budget. Some financial losses have changed a company's agenda, such as Walt Disney Animation Studios' decision in the early 2000s to make only computer-animated features, which stemmed from several under-performing traditionally animated releases, including Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet. Due to the box office under-performances of the films Cats Don't Dance, Quest for Camelot, The Iron Giant, Osmosis Jones, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Warner Bros. Animation shifted from theatrical features to television shows; however, recently it has produced some Looney Tunes theatrical shorts and eventually returned to making films with The Lego Movie in 2014 under the Warner Animation Group banner, which was met with critical acclaim and became a major box office success.
In 2001, Square Pictures released its first film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, an animated motion picture inspired by the Final Fantasy series of video games. It received mixed reviews from critics and it lost over $52 million, and Square Pictures ceased producing feature films. In 2011, Mars Needs Moms was the last film released by ImageMovers Digital before it got absorbed by ImageMovers to a loss of nearly $140 million—the largest box office bomb of all time unadjusted for inflation. Despite this loss, the decision to close the production company had been made a year prior to the film's release.
The 2006 independent movie Zyzzyx Road made just $30 at the US box office. The film, with a budget of $1.2 million and starring Tom Sizemore and Katherine Heigl, owes its tiny revenue to its limited box office release—just six days in a single theater in Dallas for the purpose of meeting SAG requirements—rather than its ability to attract viewers. According to co-star Leo Grillo, it sold six tickets, two of which were to cast members.
Previously, a British film (Offending Angels) became notorious because it took less than £100 at the box office. It had a £70,000 budget but was panned by critics including the BBC, who called it a "truly awful pile of garbage", and Total Film, who called it "irredeemable".
In 2011, the film The Worst Movie Ever! opened to just $11 at the domestic box office, playing in only one theater.
Publicly financed films
The critically acclaimed Canadian film The Law of Enclosures (1999) took in about C$1,000 at the box office due to an extremely limited release in 2001. The movie was exhibited in only one theater in Toronto for exactly one week. Costing C$2 million, Law won three Genie Award nominations, including nods to its stars Sarah Polley and Brendan Fletcher (Fletcher won). The film was publicly financed due to Canadian legislation mandating the production of Canadian-content films to compete with films imported from the United States, which dominates the Canadian box office. Despite the praise and the participation of the Oscar-nominated Polley, a major movie star in Canada, the film under-performed at the box office and was not released on DVD.