The film industry looks a lot different now at the end of the decade than it did at the start.
In 2010, Hollywood was drunk on the success of Avatar and decided 3D tech was the wave of the future. A young Michael Cera was ascendant, taking cinemas by storm. Large ensemble Garry Marshall rom-coms like Valentine’s Day were still winners, as were Harrison Ford non-franchise thrillers and Nicholas Sparks movies with indistinguishable posters.
None of these things are true anymore.
Conventional wisdom around movies can turn on a dime, especially in such a volatile, transitional entertainment era. And nothing changes Hollywood’s tune quite like a big fat flop.
Not all flops are created equal, though. Some of them end up avoiding major fallout. Last year’s dismal, hauntingly unnecessary Robin Hood redux was a massive failure, which seems to have done little to halt star Taron Egerton’s momentum or the likelihood of yet another Robin Hood within the next five years. In the same year, Melissa McCarthy got a best actress Oscar nomination (for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) just months after starring in The Happytime Murders, one of the more resounding bombs in recent memory. Speaking of Oscars, director Tom McCarthy won best picture for Spotlight just one year after making The Cobbler, the biggest box-office disaster in Adam Sandler’s career. (Adam Sandler survived this debacle just fine as well.)
Other flops, of course, have a seismic impact on the studio landscape and salt the earth afterward so that nothing may grow from beneath the rubble. As we move on to the next decade of movies, with fewer theatrical releases and more preexisting IP-based tentpoles than ever, let’s take a look back at the most consequential flops of the 2010s.
1. John Carter (2012)
The most interesting words in the title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s classic adventure novel, John Carter of Mars, are undoubtedly of and Mars. The fact that the braintrust at Disney decided to excise them from the title provides a telling glimpse into what went wrong with John Carter. An adaptation of the source material had been in some form of development since legendary genre director Ray Harryhausen expressed interest in the 1960s. Finally, the film was set with Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton making his live-action debut, and rising star Taylor Kitsch anchoring his first major film. What could go wrong? With a combined production and marketing cost of $350 million, the film would have had to make at least $600 million worldwide to break even. Instead, it made less than half that. Ultimately, John Carter lost the studio $200 million; cost the head of Disney films, Rich Ross, his job; and inspired a book about what went so wrong. John Carter‘s colossal failure marked the end of experimenting with multi-hundred million-dollar budgets with unproven (live-action) directors and non-bulletproof IP. Although The Lone Ranger marked another similarly glaring failure at Disney the following year, that film’s budget was actually trimmed, post-John Carter, minimizing the damage slightly.
2. Aloha (2015)
Crowd-pleasing Jerry Maguire auteur Cameron Crowe embarked upon an ambitious Hawaiian project in the early 2010s, originally titled Deep Tiki. The film was doomed well before it was released, though. The infamous Sony hack in 2014 revealed then Sony president Amy Pascal’s extreme misgivings with the direction of the project, including the damning vow, “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous and we all know it.” Aloha bombed pretty hard. It didn’t just not make much money—an estimated $65 million—but it became a laughingstock as reviewers struggled to parse what the hell it was even about. Not helping matters at all, and ensuring the film’s place on this list, was the “whitewashing” controversy of casting Emma Stone as a half-Asian character for no discernible reason. It took many years—and more costly flops like The Ghost in the Shell remake with Scarlett Johansson—for the lesson to be absorbed, but Aloha was the coal mine-canary of rising, and reasonable, cultural sensitivity.
3. The Mummy (2017)
One of the biggest shifts in filmmaking approaches this past decade is the Marvel-led effort to create expansive, intersecting movie universes. The success of the Avengers films, and all the solo outings in between, has caused an outbreak of a rare medical condition in which studio executives can only see dollar signs when reviewing projects based on proven intellectual property. Or really, any pre-existing intellectual property. There are now an overabundance of shared universes, such as the Lego movies, Godzilla and King Kong, The Conjuring, and Fast & Furious, all of which are finding various levels of success. What a lot of executives lose sight of—due to their condition—is that there’s a reason that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven so successful: careful long-range planning, an emphasis on cohesion, and a keen eye for creative talent.
While the MCU keeps flourishing, other would-be franchises put the cart before the horse, rushing to emulate the same success without the planning or the talent. The most public, embarrassing failure of this kind is Universal’s aborted Dark Universe. The idea was to revive the studio’s classic monster-movie lineup (rather than invent any new monsters for new audiences), and milk the crossover potential. Once a Hollywood Reporter photo shoot revealed the casting of the mummy (both Tom Cruise and Sofia Boutella), Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), Frankenstein’s monster (Javier Bardem), and the invisible man (Johnny Depp), and Universal unveiled its Dark Universe logo, all the elements were in place—or so the studio thought. The only problem was that the first major film in the series, The Mummy (2014’s Dracula Untold doesn’t officially count), wasn’t fun enough to justify its existence. It was received poorly by critics and took a bath at the domestic box office, scraping together just $80 million, but added another $330 million overseas. Despite the strong worldwide receipts, the overall lackluster response cratered the entire Dark Universe series and sent a strong message to other executives who wish to play God and create a whole universe: These things are way harder to plan and execute than Marvel makes them look.
4. Justice League (2017)
Of course, the most obvious analog to Marvel is the Distinguished Competition over at DC Comics. As of 2017, the DCEU had been struggling to replicate Marvel’s success for years. Movies like Man of Steel (2013) and Suicide Squad (2016) made money but also generated a lot of shrugs under the creative stewardship of director Zack Snyder. Although DC had a massive critical and cultural hit with 2017’s Wonder Woman (and, of course, before that, with Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies), that same year the studio also delivered its most costly DCEU bomb yet. Budgeted at an astounding $300 million, Justice League was eviscerated by critics, but brought in enough money ($658 million worldwide) to avoid a John Carter-level disaster. The reception to this film, though, ended up being an inflection point for DC. The studio smartly seems to have wrested the controls away from Snyder and injected more levity and variety into the proceedings, with smart hires like David F. Sandberg to direct Shazam (a modest, well-liked 2019 hit) and Todd Phillips (who directed the megahit Joker). More importantly, the studio has also backed off from the idea that the Justice League need always show up in each other’s movies and band together every few years. (There is currently no other JL movie on the slate, though there are upcoming sequels for Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Shazam, and Aquaman, along with the upcoming Harley Quinn outing, Birds of Prey, and the first solo Batman outing since Nolan relinquished the keys to the franchise in 2012.) The failure of Justice League has steered the DC ship into more interesting, less choppy waters, and served as yet another warning against trying to be Marvel through sheer force of will.
5. The House (2017)
Another big trend in movies over the past 10 years is an increasing reliance on foreign box-office gross. Any entry in the Fast & Furious franchise, for instance, is bound to make bank in pretty much any country in which it screens. What doesn’t always translate so reliably, however, are comedies, which is why fewer of them are being made these days. We may not be witnessing the end of the theatrically released comedy just yet, but it sure looks like the end of mid-budget, high-concept, star-driven comedies in the cineplex.
The House was a perfectly serviceable comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as two parents who turn their house into a casino to pay for their daughter’s college tuition. If that sounds like your kind of thing, you’d probably enjoy it, but statistically speaking, you probably didn’t see it in theaters. The film cost $40 million to make and brought in just under $35 million worldwide. With that, it became clear that the concept of “bankable” comedy stars may no longer be bankable. Comedies can still break through, just probably not in the star-driven model that The House followed. Girls Trip was a huge success that same year, with half the budget, and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was a monster hit later that year, with several times the budget and a much broader potential appeal, thanks to the fantasy element. The only 2019 comedy that had a budget and star-driven cast comparable to The House was the Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron vehicle, Long Shot, which would probably have been a big hit just a few years ago, but in 2019 barely broke even. Meanwhile, Amy Poehler released her directorial debut, the comedy Wine Country, on Netflix this year, as Will Ferrell switches gears from the even more embarrassing bomb, 2018’s Holmes & Watson, with a role in the upcoming black comedy Downfall, costarring Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (It’s a remake of the Swedish indie Force Majeure.) What used to lure audiences to theaters for laughs just doesn’t do it anymore. The House‘s performance at the box office may not have definitively caused the death of superstar-cast, wide-release comedies, but it helps explain their absence.
6. Solo (2018)
It’s hard to call a movie that made nearly $400 million worldwide a bomb—unless that movie is Solo: A Star Wars Story. Everything that Star Wars fans were afraid of post-Disney purchase seemed to come to fruition here: Overly conventional storytelling, rote explorations of backstory around characters better left mysterious, and the exhaustion of too much, too soon. (Solo followed The Last Jedi to theaters by six months.) The fallout from the flop was swift. Not only was a planned Boba Fett origin story scrapped, but all other potential spin-offs or origin stories were also put on hold until Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy could figure out how to course-correct. As The Mandalorian makes waves on Disney Plus and The Rise of the Skywalker is poised to make a mint this winter (despite mixed reviews), the Star Wars crew has kept the brakes wisely pumped as they map out the best way to follow up the Skywalker saga.
7. Late Night (2019)
Finally, there’s the case of Late Night. Amazon picked up the Emma Thompson comedy (penned by and costarring Mindy Kaling) for the princely sum of $13 million at 2019’s Sundance Film Festival. The studio then spent a reported $33 million on marketing for a theatrical run. When the dust settled on its release, the film had made less than $16 million domestically and an additional $6 million abroad. The decently reviewed comedy might have been a much-streamed gem in Amazon’s catalog had the studio bought it for a lower price or spent less on marketing. Instead, it was a highly public calamity and a big setback for the studio that put out award-winning, moneymaking hits like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick. The division’s marketing and distribution chief left Amazon soon after the movie’s release, and eventually the company announced that it would follow Netflix’s model and no longer report box-office grosses for films released for awards consideration. The next Sundance is a month away, but the smart money would bet that Amazon holds its purse strings a little tighter this time . . . and the time after that.