A box office flop or box office bomb is a film that fails to even meet or exceed the cost of the film’s budget when it is released to the public for viewing. A few films that are considered flops end up earning enough in DVD/Blu-ray rentals and sales to eventually turn a profit, however, many others simply are losses to the producers and companies that distribute the films. Sometimes, expectations for a movie and very high budgets far exceed critical reviews and attendance and the movie becomes an instant bomb.
Many factors may result in a box office flop — it may be poorly directed or have a bad script or bad acting. The movie may feature good actors, but the star power alone does not result in expected box office returns; a few classic flops have featured extremely well known and popular actors. Although it doesn't necessarily bode well for future salary negotiations, a major failure doesn’t always taint an actor’s career.
There are two very well known box office bombs that most lovers of films should recognize: Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate. Ishtar starred two very well respected actors, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, and the film’s budget was $40 million US dollars (USD). When the film was released, it was an immediate flop, panned by critics, and only made about 30% back of the total costs to make the movie. It therefore represented a 70% loss to investors in the film. Beatty and Hoffman have both participated in many far more popular films since, and though they may have had to suffer the embarrassment of starring in a film considered by most to be horrible, they still have been offered plum roles in other films.
The 1980 film Heaven’s Gate had a $44 million USD budget and boasted an impressive cast: Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Jeff Bridges, Joseph Cotton, and Willem Dafoe. Director Michael Cimino was widely expected to produce a hit after his gripping and powerful 1978 film, The Deer Hunter Expectations for the film’s success were extremely high, but when it was released, the film only made $1.5 million USD, a 90% loss to investors.
In recent years, the box office flop often falls into the category of a high budget, epic film, like Waterworld or Alexander, that completely fails to capture the interest of critics or audiences. Summer “blockbuster” films are known for their penchant to flop. Action films and epics also mean high budgets, meaning greater likelihood for a film to fail to turn a profit.
Sometimes, a box office bomb is not a bad movie. The now classic Marx Brother’s Duck Soup did not do well when it was released. High budgets do not guarantee a good film, and low budgets don’t ensure a bad one. The opposite of the box office flop is a sleeper, a movie made on a tiny budget that earns huge box office returns. The Blair Witch Project, made on a budget of $30,000 USD, grossed over $200 million USD worldwide. This represents over a 300,000% return on its initial investment.