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What is a Box Office Flop?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

WiseTour is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By amypollick — On Aug 01, 2013

@anon343586: I *love* "Empire Records"! Saw it in the video store and fell in love. Great, great movie. Yeah, nearly every actor in the movie went on to bigger things. Robin Tunney is on "The Mentalist." It's a really good movie and it's one of my favorites. Everything about that movie works so well. Thanks for mentioning it!

By anon343586 — On Jul 31, 2013

I think there are just some movies that were never meant to be box office smashes. They did about as much business with the popcorn crowd as they were ever going to do. I've seen a lot of big box office flops get repackaged as "smaller" movies and do much better in DVD and Netflix sales.

There was a movie released in 1995 called "Empire Records" that starred Renee Zellweger, Liv Tyler, Rory Cochrane, Anthony LaPaglia and others who went on to great movie and TV careers. It had everything that should have made it a box office hit, but it was released in the middle of a bunch of big blockbuster movies. Now all these years later, the movie is more popular than ever because of the cast and the music.

Calling a movie a flop during its first run in a theater doesn't really mean as much these days, if the movie itself has an appeal that transcends big screen expectations.

By anon191495 — On Jun 28, 2011

I think a lot of movies flop because of bad release timing. I've seen some pretty good movies on cable or DVD and wondered why they flopped when they were in the theaters. A lot of times, it was because they were released the same week as a Harry Potter movie or Titanic or some other blockbuster movie. All of the kids and daters went to all of those big popcorn movies and the other movies suffered from small audiences and no buzz.

It used to be that a Hollywood studio would pump millions of dollars into a movie that looked good on paper, but now they seem to have a better idea of what movies need the big bucks and which ones don't.

By ddljohn — On Jun 10, 2011

While I do believe that how a movie does at the box office definitely says something about the quality of it, I don't think it's always a fair judgment.

I think that some movies do well just because of the amount of action they have in them or the coupling of certain actors. A slower movie with more content and less action might not do as well even though it is a better film.

So movies really do flop and deserve it. But sometimes injustice can be done too. In that case, it might be bad for the future of a talented actor.

By burcidi — On Jun 08, 2011

I think film lovers are pretty good at predicting box office flops. There are so many films where I have read negative views about them and they turned out to be flops. And, it was recognized much before the film was released, either during filming or post-production!

I sometimes wonder if the film makers and producers don't read these reviews and predictions. But I guess it doesn't make much of a difference because they wouldn't stop filming when everything has already started.

I do think that they could make some changes in the script or even a change of cast if they get negative reviews while filming. I don't know if it would prevent the film from flopping, but it could reduce losses.

What do you think?

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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