Taste is subjective, and the Flickchart community is reminded of this every time we’re confronted by our choices. There are, however, some films almost universally damned and have been since they were released. In fact, some of them have been unpopular since before they were released. We’ve known for ages that a trusted critic’s star-rating or blurb review in the local paper can sway moviegoers, but what about the films who were condemned before anyone ever saw them?
I first encountered this phenomenon in 1995, when one of the most discussed films of the year was Waterworld. No one talked about the story much. Some talk was about how Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds had a turbulent working relationship, but primarily all anyone had to say was that the production and its budget had reached Cleopatra proportions. The special effects were way behind schedule. I recall vividly an interview with Costner where he complained bitterly that the CGI gills looked like vaginas and that the work would have to be re-done. Was there time to redo the effects? Was there money to pay for it?
Despite all the attention paid to Waterworld’s production woes, audiences did turn out to see it. It was the #1 film its first weekend (source: Box Office Mojo), but there were only two other new films that week: The Net and Operation: Dumbo Drop. Its second weekend take ($13 million) was quite a decline, but it again took #1 at the box office by besting Something to Talk About by $2.3 million. (Does anyone even remember that?) This might sound encouraging, but the film’s $88 million domestic earnings were little more than half of its $175 million production budget. It fared better in international markets, but in the minds of American moviegoers, Waterworld remained exactly what all the chatter said it was: a flop.
Three years later, Harrison Ford and Anne Heche starred in Six Days, Seven Nights, a romantic adventure helmed by Ivan Reitman. Ford’s star power had been reaffirmed the previous year with the successful Air Force One, and Six Days seemed certain to be a breezy summer romp… except that the media fixated on Heche’s romantic relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. The two had to affirm that they would not stage a wedding ceremony in Hawaii during production, and questions persisted about how “believable” Heche would be in love scenes with Ford. Paul Clinton opened his review for CNN by acknowledging that “The big, burning, and by now, boring question about Six Days, Seven Nights is, ‘Can Anne Heche pull off a romantic role opposite Harrison Ford since she’s in a very public intimate relationship with Ellen Degeneres?’”
Clinton answered in the affirmative, noting “that’s why they call it acting,” but the novelty of a prolific celebrity lesbian relationship overshadowed anything else about the film. Clinton’s review notes that the film had a $71 million budget; Box Office Mojo doesn’t show a budget figure, but they do report the film’s total domestic earnings just cleared that at $74 million (with another $90 million in international sales).
Tom Cruise has been one of the most important actors and producers of his generation, but beginning in 2005 it seemed he waged a yearlong campaign to raise as many eyebrows as he could. To dispel accusations that his whirlwind romance with Katie Holmes was not a hoax, he jumped up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s couch extolling the virtues of being in love. He picked a fight with actress Brooke Shields over her use of medication to treat postpartum depression, incurring the wrath of pretty much anyone who doesn’t think a Scientologist actor is qualified to dispense psychiatric advice. He doubled down on his position in an uncomfortable interview with Matt Lauer in which Cruise called Lauer “glib” more than once.
Cruise’s first film to hit screens amid all these and other controversies was Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which took in $112.8 million in its first six days. It was the best opening to date for a film starring Cruise or produced by Cruise/Wagner Productions and the second best opening for a film directed by Spielberg, as well as the second best Fourth of July weekend opening. War of the Worlds was hailed as evidence of a turnaround from 2005’s disappointing year for the industry but even praise for the film was qualified. The Hollywood Reporter’s coverage of its opening weekend began, “Not even Tom Cruise’s offscreen antics could keep the Spielberg-Cruise machine from running at full throttle over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.”
By year’s end, however, it became apparent that either War of the Worlds succeeded in spite of Cruise or the film was just lucky enough to be released before the public completely soured on Cruise. He was named Most Irritating in an Empire Magazine list of movie stars. Two months before Mission: Impossible III opened in 2006, Cruise and Holmes “won” a Razzie for Most Tiresome Tabloid Target. Two weeks later, he resurrected his war on psychiatric medication in a cover story interview with GQ, inciting another wave of backlash. An interview with Diane Sawyer failed to deliver ratings for ABC; viewers didn’t even care to see what inflammatory or bizarre thing he might say. A Colorado state legislator introduced new regulations covering the sale of ultrasound machines after it became public that Cruise had bought one to monitor his and Holmes’s baby’s progress at home.
When M:i:III finally opened in May, 2006, it took in $47.7 million in its opening weekend. A success by most standards, but with a production budget reportedly near $200 million it was clearly a disappointment for Cruise, the Mission: Impossible series, Cruise/Wagner Productions and Paramount. A USA Today poll showed 51% of moviegoers abstained from going to see the film in direct response to Cruise’s off-set behavior. Dave Karger put it succinctly: “A lot of people came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to support this movie’s first weekend.’ They made a conscious choice to avoid it.”
Though M:i:III earned money, Cruise’s production deal kept Paramount from doing much better than breaking even on it. Just three months after the film opened, Paramount opted not to renew their business deal with Cruise/Wagner. Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told The Wall Street Journal, “It’s nothing to do with his acting ability, he’s a terrific actor… but we don’t think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”
Laying low(er) allowed the public to warm back up to Cruise enough that Paramount did ultimately go forward with the production of the fourth Mission: Impossible film in 2011, Ghost Protocol, which was an unqualified box office hit with positive word of mouth. Lost amid the controversy, though, was M:i:III, another victim of distracting, unrelated negativity.
Last year’s John Carter is the most recent victim of audience prejudices. Its release was such a mess that Michael D. Sellers has recently written an entire book, John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood to answer the question, “What went wrong?” A simple microcosm can be found simply by looking at IMP Awards’s 2012 awards.
John Carter’s teaser poster was nominated as one of IMP Awards’s Worst Posters.
Said IMP Awards:
The main crime of this poster is simply that it does not sell the movie at all. Yes, it is a teaser but what exactly is it teasing? All we get is a face and a logo. The title doesn’t even tell us a thing about the film. The logo might have worked if it was familiar artwork from some recent novel that was all the rage with teenagers but the movie is based on a novel from nearly a century ago. When you are trying to promote a $250 million dollar film a teaser needs to create more of a response then “Huh?”
However… a John Carter also won an IMP Award in another category: Best Special Edition Poster for the limited edition poster offered to audiences who attended the midnight IMAX premiere of the film.
IMP Awards praised that poster:
Given away only at special midnight IMAX screenings for the film, this is the kind of imagery that should’ve been used for the main campaign. J. C. Richard’s wonderful artwork shows us the beauty and excitement of a new world, something that was missing from so many of the designs for this film. The focus should’ve been more on Mars and less on the title character. Here, we only get a glimpse of our hero, dwarfed by the great landscape before him.
John Carter was quickly perceived by mainstream audiences as a generic-looking Star Wars rip-off, unaware that the film’s literary roots ran a century deep. Fans of the Barsoom series tried to rally enthusiasm for the film, hopeful that it might spawn a franchise, only to be dismissed with a shrug. John Carter was older than Star Wars, but so what? Being a March release didn’t inspire much confidence, either.
Waterworld, Six Days, Seven Nights, Mission: Impossible III and John Carter are not the only films to be tainted by pre-release distractions. Of the four, only Mission: Impossible III has been rediscovered by audiences. Some of that can be attributed to a general acceptance of Tom Cruise’s antics; some of it to the popularity of director J.J. Abrams. When asked about the other three films, the most common reaction still is disapproval. Press the naysayers, though, and rarely can they even recall what they disliked about the film. They can only remember not liking it when it came out, and one has to wonder whether they ever really disliked the movies in the first place… or if they were merely influenced by the voices telling them that these were cinematic disasters and disappointments.
This post is part of our User Showcase series. You can find Travis as TravisSMcClain on Flickchart. If you’re interested to submit your own story or article describing your thoughts about movies and Flickchart, read our original post for how to become a guest writer here on the Flickchart Blog.