Making a movie is a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive propositions. While some projects come together naturally, others seem to have tragedy, misfortune, and just plain bad luck heaped upon them. Horror films are fertile ground for apparent curses and it a movie would be hard-pressed to seem more cursed than 1976’s The Omen, the tale of an American diplomat who adopts a baby boy, ostensibly the Antichrist, and people around him begin dying. Even Robert Munger, who came up with the concept for the film, began to feel uneasy during pre-production, telling producer Harvey Bernhard, “The devil’s greatest single weapon is to be invisible, and you’re going to take off his cloak of invisibility to millions of people.” Releasing the movie on June 6, 1976, or as close as they could get to 666, probably did not help matters.
Gregory Peck has only recently agreed to take the role of the ambassador when his son shot and killed himself, leaving no suicide note. Undeterred, or perhaps therapeutically focusing on his work, Peck flew to England to begin filming. While flying through a storm over the Atlantic, Peck’s plane was struck by lightning, causing an engine to catch fire and nearly causing them to crash into the ocean. The film’s other producer, Mace Neufeld, also had his plane struck by lightning. Even after those long odds, that was not the end of their aerial adversity. One of the first shots planned for the film was an aerial shot of London, to be shot from a rented plane. At the last minute, the rental company instead gave the original plane to a group of Japanese businessmen. The curse did not seem to get that update, because that plane crashed, killing everyone on board.
One scene called for Peck to be attacked by “devil dogs,” in the form of a pack of Rottweilers. The dogs were supposed to attack a heavily padded stuntman. For reasons unknown, the dogs began to attack the stuntman in earnest, biting through the padding and ignoring their trainer’s orders to stop. Another animal-based scene saw the big cat wrangler mauled to death by a tiger.
As if being in a plane struck by lightning was not harrowing enough, the Hilton hotel Neufeld was staying at exploded. Luckily, Neufeld was not there at the time. Not to be deterred, the curse turned its sights to the restaurant were the producers and other film executives were going and it blew up, too. Neufeld missed the explosion by minutes. The actual perpetrator would turn out to be the Irish Republican Army and it was only Neufeld’s dodgy luck that he was meant to be in both places.
Special effects consultant John Richardson created The Omen’s unforgettable death scenes, including one in which a man is beheaded by a sheet of glass sailing off the top of a car. Two weeks before the film was released, Richardson and his assistant, Liz Moore, were involved in a head-on collision. Moore was killed, cut in half by the other vehicle’s wheel. Richardson opened his eyes after the collision a kilometer marker reading “Ommen 6,66,” The closest town was Ommen, Netherlands, and the accident happened at kilometer 66.6.
The highest-grossing horror movie of all time (when adjusted for inflation) and the only horror movie to ever be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture is 1973’s The Exorcist. In it, a young girl named Reagan, played by Linda Blair, is possessed by a demon and forced to commit horrible acts as two priests fight to save her. The trouble started before filming even began, when the set caught fire, destroying everything except Regan’s room. The malefactor had talons, and black, beady eyes, and was a harbinger of disease–a pigeon had somehow gotten into a circuit box, which caused a short that caused the fire. Reverend Thomas Bermingham, the technical advisor, was asked to exorcise the set, but he refused.
Both Blair and Ellen Burstyn, who played her mother, were badly injured during the shoot. One scene has the demon violently throwing Reagan around on her bed. The rig to do this broke during one take, injuring Blair’s back. Another scene called for the demon to throw Burstyn across the room and into a wall, which the crew achieved with a wire rig. Director William Friedkin was unhappy with the first take and told the crewman operating the rig to use more force. He did not warn Burstyn. Her cry of alarm and pain in the film is genuine. Colliding with the wall at speed injured her lower spine, leaving her in permanent pain.
They were comparatively lucky. Actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros, whose characters die in the movie, both died while it was in post-production. At least four other people, including a night watchmen, died during filming. Max Von Sydow’s brother died on Sydow’s first day on set. Actress Mercedes McCambridge, who provided the voice of the demon Pazuzu, had to face her son murdering his wife and children before committing suicide.
Many believed that the physical copies of the film were cursed and that showing it was an open invitation to evil. A church across the street from an Italian theater was struck by lightning during a showing. One movie-goer was so frightened they passed out in the theater and broke their jaw falling into the seat in front of them. They sued the filmmakers, claiming that subliminal messages in the film had caused them to faint. Warner Brothers settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. Not everything bad can be blamed on demons, though. Regular old people sent thirteen year old Blair so many death threats that the studio had to provide her with bodyguards for six months after the movie came out.
Speaking of demonic possession, the 2012 movie The Possession centers on a young girl who falls under the control of a malevolent spirit that lives inside a cursed antique box. The story is based on an account of an allegedly haunted dybbuk box. Even though director Sam Raimi would not let the dybbuk box’s owner bring it anywhere near the set, strange and frightening things happened on set. Lights exploded directly over people’s heads, strange smells and cold air blew in from nowhere, and immediately after filming wrapped, all of the props were destroyed in a fire for which the first department could not determine the cause.
Sometimes a movie’s bad karma takes time to manifest and the misfortunes only crop up after the film had been released. Horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, released in the summer of 1968, was based on the premise that God is dead, but the Devil is alive and returning to earth with the aid of a cult. The film’s composer, 37 year old Krzysztof Komeda, fell off a rock ledge at a party that fall. He lingered in a coma for four months before finally dying. His death was quite similar to the way the witches rid themselves of a suspicious friend of the titular Rosemary. The producer, William Castle, already suffering considerable stress from the amount of hate mail he had received about the film, was incapacitated with severe kidney stones. While delirious in the hospital, he cried out, “Rosemary, for God’s sake, drop the knife!” Castle recovered his health, but never made a successful movie again. Director Roman Polanski suffered no physical harm after the film. The same could not be said for his heavily-pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. She and four friends were brutally murdered by members of the cult known as the Manson Family, while Rosemary’s Baby was still in theaters. In his autobiography, Polanksi recalled he had had a “grotesque thought” the last time he saw his wife: “You will never see her again.”
Conspiracy theorists and other non-traditional thinkers believe these events were set in motion by an elaborate Satanic plot, at the behest of the Beatles. Their White Album was written at an Indian meditation retreat, which the movie’s star, Mia Farrow, attended. The song title Helter Skelter was written in blood on a wall at the Tate murder, albeit misspelled. A decade later, John Lennon was shot and killed across the street from the Dakota, where Rosemary’s Baby had been filmed.
1982’s Poltergeist tells the story of a family that is tormented by vengeful spirits because their new house was built over a graveyard with the bodies left in the ground. When it came time for the prop department to source skeletons for the infamous scene with JoBeth Williams in the muddy pool, contrary to what one might expect, it was actually cheaper to buy real human skeletons than realistic plastic ones. (They only told Williams about that afterwards.) In a case of ‘life imitating art,’ specifically with regards to disrespectful treatment of dead bodies, the cast seemed to be plagued by bad fortune. The curse extended not only the original film, but to its sequels as well. Shortly after Poltergeist was released, Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, was strangled to death by her abusive ex-boyfriend, ending her career before it began. Heather O’Rourke, the adorable blonde girl who uttered the iconic line “They’re heeere,” died during bowel obstruction surgery after suffering cardiac arrest and septic shock due to being misdiagnosed by her doctor. She was only twelve years old. Julian Beck of Poltergeist II: The Other Side died of stomach cancer before the film was released. Will Sampson, also known for playing Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died the following year from complications of a heart-lung transplant.
Bonus fact: Some fans claim Poltergeist foretold O’Rourke’s death. There was a poster in the 1982 movie for Super Bowl XXII in 1988. Heather O’Rourke was hospitalized the day of Super Bowl XXII and died the following day. The game was played in San Diego, the city in which O’Rourke passed away.
Choosing the right location to shoot a film is a pivotal decision. You have to take into account things like lighting conditions, availability of utilities, and proximity to noisy things such as airports. What you should not have to consider is the radiation level, but you should not ignore it either. The producers of the film 1956 movie The Conqueror chose an area of Utah desert a hundred miles away from the Nevada Test Site. (They also chose to cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan.) Throughout the 1950’s, approximately 100 nuclear bombs of varying intensities were detonated at the Nevada Test Site. The mushroom clouds could reach tens of thousands of feet high; desert winds would carry radioactive particles all the way to Utah. The area in which The Conqueror filmed was likely blanketed in this dust.
The Conqueror, co-starring Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendáriz, was a moderate box office success, but a critical failure and soon found itself on ‘worst films of all time’ lists. The true legacy of the film had yet to be revealed. Of the 220 people who worked on the production, 92 developed some form of cancer, with 46 dying of it, including Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead, and Armendáriz. The director, Dick Powell, died of lymphoma in 1963. Wayne developed lung cancer and then the stomach cancer that would ultimately kill him in 1979. Wayne would remain convinced that his chain-smoking was to blame for the cancers, even as friends tried to convince him it was from exposure to radiation. Wayne’s sons, who visited the set during filming and actually played with Geiger counters among the contaminated rocks, both developed tumors. Susan Hayward died from brain cancer in 1975 at 57.
The authorities in 1954 had declared the area to be safe from radioactive fallout, even though abnormal levels of radiation were detected. However, modern research has shown that the soil in some areas near the filming site would have remained radioactive for sixty years. Howard Hughes, producer of The Conqueror, came to realize in the early 1970’s that people who have been involved with the production were dying. As the person who approved the filming location, Hughes felt culpable and paid $12 million to buy all existing copies of the film. Though the link between the location and the cancers that cannot be definitely proven, experts argue that the preponderance of cases goes beyond mere coincidence.
My grandmother had a lovely cross-stitched sampler above her fireplace with a quote that I really took to heart and have carried with me through my life, “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” … I wish my grandma had a sense of humor like that. Every movie that fails does so for a reason. Several, usually, a veritable swarm of failure bees, ready to sting the audience right in the brain and the studio right in its wallet. And sometimes, that sting is fatal. For the studio, I mean. I don’t know of any cases where someone died because the movie they were watching was so bad it killed them. At least that gives Tommy Wiseau something to reach for.
Like we saw with the banking crisis, there is no such thing as ‘too big to fail’ in Hollywood, either. Take Eddie Murphy, for example. He was already established for his roles in 48 Hrs and Trading places before 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop. [sfx axel f] I’ll risk the copyright strike, I don’t care. If Hollywood were a lady, she was throwing her panties at Murphy until around, let’s call it 1995’s Vampire in Brooklyn. Since then, for every Shrek, there are three Norberts, or one Pluto Nash. Did you see this fart bomb of a movie when it came out in 2002? Yeah, neither did anyone else. His first foray into live-action family comedies stank like a pair of armored trousers after the Hundred Years war. The sci-fi comedy (and we use the term loosely) didn’t receive one breath of praise, with everyone lambasting the script, humour, acting and visual effects.
And they dragged poor Rasario Dawson into it. Its 4% rating on Rotten Tomatoes says it all, though the audience gave it 19%. One of the biggest box-office flops ever, the movie had a $100 million production budget but earned only $7.1 million at theaters worldwide, meaning it lost a whopping $92.9 million.
Sometimes the likely cause for a movie’s failure is staring us all right in the face, but it feels like no one talked about, even though we *alllll talked about it, the casting of Johnny Depp in the ‘are you sure there’s nothing else in the bottom of this barrel’ elephant in the room, 2013’s The Lone Ranger. Depp was joined by fellow Pirates of the Caribbean alums Gore Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer and the House of Mouse must have felt confident this wonder trio could bring home the gold. Yeah, no. The production ran into trouble, costs escalated and the whole thing was nearly shut down before it was completed. When it finally hit cinema screens, The Lone Ranger was slammed by critics and shunned by audiences. [sfx it stinks] But it did still manage to garner two Oscar nominations, for ‘Visual Effects’ and ‘Makeup and Hairstyling.’ Must have been a light year. The Lone Ranger lost almost Pluto Nash’s production budget, being in the red by $98 million.
If you look at film losses as the ratio of budget to loss, you’ve got to tip your hat to
2016’s Monster Trucks. Paramount hoped to launch a franchise, because there is literally no other way to run a movie studio, but kids can be as fickle with their entertainment options as they are with the sides on their dinner plate. The $125m CGI romp’s opening barely scraped over $10 million at the box office, meaning a loss of $115 million. If it needed to be said, this section is about films with wide releases and big ad budgets. Projects from smaller producers have a riskier time with it. When my (GRRM doc, five tickets at Byrd).
If you look up the lowest-grossing film of all time, you’ll find a film that was mentioned in the scam health retreat episode To Your Health (Spa) (ep. 101), but it happened on purpose, from a certain point of view. 2006’s Zyzzyx Road was shown once a day, at noon, for six days at Highland Park Village Theater in Dallas, Texas, in a movie theater rented by the producers for $1,000. The filmmakers wanted a limited release. They didn’t want to release the film domestically until it underwent foreign distribution, buuut they had to do the domestic release to fulfill the U.S. release obligation required by the Screen Actors Guild for low-budget films. Low-budget is actually quantified as those with budgets less than $2.5 million that are not meant to be direct-to-video. That strategy made Zyzzyx Road the lowest-grossing film in history; officially, it earned a whopping box office tally of $30, from six patrons. Unofficially, its opening weekend netted $20, after the leading man refunded two tickets to the movie’s makeup artist and the friend she brought.
Lots of films fail, happens every day, but some films fail so spectacularly, they take the whole studio down with them, sometimes nearly and sometimes very actually.. Students of movie history with a penchant for disasters know all about 1963’s Cleopatra, starring disserviacably diva-ish Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The period epic had such a disjointed production that actors sometimes didn’t know which scenes were being shot until they arrived on set that day. With a budget swelling uncontrollably to $44 million, the largest at the time, equivalent to $392mil today, the movie faced a real uphill battle to break even, let alone turn a profit. Movie tickets cost $.85 then and there was no home video market, so 20th Century Fox would have needed to have sold 56 million tickets to stay in the black. Quick google, the population of the US was 190 million at the time, so…yeah, ain’t gonna happen, Cap’n. They were pretty much screwed. Cleopatra holds the unique distinction of being the highest-grossing film that year that lost money. Although the studio didn’t fold, Fox was forced to sell off 300 acres of its lot and postpone other productions to avoid permanently closing its doors. Cleopatra did eventually recoup its budget with foreign distribution, but 1964’s historical epic The Fall of the Roman Empire wasn’t so lucky. Samuel Bronston Productions spent a fortune re-creating the 92,000-square meter Roman Forum that once served as the heart of the ancient city, in turn building Hollywood’s largest ever outdoor set. It had Sophia Loren in it, for gods sake. Do you know what she looked like in 1964?! Sadly, Fall of the Roman Empire only managed to earn back a quarter of its $19 million budget. Just three months after its release, Bronston’s own empire fell, into bankruptcy.
Speaking of big decisions at Fox, one of the people who greenlit Star Wars was Alan Ladd Jr, who left to form his own studio, Ladd Company. For my British listeners, feel free to pause and imagine an all-lad movie studio, oi-oi, we’ll wait. The Ladd Company pursued ambitious projects like The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe’s book about the early days of the space program. That was a big hit, wasn’t it? I never saw it, but it has good name recognition. While critics sang its praises and it won four Oscars, The Right Stuff failed to find an audience at the box office. The same thing happened with Twice Upon a Time, an animated feature executive produced by George Lucas, which did *not have good name recognition and when I do a Google image search, it doesn’t look even 1% familiar. Even though they still had Police Academy in the chute, the Ladd Company was forced to sell its assets to Warner Bros.
Speaking of name recognition, even films that are iconic these days bombed big time when they came out. Try to imagine TV in December without every single channel running Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life at least twice. Trivia fans, which should be every one here, already know that IAWL did not do well on release –a release in January, it’s worth mentioning, which may have been part of the problem– before lapsing into the public domain and being shown by every tv station needing content on the cheap. Hell, there was a local station where I grew up in north-east PA that used a jingle of the phrase “IAWL” as their tagline. The same thing ‘why would you even do that’ release date misstep happened with Hocus Pocus, actually. It was released originally in July, well before social media made loving Halloween a major personality trait, then Disney sat on the movie for over a year before putting it out on home video the next September. Back to 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life’s disappointing performance was devastating for Capra, who had actually opened his own production studio, Liberty Films. Capra and fellow filmmakers George Stevens and William Wyler were trying to free themselves from meddling from studio executives’ meddling, but their professional freedom was short-lived. With no track record, Liberty Films needed the film to get them to live up to Capra’s usual standards of success. It didn’t, as we’ve established, and Capra was forced to sell Liberty to Paramount and work for someone else.
If you’ve been saying, I haven’t heard of half of these people, how about Francis Ford Coppola? Coppola shapes the landscape of 1970s cinema. Ever hear of The Godfather, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now? Yeah, thought so. The ’80s, however, not so much. His first movie of the decade, One From the Heart, spent the majority of its high budget on pioneering visual techniques and a faithful recreation of Nevada’s McCarran International Airport. He’s a details guy. But fans of his earlier, dark, gritty, hyper-masculine work were left completely baffled when they sat down for a Coppola movie and found themselves in a candy-colored Vegas musical rom-com. The film failed to pull in even a million dollars against its budget of $27mil. Coppola’s own studio, Zoetrope, never recovered from the financial loss.
Speaking of film legends who stumble headlong into bankruptcy, we present for the consideration of several readers, Don Bluth. Bluth left his job as an animator at Disney in 1979 to create the animation department for 20th Century Fox. We’re talking The Secret of N.I.M.H, An American Tail, The Land Before Time, and Bluth and crew at Fox Animation put those out while Disney delivered disappointing efforts like The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company. But Disney found its footing again with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and they’ve been unquestionably unstoppable ever since. In 1997, Bluth released the critically acclaimed Anastasia; less than three years later, the studio was done. In June 2000, Titan A.E. hit theaters, a lush, traditionally-animated movie with great character designs and solid casting and acting that flew through space and braved alien worlds. It wasn’t a bad movie. For some reason, despite having a hysterically bad memory, I can still remember the chorus of the song from the big ‘let’s do cool things with the ship’ sequence. Titan AE hit theaters, but not, ya know, hard. Fox Animation spent $85 million on the film targeted at a teen audience, who are not a big enough segment of the broader animation-viewing market. It earned $9 million on its opening weekend and the following *week, Fox announced it was closing the studio. The writing had already been on the wall. In December 1999, executives forced Bluth to lay off 80% of his animators after the box office bonanza that was the CGI Toy Story 2 led Fox execs to conclude that hand-drawn animation was on the way out.
Prior performance is no predictor of future success. The Land Before Time didn’t help Bluth with Titan AE, and not even the freaking Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its many Oscars, could save New Line Cinema. From its creation in the 1970s and even after Warner Bros. bought a controlling stake, New Line Cinema was a mid-major movie studio that acted like an indie, taking chances on edgy, quirky movies like Pink Flamingos, Boogie Nights, and Mortal Kombat. If you don’t think MK belongs in those examples, the only video game movies had been Street Fighter, blargh, Double Dragon, yawn, and Super Mario Brothers, a veritable kick in the nards to be gamers and moviegoers.
Four years after The Return of the King ended the LOTR trilogy…eventually… New Line wanted another fantasy series cash cow, and it looked to The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman’s first entry in the His Dark Materials trilogy. New Line pumped $200 million on the project, more than it had spent on The Lord of the Rings. To offset production costs, the company pre-sold the overseas rights, essentially getting an advance, meaning that when the film hit theaters outside of North America, they wouldn’t see any more money. That made profit virtually impossible… as did the film’s relatively small $70 million domestic take. Thus Warner Bros. absorbed New Line into its existing film production divisions, well, 10% of the studio. The other 90% got sacked.
get ones from book