If you’re like me, you’re fascinated not only with movies but with the box office. It’s fun to see surprise hits (“Get Out”), Cinderella stories (“Parasite”) and record-breakers (“Avengers: Endgame”), but for me it is far more interesting to dissect when things go wrong. Not that I wish harm on any film, making movies is hard and at the end of the day it is a business, but sometimes a film is given such a ludicrous budget for its cast, genre or release date that it just has to be talked about and/or criticized.
Here I will keep a running list of the biggest box office bombs of 2020. There are sure to be a handful, as with every year, and as Ari Gold once let us know, most movies actually end up losing money. However, there are times when a bomb cannot be ignored and loses the studio millions of dollars. Check back here throughout the year to see what films left the biggest red ink stain from 2020, in order of release date. Sometimes actual losses aren’t reported, but I’ll still include films on this list if both the production and marketing budgets are made known.
Dolittle (January 17)
Production Budget: $175 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Opening Weekend: $22 million
Worldwide Gross: $227.9 million*
Estimated Losses: $50-100 million
This film saw its production budget balloon following extensive three week reshoots due to poor test screenings, but it was going to bomb regardless. Universal knew it had a dud on its hands for a while now, not only dumping it in January (a well-known cinematic graveyard for most genres) but at a time when most all young kids had gone back to school. Poor start to Robert Downey Jr’s post-MCU career, although he made $20 million for the role, so surely he’s not too upset.
The Rhythm Section (January 31)
Production Budget: $50 million
P&A Budget: $20-25 million
Opening Weekend: $2.8 million
Worldwide Gross: $5.9 million
Estimated Losses: $30–40 million
Long delays in production (Blake Lively broke her wrist while filming which shut down work for six months) doomed this from the start, and like “Dolittle” it is clear the studio knew it had a dud on its hands by dumping it in January on Super Bowl weekend (a notoriously slow film-going frame); in fact, this set the record for worst opening weekend of all-time . We’ve seen female-led spy films turn out decent numbers with likes of “Atomic Blonde” (July) and “Red Sparrow” (March), although both those films had better reviews than this (~65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 36% here).
The Call of the Wild (February 22)
Production Budget: $125–150 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Opening Weekend: $24.8 million
Worldwide Gross: $107.6 million
Estimated Losses: $50–100 million
While the film beat its initial $15 million tracking its opening weekend, celebrations were muted as it cost (an irresponsible) $125–150 million to make (with most sources pegging it at $135 million). This was another bomb that Disney inherited from Fox following its acquisition of 20th Century, and just like with “Dark Phoenix” and “Underwater” before it, there’s not much Disney could do to prevent this from ending up in the red. PG family films should cost $30–50 million tops, so giving one based on a 110-year-old book the same budget as a Marvel movie was just plain stupid.
Onward (March 6)
Production Budget: $175–200 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Opening Weekend: $39.1 million
Worldwide Gross: $104 million*
Estimated Losses: $225 million
Even before the unfortunate global spread of the coronavirus, it was speculated by many that “Onward” would face a tough task in order to turn a profit for Disney. Once the pandemic affected totals (dropping 70% from an already low $39 million debut to $10 million in its second weekend), theaters shut down across the country, essentially dooming the film. In fact, it was announced it has already be made available for purchase digitally, and will start streaming on Disney+ in April. It made $103 million worldwide before the industry shutdown, and I’ll describe how I arrived at my approximated figures below.
Disney, but especially with their Pixar films, is tight-lipped with the cost of the films. No official cost for “Onward” was reported, but typically Pixar’s films cost around $175–200 million. One of Pixar’s most recent films, “Finding Dory” cost $200 million and spent $160 million on marketing. So let’s say “Onward,” a film released four years later but with less anticipation than that sequel, spent around $150 million on P&A, for a total cost of about $325 million.
Disney typically gets 50% of domestic theater grosses and 40% of foreign (China is typically even less than that, but they’ve been closed off since December). So combining half the $61.5 million made in the US ($30.7 million) with 40% of the $41.6 million made overseas ($16.6 million), Disney made about $47.3 million from “Onward’s” theatrical run. There may be some more ways for the film to make money, such as TV deals and toys, and even though this is going straight to streaming it’s not like there won’t be home video sales. I’ll give the film $50 million in digital and physical copy sales (“Toy Story 4” has made $54 million, “Incredibles 2” $70 million and “The Good Dinosaur” $63 million). But still, after all the dusts settles, the film likely lost Disney around $227.7 million (97.3 minus 325). If that number seems too high to be true, just consider that “A Wrinkle in Time” cost the studio a combined $250 million to make and advertise (less than “Onward”) and grossed $132 million worldwide (more than “Onward”); that film ended up $130 million in the red for the Mouse House. Disney will recover, hopefully along with every other studio and theater chain, but unfortunately “Onward” couldn’t catch a break from day one.