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 the production and marketing budgets are made known.
Underwater (January 10)
Production Budget: $50-80 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Opening Weekend: $7 million
Worldwide Total: $40.9 million
Estimated Losses: $49 million
Kristen Stewart just can’t seem to catch a break. After her “Charlie’s Angels” reboot went belly-up last November, she finds her newest release (pardon the pun) treading water yet again. Just the latest in a long string of Fox-produced flops that Disney inherited in the merger, “Underwater” never sold itself as anything more than another creature feature, and thanks to a packed weekend that included the wide releases of “1917” and “Just Mercy,” as well as another new film in “Like a Boss,” this thing sank like stone.
Using box office math, we can figure that the studio received about 50% of the film’s $17.3 million domestic gross ($8.6 million) and 40% of the foreign $23.6 million ($9.4 million), for a total theatrical revenue of $18 million. As of May 2020 the film has made just under $1 million from physical copy sales, and for argument’s sake let’s say it does about the same numbers as another creature-feature “10 Cloverfield Lane” and sells about $8 million. And finally let’s put its TV deal at about $20 million. All-in-all that is a profit of around $46 million.
The reported production budgets for this project range anywhere from $50 million all the way up to $80 million (yikes), but the number I have seen most often and is in the dead center is $65 million, so we’ll go with that. As far as marketing goes, I couldn’t find an exact figure, but I saw the trailer more often than I would like in the months leading up to its release, and in just one week in December Disney spent $4.4 million on TV ads. I feel that putting total spending at $30 million in fair, and it is technically all that Disney is on the hook for. So that makes the total net cost of the film $95 million, which when subtracted from $46 million leaves “Underwater” $49 million in the red. Hopefully Stewart can eventually find a non-indie, non-“Twilight” flick that finds an audience, because this one sunk like a rock.
Dolittle (January 17)
Production Budget: $175 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Opening Weekend: $22 million
Worldwide Gross: $223.3 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: $6 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: $103.2 million
Estimated Losses: $195 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 $120 million on P&A, for a total cost of about $300 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 $55 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 $197.3 million (102.3 minus 300). 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.
Artemis Fowl (June 12)
Production Budget: $125 million
P&A Budget: N/A
Estimated Worth: $20 million
Estimated Losses: $125 million
Quarantine is forcing us all to adapt and get creative, so without many films (officially) playing in theaters, I am going to do something a little different here. It technically isn’t a box office bomb as it’s a straight-to-streaming, but because it was made–and until recently was slated for–theaters, I’m going to count it. “Artemis Fowl” has been passed around Hollywood for 20 years, long intended to be the next Harry Potter franchise. It finally got made, but after being delayed several times was simply dropped to streaming on Disney+ due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That may save Disney some face from box office bomb headlines, but it won’t save their checkbooks. Let me explain.
The production budget for “Artemis Fowl” is $125 million, which is a lot to give to a kid’s film and really any non-superhero flick. Luckily for Disney (who has appeared a lot on this list), being on their own streaming service means minimal advertising and distribution costs. Before being pulled in March the film had slowly begun its promotion push, plus TV and social media advertisements in the last three months, but I would be shocked if the P&A for the film specifically surpassed $20 million. It should be noted that Disney plans on spending $350 million advertising the Disney+ in 2020, often showing every feature of the service from Marvel to National Geographic, and recently Artemis Fowl and his sunglasses have appeared in the commercials. So for the sake of the argument, we’ll say all-in-all “Artemis Fowl” cost the Mouse House $145 million.
Now here is where things get tricky, and it is all but a guessing game. There will be no direct income from the film for Disney, and unlike box office receipts or VOD rental charts it is impossible to track the actual number of people who pay up. Plus, unlike TV that is checked by Nielsen or Netflix which reports its own (albeit grain-of-salt) viewership numbers, Disney refuses to release audience counts, even for things known to be raging successes, like “The Mandalorian.” So we’re going to get a little creative. I have to give credit where it is due, and say I got this idea from Entertainment Strategy Guy, who did a write-up last December on why “The Irishman” would end up losing Netflix over $250 million when the de-aging dust settled (you can check out that in-depth piece here). While we don’t have viewership figures for Disney+ products, we can look at the Google Trends for how popular certain titles are. When you look at how “Artemis Fowl” compares to other recent kid’s films like “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!,” it’s night and day. Look at the spike during both of those film’s releases, then look at the flatline that is “Artemis.”
And you may say “well those are both video-on-demand, not part of streaming services, it’s a bit different” and you’d be right, so I’ll bring up two Netflix films, “Extraction” and “The Wrong Missy” (albeit both are rated R). Again, look at the roller coaster compared to the non-change for “Artemis.” It is safe to say that once word got out about these films, there was (varying levels of) interest; “Artemis Fowl” has yet to see this spike. Even Disney+’s own “Lady and the Tramp” live-action remake received a large spike in searches the week of its release last November. It is also worth noting that fantasy adventures like this film typically make about 35% of their box office takes from the U.S., so it is fair to assume over half of the people who stream “Artemis Fowl” will be overseas. Plus, the film came out on the same day that Netflix dropped Spike Lee’s possible Oscar contender “Da 5 Bloods” (if 2020 ends up having an awards season), and the Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson comedy “The King of Staten Island” was made available for rent; both films received positive reviews from critics.
And just having viewers doesn’t mean money, but it does justify Disney (and in-turn, other streaming services) investing in bigger-budget films moving forward. The reviews for “Artemis Fowl” are not very good (you could even say they’re Artemis-Foul, currently sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes), so it likely would have had very poor legs at the box office, but as my one friend pointed out to me: reviews typically help people decide if a film is worth their money; when it’s “free” to stream, you’re willing to give it a chance (especially if it shuts your quarantined kids up for 90 minutes). Much like Netflix having prestige Oscar contenders like “Roma” or “The Irishman” and made-for-studio flicks like “The Lovebirds” (or similarly AppleTV buying Tom Hanks’ World War II film “Greyhound”), this is all about building your library. There will likely come a time in the near future where there are so many streaming services from so many companies that all each of them can do is create their own content based on the properties they own, so building up your catalogs now with “real” movies is a selling point boost.
So as you see, it is hard to say exactly how much “Artemis Fowl” will lose Disney. And make no mistake, it will lose Disney a lot of money. Entertainment Strategy Guy estimated that “The Irishman” and its 10 Oscar nominations was worth about $60 million worth for Netflix, based on its reported 40 million viewers ($38 million), awards prestige ($9.5 million), and “library value” ($12 million). “Artemis Fowl” will almost certainly be viewed less and earn no accolades (except maybe a few Razzies), but like I said, having a $100 million+ film as an original on your streaming service does add some level of worth. So let’s say 20 million people eventually watch the film (and value that at $16 million) and it adds $4 million worth of “credibility” to the Disney+ catalog. That is “bringing in” about $20 million to Disney, and I don’t have to spell out how that looks when put up against its $145 total cost.