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Box office disasters

The Oogieloves may be a nightmare that haunts you in the day, but it’s pretty fun to watch with friends. Photo credit: Freestyle Releasing

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Another month, another edition of Three Easy Pieces, where I explore a specific pocket of pop culture, from its birth to today. The recent release of Solo: A Star Wars Story has me thinking of box office disasters. And look, time will tell whether or not Solo can truly be called a disaster, but it has certainly underperformed, bringing in a bit under $400 million a month-and-a-half into its release, which can only be considered a bomb in an age where a big tentpole movie like that has to hit a billion to be a success. There are much more harrowing examples of embarrassingly expensive movies being decisively shut down by the movie-going public.

BIRTH: Heaven's Gate (1980)

Honorable mention: Cutthroat IslandIshtar,The Fall of the Roman Empire

Heaven's Gate was not the first movie to fail financially, but it was the first high-profile instance of a world watching a movie go down in flames. A notoriously troubled and costly production, the epic Western was subject to public scrutiny and rumors of ruin before it even hit theaters. And once it finally got to theaters? Hoo boy.

Michael Cimino had previously directed the classic, lauded, Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter, and parlayed that success into ambitious folly. When adjusted for inflation, Heaven's Gate lost a staggering $120 million, making it one of the biggest bombs of all time. Cimino's career as a big-time director was essentially ruined - not aided by a string of lower profile bombs. United Artists, which distributed the film, was forced to collapse. Heaven's Gate eventually got a re-edit, which was positively received, but that was too little, too late.

DEVELOPMENT: The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)

Honorable mention: Jack FrostBattlefield EarthThe 13th Warrior

The Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy vehicle, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, lost $130 million, when adjusted for inflation. Even without inflation, it lost $96 million. 

"But how is that possible?" I hear you ask. "I passed by that movie on cable and, judging by appearances, there's no way it cost more than a pack of gum and a favor to produce. Only a fool would think that movie could even be capable of losing that amount of money."

You're right to think those things, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news to tell you that the aggressively unfunny, stultifyingly stupid, and bafflingly cheap-looking Pluto Nash cost $100 million in 2002 money. I refuse to call it a money-laundering scam so, uh, let's just move on.

It's hard to understand exactly why audiences weren't drawn to it - people give awful movies their money all the time - especially since Murphy hadn't yet really shown signs of his disdain for acting and apathy towards making any effort. Rather, Pluto Nash was the canary in the coal mine that signaled his stark decline as a movie star.

TODAY: The Oogieloves (2012)

Honorable mention: John CarterR.I.P.D.47 Ronin

John Carter was a breathtaking disaster: one of the most expensive movies ever made, based on a bankable source material, starring a would-be leading man on the rise, and it lost an amount of money estimated to be between $130 to $213 million, depending on how much we're guessing was spent on marketing and distribution. It would be worth talking about, alone, for the superstitious decision to shorten the title from John Carter of Mars (executives argued that no movie with "Mars" in the title has been successful).

But, no, I want to talk about The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, released the same year. Made for $20 million, with another $40 million spent on marketing, The Oogieloves earned just over $1 million, making it the lowest-earning movie ever to be released on over 2,000 screens. Pitched as an interactive movie-going experience for small children, The Oogieloves feels simultaneously like a cynical attempt at a cash grab and a psychotic creation that could only come from a wildly misguided visionary. Its plot can be described thusly: Four monsters search for magic balloons to give to a pillow named Schluufy for his birthday. Don't let your kids near this thing, but maybe get drunk and watch it with friends.

Three Easy Pieces will return, next month, with: Notorious Bootleg Albums. 

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