Imagine a cinematic landscape without Star Wars or without the first Michael Keaton Batman movie. Star Wars ultimately led to the second-biggest movie franchise ever, which is reportedly worth around $30 billion. Batman was one of the first dark and serious superhero films to hit the mainstream market, and it also launched the entire modern-day superhero genre. These major successes, however, are two classic movies that filmmakers thought would flop.
The greatest ideas are usually the ones that most people think will fail. Nearly every Hollywood insider thought Avatar would become the biggest box office bust in cinematic history. Instead, it became the highest-grossing worldwide release at $2.7 billion. Michael Eisner himself wanted to halt production on Pirates of the Caribbean. Now, it’s one of the highest-grossing movie franchises of all time.
These classic movies that filmmakers, actors, or industry insiders thought would flop should be a lesson to anyone who has an out-of-the-box idea. All of these movies were huge risks when they were created, but they were clearly risks worth taking, and they paid off in major ways.
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
George Lucas's friends thought he had lost his mind when he pitched Star Wars. Movie studio 20th Century Fox figured the science fiction film about an orphaned Jedi was going to be a box office disaster. Even Lucas himself didn't think Star Wars would be a success. In fact, after screening the movie for his friends, Lucas only had one person in his corner. His good pal Steven Spielberg had the vision to see that Star Wars was going to be a massive hit.
Lucas was coming off the now-critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful American Graffiti. The director was so sure Star Wars would also fail that he planned to take off to Hawaii prior to the movie's cinematic release in the spring of 1977. Before he left, he got the call from 20th Century Fox president Alan Ladd Jr. Ladd told Lucas, "It's a fantastic hit! Every single paper! There are lines around the block. You can't believe this!"
Even still, Lucas had his doubts and stuck to his Hawaiian travel plans. He figured that it was just science fiction fans lining up around the block, and once that crowd dried up, so would the ticket sales.
Lucas was wrong again, of course. Star Wars was not just a box office hit - it quickly became a phenomenon. "I turned on the news, and they had this huge story on the sensation of Star Wars, and lines around the block. Everybody was going berserk about it," Lucas said. "That was the first time I understood that it was a big hit."
As of 2019, there are nine Star Wars films from three different trilogies, three standalone movies, multiple television series, comics, video games, theme park attractions, and of course the endless merchandise. It is the second-highest-grossing franchise in cinematic history behind the Marvel Universe. The franchise's monetary estimates are staggering and stand at a reported $30 billion.
- Actors: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness
- Released: 1977
- Directed by: George Lucas
Before 2014, Chris Pratt was still known as the goofy guy from the television comedy series Parks and Recreation, and James Gunn hadn't yet directed a major feature-length movie. Both signed on to make the Marvel superhero flick Guardians of the Galaxy and instantly expected the worst. Many industry insiders were predicting that the little-known comic book series Guardians of the Galaxy would not adapt well to the big screen and the movie would be "Marvel's first [failure]."
Gunn thought that his first real foray behind the camera could easily be his last. He said, "If this goes wrong, my life is screwed. I'll be a pariah."
Pratt was equally worried about how starring in a major box office dud could wreck his movie career before it even got started. He admitted, "Every rule said, 'You don't make a movie with a talking tree,' 'You don't spend this much money on a raccoon with a [side arm]. For me, I was like, 'Oh, so this movie is going to [fail]. Done. This is the end of my career.'"
Luckily, Gunn had a vision and stuck with his instincts. He thought that moviegoers could use a change of pace when it came to superhero films. He said, "They needed the humor and the fun - they just didn't know it yet." Guardians of the Galaxy hit the big screen in 2014 and raked in over $770 million at the global box office. Critics also loved it. It spawned two sequels and made Pratt one of the most coveted actors in Hollywood.
- Actors: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, and Bradley Cooper
- Released: 2014
- Directed by: James Gunn
- Photo: Paramount Pictures
Before Titanic hit the big screen in 1997, there were constant reports that the movie was way over budget, experiencing delays, and that James Cameron's monster ego and need for complete creative control were pushing the movie past the edge of disaster. Variety featured a daily "Titanic Watch," which was a print column dedicated to chronicling the movie's troubles.
The final production budget came in at an estimated $300 million, which included nearly $100 million dedicated solely to constructing the Titanic replica ship. Cameron explained that the troubled production "costs were spiraling out of control." He said:
I remember the praise from all parties becoming more sparing as time went on - they didn't want to encourage me to sacrifice schedule for quality. Sherry always loved the film but [when the release date loomed] the business heads at Paramount acted like they'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer - a lot of grim faces and a triage approach to releasing the movie. Everyone thought they were going to lose money, and all efforts were simply to make sure the hemorrhage was not fatal. Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included, because nobody could have imagined what was about to happen next.
Instead of tanking, Titanic became the highest-grossing movie ever until 2009's Avatar. It brought in $1.8 billion at the global box office. People were so enamored with the film's love story, combined with the tearjerking tragedy, that many moviegoers saw it in the theater multiple times. It stayed on the top spot at the box office for an unheard of 15 straight weeks. Critics and the Academy loved the movie, as well. Titanic won 11 Oscars, including statues for Best Picture and Best Director.
The film also made bona fide movie stars out of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
- Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, James Cameron, Bill Paxton
- Released: 1997
- Directed by: James Cameron
- Photo: 20th Century Fox
James Cameron beat the odds with Titanic. Then, he spent over a decade working on Avatar. He actually needed all that time so that movie technology could catch up to his personal vision. He finally started production on Avatar in 2006. It was an even more ambitious project than Titanic, and it went over budget, over time, and experienced multiple rewrites. In the end, the movie cost a whopping $237 million to make.
Industry experts predicted that the 3D adventure would finally be Cameron's epic flop. The push prior to Avatar's release was that the technology would change movies forever. There was a ton of hype surrounding the project, which had a reported running time of almost three hours. Several film writers and studio big wigs thought that the movie was too big to succeed. Deadspin reporter Drew Magary wrote prior to Avatar's release:
Obviously, running time was no detriment to the success of Titanic. But think about what that movie had going for it. It had public fascination with a known historical event. It had a love story between two gorgeous and talented actors. Avatar by contrast, is not based on any known quantity, something extremely rare in Hollywood these days. And its love story concerns a giant blue alien and a man disguised as a giant blue alien. I have nothing against giant blue aliens, but I really hope there isn't a [bare] portrait scene. Also, the film appears to be riddled with Cameron's signature awful dialogue.
What we have with Avatar then, is the inverse phenomenon of Titanic. Titanic was expected to flop, and ended up crushing everything in its path. Avatar arrives heralded as the greatest film event in history. But all the 3D pterodactyls and giant robot exoskeletons in the world won't help the movie if it ends up, you know, sucking. It's impossible to know until you see for yourself, but it sure doesn't look very promising right now.
Avatar finally came out in 2009. It became the highest-grossing movie of all time, bringing in $2.7 billion. It was also a hit with critics and won three Academy Awards. There are also four scheduled Avatar sequels.
- Actors: Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington, Giovanni Ribisi
- Released: 2009
- Directed by: James Cameron