Inside ‘Cutthroat Island,’ The Cinematic Flop Accused Of Extinguishing The Pirate Genre

Cutthroat Island may not have been a hit, but it is one of the rare movies that gained a lasting legacy - namely as a cautionary tale for Hollywood studios. Like many big-budget movies that tank at the box office, people become fascinated with behind-the-scenes tales of what went wrong, eager to see how such a cinematic mess came to be.

It's the film equivalent of slowing down to check out a car wreck: you don't really want to see it, but you're at least curious to see what happened. That's Cutthroat Island, such a monumental fiasco that it tanked an entire production company and even tainted the careers of its key players for years to come. In fact, it may have even finished off an entire genre... at least temporarily. The stories about the making of Cutthroat Island paint a picture of how not to mount an expensive production, a lesson that remains in the back of the industry's collective mind decades later.

  • The Film's Failure Bankrupted Its Production Company

    The Film's Failure Bankrupted Its Production Company
    Photo: MGM

    Cutthroat Island is a cautionary tale for many reasons, not the least of which is the way its budget careened out of control. The initial budget was around $60 million, but after all the delays and scheduling overruns, the cost ballooned to an estimated $98 million - or what would amount to $164 million in 2019 dollars when adjusted for inflation.

    That kind of investment can be well worth the trouble if the final product is a big hit - but in this case, the movie only managed to pull in a paltry $10 million at the box office. That's an initial loss of $88 million - but with advertising and marketing costs accounted for, Carolco Pictures lost an estimated $147 million. As a result, Carolco went bankrupt, having defaulted on its debts.

  • Renny Harlin Was Given Free Rein Because Of The Success Of ‘Cliffhanger’

    Renny Harlin Was Given Free Rein Because Of The Success Of ‘Cliffhanger’
    Photo: MGM

    Prior to taking on Cutthroat Island, director Renny Harlin achieved widespread success with the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger. That movie, also co-produced by Carolco Pictures, gave Harlin the freedom to choose basically whatever he wanted for his follow-up. Carolco bankrolled his ambitious swashbuckling project to the tune of $60 million, and he was given more or less free rein on set.

    Both he and Geena Davis - the star of the film and Harlin's wife at the time - had a lot riding on the success of the picture. Harlin was reportedly uncontrollable, and the studio failed to rein him in when costs began to rise. Since Carolco Pictures had everything riding on the project, the studio executives had little choice but to hope for the best and secure additional funding whenever necessary.

  • Delays, Mishaps, And Illness Plagued The Thailand Crew

    Delays, Mishaps, And Illness Plagued The Thailand Crew
    Photo: MGM

    Production delays - even extensive ones - are hardly unheard of. Many films have to deal with creative issues and unplanned circumstances, from bad weather damaging sets to lead actors falling ill, and everything in between. But for Cutthroat Island, pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong - and it was all expensive. Filming was delayed in order to rebuild sets - not just to fit director Renny Harlin's specifications, but to undo the damage of an unexpected calamity.

    All pirate movies need pirate ships, and in this case, two massive wooden sailing vessels were constructed at a cost of $1 million each. It's easy to see why they were so expensive - they were intricately constructed to resemble 17th-century sailing ships. Unfortunately for their physical integrity, they were made of wood, so when one of them caught fire, it naturally needed to be rebuilt, setting production back in the process.

    The delays didn't end there. Filming on or near the water is always tricky, and for the production crew on Cutthroat, the process was a mess. Nobody had any experience doing it, which led to numerous otherwise preventable injuries - not to mention the various illnesses suffered by those working on the film. Matthew Modine spoke about the dangers of working on location: "A lot of the crew were hit with stomach bugs as well. I've stayed well - I won't eat things from the sea here; the waters are so polluted."

  • Entire Sets Were Built With The Knowledge That Director Renny Harlin Would Want Them Redone

    Entire Sets Were Built With The Knowledge That Director Renny Harlin Would Want Them Redone
    Photo: MGM

    Set design is often the most expensive aspect of a movie, whether that means the practical construction of elaborate sets or, per 21st-century filmmaking, the elaborate digital creation of photorealistic facsimiles. Cutthroat Island was firmly in the former category, with a host of artists, engineers, carpenters, builders, and other technical specialists being brought in to build the movie's 17th-century Caribbean world. This aspect of the production required a great deal of time, people, and money.

    But while the cost of building those sets was certainly taken into account in the movie's original $60 million budget, tearing them down and rebuilding them was not. After the project was greenlit, production began in Malta before the arrival of director Renny Harlin. The director was completing work on other projects as pre-production began. The crew knew he would likely want the set work redone when he eventually arrived, but construction continued anyway. Sure enough, as soon as Harlin arrived, he ordered all the completed work to be redone - essentially doubling the cost of the film's impressive, intricately designed sets.

  • Carolco Pictures Was Counting On The Film To Help Them Out Of Massive Debt

    Carolco Pictures Was Counting On The Film To Help Them Out Of Massive Debt
    Photo: Unknown / Wikipedia / Fair Use

    Carolco was a massively successful production company during the 1980s and early '90s, having produced such hits as Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But a string of failures and poor financial decisions meant the company was deep in debt by the time funding for Cutthroat Island was on the table. Producing a film has never been a cheap endeavor, but just a few years earlier, Carolco was able to secure funding for almost anything thanks to its previous successes. That couldn't be said in 1994 when Cutthroat Island was being developed.

    To finance the picture, Carolco had to put all its financial eggs into a single basket and was banking on the success of this swashbuckling adventure movie to dig the company out of the red. If the movie didn't perform well, the production company would have no way to pay off its massive debt.

  • Michael Douglas ‘Doomed’ The Film By Pulling Out Of Playing Shaw

    The role of William Shaw was initially offered to Michael Douglas, who accepted - but with provisions. He needed the filming to begin immediately due to his busy schedule, and he was adamant that his character receive the same amount of screen time as his co-star, Geena Davis. Eventually, Douglas pulled out, just one of a number of the film's original plans that went up in smoke.

    Douglas left the film largely due to the expansion of Davis's role. After his departure, Carolco Pictures tried to bring in the likes of Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Liam Neeson, Jeff Bridges, Ralph Fiennes, Charlie Sheen, Michael Keaton, Tim Robbins, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Gabriel Byrne, but all passed on the role. The role of Shaw finally went to Matthew Modine, who had films like Full Metal Jacket and Married to the Mob on his résumé but did not have Douglas's box-office clout. Ultimately, his Cutthroat Island performance was panned by critics.