In the world of modern cinema, studios make huge losses on films that doesn't live up to expectations. When budgets reach sums totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, with marketing campaigns that are equally as expensive, a disappointing release can prove incredibly costly. The unfortunate news for executives is, this happens all too often. Not every movie can be a hit, and there are dozens of massive box office bombs released every year.
However, not all notorious mega-flops lose money; more often than you might think, films regarded as disasters by the press narrative are victim to a misconstrued truth that gives rise to bizarre alternate reality rife with profitable movies regarded as flops. Peter Jackson's King Kong, which you may not even think of as a flop, is one such film, as press quotes from the time of the film's release will show.
When worldwide box office receipts or DVD and blu-ray sales are taken into account, films regarded as flops are suddenly successful. Because of this, certain movies everyone believes were failures actually proved profitable for the studios behind them, though it some cases it took years for this to happen. Take a look at some of these flops that didn't flop and see if you thought they lost millions at the cinema.
Waterworld, released in 1995, is one of the most famous flops in movie history. Made on a massive budget of $172 million, which spiraled thanks to production problems and a hurricane that destroyed a large set, it received mix reviews from critics and audiences. Factoring in marketing, the total expenditure for the film was around $235 million. While it is true Waterworld failed to recoup its costs at the box office, a successful home release and other sales meant it made an estimated profit of $67 million.
As of 2015, Waterworld routinely makes lists of the biggest box office bombs of all time, despite the numbers showing a different narrative. If nothing else, you can take solace in the fact that one reviewer on Amazon described the movie as "like Mad Max, but wetter."
Superman Returns is widely accepted as an artistic failure and often referred to as a bomb. It had a gigantic budget of around $270 million, plus around $100 million in marketing costs, bringing the total outlay for Warner Bros. to an estimated $363 million. On that budget, it made $391,081,192. Despite barely making back production costs before tallying movie theater take, Alan Horn confirmed, in August 2006, the studio viewed the movie as a success (his wording is a bit tricky, and he doesn't seem to assert the movie was a financial success).
Yet Superman Returns posted huge DVD sales, earning $85,730,989 in the United States and Canada alone. These figures don't take into account blu-ray sales or worldwide numbers from either home video sales or sales of foreign home release licensing.
So Oliver Stone, the man behind 20th century political masterpieces JFK and Platoon, elected to make a three-hour movie about an ancient Macedonia who amassed one of the largest empires in history and went undefeated in battle. Sure, okay. Why not? Oh, an Irishman plays Alexander? That's... weird.
Audiences didn't go along for the ride with Stone, and Alexander frequently finds itself on lists of the biggest box office disasters of all time. Though the movie made $167 million on a budget of $150 million, those figures don't take into account promotional costs, or that movie theaters keep as much as half of the box office revenue. Given this, it's been estimated Alexander lost about $71 million. And yet, all things considered, it probably made its money back in the long run.
What these figures don't take into account is the unexpected success of Alexander on home release formats. It has been released four times, as the theatrical cut (175 mins), a Director's Cut (167 mins), a Final Cut (214 mins), and an Ultimate Cut (207 mins). As of 2006, the theatrical and Director's cut DVDs had sold a combined 3.5 million copies. As of 2012, the Final Cut (also called Alexander Revisited) had sold around a million copies.
So that's 4.5 million DVDs sold, and a whole other version not left uncounted. If you assume each copy sold for $15 (which is a low estimate, given how expensive DVDs are in the weeks immediately after release, and how many copies sell in the first few weeks of release), that's $67.5 million, just a bit shy of the $71 million in estimated losses.
Sure these numbers aren't iron clad, but it's also probably not a terrible estimate. Assuming sales of the Ultimate Cut were comparable to those of previous version, and even marginal sales increases in the first two releases since 2006, it would seem as though Alexander finds itself in profits. In 2017, the Ultimate Cut was added to Netflix, which earned the studio yet more money.
A reappraisal of the film published on RogerEbert.com in 2014 states the movie did "eventually make back its production costs," though it's unclear whether this simply means the movie grossed more than it cost to make, or whether it recouped all expenses when factoring in marketing costs, theater take, and home video sales.
If you pay attention to Hollywood trade rags and sites, you probably know the story of Warcraft pretty well. If not, the 2016 fantasy epic made just $47,365,290 in the United States on a budget of about $160 million. Yikes.
But when box office numbers arrived from China, headlines started changing. On June 15, 2016, just five days after the movie was released, Wired ran the headline "Thought Warcraft Tanked? Nope - It Changed Blockbusters Forever." The article explains just how astounding Warcraft's Chinese debut was, including that it made more money in five days in China than The Force Awakens made in its entire theatrical run there.
Yet there's always someone who wants to burst your bubble. Pamela McClintock asserted, in an article published by The Hollywood Reporter in July 2016, that, though Warcraft played like gangbusters in China, it would still lose around $15 million. Fast forward to 2017, and Warcraft has earned $16,324,217 in DVD and blu-ray sales. This number doesn't take into account how much of that went into releasing the movie on home video, or how much of that total the retailers kept, but it also doesn't include digital sales and rentals. Even if Warcraft lost $15 million during its theatrical run, it will certainly make that back in the long run with numbers like those.