While any film that fails to meet box office expectations is often labeled a flop, even today’s big-budget failures can’t compare to some of the biggest financial disasters in the history of film when adjusted for inflation (all box office numbers courtesy of FilmSite.org). Here are the 10 biggest film box office disasters of all-time and how their losses measure up to modern standards of box office bombs.
10. Heaven’s Gate (1980) and Sahara (2005) [Tie]
It seems fitting to start off the list with the film that is often considered the biggest financial disaster of all time, if only in reputation. Released in 1980, Heaven’s Gate was a complete disaster to everyone involved, including studio United Artists, which almost collapsed as a result, and director Michael Cimino whose career never recovered. When it comes to film history, the Heaven’s Gate disaster is often pointed to as the key event that led American filmmaking away from director-driven projects, as studios sought to assume control over projects — something that hasn’t changed since.
Just how disastrous was Heaven’s Gate? On a budget of $44 million, the film earned only $3.5 million at the box office. Adjusted for inflation, Heaven’s Gate lost approximately $121 million at the box office for what was essentially an art-house western. Although the film has in recent years been rediscovered as — in many ways — a case of the media driving critical perception, there’s no doubt that the impact of Heaven’s Gate is still being felt by studios and filmmakers today.
The story of Sahara’s financial failure is the subject of many detailed reports that outline the complexities of so-called Hollywood accounting and even some potentially illegal financial transactions between Hollywood and the Moroccan government where the film was shot. But when it comes down to it, Sahara was simply too expensive.
According to FilmSite.org, Sahara cost upwards of $160 million to produce. But unlike many films on this list, Sahara wasn’t necessarily a box office bomb, earning a respectable $119.3 million. The problem was that Sahara really had no shot at making its money back, losing approximately $100 million despite earning over $100 million at the box office. When adjusted for inflation, Sahara’s losses rise to about $121 million, putting it on the same level of the notorious disaster Heaven’s Gate. In many ways, Sahara should have been a huge red flag when it comes to tentpole filmmaking, but instead the film has been largely forgotten.