With Universal's Battleship sinking quickly after a dismal $25.5 million domestic debut, it's high time to look back at the previous big-budget bombs released in summer's kick-off month of May. Here are the five worst high-profile May flops of the 21st century ranked from big disaster to biggest disaster.
Kicking off our list is director Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, released on May 6, 2005. Despite a heavy ad campaign that emphasized Scott's successful Gladiator, this historical epic starring Orlando Bloom is the modern era's only first-weekend-of-summer blockbuster to open to less than $30 million—much less, in fact, with a terrible $19.6 million debut. Summer openers have very few excuses when they fail—they're market-tested to death—and in this film's case, fingers were pointed at Fox's 1990s box office mindset. Today, no one would green-light an overlong R-rated epic with an unproven star, an $180 million budget, no family appeal, and an unfriendly, high-profile release date. Kingdom's international performance was solid, but that good news was completely overshadowed by its $47 million domestic take, which doomed the film into the red.
The only animated film unlucky enough to wind up in this article is DreamWorks' Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. As one of the last hand-drawn animated films to release during the summer (or at all), this 2002 clunker about a wild mustang banked only $123 million worldwide on a $120 million budget. What went wrong? First, though it released on Memorial Day weekend, it was crowded out by the extended success of fellow May openers Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II. But Spirit was also a victim of its own old-fashioned nature in a post-Shrek and post-Toy Story world. The traditional animation genre still hasn't recovered, and continues to limit itself to small, high-prestige winter flicks.
The third-worst May performer is 2006's Poseidon, a remake of The Poseidon Adventure that opened one week after Mission: Impossible III (itself a financial disappointment). Director Wolfgang Petersen's retelling sold itself as an ensemble disaster pic, but the cast included few actors of any significant recent popularity (Richard Dreyfuss and Kurt Russell are only summer stars in an earlier era) and the target adult audience was more interested in Ron Howard's adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, which opened one week later. Made for $205 million, Poseidon grossed a mere $182 million worldwide, two-thirds of which came from overseas.
Our penultimate flop is 2008's Speed Racer. This flashy live-action update of the old anime series is why the Wachowskis were a one-hit wonder after The Matrix. It had the bad box office position of opening one week after Iron Man and two weeks before the long-anticipated fourth Indiana Jones. Panned by critics, Speed Racer couldn't get dumped by theaters fast enough. It finished with $94 million worldwide—half of what it cost to make.
But to find the biggest May flop in modern history, we must go all the way back to May 12, 2000. It's a date that will live in infamy as the moment when Battlefield Earth crawled out of the toxic sludge and into theaters. The L. Ron Hubbard-inspired sci-fi epic (using the term loosely) was not only billed as 2000's summer kick-off, but also as the first act in a planned three-film franchise to be shepherded by Warner Bros. and, in part, leading man and professed Scientologist John Travolta.
To say Battlefield was poorly received would be the understatement of the century. Out of 123 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, only three are positive—that's an embarrassing 2% score, folks. Worse, it opened to a puny $11.6 million, and worse still, it was one of the very rare wide release films to not even double the revenue of its domestic opening frame. Overseas, the film bagged another $8.2 million for a combined worldwide gross of $29.7 million. And while the film's $78 million budget isn't considered huge, it was still sizable for its time—that's still just under half a Titanic. Battlefield Earth's 0.38 gross-to-budget ratio handily makes it the worst May bomb in modern—and maybe any—box office history.
What's the underlying lesson? Quality is a major factor. Though the common wisdom is summer movie fans don't care about craft, they clearly do. Spirit aside, the critics and audiences trashed the other four films, which all sit below 40% on Rotten Tomatoes). The other major factor is location, location, location. Everyone wants to be the big summer blockbuster, but it doesn't make sense to crowd an underwhelming picture into a season that's already packed with surefire hits. Maybe these film films were always doomed, but they'd likely have made millions more if they'd moved up their release date to March or held out for September.
However, There's good news for Kingdom of Heaven and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, though, because their slots on this biggest loser countdown may soon be taken by two bombs from May 2012: Battleship and Dark Shadows. In the case of both, reviews are just one suspect: Battleship sits at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes and Dark Shadows at 41%. And competition for shared audiences is also a factor, especially when Marvel's The Avengers is still setting box office records. The takeaway is that no matter how often a studio attempts to mimic a previous success or repackage an established "brand name" into a big-budget movie, summer audiences aren't so blinded by popcorn that they can't tell a good film from a desperate failure. The bright side: we probably don't have to worry about Chutes and Ladders: The Movie anytime soon.