Hollywood History Questions Answered: What Movie Was the Biggest Bomb Ever?

John Carter Still - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

From 1963's 'Cleopatra' being the costliest film ever made at the time to 1980 flop 'Heaven's Gate,' which film takes the dubious crown for the biggest box office loser of all time?

It was the costliest film ever made at the time, its $44 million budget equivalent to $365 million today, and it sent 20th Century Fox into such a financial spiral that the studio had to sell the swath of land now known as Century City. But was 1963's Cleopatra the biggest bomb ever?

Not even close. The Elizabeth Taylor vehicle hit No. 1 at the box office, earning $57.8 million domestically ($480 million today) and winning four Oscars.

What about that legendary 1980 flop, Heaven's Gate? The Michael Cimino epic had a production ticket of $44 million ($171 million today) for a shoot that lasted 10 months but earned only $3.5 million domestically. In adjusted dollars, it lost United Artists $128 million.

So what was the biggest loser? It's a toss-up. Disney's 2012 sci-fi opus John Carter cost $263.7 million (plus at least $100 million for marketing) and earned only $284 million worldwide — just half what it would have needed to break even — forcing the studio to take a $200 million write-down, though the loss connected to the movie was only $136.6 million.

Still, that puts Andrew Stanton's Carter a smidgen ahead of the Renny Harlin flick that had reigned supreme until then: 1995's Cutthroat Island reportedly cost $98 million, but its budget may have been much higher and topped $115 million when domestic marketing costs were factored in, per a 1996 New York Times report. Cutthroat earned $15.7 million worldwide, according to Comscore. It pushed Carolco Pictures into bankruptcy and lost $118 million (adjusted for inflation) according to the Guinness Book of World Records — which doesn't account for international marketing, whose precise cost is unknown.

Without those numbers, John Carter takes the dubious crown.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.