Box Office · Lists

Biggest Box Office Bombs of 2020

If you’re like me, you’re fascinated not only with movies but with the box office. It’s fun to see surprise hits (“Get Out”), Cinderella stories (“Parasite”) and record-breakers (“Avengers: Endgame”), but for me it is far more interesting to dissect when things go wrong. Not that I wish harm on any film, making movies is hard and at the end of the day it is a business, but sometimes a film is given such a ludicrous budget for its cast, genre or release date that it just has to be talked about and/or criticized.

Here I will keep a running list of the biggest box office bombs of 2020. There are sure to be a handful, as with every year, and as Ari Gold once let us know, most movies actually end up losing money. However, there are times when a bomb cannot be ignored and loses the studio millions of dollars. Check back here throughout the year to see what films left the biggest red ink stain from 2020, in order of release date. Sometimes actual losses aren’t reported, but I’ll still include films on this list if the production and marketing budgets are made known.

Underwater (January 10)

Production Budget: $50-80 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Opening Weekend: $7 million

Worldwide Total: $40.9 million

Estimated Losses: $49 million

Kristen Stewart just can’t seem to catch a break. After her “Charlie’s Angels” reboot went belly-up last November, she finds her newest release (pardon the pun) treading water yet again. Just the latest in a long string of Fox-produced flops that Disney inherited in the merger, “Underwater” never sold itself as anything more than another creature feature, and thanks to a packed weekend that included the wide releases of “1917” and “Just Mercy,” as well as another new film in “Like a Boss,” this thing sank like stone.

Using box office math, we can figure that the studio received about 50% of the film’s $17.3 million domestic gross ($8.6 million) and 40% of the foreign $23.6 million ($9.4 million), for a total theatrical revenue of $18 million. As of May 2020 the film has made just under $1 million from physical copy sales, and for argument’s sake let’s say it does about the same numbers as another creature-feature “10 Cloverfield Lane” and sells about $8 million. And finally let’s put its TV deal at about $20 million. All-in-all that is a profit of around $46 million.

The reported production budgets for this project range anywhere from $50 million all the way up to $80 million (yikes), but the number I have seen most often and is in the dead center is $65 million, so we’ll go with that. As far as marketing goes, I couldn’t find an exact figure, but I saw the trailer more often than I would like in the months leading up to its release, and in just one week in December Disney spent $4.4 million on TV ads. I feel that putting total spending at $30 million in fair, and it is technically all that Disney is on the hook for. So that makes the total net cost of the film $95 million, which when subtracted from $46 million leaves “Underwater” $49 million in the red. Hopefully Stewart can eventually find a non-indie, non-“Twilight” flick that finds an audience, because this one sunk like a rock.

Source: Deadline, Variety

Kristen Stewart stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Underwater”.

Dolittle (January 17)

Production Budget: $175 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Opening Weekend: $22 million

Worldwide Gross: $250 million

Estimated Losses: $50-100 million

This film saw its production budget balloon following extensive three week reshoots due to poor test screenings, but it was going to bomb regardless. Universal knew it had a dud on its hands for a while now, not only dumping it in January (a well-known cinematic graveyard for most genres) but at a time when most all young kids had gone back to school. Poor start to Robert Downey Jr’s post-MCU career, although he made $20 million for the role, so surely he’s not too upset.

Source: Deadline, TheWrap


The Rhythm Section (January 31)

Production Budget: $50 million

P&A Budget: $20-25 million

Opening Weekend: $2.8 million

Worldwide Gross: $6 million

Estimated Losses: $30–40 million

Long delays in production (Blake Lively broke her wrist while filming which shut down work for six months) doomed this from the start, and like “Dolittle” it is clear the studio knew it had a dud on its hands by dumping it in January on Super Bowl weekend (a notoriously slow film-going frame); in fact, this set the record for worst opening weekend of all-time . We’ve seen female-led spy films turn out decent numbers with likes of “Atomic Blonde” (July) and “Red Sparrow” (March), although both those films had better reviews than this (~65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes compared to 36% here).

Source: Deadline


The Call of the Wild (February 22)

Production Budget: $125–150 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Opening Weekend: $24.8 million

Worldwide Gross: $107.6 million

Estimated Losses: $50–100 million

While the film beat its initial $15 million tracking its opening weekend, celebrations were muted as it cost (an irresponsible) $125–150 million to make (with most sources pegging it at $135 million). This was another bomb that Disney inherited from Fox following its acquisition of 20th Century, and just like with “Dark Phoenix” and “Underwater” before it, there’s not much Disney could do to prevent this from ending up in the red. PG family films should cost $30–50 million tops, so giving one based on a 110-year-old book the same budget as a Marvel movie was just plain stupid.

Source: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline,

Onward (March 6)

Production Budget: $175–200 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Opening Weekend: $39.1 million

Worldwide Gross: $140.2 million

Estimated Losses: $183 million

Even before the unfortunate global spread of the coronavirus, it was speculated by many that “Onward” would face a tough task in order to turn a profit for Disney. Once the pandemic affected totals (dropping 70% from an already low $39 million debut to $10 million in its second weekend), theaters shut down across the country, essentially dooming the film. In fact, it was announced it has already be made available for purchase digitally, and started streaming on Disney+ in April (which will slightly help boost their library’s worth). It made $103 million worldwide before the industry shutdown (and a total of $130 million with subsequent releases), and I’ll describe how I arrived at my approximated figures below.

Disney, but especially with their Pixar films, is tight-lipped with the cost of the films. No official cost for “Onward” was reported, but typically Pixar’s films cost around $175–200 million. One of Pixar’s most recent films, “Finding Dory” cost $200 million and spent $160 million on marketing. So let’s say “Onward,” a film released four years later but with less anticipation than that sequel, spent around $120 million on P&A, for a total cost of about $300 million.

Disney typically gets 50% of domestic theater grosses and 40% of foreign (China is typically even less than that, around 30%, but they’ve been closed off since December). So combining half the $61.6 million made in the US ($30.8 million) with 40% of the $78.7 million made overseas ($31.5 million), Disney made about $62.3 million from “Onward’s” theatrical run. There may be some more ways for the film to make money, such as TV deals and toys, and even though this is going straight to streaming it’s not like there won’t be home video sales. I’ll give the film $55 million in digital and physical copy sales (“Toy Story 4” has made $54 million, “Incredibles 2” $70 million and “The Good Dinosaur” $63 million). But still, after all the dusts settles, the film likely lost Disney around $183 million (117 minus 300). If that number seems too high to be true, just consider that “A Wrinkle in Time” cost the studio a combined $250 million to make and advertise (less than “Onward”) and grossed $132 million worldwide (more than “Onward”); that film ended up $130 million in the red for the Mouse House. Similarly, fellow Pixar film “The Good Dinosaur” had a combined production and marketing budget of $350 million, grossed $332 million, and still lost $85 million. Disney will recover, hopefully along with every other studio and theater chain, but unfortunately “Onward” couldn’t catch a break from day one.

Source: Variety

Artemis Fowl (June 12)

Production Budget: $125 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Estimated Worth: $20 million

Estimated Losses: $125 million

Quarantine is forcing us all to adapt and get creative, so without many films (officially) playing in theaters, I am going to do something a little different here. It technically isn’t a box office bomb as it’s a straight-to-streaming, but because it was made–and until recently was slated for–theaters, I’m going to count it. “Artemis Fowl” has been passed around Hollywood for 20 years, long intended to be the next Harry Potter franchise. It finally got made, but after being delayed several times was simply dropped to streaming on Disney+ due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That may save Disney some face from box office bomb headlines, but it won’t save their checkbooks. Let me explain.

The production budget for “Artemis Fowl” is $125 million, which is a lot to give to a kid’s film and really any non-superhero flick. Luckily for Disney (who has appeared a lot on this list), being on their own streaming service means minimal advertising and distribution costs. Before being pulled in March the film had slowly begun its promotion push, plus TV and social media advertisements in the last three months, but I would be shocked if the P&A for the film specifically surpassed $20 million. It should be noted that Disney plans on spending $350 million advertising the Disney+ in 2020, often showing every feature of the service from Marvel to National Geographic, and recently Artemis Fowl and his sunglasses have appeared in the commercials. So for the sake of the argument, we’ll say all-in-all “Artemis Fowl” cost the Mouse House $145 million.

Now here is where things get tricky, and it is all but a guessing game. There will be no direct income from the film for Disney, and unlike box office receipts or VOD rental charts it is impossible to track the actual number of people who pay up. Plus, unlike TV that is checked by Nielsen or Netflix which reports its own (albeit grain-of-salt) viewership numbers, Disney refuses to release audience counts, even for things known to be raging successes, like “The Mandalorian.” So we’re going to get a little creative. I have to give credit where it is due, and say I got this idea from Entertainment Strategy Guy, who did a write-up last December on why “The Irishman” would end up losing Netflix over $250 million when the de-aging dust settled (you can check out that in-depth piece here). While we don’t have viewership figures for Disney+ products, we can look at the Google Trends for how popular certain titles are. When you look at how “Artemis Fowl” compares to other recent kid’s films like “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!,” it’s night and day. Look at the spike during both of those film’s releases, then look at the flatline that is “Artemis.”

Fowl trends

And you may say “well those are both video-on-demand, not part of streaming services, it’s a bit different” and you’d be right, so I’ll bring up two Netflix films, “Extraction” and “The Wrong Missy” (albeit both are rated R). Again, look at the roller coaster compared to the non-change for “Artemis.” It is safe to say that once word got out about these films, there was (varying levels of) interest; “Artemis Fowl” has yet to see this spike. Even Disney+’s own “Lady and the Tramp” live-action remake received a large spike in searches the week of its release last November. It is also worth noting that fantasy adventures like this film typically make about 35% of their box office takes from the U.S., so it is fair to assume over half of the people who stream “Artemis Fowl” will be overseas. Plus, the film came out on the same day that Netflix dropped Spike Lee’s possible Oscar contender “Da 5 Bloods” (if 2020 ends up having an awards season), and the Judd Apatow-Pete Davidson comedy “The King of Staten Island” was made available for rent; both films received positive reviews from critics.

fowl trends 2

And just having viewers doesn’t mean money, but it does justify Disney (and in-turn, other streaming services) investing in bigger-budget films moving forward. The reviews for “Artemis Fowl” are not very good (you could even say they’re Artemis-Foul, currently sitting at 13% on Rotten Tomatoes), so it likely would have had very poor legs at the box office, but as my one friend pointed out to me: reviews typically help people decide if a film is worth their money; when it’s “free” to stream, you’re willing to give it a chance (especially if it shuts your quarantined kids up for 90 minutes). Much like Netflix having prestige Oscar contenders like “Roma” or “The Irishman” and made-for-studio flicks like “The Lovebirds” (or similarly AppleTV buying Tom Hanks’ World War II film “Greyhound”), this is all about building your library. There will likely come a time in the near future where there are so many streaming services from so many companies that all each of them can do is create their own content based on the properties they own, so building up your catalogs now with “real” movies is a selling point boost.

So as you see, it is hard to say exactly how much “Artemis Fowl” will lose Disney. And make no mistake, it will lose Disney a lot of money. Entertainment Strategy Guy estimated that “The Irishman” and its 10 Oscar nominations was worth about $60 million worth for Netflix, based on its reported 40 million viewers ($38 million), awards prestige ($9.5 million), and “library value” ($12 million). “Artemis Fowl” will almost certainly be viewed less and earn no accolades (except maybe a few Razzies), but like I said, having a $100 million+ film as an original on your streaming service does add some level of worth. So let’s say 20 million people eventually watch the film (and value that at $16 million) and it adds $4 million worth of “credibility” to the Disney+ catalog. That is “bringing in” about $20 million to Disney, and I don’t have to spell out how that looks when put up against its $145 total cost.


The New Mutants (August 28)

Production Budget: $67 million

P&A Budget: N/A

Opening Weekend: $7 million

Worldwide Total: $45.9 million

Estimated Losses: $51 million

“The New Mutants” had a long and troubled road to the big screen. Originally shot in 2017, the film was plagued by constant delays and rumors of reshoots and was sold by Fox to Disney, who finally dumped it in the end of August when many theaters were still closed (clauses in contracts mandated a theatrical release, so Disney could not just put it on Hulu or Disney+). This film was always going to finish in the red, so let’s take a look at by exactly how much.

The production budget for “The New Mutants” was $67 million (although I have seen a few sites put it closer to $80 million). Either figure is pretty economical for a modern superhero movie, with only “Deadpool” ($58 million) coming close. Given the fact the film had several delays, including one from this past April, where a marketing campaign had already begun, I have to imagine the COVID-19 pandemic only knocked down the advertising spending by a little bit. Much of the ads seem to be the cast encouraging Twitter and Tik Tok users to go see the film, so I feel pegging the P&A around $30 million for this film is fair, for a total exposure of $97 million.

Now let’s see what the film will bring in. As of this writing, the film has grossed $43 million worldwide, including $22 million in North America. Let’s go off the most basic box office math and say Disney will pocket 50% of ticket sales, and the film finishes at $45 million worldwide. That is about $23 million that goes to the Mouse House. When the film is done in theaters, it will go to HBO Max before Hulu or Disney+ due to Fox’s old contracts with Warner Media, so that hurts the “library value” of the film, and as far as DVD sales go, I’ll give it $13 million, which is the total made by 2015’s “Fantastic Four,” another superhero film that was disliked by critics and audiences. So all said and done, “The New Mutants” is looking at around $46 million of income, against its $97 million in costs, leading to a write-down of about $51 million.

Sources: Deadline, Forbes

Tenet (September 3)

Production Budget: $200 million

P&A Budget: $150 million

Opening Weekend: $20.2 million

Worldwide Total: $356.1 million

Estimated Losses: $82 million

This one brings me no joy to write about. “Tenet” was supposed to be the film that brought audiences back to theaters, but it has been a lukewarm result at very best. While Christopher Nolan films have always performed better overseas than in the U.S. (typically making up 70% of the final gross), the 85-15 split ($275 million to $48 million) is a much larger gap than Warner Bros. expected. The studio is so upset with “Tenet’s” results that they are only reveling the film’s box office totals on Sundays, opposed to the typical daily reports.

“Tenet” cost $200 million to produce and another $150 million to promote (it is Nolan’s most expensive non-Batman film). Nolan is also slated to earn twenty percent first dollar gross, so he pocketed money right alongside WB. The Observer estimated the film would need to gross as much as $500 million to break-even, and Variety has since deduced the film will “lose millions.” But how many millions?

Typically, a studio will get a 50-50 share of a film’s grosses in the U.S. and 40% overseas. Warner Bros. negotiated a higher amount of “Tenet’s” and get to pocket 63% of it instead (and likely a little over 50% outside the U.S.). That would mean from its theatrical run (assuming it closes around $400 million) the studio would net $178 million. Nolan films do well at home media as well, and the film will eventually be a pull for HBO Max once its available, so I’ll give it a total of $90 million. So all-in-all, “Tenet” will earn Warner Bros. around $256 million. Subtracted from the total cost of $350 million and that leaves the studio just under $82 million in the hole. Warners knew that releasing a big-budget blockbuster during a pandemic was a risk, so I’m sure their accounting team prepared to take a loss on the film; just not sure anyone ever expected a Christopher Nolan film to end up nearly $100 million in the red.

[Variety reported in early November that rivals project the film to lose $100 million, while Warner Bros. puts the total at $50 million]

Sources: The Observer, Variety

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