Movie Flops Are Not the Failures They Used to Be

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures
April 4th, 2012

When a film with a large production budget fails to bring in enough revenue to cover its expenses, it is considered a box office flop. However, in today's forgiving and globalized entertainment world, a flop does not always mean "curtains" for any of the parties involved in making it.

A flop in the United States can become a hit when translated and presented abroad, or it can recoup some of its losses when it is released through DVD or download sites. The producers and actors behind the flop usually are involved in several productions almost simultaneously, so the effect of the flop upon their careers is often negated by a hit or at least a critical success in what seems to be a moment's time. Studios today are large, global companies that rarely stake their entire reputations on one movie. The small studios of old that did fail after one flop are among those that are now a part of today's mega-studios. The studio giants of today often purchased bankrupt studios to have access to talent, regional distribution networks, or other assets that retained their value even after the defunct studios had overextended themselves to produce one or a string of big-budget flops.

Even financial losses are quickly recouped. Revenue from syndication, DVD releases, foreign releases and releases of films for download is combined with tax breaks, accounting techniques and other financial adjustments to minimize the loss to the studio. A publicly traded multimedia giant that owns a movie studio does not depend solely on that studio for income, and precisely because it also controls DVD production, foreign distribution networks and other means of distribution, the parent firm of a studio is often able to turn a small profit from an American box-office flop.

Then, there is the phenomenon of the flop as a cult hit. American culture is built on success against all odds. Therefore, it is often very forgiving of failures, and American audiences who are aware that a film is a flop will actually seek it out once it becomes available on DVD or other media that is less expensive than a ticket to see a first-run movie in a movie theater. Somehow, word will spread, whether through old-fashioned word-of-mouth or online social networks, that the film has some redeeming characteristics. For example, a song or a specific scene from the film may be particularly attractive to some informal reviewers. It even happens that audiences perceive a particular actor or actress as so physically attractive that they consider the flop worth seeing just to watch that particular performer.

Alternately, audiences may even perceive a particularly poorly executed flop as a comical parody of itself or its entire genre. This is the true root of the "cult-film" phenomenon, and films of this type often take on a life of their own that goes on long after the original flop status of the film is forgotten. The initial publicity included in the large budget of a flop leads to a very public failure, which in turn creates an interest in the film among trendy young people with an appetite for the unusual. These avant-garde viewers adopt the film as part of their cultural identity, and it ends up becoming a hit on college campuses and in independent theaters. From that base, its popularity ends up spreading until it becomes a classic. Just as the Ford Edsel is a valuable collector's item decades after its initial failure, films that were massive box-office failures when released may endure as cult hits for decades.

A big-budget box office flop today has little impact upon those involved in bringing the film to market. The forgiving nature of audiences, combined with the rise of alternative distribution channels, allow studios to recoup both the momentary loss to their reputations and the financial loses that result from movies that fail to attract enough revenue to repay their substantial expenses. The very worst flops often become cult hits among avant-garde viewers, to the point that they are remembered and appreciated long after more successful films are forgotten.

Here is a list of six films considered to be 2011's box office flops: Jack and Jill, Sucker Punch, Arthur, Green Lantern, Cowboys & Aliens and Conan the Barbarian