The only thing Hollywood liked better than whooping with delight over a hit was crowing with delight over a flop. In the 1960s you couldn’t move for hindsight. And far from it being the end of the decade that Hollywood was kicked in the financial teeth, mostly from over-investment in musicals, there was also a sea of red ink at the start.
Comparing budget with rentals returned to the studios (i.e. their share of the takings once cinemas had taken their cut of the box office gross) produced a league table that nobody wanted to scale.
Atop the pillar of shame, sitting on a monumental $18.1 million loss (reached by comparing budget to U.S. rentals – see Note below) was the last of the Samuel Bronston epics, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), directed by Anthony Mann and starring Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd.
You won’t be surprised to find Cleopatra (1963), driven to publicity heights by the ruckus over the adulterous affair of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, in second place. If it hadn’t cost so much – $44 million – it might have easily turned a profit since box office rentals were a massive $26 million. But you can’t deny the arithmetic that meant this showed an $18 million shortfall, and therefore on paper a staggering flop.
Not far behind was Doctor Dolittle (1967), one of the biggest musical fiascos in an era of musical disasters. Although Oscar-winning Rex Harrison was the star, audiences couldn’t be persuaded it was anything more than a glorified Disney-style picture for children, and it lost $15.8 million.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) should have been the greatest box office story ever told had director George managed to inject a bit more humanity into the sanctimonious retelling. Without a box office miracle this came in short by $13.1 million.
And no prizes for guessing that Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), with Marlon Brando stranded on an island by Trevor Howard, found income did not go far enough to offset cost. It underperformed to the tune of $12.6 million..
Star! (1968) must have seemed like a safe bet given Julie Andrews’ last three musicals had turned hefty profits. But it was so off the pace that it fell $10.8 million shy of break-even.
Bond producer Harry Saltzman was astonished, not to say humiliated, to discover there was such little appetite Stateside for an all-star version of how The Battle of Britain (1969) was won. Hadn’t every Hollywood movie insisted that war pictures only succeeded with a prominent Yank in the cast? One of the biggest hits of the year in Britain, it would still have to go some to overcome a $10 million discrepancy.
The problem with Hollywood was it was greenlighting projects that had to do phenomenal business just to reach a profit. And although Barbra Streisand’s debut Funny Girl (1968) had struck box office and critical gold, even she could not save Hello, Dolly! when it racked up such high costs. The downside was $8.8 million.
The unlikely casting of three non-singers – Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood and Jean Seberg – in the principal roles of Paint Your Wagon (1969) seemed an act of incalculable hubris, but surprisingly, the musical did better than expected, not enough to turn the corner into profit, but losses limited to $5.5 million in the U.S. part of the course.
In tenth place was a second Samuel Bronston miscalculation, 55 Days at Peking (1963). Why would American audiences be interested in an obscure war in China even if Charlton Heston took top-billing? Such disinterest ensured it fell $5 million short of the target.
Overruns on John Wayne’s pet project The Alamo (1960) meant he ended up in debt. His fans were disinclined to line up for a roadshow, which put the dampers on the launch. Hollywood was stunned that a John Wayne movie lost money – $4.1 million – it was such a career rarity.
Another Bond alumni Albert Broccoli took the financial tumble this time when Dick Van Dyke failed to work his Mary Poppins magic in another musical aimed more at children than adults, Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968).
Three other pictures ended up in the red as the result of over-expenditure. The Bible (1966) missed break-even by $3 million, Spartacus (1961) by $1.7 million, and another musical, Camelot (1967) starring non-singer Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave by $1 million.
But if Hollywood thought it had weathered the worst of the financial storm it was in for a shock the following year when top-heavy star vehicles hit the skits. Waterloo with Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer lost $23.6 million, The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery and Richard Harris $9.9 million and The Only Game in Town toplining Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty $8.5 million
NOTE: It’s entirely possible that once you calculated a movie’s long tail all these films turned profit. The foreign performance of films on initial release often out-grossed their domestic revenues, especially if roadshown in Europe. Revenue from half a century’s worth of countless television sales in countless countries followed by satellite, VHS, DVD, satellite, syndication, Blu-Ray and streaming had the potential to turn any loss into profit.
But there was a proviso. Generally, what a television station paid for a movie depended on its initial gross, box office seen to be indicative of public demand – and of advertising interest . The leasing of Cleopatra first time round to U.S. television, for example, added an extra $3 million to the coffers but that small screen executives were willing to pay such a record sum was driven by the vast numbers that had seen it at the cinema. And, to a large extent, future response to these movies still appeared to depend of how well they had done or how well they were known – a long-term version of word-of-mouth – at the time of their initial release..
On initial global release Cleopatra probably closed the gap between profit and loss but I doubt that would be the case for The Fall of the Roman Empire or The Greatest Story Ever Told or Doctor Dolittle or Mutiny on the Bounty. While The Battle of Britain was a huge success in Britain and in countries belonging to the British Commonwealth, I doubt it went into the black. But something like Spartacus or Camelot or The Alamo or Paint Your Wagon, which ran for a year in roadshow in London, most certainly turned a profit on overall worldwide receipts.
SOURCE: “Big-Buck Scorecard 1956-1987,” Variety, January 20, 1088, p64, 66.