Behind the Scenes: Top of the Flops, United Artists 1965-1969, Global Box Office – Part Two

United Artists took an unholy bath on George Stevens’ all-star The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), shouldering a colossal loss of $9.1 million in global rentals (not gross), one of the biggest financial disasters of the decade. In second place, by a long margin, was Blake Edwards’ anti-war comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966). The presence of James Coburn at  a career-high thanks to the Flint spy pictures couldn’t prevent this ending up $2.75 million in the red.

Another all-star prestige war movie, though this time set in the Crimea, Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) ran it close, registering a deficit of $2.59 million. This was not the first time the studio’s faith in Richardson proved unfounded. He had lost $1.17 million on Sailor from Gibralter (1967) and another $1 million Mademoiselle (1966), both starring French actress Jeanne Moreau, cited in divorce proceedings brought by his wife Vanessa Redgrave.

History was also unkind to John Huston, coming unstuck with romp Sinful Davey (1969), also set in Britain, and starring newcomer John Hurt. With only $250,000 in rentals in the U.S. market it dropped a total of $2.4 million. Richard Lester was also well off the mark with anti-nuke comedy The Bedsitting Room (1969) which imploded to the tune of $1.42 million.

Although Dick Van Dyke justified his fee for the studio’s Chitty,Chitty Bang Bang, his marquee status proved decidedly unjustified in two other pictures. Some Kind of Nut (1969) lost $1.36 million while Fitzwilly (1967) was $312,000 short of break-even.

British star Michael Caine also fell into the questionable category. Billion Dollar Brain (1968), his third outing as spy Harry Palmer, proved a dud, $1.18 million down while Second World War picture  Play Dirty (1968) lost out at the box office wickets to the tune of $350,000.

Others in the million-dollar-loser class were: The Honey Pot (1967) despite the presence of Rex Harrison and Cliff Robertson; Alan Arkin’s ill-fated attempt to emulate Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (1968); Jules Dassin’s 10.30pm Summer (1966); and A Twist of Sand (1967) with Richard Johnson and Honor Blackman.  And Peter Sellers himself misjudged the material for After the Fox (1966) for it came home $432,000 short of the target.

The Witches (1967) failed to coast home on the back of new sensation Clint Eastwood in the cast plus an all-star directing team including Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti and Pier Paolo Pasolino and lost $880,000.

World War Two pictures proved too often problematic in registering global appeal. Michael Winner’s Hannibal Brooks (1969) starring Oliver Reed shed $650,000, John Guillermin’s The Bridge at Remagen (1969) was on the downside of $526,000, Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967) was $257,000 shy of budget and even low-budget numbers that were expected to at least break even failed to do so, The 1,000 Plane Raid (1969) missing out by $316,000 and Submarine X-1 starring James Caan by $156,000.

The notion that westerns had universal appeal turned out to be a dodgy proposition for some products. Whereas foreign made a distinctive impact in the box office for a film like Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) it did not always play out that way. Though John Sturges’ Hour of the Gun (1967) toplining  James Garner and Jason Robards did better aboard than at home that still wasn’t enough to offset losses of $627,000. Overseas rentals matched domestic for Young Billy Young (1969) starring Robert Mitchum but that still kept it out in the cold with another half a million needed to get over the line.

You would think minimal budgets would be a guarantee against outright failure, but too often promise remained unfulfilled. Charlotte Rampling and Sam Waterston were touted as rising talents when cast in Three (1969). The budget was a miserly $355,000. Yet it still lost $305,000, generating rentals of just $25,000 both at home and abroad. Bryan Forbes’ The Whisperers (1967), with Edith Evans winning an Oscar nomination, lost $180,000 on a budget of just under $400,000. The Russian version of Hamlet (1966) dropped $55,000 on a $75,000 budget.  Don’t Worry We’ll Think of a Title (1966) starring Morey Amsterdam only earned back $50,000 on its $181,000 cost.

Some movies came pretty close to break-even – another $16,000 would have seen Danger Route (1968) also with Richard Johnson reach the magic mark, American football drama Number One (1969) with Charlton Heston required another $40,000.  

SOURCE: “United Artists Corporation and Subsidiaries Motion Picture Negative Costs for Pictures Released in the Year Ended 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969,” United Artists Files, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, University of Wisconsin.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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