Why 2002 was possibly the WORST ever year for movies

2016 may have seen a spectacular amount of blockbusters tank at the box office, but in terms of losses combined with quality, 2002 might just have been worse…

By all accounts, 2016 (£633million so far) looks like it will be pipped to the post in terms of films which lost spectacular amounts of money for studios by 2015 (£729m), mainly thanks to the failure of last year’s mega-budget movies ‘Tomorrowland’, ‘Pan’ and ‘Jupiter Ascending’.

But you have to spool back 14 years to find next worst – 2002, where a series of blockbuster duds put a £566million dent in industry profits.

2002 in Hollywood was not a great place to be. 9/11 had happened just a few months earlier and studios were still wondering whether the American public was ready to start spending their showbiz dollars again.

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There was also a sense that a changing of the guard might be happening. The modern rise of intellectual property (IP) was beginning to happen in earnest – branded content with previous visibility which didn’t require big-name celebs for success.

The five biggest hits of 2001 included the first Harry Potter, ‘Shrek’ and ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ‘Rush Hour 2’ – with nary an A-lister between them (audiences didn’t go to see ‘Shrek’ because of the names in the voice cast and while Jackie Chan is a huge star in Asia he remained a comparatively niche name to Western viewers).

The biggest hitters of the late-Nineties were also starting to wane in popularity. Tom Cruise’s ‘Vanilla Sky’ barely scraped to $100m and new (cheaper) stars were beginning to emerge and stake their claim like Matt Damon, George Clooney, Vin Diesel and Reese Witherspoon.

But while William Goldman’s edict that “nobody knows anything” when it comes to making movies is a truism, you might forgive Warner Bros. for still betting on Eddie Murphy to deliver big numbers. ‘The Adventures of Pluto Nash’ had a huge budget, but was shelved for two years before being unveiled in August 2002, only to lose a staggering £101.5m, at the time the largest loss by a film in history. Anyone who’s seen it will understand why.

Two other mega-stars fared little better. Willis playing serious as a soldier opposite Colin Farrell in the dull ‘Hart’s War’ lost £88m, whilst Harrison Ford’s stony-faced ‘K-19: The Widowmaker’ stumbled to a £71m loss.

‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ became the fifth highest-grossing movie of the year in the US, earning almost £300m worldwide, but other esoteric filmmaking decisions which came to fruition in 2002 weren’t so successful.

Putting two attractive people like Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu in a gun-filled action-thriller seems like a decent B-movie idea. But saddled with a dreadful title – ‘Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever’ – and directed by a guy who credited himself as Kaos, it bombed, losing £74million.

Meanwhile, no-one cared about watching ‘American Pie’ star Chris Klein lead an unwanted remake of the 1975 satirical thriller ‘Rollerball’, which lost MGM approximately £57m.

All of these films had a common thread in that they were just not very good (and sometimes utterly abysmal), but perhaps more surprising are the other two biggest flops of the year.

‘Windtalkers’ is not John Woo working at the top of his game, but with a then-A-list star in Nicolas Cage, a true-life war story as a basis and epic action sequences, it had a lot going for it. However, the film appears to demonstrate how sensitive US audiences still were, especially about war and soldiers as the White House prepared the public for the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Originally slated to come out in late-2001, its release was delayed during to the World Trade Center attacks and people still weren’t ready by June of the following year.

As for Disney’s ‘Treasure Planet’? Well, there have been several average Disney pics which have still earned billions and this outer-space adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book got good reviews, but kids didn’t really seem to care.

Perhaps it was too complicated, or maybe they just didn’t warm to a cartoon set in space, but it’s thought to have lost Uncle Walt’s company about £90m.

Looking back now on 2002 – with the rubbish ‘Attack of the Clones’ and lesser instalment ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ hitting the top of the box office charts, alongside so many high-profile failures, it was clearly not a vintage year. We’ve seen more like it since, but Hollywood will carry on praying to the movie gods that it won’t.

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Image credits: OutNow, Rex_Shutterstock

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