Just because movie tsars get paid millions upon millions of dollars, doesn’t mean they can afford to be reckless with their money. These actors poured their hard-earned cash back into their own movie projects, but Hollywood’s house always wins…
Errol Flynn – ‘The Story Of William Tell’ (1953)
Amount lost: $430,000
Dashing screen legend Errol Flynn, best known for his role as Robin Hood, attempted to bring another swashbuckling icon to the screen in ‘The Story Of William Tell’, but little did he know the movie would be the undoing of him. Flynn put up around half of the film’s total budget himself – and remember, $860,000 in 1953 was no small amount – but the movie was fated never to be finished. After a torrid production, in which a model village was built for the exorbitant cost of $20,000, the budget was eventually depleted and set equipment was seized by creditors – not to mention Flynn’s personal car and the furniture from his house – leaving the actor bankrupt. Flynn never made another movie, and died of a heart attack in 1959.
Geena Davis – ‘Cutthroat Island’ (1993)
Amount lost: $1 million
“Hey honey, come star in my cool pirate movie,” director Renny Harlin probably said to then-wife Geena Davis. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Short of being attacked by actual pirates, everything that could have gone wrong DID go wrong on set: cast drop-outs, leaking raw sewage, stunts gone wrong and a budget that spiralled out of control all led to ‘Cutthroat Island’ becoming the by-word for nineties Hollywood failure. Even with an injection of one million dollars from Davis and Harlin’s personal funds, the movie sank without trace, debuting at #13 on the US box-office chart on its opening week, effectively killing the careers of everyone involved, and giving screen piracy a bad name.
Gary Oldman – ‘Nil By Mouth’ (1997)
Amount lost: $1.4 million
In Hollywood, the term ‘passion project’ usually means ‘trumped up star vehicle’ and almost always sinks under the weight of said movie star’s ego. However, Gary Oldman had a movie in him that was under his skin, and he was prepared to take a financial hit to get it made. Hot off blockbusters ‘The Fifth Element’ and ‘Air Force One’, Oldman spent over a million dollars of his own money to direct ‘Nil By Mouth’, an excoriating kitchen sink drama about spousal abuse starring Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke. The movie was not a financial success by any means – it was never meant to be commercially viable after all – but it remains an incredibly powerful piece of work, of which Oldman rightly continues to be proud.
Jerry Lewis – ‘The Day The Clown Cried’ (1972)
Amount lost: $2 million
Around halfway through production, Jerry Lewis must have realised that setting a comedy during the holocaust probably wasn’t all that smart an idea. Lewis directed and starred in the movie about a circus clown who inadvertently led Jewish children to the gas chambers: sounds like a laugh riot, right? The movie was eventually finished thanks to Lewis’s own contributions, after the film’s producer failed to deliver the goods; however, Lewis subsequently decided the movie was “unfit for release” and it has never been publicly screened. The film remains in Lewis’s own vault and has only seen by a handful of people, including Spinal Tap actor Harry Shearer, who confirmed it was “perfect in its awfulness”. Money well spent, then.
Kim Basinger – ‘Boxing Helena’ (1993)
Amount lost: $3.8 million
Maybe Kim Basinger was having an off day when she signed on to star in ‘Boxing Helena’, a movie about an amputee who is kept in a box and used as a sex toy – it’d go down as one of the worst decisions of her life. So terrified was Basinger of the reception the movie would get, she backed out at the last minute, ultimately being replaced by Sherilyn Fenn. Producers of the movie were furious and sued Basinger to the tune of $8.1 million, later reduced to $3.8 million as part of a settlement package. The ruling forced Basinger into bankruptcy, leading her to sell off her stakes in Braselton, the small town in Georgia she’d bought and had planned to turn into a tourist destination.
John Travolta – ‘Battlefield Earth’ (2000)
Amount lost: $5 million, plus undisclosed salary reduction
“There’s no way I’m going to lose if the movie does $35 million domestically. And Travolta has never had an action movie do under $35 million.” That’s ex-dry cleaning mogul turned movie producer Elie Samaha there, fatally over-estimating the pull of his Scientologist chum and underestimating his audience’s ability to smell a turkey in the offing. So convinced was John Travolta that the L Ron Hubbard-penned sci-fi epic was going to be a success, he poured five million dollars of his own money into it – he even labelled it “like ‘Star Wars,’ but better”. The bonkers sci-fi – with its weird dreadlocked aliens and overt Scientologist themes – could only manage to recoup around $30 million of its $100 million budget, making it the first true mega-flop of the 21st century.
Warren Beatty – ‘Town & Country’ (2001)
Amount lost: $10 million
Beatty’s 2001 comedy was a flop of such magnitiude, it even threatened to overshadow 1987 calamity ‘Ishtar’ as the biggest bomb of his career. Shooting began in 1998, with a budget of $44 million, ten million dollars of which came from actor/producer Warren Beatty’s personal funds. The shoot ran long, thanks to Beatty’s insistence on multiple takes, and the film’s cast departed for other projects, forcing reshoots in 2000. By this point, the movie’s budget had ballooned to almost $100 million, and multiple screenwriters had tried and failed to make the story work. It limped into cinemas in 2001, was savaged by critics and made just $10 million at the box-office – and we’re guessing, seeing as the studio lost around ten times its total take, that money didn’t go back into Warren’s pocket.
Kevin Costner – ‘Waterworld’ (1995)
Amount lost: $22 million
Back in his glory days, Costner was a serial self-financier. Time and time again, he’d stump up his own cash for movie projects no one else wanted to touch – ‘Dances With Wolves’, ‘Open Range’ and ‘The Postman’ were all made off the back of Kev’s own coin. But ‘Waterworld’ was different. Not since the days of ‘Cleopatra’ had a Hollywood movie’s budget spiralled so out of control. Filming on water proved incredibly costly, as did floating sets, as did high speed wind damage. In short, the movie was a disaster, but one that Costner was heavily invested in – he personally provided over $20 million dollars to keep the movie afloat. The film, though initially deemed a flop, eventually clawed back a modest profit on home video almost a decade later, although Costner was unlikely to have seen much of it. Fittingly, however, Costner went on to make millions from a company he created that made machines that could separate oil and water, so in a way, he finally profited from the environmental themes that ‘Waterworld’ had been preaching all along.