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In the motion picture industry, a "box-office bomb" or "box-office flop" is a film that is considered highly unsuccessful or unprofitable during its theatrical run, often following significant hype regarding its cost, production, or marketing efforts. Generally, any film for which the production and marketing costs exceed the combined revenue recovered after release is considered to have "bombed".
Box-office bomb is a subjective term, as gauging the financial success of a film is difficult. There is also no reliable definition of the term. Not all films that fail to earn back their estimated costs during their theatrical runs are considered "bombs". The label is generally applied to films that miss earnings projections by a wide margin, particularly when they are very expensive to produce. Although this often occurs in conjunction with middling or poor reviews, critical reception has an imperfect connection to box-office performance.
Causes of a film's failure
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Negative word of mouth
Beginning in the 1980s, cinemas started to drop films that suffered a poor opening weekend. This made the performance of a film on its opening weekend much more crucial to its perception. With the growth of the Internet during the 1990s, chat rooms and websites enabled negative opinions for films to spread rapidly.
Occasionally, films may underperform because of issues unrelated to the film itself. These issues commonly relate to the timing of the film's release. This was one of the reasons for the commercial failure of Intolerance, D. W. Griffith's follow-up to The Birth of a Nation. Owing to production delays, the film was not released until late 1916, a time when the widespread anti-war sentiment it reflected had started to shift in favor of U.S. entry into World War I.
Another example of external events sinking a film is the 2015 docudrama about FIFA entitled United Passions. It was released in theaters in the United States at the same time FIFA's leaders were under investigation for fraud and corruption, and the film grossed only $918 at the U.S. box office in its opening weekend. Comedian John Oliver lampooned the film asking "Who makes a sports film where heroes are the executives?"
Other issues such as general economic malaise may cause less disposable income for potential filmgoers, resulting in fewer ticket sales. Also, many films that open during times of national crisis and just after disasters such as the 2001 September 11 attacks and Hurricane Harvey underperform at the box office.
High production costs
Sometimes a film may do reasonably well at the box office but still be considered a bomb due to a large budget. This was the case for the film Heaven's Gate, which famously went three months over schedule and saw its budget mushroom from $7.5 million to $36 million.
Another example is 2005's Sahara cost over $241 million to make (including marketing and distribution), due in part to exorbitant production costs. It took in $122 million, usually enough to be successful. However, in this case, this accounted for barely over half of its expenses. In 2012, Disney reported losses of $200 million on John Carter. The film had made a considerable $234 million worldwide, but this was far short of its $250 million budget plus worldwide advertising.
Recovery of flops
Films which are initially viewed as "flops" may recover income elsewhere. Several films have underperformed in the United States, but have been sufficiently successful internationally to recoup losses or even become financial successes. Films may also recover money through international distribution, sales to television syndication, and distribution outside of cinemas (download, DVD, pay-per-view). Other films have succeeded long after cinema release by becoming cult films or being re-evaluated over time. High-profile films fitting this description include Blade Runner and The Shawshank Redemption, which both lost money at the box office, but have since become highly popular.
Studios pushed into financial trouble
In extreme cases, a single film's lackluster performance can push a studio into financial losses, bankruptcy or closure. Examples of this include: United Artists (Heaven's Gate) and Carolco Pictures (Cutthroat Island). The underperformance of The Golden Compass was seen as a significant factor in influencing Warner Bros.' decision to take direct control of New Line Cinema.
In 2011, Mars Needs Moms was the last film released by ImageMovers Digital before it got absorbed by ImageMovers to a loss of nearly $140 million—the largest box office bomb of all time in nominal dollar terms. Despite this loss, the decision to close the production company had been made a year prior to the film's release.
The 2006 independent movie Zyzzyx Road made just $30 at the US box office. The film, with a budget of $1.2 million and starring Tom Sizemore and Katherine Heigl, owes its tiny revenue to its limited box-office release — just six days in a single theater in Dallas for the purpose of meeting SAG requirements — rather than its ability to attract viewers. According to co-star Leo Grillo, it sold six tickets, two of which were to cast members.
Previously, the British film Offending Angels had become notorious for taking in less than £100 (~$150) at the box office. It had a £70,000 (~$105,000) budget but was panned by critics including the BBC, who called it a "truly awful pile of garbage", and Total Film, who called it "irredeemable".
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