George Clooney’s $190 million science fiction film, “Tomorrowland,” opened on Memorial Day weekend with high expectations to fulfill. Its $43 million domestic box office take made it the highest-grossing movie of the weekend, but after the following weekend, its total haul stood at $63 million.
Walt Disney Studios concluded that the movie had underperformed, but didn’t stop there. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the studio also responded by reassessing its upcoming slate of live-action properties, and cancelled plans for a third “Tron” movie.
This may seem like an unnecessarily harsh response, but it’s not uncommon. Audience response to one movie can mean life or death for another one, so if one underperforms, a planned sequel or even a completely unrelated project might not get made.
Here’s a look at a few movies whose box office performance or critical reception took others down with them. All data is from Box Office Mojo unless otherwise noted.
“Waterloo” starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon and depicted the Battle of Waterloo. Italian and Soviet film studios produced it jointly, and no expense was spared to replicate events down to the last detail. That can get expensive, and in his 1971 review of the film, critic Roger Ebert said that the production cost was $25 million. If that’s true, it would be equal to $152 million today.
The movie was a "box-office disaster," according to Salon, and a project spearheaded by filmmaker Stanley Kubrick became collateral damage. He was in the planning stages of a movie that was also about Napoleon, but his studio, MGM, was so spooked by the box office performance of “Waterloo” that it couldn’t justify giving the director the money to make another movie about the tiny French despot. Kubrick went on to Warner Bros., where he made “A Clockwork Orange,” a film that permanently changed the public’s association with the song “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)
1978’s “Superman” was a smash hit that took in $134 million domestically, the equivalent of $486 million today. Three sequels followed, but each one earned less money than the last one, and the movies themselves got worse with each new Roman numeral. The series reached its nadir with 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” whose $16 million domestic haul -- $33 million today – was a catastrophe of Hindenburg proportions. Plans for a fifth movie came and went and the franchise went dark.
The story didn’t end there. In 2006, “X-Men” director Bryan Singer tried to get the franchise back on track with “Superman Returns,” which simply ignored the two preceding sequels and picked up where “Superman II” left off. It earned a respectable $391 million worldwide, but Warner Bros. President Alan Horn said, "I think it should have done $500 million worldwide." The proposed 2009 sequel was cancelled, and the moviegoing public was given the two-and-a-half hours of yelling known as “Man of Steel” in 2013.
The Witches (1990)
“The Witches” was based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name. Its reception made “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator,” the sequel to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” impossible, but not for reasons having anything to do with money, audiences or the studio. Instead, it all came down to one man – Roald Dahl himself.
The author had hated the 1971 adaptation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and felt the same way about further adaptations of his work, including “Matilda,” “The BFG” and “The Witches,” which he called "utterly appalling." After "The Witches," he refused to let “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” be adapted by anyone, ever, for any reason. The author died in 1990, and his wish has been honored to this day.
Sex and the City 2 (2010)
“Sex and the City 2” was the 2010 sequel to 2008’s “Sex and the City.” Both were extensions of the very popular HBO series of the same name, but as beloved as the show was, the goodwill didn’t translate to the sequel, which earned $95 million at the domestic box office. By contrast, the first movie made $153 million, and cost less to make as well.
Then there were the critics. Andrew O’Hagan wrote in The London Evening Standard, “This could be the most stupid, the most racist, the most polluting and women-hating film of the year,” and Lindy West wrote an expletive-laden review in The Stranger that cannot be repeated, in whole or in part, within the august confines of a publication as esteemed as Fortune.
Despite the response, the show still had enough hardcore fans to keep speculation alive for a third movie. A photo posted on Instagram by star Sarah Jessica Parker in May 2015 seemed to hint that it might be in the works, but sadly for those remaining fans, it was just advance publicity for her SJP Collection shoe line. So while no official word has been given regarding the fate of a hypothetical “Sex and the City 3,” it seems likely that the response to the last one was enough to keep Parker focused on other projects.
Green Lantern (2011)
“Green Lantern” was based on the DC Comics superhero, portrayed by Ryan Reynolds. It was in development for over a decade before hitting the multiplexes in 2011, with a $200 million production budget and product tie-ins that included a rollercoaster at Six Flags Magic Mountain. There was a lot riding on it, but it just barely broke even with a worldwide gross of $220 million.
Part of the problem was the critical reception, such as that of Manohla Dargis, who wrote in The New York Times, “’Green Lantern’ is bad. This despite Mr. Reynolds’s dazzling dentistry.” In the face of such withering condemnation and unexceptional box office receipts, Warner Bros. canceled the movie’s planned sequels. But don’t worry -- the franchise is scheduled to be rebooted in 2020!
Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.