1. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
After Gremlins became a surprise box office smash that turned into one of WB’s most profitable movies ever, the studio asked director Joe Dante to return for a follow-up feature. The first picture had a long, grueling shoot due to the technology limitations of the time and Dante passed on the project. The studio tried to launch a sequel themselves, with godawful narrative ideas like Gremlins in Las Vegas, but they were never able to land a satisfactory premise.
In 1989, WB gave Dante an offer he couldn’t turn down — free reign to make whatever he wanted as long as he had a few reels of Gremlins in the can by Summer 1990. To the chagrin of the studio, Dante opted to make an anti-corporate satire and parody of the first picture. The end product is one of the closest a live-action movie has gotten to be a cartoon.
Executives at WB and even producer Steven Spielberg were apparently not very amused at the sheer level of anarchy on display in place of plot or the skewering of the corporate culture. Joe Dante has since said he made the movie as irreverently as possible because there was no reason to make the sequel in the first place.
Warner Bros gave Dante a $32 million sandbox to play in and in return, he gave them a subversive, hyper-aware meta-movie making fun of its own existence. Even though Gremlins 2 was not what the WB brass was expecting, they still expected blockbuster numbers from the movie and if they kept to their original release date, the movie might have been a hit.
Gremlins 2 was first dated for May 18, 1990, and the WB marketing machine began to hype the picture. Ads were out in newspapers with that date and awareness was generally high. Then shortly before the film was set to open, WB decided to move Gremlins 2 back one month to June 15. The reasoning behind this move was that Batman (1989) had become the studio’s highest-grossing picture and they did not want another comic book film Dick Tracy at Disney to out-gross the Tim Burton movie. So, WB decided to open Gremlins 2 against Dick Tracy, since both movies would be competing for the same audience — and Gremlins 2 had built-in awareness and they thought it might crush the Warren Beatty film.
Despite generally positive reviews, Gremlins 2 was crushed by Dick Tracy. It flopped out of theaters with $41,482,207 — a fraction of the original’s $148,168,459 gross. On Dante’s fantastic podcast over at his website Trailers From Hell, he casually mentioned on an episode that Gremlins 2 had never broken even. But it lives on with cult status and is a brilliant work of pure lunacy.
2. Tank Girl (1995)
“It ruined my career. It put me into movie jail. It was a disaster. I couldn’t talk about it for 10 years.”
–Director Rachel Talalay
Rachel Talalay optioned the Tank Girl comic series and began to pitch the oddball story to studios and production companies and MGM took on the $25 million project.
Tank Girl was greenlit by MGM CEO Alan Ladd Jr., who championed the project, but he left the studio shortly after, and his replacement John Calley did not care for the material. There was some studio interference during the shoot, but major problems would arise during post-production.
Executives chopped the movie apart into an incoherent mess, excising scenes that offended them (like cutting all footage in Tank Girl’s room which was entirely decorated in dildos) and in two cases, animated sequences were added to stitch the narrative into something kinda cohesive. Despite the studio gutting so much of Talalay’s vision, the goofy and spirited tone of Tank Girl remained intact. It certainly feels like scenes are missing from the picture, but Tank Girl coasts by on its ‘throw every idea at the wall style of filmmaking and hope something works’ — and it’s that anarchic energy that has kept Tank Girl alive and well throughout the years as a cult oddity.
Back in 1995, as Tank Girl was gearing up for its standard and expensive studio marketing push, there was awareness and decent expectations for its commercial run. The movie would also be partially handicapped by the R rating the MPAA should not have given it. Reviews were mixed to poor and Tank Girl quietly died at the box office with just $4,064,495. MGM would see returned about $2M after theaters take their percentage of the gross — leaving nearly all of the marketing spend in the red and the budget at a loss.
3. Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Was in development at the same time other studios were also prepping very expensive sci-fi pictures featuring violent aliens — Independence Day and Starship Troopers. ID4 had no cynicism and was a proud cornball tentpole. Starship Troopers was an anti-war, sci-fi comedy gorefest — and Mars Attacks! had a mocking cynicism running through its DNA. The public turned ID4 into one of the biggest hits of all time and off-the-wall craziness of Mars Attacks! and Starship Troopers were outright rejected by audiences in ‘96 and ‘97.
As Mars Attacks! was gearing up for production, WB had planned a summer 1996 release, but FOX had already claimed July 4 for ID4 and it was moved as a holiday tentpole over the Christmas frame.
The budget was estimated to have come in between $70 million and $80 million and WB supported the release with an expensive $25 million marketing push. With a huge ensemble cast, this throwback to the glory days of low-fi fare like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers was expected to pull in strong business throughout the holidays.
Audiences were put off by the mean-spirited lunacy and Mars Attacks! bombed stateside with $37,771,017. The movie fared better overseas with a solid but unspectacular $63.6 million gross — though it was not nearly enough to offset the poor domestic numbers. The worldwide cume stalled at $101.3 million and WB would see returned about $55 million after theaters take their percentage of the gross. This would likely cover most of the global P&A costs, but the theatrical receipts would not dent the budget. Though largely regarded as one of Tim Burton’s follies, this demented comedy still has life as a cult relic from the 90s. Plus any movie that kills off the President of the United States for laughs with a sight gag has value.
4. Escape from L.A. (1996)
John Carpenter had a decade of flops behind him (Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Prince of Darkness (1987), They Live (1988), Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), and Village of the Damned (1995) when he decided to mount a sequel to his cult hit Escape From New York (1981). He re-teamed with producer Debra Hill, who helped mount his early features Halloween, The Fog and Escape From NY and she went about securing the sequel rights, which had moved through numerous hands after the original owners Avco-Embassy sold its library of films.
Hill, Carpenter, and Kurt Russell wrote the script on spec and Paramount picked up the project. After Stargate (1994) performed well globally, there was a lot of heat around Kurt Russell and he was able to command a $10 million salary for Escape From L.A. The budget was set at $50 million, far higher than the $7 million original. Paramount brought Rysher Entertainment in to split the costs. The television company Rysher had a brief foray into film financing in the mid-90s which produced a lot of flops (like Escape From L.A.) and they quickly disbanded their film division.
It’s impossible not to mention the digital effects in Escape From L.A., which are unfinished and look terrible. Paramount must have lost faith during post-production and never pumped additional money into a polish. The slapdash VFX just adds to the goofy charm and Escape From L.A. is a great watch. The movie did have a very hostile fan reception upon release and was dismissed as another sub-par Carpenter film, but its reputation has rightfully warmed in recent years.
Reviews were lukewarm and it opened with a mediocre $8,912,557 but the movie had large weekly declines in attendance and flopped with $25,477,365.