JACKPOT: Avatar (2009)
With an estimated budget around $500 million (including marketing costs), James Cameron’s long-awaited follow-up to Titanic is the priciest movie ever made. And with is reliance on 3-D animated lead characters to guide audiences into an epic (and, at 162 minutes, epically long) sci-fi adventure, it was never a sure thing. But Cameron’s gamble has paid off: Avatar has already grossed more than $642 million worldwide.
JACKPOT: Titanic (1997)
A skyrocketing budget and rumors of a cursed set made some wonder if James Cameron’s sweeping period piece would be the iceberg that sank 20th Century Fox. Eleven Oscars and a $1.8 billion worldwide gross proved them very, very wrong.
BUST: Waterworld (1995)
Kevin Costner’s $175 million dystopian opus was one of the most infamous washouts in Hollywood history: The critically panned pic made just $88 million domestically.
JACKPOT: Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal put their careers on the line to play lovers in the first mainstream movie to focus on a gay romance. Ang Lee’s heartbreaking Western was a hit at the box office, where it earned $178.1 million worldwide, and a critical smash, scoring an Oscar nod for Best Picture.
JACKPOT: The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
Middle Earth wasn’t the only thing on the line in Peter Jackson’s megabudget adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novels: Studio New Line bet its very survival on the trilogy, which cost nearly $300 million overall.
BUST: Ishtar (1987)
The name alone has become synonymous with Hollywood chutzpah gone horribly wrong. Produced for a then-enormous $55 million, the comedy earned just $14.4 million and became a black mark on the box office records of stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman.
JACKPOT: The Matrix (1999)
Pairing a relatively unknown directing team — the Wachowski brothers — with action icon Keanu Reeves, this sci-fi action pic pushed FX technology to its limits and hoped audiences would follow. They did. Two sequels and $1.6 billion later, The Matrix remains one of the most successful and influential franchises in Hollywood history.
JACKPOT: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Pirate movies had been box office poison for decades when Disney decided to turn its classic theme-park ride into a big screen adventure. Naysayers sneered at the blatant corporate synergy and questioned the casting of Johnny Depp (whose biggest hit to date was 1999’s $101 million-grossing Sleepy Hollow) as the buccaneer Jack Sparrow. Needless to say, those cynics walked the plank when Pirates made more than $654 million worldwide and spawned two sequels.
JACKPOT: Schindler’s List (1993)
Just six months after the massive success of Jurassic Park (1993), director Steven Spielberg put his reputation as a hitmaker on the line with this unsparing black-and-white depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. Despite its blatantly non-commercial nature, the movie still grossed $321 million worldwide and won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
JACKPOT: Star Wars (1977)
A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, sci-fi action pics weren’t the go-to genre for studio tentpoles. George Lucas’ seminal space opera changed all that by shattering box office records and creating one of pop cultures most indelible — and durable — properties.
FROM Wall-E (2008)
PLAYED BY Voiced by Ben Burtt
PROGRAMMING The hero of Pixar’s animated feature is a lonely, trash-compacting robot on an abandoned Earth who pines for a newly arrived probe droid named EVE.
SPECIAL FEATURES Molds scrap metal into bricks, speaks in R2-D2-like beeps and blurps, and has a binocular-shaped head that gives him an unfortunate resemblance to Johnny 5, the robot in the much-reviled Short Circuit movies.
WHY HE PUSHES OUR BUTTONS His heartfelt emotional journey made him as good as a flesh-and-blood hero to us.
BUST: Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Coming off his Best Director Oscar for 1979’s The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino created one of the most infamous debacles in showbiz history. The $42 million drama banked less than $3 million, putting studio United Artists on the road to bankruptcy. The movie is still known as a cautionary tale for ambitious filmmakers and careless studio financiers.
BUST: Cleopatra (1963)
At the time, this historical epic was the most expensive movie ever made. But the on-screen spectacle was overshadowed by the off-screen romance of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, leaving the movie to crumble at the box office.
LET IT RIDE: Watchmen (2009)
Long considered unfilmable (thanks to its dark subject matter, convoluted plot, and one giant naked blue guy), Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel was finally brought to the big screen in 2009 by filmmaker Zack Snyder (300). The $130 million project wasn’t a huge failure, but its modest $107.5 million domestic gross drew an eerie parallel to the book’s tagline: Who watches the Watchmen?
LET IT RIDE: Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
When director Spike Jonze took on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, the results were bound to be out of the ordinary. But studio Warner Bros never expected the director to spend the better part of six years — not to mention an estimated $100 million budget — crafting a spare tone poem that would gross just $75.8 million domestically.