Breaking Balls: Blockbusters that blockbusted

Banner for Jed Rigney's "Breaking Balls" column: Blockbusters
Movie poster 2May is not just the month of basketball, hockey and baseball. It’s also the time of year Hollywood starts rolling out mega-spectacular multi-million dollar blockbuster movies.

These films are designed as entertainment thrill rides for moviegoers of all ages with the single purpose of making the studios very rich – or very richer. Sure, they want the public to be entertained, but they only want that so you’ll tell your friends to go buy tickets.

It’s these blockbusters that seem to be the most hit-and-miss of films. What started out as a good idea two or three years prior has gone through so many tweaks and changes and “notes” that it’s unlikely that the movie they are releasing even vaguely resembles the original idea. The comedy My Stepmother Is an Alien started off as a dark story about child abuse.

Because so much money is spent on these films, this is where we’ll find all the most notable film flops in history. Nobody cares if a $20 million romantic comedy dies at the box office (right, Katherine Heigl?). But when a studio spends $250 million to bring us John Carter and it only makes $75 million, heads will roll!

In baseball, the budgets of teams vary as widely as the budgets of studio films. Teams like the Rays and Athletics are at the bottom of the list in the romantic comedy range, while the Yankees, Dodgers and Tigers are in the blockbuster action/adventure range.

And there’s the Astros, who are in the range of quirky indie films that no one really “gets” except for that one guy who works at the coffee shop, who doesn’t bathe and might actually be homeless, and who won’t shut up about the film’s existential layering and deeper social meaning – and all you can do is nod and half-smile because you really don’t want him to do something weird with your latte.

So far this baseball season, there have been some very disappointing starts for teams who were expected to do better – but who, more importantly, spent a lot of money. Let’s take a look at how these teams stack up to the all-time great movie flops.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster Pluto NashHonorable Mention — Chicago Cubs

It almost seems unfair to include the Cubs because everyone expected they would be terrible, and they are being just that. But did you know their payroll is $107 million this season? For that kind of money, they deserve to get kicked around a little. Eddie Murphy’s The Adventures of Pluto Nash cost a fortune to make, and everyone expected it would be terrible and it was just that. A comedy adventure set in outer space that was neither a comedy nor an adventure – filled with half-assed effort and corny schtick. Apparently, in space, no one can hear you laugh, either.

The studio actually waited two years to release this steaming pile of galactic crap in the hopes they could find the perfect window where audiences might be fooled into paying to see it. But it didn’t work – no one showed up. However, it doesn’t matter what the team puts out on the field, Cubs fans will always come out and put up with half-assed effort and corny schtick.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster Town & CountryToronto Blue Jays

With a payroll of $118 million, the Blue Jays are a living example that fantasy baseball team management and real-life baseball team management aren’t quite the same thing. Toronto spent the offseason acquiring top-priced name talent to make a run at the World Series and, so far, they’re just floundering around in last place. The film Town & Country had a similar thought process: Let’s put Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Garry Shandling on screen together and watch the money flow like maple syrup over pancakes.

It’s not really clear why this movie bombed, but I assure you that bomb it did. Where that cast would have worked about 15 to 20 years prior, maybe audiences weren’t too thrilled about seeing an ambiguously titled romantic comedy starring 50-somethings. Toronto has about $35 million worth of players on the disabled list, and maybe this team is also an example of casting that would have worked a few years prior.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster The 13th WarriorChicago White Sox

You might want to sit down for this or, if you’re already sitting down, maybe lower your chair a couple inches just to get a lower center of gravity. Did you know that the last-place White Sox have the eighth highest payroll in baseball this year? Yep! Just a few dollars short of $120 million. And for which players?! Quick, name the best player on the White Sox. You can’t, because there is no best player on the White Sox – just a bunch B-list veteran players who as a whole are grotesquely overpaid. Have you ever heard of the movie The 13th Warrior? Sort of, right? And I know you can’t even guess who the lead actor was.

It may not be memorable to you, but studio accountants know this film as one of the biggest financial flops in movie history. With a budget of almost $90 million, the only “star” they put in here was Antonio Banderas. That’s it. One B-list actor and literally no one else you have ever heard of. Guess what! It bombed. I’m telling you, there’s some producer walking around with $50 million in his bank account that he embezzled from this film. Meanwhile, the White Sox have easily an extra $50 million in player salaries that executive VP Kenny Williams has allowed to be embezzled during contract negotiations.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster The PostmanLos Angeles Angels of Anaheim (in Orange County, California, USA, Earth)

When the season started, I felt the team to beat in this division was still the Texas Rangers, but I also thought that the Angels were almost guaranteed a wild card playoff spot. Here we are six weeks into the season and the Angels look awful, and if it wasn’t for the Astros being in their division, they would be in last place. So they get an honorary last place label. Kevin Costner’s The Postman is a classic movie bomb in that they spent way too much money on it, made some strange casting choices and audiences just weren’t really in the mood for a meandering post-apocalyptic epic mess.

I actually kind of like this movie and my friend Brian says it’s one of his favorites – though his man-crush on Costner is bordering on restraining order. Some of the story and characters leave something to be desired, but there are a lot of interesting little pieces in this film and it may someday yet grow to be thought of as one of the not terrible films of our time. The Angels have all the pieces they need. Sure, some of the players leave something to be desired, but this team may someday yet grow to be a playoff contender.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster Cutthroat IslandPhiladelphia Phillies

This is the only team on this list that isn’t in last place (pipe down, Angels fans!), but of all of these teams, the Phillies are by far the biggest disaster. They have a losing record, but they also have a $170 million payroll loaded with dumb contracts that are almost entirely complete wastes of money. And that brings us the Cutthroat Island. This is one of the greatest financial disasters Hollywood has ever seen. Like the Phillies, they had a very questionable cast. Matthew Modine! Geena Davis! I mean, have either of them ever made you actually want to go see a movie?

After years of making a fortune in distributing films, the company that put the film together – Carolco – actually got put out of business by this unbrilliant piece of swashbucklery. Philly fans can only hope that the mounting pile of roster mistakes will eventually put GM Ruben Amaro out of business.

Movie poster for the not blockbuster Heaven's GateLos Angeles Dodgers

If we’re talking about movies, then it’s a perfect fit that the L.A. team is the biggest of all the flops this season. The Dodgers have a Yankees-dwarfing payroll of $220 million, and what it’s gotten them is a cozy seat in the basement of their division. For that kind of money, anything less than a division title is an absolute disaster. And that brings us to our final film – Heaven’s Gate. It’s not the biggest disaster dollar-for-dollar, but this film is considered the gold-standard for going bust.

There was so much “expected” from this film and so many people were anticipating its arrival. However, questionable casting, a confusing story and a budget that spiraled out of control all combined to underwhelm a nation. Ever since the Dodgers got rid of Frank McCourt, the team has been spending on players like … um … well, the McCourts on themselves. The Dodgers have $66 million worth of players on the disabled list – that’s more than the full payroll for five other teams. And as the budget for this team spirals out of control, a nation remains underwhelmed.

Wrap it up, Jed!

There are six divisions in baseball and five of them have a team in last place (come on, Angels fans, you’re just embarrassing yourselves) that is paying over $100 million to its players.

The good news for these teams is that, yes, it’s only six weeks into the season and a lot can happen. Some blockbuster bombs go on to moderate success in DVD rentals or foreign markets that are less picky about what they watch. John Carter made almost $150 million overseas and that is a really not good movie.

Heck, even Heaven’s Gate has grown to be considered by some as a misunderstood masterpiece. But that took decades and these baseball teams don’t have that kind of time. So, now is when they need to knuckle down and leave it all on the set or stage or baseball field – or the whole season will have been for nothing.

Well, until the sequel.

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