Becoming a film director is one of the diciest and scariest jobs you can ever hope to take on. If someone is lucky enough to get a chance to work in the Hollywood system after doing work which convinces the studio system that maybe they might have a chance at the big time, everything else is all smooth sailing from there on, right?
Wrong. When a filmmaker sets out to make a film that they are passionate about, the idea of bombing is not even a remote possibility to them. Yet, it has happened… multiple times over. It only takes one film to completely wreck a director’s career. Whether they work again or not depends on the magnitude of the failure.
In this list, I am going to talk about films that were made by once prominent directors and panned out so badly for them… that their career either never continued afterward or jinxed their talent to the point where nothing they made ever matched up to their past successes before “the bad one”. Brace yourself readers, this is going to be a list full of tragedy.
#5: Sorcerer – William Friedkin
In the 1970s, there was a veritable Renaissance period in American filmmaking history known as “New Hollywood”; a time where film nerds who grew up watching the classic films of Howard Hawks and Orson Welles, as well as foreign delicacies from directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa, suddenly made the jump to become filmmakers themselves.
Some of these people who rose to the top were Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and Terrence Malick, just to name a few. One such person was a man named William Friedkin. After years of making largely forgettable films, Friedkin changed how both the genres of action and horror were filmed with two masterpiece films: The French Connection and The Exorcist (respectively). These films were rightfully nominated for multiple Oscars (with The French Connection notably winning Best Picture) and showered William Friedkin with kudos and recognition.
Everyone expected Friedkin’s next film to be of similar quality to the prior two, what we got instead was a thriller with existential elements known as Sorcerer. Sorcerer was based on a French novel known as Le Salaire de la peur by Georges Arnaud (which itself was made into a film in 1953 known as The Wages of Fear). Everything about Sorcerer, other than the actual quality of the film, failed in some regard. Production, which was filmed in South America, was a hellish experience replete with droughts that ruined scenes, spooked villagers who threatened to blow up sets, and the budget being surpassed several times.
I wish I could say that the production period was the only part of the film that failed; its release was even worse. Most people who went into the film were expecting a film with knights, wizards, and shit; that was not at all what they got. There was once a time where you could not look up trailers on the IMDB and see what was coming out, so most people had no idea what to expect with Sorcerer (sounds prehistoric doesn’t it). Sorcerer was an unbelievable bomb upon release (taking in only $5.9 million of its $21-22 million budget.
The reasons why Sorcerer failed were numerous: they ranged from the fact that a significant amount of patrons walked out when they learned subtitles were in it, the name of the film really not having anything to do with it at all considering the subject matter of the film (Friedkin claimed it was coined after the idea of an evil wizard of fate jinxing the situation(s) of the the main characters), and, what I think is the biggest reason of all, premiering the weekend when Star Wars came out.
Needless to say, Friedkin’s career was practically destroyed and it seemed to jinx his ability to reliably make new films that were of similar quality to either The French Connection or The Exorcist (i.e. the Al Pacino starring gay S&M movie Cruising and the disgusting erotic thrilling Jade). Although many critics and filmgoers have now reevaluated Sorcerer as a masterpiece that was criminally under-appreciated when it was originally released, the damage that was done could not be fixed. Although Friedkin’s most recent film, Killer Joe, seems to indicate that maybe he might have a few more tricks up his sleeve; I think it is safe to say that Friedkin’s golden years are over and done with.
#4: One From the Heart – Francis Ford Coppola
When The Godfather was released, Francis Ford Coppola was on top of the world (both the film world and the literal one). It was hailed, and still is to this day, as one of the greatest movies ever made. After following it up with The Conversation (a film that almost reached The Godfather’s height), he surpassed what many claimed to be an impossible to top film by making The Godfather Part II, a film that is often called both the greatest sequel ever made and a film that some (myself included) claim to be better than the original.
Then came Apocalypse Now, a film that nearly killed him on multiple occasions as he made it (as can be seen in every little detail in the documentary about it called Hearts of Darkness) and was hailed as one of the most revolutionary war films ever made. To this day, nothing still has ever come close to how serene, strange, and horrifying this film is.
It only took one film… one that was quite possibly the biggest gamble of his entire career, to turn a man who once the King of Hollywood Film Directors into a man who was on his knees in shambles: One From the Heart. Of the $26 million budget, this overly-stylized, tone deaf, and barely acted musical only raked in $636,796 for Coppola ($63 million and $1.5 million in today’s money, respectively), he subsequently went completely bankrupt. Following the disaster of One From the Heart, Coppola had a completely checkered career as he made no secret of the fact that every subsequent film was made to pay off the massive debts incurred.
Some of those films were good (The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, Peggy Sue Got Married, Captain EO (yes I am being serious), Tucker: A Man and His Dream, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and The Rainmaker) and some were not (The Cotton Club, Gardens of Stone, Life Without Zoe, The Godfather Part III, and Jack). Despite paying off his debts in 1997 after The Rainmaker, he did return to filmmaking 10 years later with three films over a 4 year period (of varying degrees of quality), the failure of One From the Heart always seemed to follow him forever and it is fairly obvious that his craft was irrevocably affected by both it and the strain of undertaking Apocalypse Now simply judging by how extremely hit and miss his subsequent films were.
While the legacies of both Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now are still held in high esteem, unless Coppola ever gets Megalopolis (an epic sci-fi film he himself wrote and has been carrying with him since the end of Apocalypse Now) made, it is likely the world will never see another Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece… so let us be grateful for the ones we actually have.
#3: It’s A Wonderful Life – Frank Capra
Bet you never saw this one coming did ya? Although It’s A Wonderful Life is now considered one of the greatest films of all time and is watched by millions of people every Christmas season, it never had that adoration at the time of its initial release. From the 1930s, starting with It Happened One Night, and throughout most of WWII (i.e. the 1940s), there was no filmmaker whose name was known better than Frank Capra’s; both in Tinseltown and by the general public.
Capra continued to churn out films that both were of excellent quality and would almost always be smash hits commercially and critically. After the war ended, Capra established a studio known as Liberty Films (which was one of the first independent studios) and made It’s A Wonderful Life; an adaptation of short story written on a Christmas card (of all things).
Evidently Capra got a hold of the card and loved the story so much; he made it immediately. Having worked with Jimmy Stewart a few times before (most notably in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), Capra hired Stewart once more to play the troubled George Bailey. Both described the experience as the greatest one in their entire respective careers.
Unfortunately… neither audiences nor critics gravitated to It’s A Wonderful Life nor did they think it was all that great of a movie. Other than Lost Horizon, Capra had never actually outright failed before (the former of which was far less worse than this). This one failure completely shut him out of Hollywood and none of his following films were either all that great or shared the same amount of success as his other mega-hits did.
Capra’s last film (A Pocketful of Miracles) was released in 1961 and, again, failed… the result this time being Capra’s retirement. If it were not for the copyright of It’s A Wonderful Life expiring and the desperation of local networks needing to fill air-time by throwing on an obscure movie, It’s A Wonderful Life would have remained a forgotten film for eternity.
Although Capra genuinely relished and was delighted by It’s A Wonderful Life’s resurgence, the damage was already done and we were robbed of films that could have possibly surpassed It’s Wonderful Life, were it not for people’s cynicism after the War (which is my personal theory as to why I think the film failed).
#2: Peeping Tom – Michael Powell
The world of British filmmaking was changed forever when the unstoppable, directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger stormed onto the scene.
Starting in 1943 and ending in 1957, Powell and Pressburger made what are considered not only to be some of the greatest British films in history, but also some of the greatest movies by their own rights. The Red Shoes, A Matter of Life and Death, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and Black Narcissus are just some of the great things that this superteam churned out.
After Powell and Pressburger finished a film known as Ill Met By Moonlight in 1957, both decided to amicably sever their partnership and pursue their own separate careers. This was a bad decision… a really bad one. Tragically, Michael Powell’s first post-Pressburger film was a 1960 psychological thriller with a thoroughly disturbing premise that is still quite frightening by today’s standards: a man who murders women and, in their last moments until their inevitable expiration, he films them, and then silently watches the footage in his den in pleasure. as he gets.
Aside from being one of the first psychological thrillers that went to such dark and terrifying places, what makes this movie strange is that it was released the same year as Psycho did (although Peeping Tom would not reach American shores until 1962). As soon as Peeping Tom came out, it was immediately demonized and ripped apart viciously by both critics and audiences who were thoroughly repulsed and horrified at how graphically disturbing the film was.
After the controversy of Peeping Tom, Michael Powell never did get work again in the British film industry again (although he did get some in venues such as Australia and non-profit organizations) as the film was effectively a Scarlet Letter that was branded onto him for life. It only took one person to single-handedly save Peeping Tom from obscurity and allow it to have a complete critical reevaluation: Martin Scorsese.
While Scorsese was a freshman film student at NYU in 1962, he had heard of it and was fascinated by the mystique it carried; having already been a fan of Michael Powell for much of his young life. He finally saw Peeping Tom in 1970 after getting his hands on an uncut, color copy (it was originally released cut and in black and white in American theaters) and was blown away by it.
When he later went on to great fame as a filmmaker himself, as well as becoming a close friend to Michael Powell himself, a film distributor came to Scorsese and asked him to help them give Peeping Tom a wider release; something that Scorsese gladly agreed to do.
The result of this was a shower of praise from a film-going audience now ready to accept a film that was ahead of its time. Despite this, the damage had already been done and Michael Powell’s career was irreparably obliterated; a fact which he validated in his autobiography saying…
“”I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it.”
Such is the tragic fate of the death of an artist.
#1: Heaven’s Gate – Michael Cimino
Perhaps the single most famous failure in cinematic history and the textbook example of the destruction of a filmmakers’ career can be summed up in two words: Heaven’s Gate. This film is famous for a number of reasons. Its failure bankrupted a once prominent film studio (i.e. United Artists). Its failure slammed the door shut on the once prominent New Hollywood era and forced the film industry to be more controlling of messianic and indulgent auteurs. More tragically, its failure snakebit director Michael Cimino’s career forever in the most negative way possible. After getting steam from his first movie, the Jeff Bridges/Clint Eastwood buddy cop movie, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Michael Cimino achieved unprecedented success with The Deer Hunter, a film which I contend is the greatest war movie ever made.
The fact Cimino had won both the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for it meant that he now had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted as his next picture. He turned to a pet project that he had written in 1971: a Western genre film about a fight over land between land barons in Wyoming in the 1890s called Heaven’s Gate. However, at the time he had written it, he could not get the film made and it rested on Cimino’s shelf. After Cimino (seemingly) ascended to godhood, he got the go-ahead to make Heaven’s Gate.
Because the details are many and varied, I will give the short version of the story. The shoot for Heaven’s Gate was hellish and the perfectionism on Cimino’s part was so staggering, even Stanley Kubrick would have been in shock and awe at it. Cimino wasted an excessive amount of time and money filming the movie over self/over-indulgent details, killed actual horses on set (the footage of which actually made it into the film), took forever to edit the film (to the point where he changed the locks to the editing bay so the studio could not get in), and turned in a rough cut that was close to five and a half hours long.
United Artists was so worried at what they had on their hands due to Cimino’s behavior which was, in all honesty, insane… they cut Heaven’s Gate down to about two and a half hours with neither Cimino’s cooperation or approval. The end result was an absolute trainwreck that both audiences and critics decried as one of the worst movies ever made and became known as one of the biggest box office bombs in history by making only $3 million of its $44 million budget ($8.5 million and $124,000,000 in today’s money, respectively).
Although Cimino would make future films afterward, none of them ever matched the power and/or quality of either The Deer Hunter or, to a lesser extent, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The story does not end there though, because in 2012, The Criterion Collection supervised a restoration of the Heaven’s Gate (with Cimino’s involvement) which clocked in at close to three and a half hours and premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the same year.
Critics who were either younger newcomers or oldtimers who had previously savaged the original cut in 1980, made a complete reversal and realized it was a masterpiece that was horribly butchered subsequently declared the original release cut to be “one of the greatest injustices in cinematic history”.
Despite the sudden reversal of opinion Heaven’s Gate, the damage was already done as both the film industry changed to clamp down on out-of-control auteurs and Cimino’s career is now over and done with. Heaven’s Gate, and the destruction it wrought, remains a cautionary tale for all film directors as to what may happen if a talented director gets so lost in their own vision, has no concept of not being precious with their material, and is not reined in by outside forces.