Tales From The Box Office: Is The Adventures Of Pluto Nash The Biggest Bomb Of All Time?

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

The term box office bomb is thrown around quite a bit. At times, it is very well warranted. We've seen a couple of examples in 2022, such as "The Northman," an ambitious $90 million Viking movie from Robert Eggers that (very regrettably) only earned $68.7 million at the global box office. A bomb, to be sure. But sometimes, the term is used to describe something that is more of a disappointment as opposed to a bomb. Think of something like "Eternals" making just over $400 million against a $200 million budget. Undoubtedly a bummer by Marvel standards, but by no means a bomb.

I say all this to help paint a picture of the way movies are often described in relation to their commercial performance. But are we a bit too generous with the term box office bomb? Or is it that we need a better term to describe what happens when a movie bombs so hard that it represents something else entirely? The sort of thing that happens when a movie costs as much to make as a superhero film, yet grosses less than $10 million at the global box office. I'm talking about "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," the infamous Eddie Murphy-fronted commercial disaster that bombed in historical fashion back in 2002.

In honor of the film's 20th anniversary this week, we're going to look back at "Pluto Nash," how its budget spiraled out of control, its disastrous theatrical run, and how it became arguably the single biggest bomb in cinematic history. How does a studio like Warner Bros. let this happen? And can we learn anything from it two decades removed? Let's dig in.

The movie: The Adventures of Pluto Nash

"The Adventures of Pluto Nash" did not simply come out of nowhere to ruin the finances of both Warner Bros. and Castle Rock Entertainment (not to mention the reputations of many involved). This is a script that had been kicking around for years in Hollywood, with big stars including the likes of Harrison Ford expressing interest at various points. But it was the casting of Eddie Murphy, coming hot off of hits such as "The Nutty Professor" and "Doctor Dolittle," that finally got the train moving. It was not in the right direction, but it got moving nonetheless.

After all these years of gestation and numerous passes at the script, director Ron Underwood of "Tremors" fame ultimately ended up in the director's chair, having just wrapped up "Mighty Joe Young." One of the best accounts of Underwood's time on the disastrous blockbuster was actually told to this very website back in 2020. Underwood spoke at length and candidly about his time with the film, explaining how Murphy planned to approach the material. The brilliant comedian wanted the script to be played very straight, with the promise that he would level up the comedy through his performance.

"We had a meeting with Eddie and his agent and the producers of the film and the studio. And that's when he said: 'I want it to be just kind of straight, and I'll bring the comedy.' And we did that draft and went into production. We still knew that there were problems with it. We had another writer come up to Montreal and continue to work into shooting."

For those who may not be familiar, "Pluto Nash" is set on the moon and takes place in 2087. It centers on a spunky nightclub owner who winds up in a bit of trouble when he refuses to sell his club to the mob. What could possibly go wrong?

Big problems, big budget

As Underwood says, the "Pluto Nash" script had its issues when they went into production and, if the 6% approval rating the film carries on Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, it never got much better. The bigger problem is that the studio was making big financial decisions that inflated the budget of an already not-so-cheap sci-fi movie. The plan had been to film in the U.K., but those plans changed and production shifted to Montreal. Why was that so expensive? Because a studio actually had to be built in Canada to accommodate the production. Said Underwood:

"This was probably the first big movie to be made in Montreal...[clarifying] films had been made in Montreal for decades, many of them great films, but they were for the most part French, low-budget films. So taking a film of this size, where they didn't have studio space and they built a studio for us during those months we were waiting for the script. They actually built a studio for this film."

Rather infamously, word got out ahead of its release that "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" was, to put it lightly, not very good. This led to extremely pricey reshoots that ultimately inflated the budget to a whopping $100 million. Even by modern standards, that's a lot of money. By 2002 standards? Yikes. It wasn't lost on Underwood that things weren't going well, as he admitted that he knew that to be the case during production. "No. I knew it wasn't [going well]," he said. "I knew we didn't have the kind of wit and the fun that I would want. And so it was difficult. And it was difficult because it was such a long process. I can't say that I knew exactly what to do to straighten that."

Despite having all the money in the world, a cast that also included Rosario Dawson, Randy Quaid, Peter Boyle, John Cleese, Luiz Guzman, and Joe Pantoliano, nothing was going to stop this trainwreck from happening — it was already too far down the tracks.

The financial journey

"The Adventures of Pluto Nash" hit theaters on August 16, 2002 and, right from the jump, it was clear that this wasn't going to be your average box office bomb. The expensive sci-fi/comedy opened to an abysmal $2.1 million domestically, placing tenth on the charts behind "The Master of Disguise" and just above "Stuart Little 2." It was Vin Diesel's "xXx" that claimed victory that particular weekend, making 10 times what "Pluto Nash" did — and that movie was in its second weekend. Ouch.

In the end, "Pluto Nash" finished its run with $4.4 million domestic and a mere $2.6 million internationally for a $7.1 million grand total. And I don't mean that week — I mean, that's it. A $100 million movie (before marketing) made just over $7 million in ticket sales. It is truly hard to fathom a worse business move in the history of the movie business. This is the kind of thing that costs people their jobs. To that point, Castle Rock Entertainment cut more than 30% of its employees just two weeks after the movie's initial release.

It can be argued that "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" is the biggest box office bomb ever produce. Another often-cited failure is 1995's "Cutthroat Island," which earned just $10 million against a $98 million budget. Close, but not quite as bad. Maybe we can look at Disney's "Mars Needs Moms," a $150 animated flop that topped out at $39.2 million back in 2010. There are plenty of other disasters that have washed up on the shores of Hollywood's misguided past but, for my money, this is the cream of the crop. The worst of the worst and the trophy nobody wants to have in their trophy case. But that title has to belong to someone, and I think it belongs to "The Adventures of Pluto Nash."

The lessons contained within

Something happens every once in a while in the movie business where a project just hangs around for years, lingering like a stench that won't go away. It seems cursed, like a haunted house that nobody wants to live in, or like an alleyway that nobody wants to walk down on their way home. Yet, because things are the way they are, these movies linger long enough that enough money is spent and enough time is invested that someone gets it in their head that it must be made. Herein lies the big lesson of "Pluto Nash."

I get it, nobody wants to spend several million dollars on something only to abandon it. A business wants some return on investment. However, the thing about movies is that they completely rely on entertainment that people want to see to justify that investment. In some cases the sunk cost fallacy must be abandoned, and movies must be allowed to die. Imagine what more Warner Bros. and Castle Rock could have done with $100 million around that time? Instead, millions upon millions were lost and quite a few people were out of the job. These poor actions have very real consequences.

Am I saying that it's right for Warner Bros. to abandon movies like "Batgirl" or "Scoob! Holiday Haunt" when they're 95% of the way done? Absolutely not. But I am saying that someone with good sense somewhere along the line should be able to see when something is headed south. These things should be stopped long before $100 million is out the door and all anyone has left to show for it is a terrible movie that is so bad it can't even hope to achieve cult status. The marriage of business and art can (and should) be a better union than that.