The vagaries of the film business can cut even the greatest of Hollywood egos down to size. Just ask Sidney Sheinberg, one of the last great studio heads and the man who gave a young protégé called Steven Spielberg his first contract. As President of MCA Universal Pictures, the Texan-born lawyer-turned-mogul oversaw production on films such as Jaws, E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park.
Sheinberg's years spent ruling Los Angeles amounted to nought last weekend, when the powerbroker's latest production, Creature, opened on 1,507 US screens and took in a per-screen average of $217, or six patrons per session. Sid Sheinberg can now add one more box office record to his impressive resume – the lowest-grossing wide release in the history of the American film industry.
The story of a half-man/half-alligator terrorising teens who, for some reason, like to swim in Louisiana swamps, the long-delayed film was distributed by Sheinberg's own independent production outfit, The Bubble Factory.
The past weekend may emerge as a turning point for audience acceptance of big-screen travesties, as it also saw the opening (and closing) of Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star; on the back of a 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating, the Adam Sandler-produced porn parody took $943 per cinema, or around eight customers a showing.
Though wide release disasters are measured relatively against their production budgets and P&A costs, it is a film's per-screen average that reveals the harshest truths. The 2008 animated film Delgo, a $40 million eco-adventure co-directed by Marc F. Adler and Jason Maurer, opened on an extremely-hopeful 2,167 screens and clawed its way to a miserly $237 per cinema. The erratic Richard Fleischer's Million Dollar Mystery (1987) offered a $1 million prize to a lucky audience member who could solve a puzzle contained within the film. (The Chicago Tribune's critic quipped: “This movie [is] the first in history to offer an actual bribe to potential customers – though under the circumstances, a million dollars doesn't seem like nearly enough.“) When the film opened at 1,396 locations to a dire $387 per showing and topped out at $989,000 at the box office, producer Dino De Laurentiis still had to honour the terms of the competition and pay the winner, and thus fell even further into the red on his mega-dud.
Having played on over 1,500 screens, Creature's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cinema release does not represent the lowest ever box-office result for a theatrical title. That honour goes to John Penney's 2006 thriller Zyzzyx Road (pronounced... oh, never mind), starring an on-the-cusp Katherine Heigl and a free-falling Tom Sizemore. The film was dumped into a single Texan cinema, where it played one session per day for a week so that the producers would not have to pay the actors any extra money. (A Screen Actors Guild contract clause freezes the minimum wage if a film plays theatrically.) Zyzzyx Road sold six tickets, grossing $30.
Similar tales of audience apathy have emerged from across the pond. Rhys Davies' UK horror film Zombie Undead (aren't they all?) took 10 quid in its first weekend earlier this year, representing a combined audience of two; Katherine Dieckmann's Motherhood, starring Uma Thurman, made headlines in 2010 when it took £88 on its opening weekend, including a Sunday in which it sold just one ticket. The all-time lowest grossing film at English cinemas, however, is Krzysztof Krauze's My Nikifor (2004); a biopic of Polish artist Nikifor Krynicki, the admittedly-specialised film played for a week and took £7.
Measuring Australia's cinematic underachievers is difficult, given very few films secure what would constitute a 'wide release', but films that were significant underperformers (ie, less than A$100,000 in final takings) include Arch Nicholson's Weekend with Kate (1990), Peter Cattaneo's sweet family saga Opal Dream (2006), the grand follies Sky Pirates (1986) and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983) and Kriv Stenders' The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005).
Sid Sheinberg is a seasoned industry player and probably won't be too rattled by his Creature's fate; failure, like success, can be fleeting, too. In an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, the avid human rights advocate said he continues to dabble in moviemaking “to be sure I could still do it,” and that “to market this [film] too seriously would be an act of stupidity I hope I'm not capable of.” He'll have plenty to ponder on both fronts in the days ahead as the final box office tally of his latest opus takes shape.