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90s Blockbusters

Infographic: Was Waterworld Really a Disaster? | Waterworld

A close up freeze frame from the Film Budget infographic

It’s one of those pearls of received wisdom that Waterworld (1995) was an enormous turkey, a colossal folly that sunk Kevin Costner’s run as one of Hollywood’s most dependable leading men. Pearls of received wisdom, however, are sometimes revealed to be costume jewellery when held up to the light. 

Over the last few years, a counter-narrative emerged that reframes Waterworld as a success based on its home entertainment and broadcast takings, also called ancillary revenues. This attempts to excuse the massive expense incurred by the production by arguing that in the context of the age this was justifiable and that negative press drove Waterworld to the briny depths before it had even left the dry dock. 

This is an argument we’re sympathetic to. Blade Runner (1982), after all, was deemed a failure at the time and it’s now rightly held up as one of sci-fi cinema’s defining works of art. Also, the tenor of film coverage has just grown so malicious over the last decade and for all its poor press, Waterworld was lucky to have its opening weekend in a world before social media. If it had been released today, an entire industry geared towards the projection of failure would have hounded the production, stirring up clouds of trolls and generating a self-fulfilling prophecy by dive-bombing Rotten Tomatoes with low scores and brigading the YouTube comments with abuse.

We’re not ones to dwell on the downbeat at The Companion so we set out to explore its technical brilliance by speaking to Chris Watts, the movie’s Post-Production VFX Supervisor. The bottom line for us is that Waterworld is a ton of fun, it looks fantastic and I’m never disappointed to revisit it.

However, we’re only human, we’re curious and inevitably we ended up down a rabbit hole deeper than the Marianas Trench trying to put the financial performance of Waterworld into perspective. I hoped we’d be able to stand up and make a definitive claim, but it turns out that both readings are kinda true. I combed through archive copies of Forbes and Billboard to follow the movie’s woes as they happened, all the way through its disappointing opening weekend at the box office to its respectable home entertainment release (including a highly praised laserdisc, so there you go). 

Whilst my nervous breakdown and inability to come to a conclusion was live-streamed in our office WhatsApp group, Tommy – a connoisseur of both cinema and data – started comparing the immense costs of big-budget epics by genre and produced this bar chart race, which you can pinch and zoom to study the detail. Although it was soon overtaken, set against the blockbuster spend in the years leading up to 1995, the amount splurged on Waterworld remains difficult to comprehend.

There’s no getting away from it, Waterworld cost a ton of money to make. Way more than it needed to as on-set disasters swallowed up the budget and costs were literally sunk. The initial budget was floated at $100 million, but the unpredictable ocean shoot saw that climb closer to $175m. It didn’t exactly go unnoticed at the box office, but the cost of making it was so immense that to become a success by the studio’s metrics it would have had to fight off E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993) to stake a claim as one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Suffice to say it didn’t do that. It stayed at number one in the US box office for only two weeks and finished the year at a commendable number ten with a worldwide gross of $264m. The overseas performance was mixed. It managed only one week at the top in the UK before being displaced by Die Hard With a Vengeance but made a strong showing in Australia where environmental issues lay much closer to the surface. 

Negative publicity curtailed a lot of licensing opportunities that the studio was almost certainly banking on for a big summer sci-fi actioner with such obvious toyetic potential (Boats! Planes! Sea monsters! Accessories!). It wasn’t just the on-set catastrophes or the sneering of critics, but the bleak content of the film also helped kill off hopes of Mariner fish sticks and maps-to-Dry-Land temporary tattoos. On 31 January 1995, the Wall Street Journal deadpanned that “certain potential licensees were turned off by a scene in which Mr. Costner drinks his own urine.” Perhaps the only ray of light in the whole business was Waterworld: A Live Sea War Spectacular, still an immensely popular part of Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Studios Japan, and Universal Studios Singapore.

Whilst ancillary revenues were decent ($30m), they didn’t magically transform Waterworld into a runaway success. The problem with the way in which this narrative of ‘flop’ vs ‘cult hit’ plays out is that it relies on a simplistic understanding of the movie industry – a Pokémon battle between rival statistics on Wikipedia. It’s not enough for a film’s box office takings to be greater than the budget, as the studios share those revenues with the cinemas and with overseas distributors, which slashes the profit by half at the least. That worldwide gross I mentioned earlier, now has a collapsed ceiling of $134m and all of sudden it looks doubtful whether the film broke even on its theatrical run.

However as the anti-floppers rightly point out, Waterworld has enjoyed a long and fruitful second life on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, pay-per-view, video rental, broadcast TV and online streaming, so that $30m has undoubtedly risen. But is that really enough to push back against the narrative of Waterworld as a commercial disaster? No, because context is king.

Is that growth proportional to two of 1995’s other action blockbusters, Batman Forever or GoldenEye? Both films cost significantly less to shoot, made significantly more at the box office and were inundated with Happy Meals, pinball machines, action figures, and videogames, which moves the criteria for success up and most likely beyond Waterworld’s reach. We also have no idea what that $175m figure for the budget did and didn’t include, and some contemporary newspaper reports cite an additional $30m to $75m in marketing and advertising costs.

Until someone dives into my inbox with the numbers (and please do) all we’re left with is turning over that dirty pearl in our hands, the grime too deep to discern its true nature.

ShoutoutsA huge thanks to Linda Hobbet, Christabel Fry, and Josh Norgren, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!

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James Hoare is editor of The Companion. He has been “working in publishing” since the early 1990s when he made his own Doctor Who fanzine to sell in the school playground.

You can find him on Twitter @JDHoare

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