The 2006 indie film Zyzzyx Road holds the official title for the worst box office take in history. The Tom Sizemore and Katherine Heigl thriller earned a total of $30.00 in its 6-day theatrical release at the Highland Park Village Theater in Dallas, Texas. Unofficially, the dubious title could actually belong to Million Dollar Mystery, the comedy directed by Richard Fleisher (yes, that Richard Fleisher who directed Soylent Green, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja). Million Dollar Mystery made $989,033 in the theaters but had to give it all back, and even more, due to a marketing ploy gone awry.
The marketing idea for Million Dollar Mystery came from producer Dino De Laurentiis when he visited New York and saw what he thought was a long line of people waiting to see a movie. The people, however, were actually lining up to buy lottery tickets. The plot of Million Dollar Mystery is similar to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World where a group of strangers travel around following clues to find stolen money. By the end of the movie, there is still $1 million that needs to be found and De Laurentiis wanted to add an element to the film where an audience member could figure out the unsolved mystery based on clues from the movie and claim the cash. Surely moviegoers would show up in droves for a chance to win some money.
But De Laurentiis was very wrong. Million Dollar Mystery cost $10 million to make (not including the $1 million prize) and when it couldn’t even muster the box office to cover the ill conceived contest (a 14 year old girl from California figured out that the money was hidden in the nose of the Statue of Liberty), De Laurentiis’ production company (DEG) began its spiral into bankruptcy. It resulted in DEG forgoing their Patrick Swayze version of Total Recall so Carolco Pictures could swoop in and produce their version. Ironically, Carolco made some bad business moves and were bankrupt not too long after that.
De Laurentiis may have come up with the worst marketing ploy for a movie but he’s not alone in making bad decisions with promoting a film. Here is a brief history of bad marketing ploys for movies.
The Burt Reynolds adventure flick, about a gunrunner retrieving cargo from shark-infested waters, possibly has the least tasteful promotion for a film. During the filming, a stuntman was killed on camera by a shark that was supposed to be sedated. The tragic death was then exploited by the production company as part of the film’s promotional strategy. Director Samuel Fuller quit the film after he saw the marketing strategy and the version of the film released in theaters was so terribly slapped together, that Fuller demanded his name be taken off the picture.
Clue is a gem of a comedy with a great overall cast and one-liners that you still are laughing at well after they are said. It also has three different endings that you get to watch in order. That wasn’t the case when the film was released in theaters. Producer John Landis thought it would be a great idea to have the endings shown at different theaters so patrons would be motivated to see the movie three times. But many, including the film’s director, thought it just confused people and caused them not to show up at all. In an upcoming interview that Jonathan Lynn did with the Movies and Stuff podcast, he said that releasing the movie the way they did was “the worst mistake ever” and that they “should have done what [they] ended up doing on the VHS, which was to show all three endings.”
This Australian slasher flick was marketed as such a terrifying film, that people wouldn’t be able to sit through the entire thing. So their ploy included having a yellow line on the carpet that moviegoers could walk on during intermission if the film was too frightening for them. The yellow line led to a ticket booth managed by a giant chicken that would laugh at you as he gave you a refund. Well, people walked the line to get the refunds not because the film was too scary, but because the movie was so terrible. At least they didn’t miss the ubiquitous slasher movie shower scene.
Okay, on the scale of bad promotional ploys this one isn’t too terrible. In fact, there is no correlation to suggest that Watchmen’s box office was hurt by this marketing campaign but it’s truly face-palmable to understand why a marketing company thought it was a good idea to give away blue condoms that could help dudes look more like Dr. Manhattan in the bedroom. At least they didn’t waste them by giving them away at Comic Con.
To be fair, the repercussions of Partisan’s marketing snafu are unknown at this point because the film hasn’t been officially released yet. But it still has to be mentioned because it will go down in history as the viral marketing campaign that failed before it even started. When a video of a man buying an old storage chest showed up on Reddit, it was quickly debunked as being part of a viral campaign.
Know of any more movies that suffered from bad marketing ploys? Mention in the comments below!