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The 50 Worst Decisions in Movie History

Racist casting, big-budget bombs, directorial hubris, and more epic feats of stupidity

50 worst decisions in movie history


AS ANYONE WHO has been to a multiplex in the past few years knows quite well, a large percentage of movies simply aren’t very good. There are significant exceptions like Oppenheimer and Barbie, but films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Fast X, and Meg 2: The Trench are much more common. And these are just movies from the past few months. If you broaden the scope to the entire history of Hollywood, you realize that for every Citizen Kane and Casablanca you have 500 disasters like Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, Fire Maidens from Outer Space, and Monster a Go-Go!

The one thing all awful movies have in common is that somewhere along the line, somebody made at least one critically bad decision. In the past few months we’ve given you the 50 Worst Decisions in Music History and the 50 Worst Decisions in TV History. Now, it’s time for the 50 Worst Decisions in Movie History.

Taking into account the century-plus history of Hollywood meant that we had to make a bunch of tough decisions ourselves. We didn’t want to stuff the list with too many bad sequels since there’s so many to pick from. (The world really needed four Terminatormovies after James Cameron walked away from the series?) We also didn’t want to fixate too much on bad casting choices or examples of blatant, shocking racism (Long Duk Dong anyone?) since those would also take up every slot on the list.

Many of the picks we came up with reflected horrible choices made at the corporate level, since clueless executives have been mucking around in Tinseltown since the days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. These are the people that thought John Wayne would make a fine Genghis Khan, Ernest should head to Africa for a zany adventure, and wild, untamed lions should appear alongside Melanie Griffith and Tippi Hedren in Roar. 

Remember, this list could easily be 500 entries long. If you disagree with the choices in this top 50, share your own suggestions by using the hashtag #BadMovieDecisions on the social media site formerly known as Twitter. (If we ever get around to making a “worst decisions in the history of the internet list,” Elon Musk renaming Twitter will certainly be very high up.)

From Rolling Stone US


Jerry Lewis Tries to Make The Holocaust Funny

As Mel Brooks proved with The Producers in 1967, there’s nothing wrong with making a funny movie about Hitler and the Nazis. Roberto Benigni proved it’s even possible to make a comedy about the Holocaust itself with 1997’s Life Is Beautiful. That movie collected three Academy Awards for that one, including Best Actor. But it requires a very delicate touch and the right tone. Jerry Lewis, the man behind The Disorderly Orderly, The Nutty Professor, and Boeing Boeing, was not the best man for this job. He tried in 1972 with The Day the Clown Died where he played a German clown that winds up escorting Jewish children into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The movie never actually came out because screenwriter Joan O’Brien wouldn’t sign off on the final product. The movie instantly gained legendary status as the single worst idea for a movie in Hollywood history. Bits of the movie have surfaced over the decades, but there’s reportedly not even a complete negative anywhere in the world. That’s probably for the best.


John Travolta is Allowed to Make a Scientology Propaganda Movie

By the turn of the millennium, John Travolta was one of the most successful actors in Hollywood. That fact would have stunned anyone back in 1993 when Look Who’s Talking Now hit theaters (that’s the one where the dogs talk), but he followed that one up with a little movie called Pulp Fiction. He then made Get Shorty, Michael, Face/Off, A Civil Action, Phenomenon, Primary Colors, and other big movies in quick succession. This gave him enough juice to finally actualize his dream of turning L. Ron Hubbard’s 1982 novel Battlefield Earth into a motion picture. This was a transparent attempt to spread the gospel of Scientology via the nation’s multiplexes, even though Travolta’s team denied it every time the subject came up. “I’ve never even dealt with or talked to the church on this,” Travolta’s manager said. “This is an action-adventure, science-fiction story. Period. The movie has nothing to do with Scientology.” This was, of course, a complete crock of shit. That might have been somewhat excusable if Battlefield Earth was a good movie, a decent movie, or even a middling movie. But it’s a terrible movie. Every second of it is agony. It’s hard to imagine a single person converting to Scientology because of it. They were too busy falling asleep or laughing at the ridiculous sight of John Travolta with dreadlocks. It won eight Golden Raspberry Awards and the Worst Picture of the Decade award in 2010. If earth sticks around long enough for the Golden Raspberry Awards to hand out a “worst movie of the century” at their 2100 ceremony, it’ll probably win that too.


Using Real, Untrained Lions in the Melanie Griffith Movie ‘Roar’

It’s not hard to understand why the team behind 1981’s Roar felt they had to use real lions on the set of their 1981 movie Roar. The plot of the Noel Marshall/Tippi Hedren/Melanie Griffith revolves around an American family that moves to a nature preserve in Tanzania to study lions. This was years before CGI and putting humans in lion costumes was just out of the question. They’d look as phony as the apes in Planet of the Apes. What is impossible to understand is why they felt using actual wild lions, as opposed to trained, domestic ones, made even the tiniest bit of sense, and why the studio and their insurance company signed off on this psychotic scheme. Marshall was bit by a lion so hard at one point that he nearly lost his arm. Griffith was virtually scalped in a vicious attack that required 50 sutures. Nearly every member of the cast and crew was attacked at one point, and accounts from the set read like a real-life horror movie, but they somehow decided to just keep forging ahead. The topper is that movie was an enormous box office dud. Few people today have ever heard of Roar. But the unlucky few that worked on that set will never, ever forget it.


Ronald Reagan Tells the House Un-American Activities Committee That the Screen Actors Guild is Full of Communists

In 1947, 33 years before he became president, and when he still considered himself a Democrat, Ronald Reagan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild at the time, and they wanted to know if communists had infiltrated the organization. “There has been a small group within the Screen Actors Guild which has consistently opposed the policy of the guild board and officers of the guild, as evidenced by the vote on various issues,” he said. “That small clique referred to has been suspected of more or less following the tactics that we associated with the Communist Party…I have heard different discussions and some of them tagged as Communists.” That was all the committee needed to hear. It was the start of a horrible chapter in Hollywood history in which the government was hunting down suspected communists, and anyone tagged as one would basically be unable to work for the next decade. It caused enormous damage to the careers of many good people, including Charlie Chaplin, Langston Hughes, Dalton Trumbo, and Lena Horne.


Warner Brothers Loses ‘Home Alone’ to Fox Over a Measly Three Million Dollars

The original Home Alone grossed nearly $500 million on a budget of just $18 million. It’s become a Christmas standard beloved by generations of children, and it launched a franchise that continues to this day. For 20th Century Fox, this was the dream scenario when they took on the film back in 1990. But every single cent could have gone to Warner Bros. They were the original studio attached to the movie during production, but they balked when director Christopher Colmbus said he needed $17 million to finish it. They told him they weren’t willing to go higher than $14 million. Unwilling to cut corners, the Home Alone team–including screenwriter John Hughes– figured out a way to wiggle out of the deal and get 20th Century Fox to give them the money they needed. Making matters worse, Warner Bros. had to watch Bonfire of the Vanities go down in flames at this exact same time. “There is little cheer at Warner Brothers today,” read a year-end article in the New York Times. “While many Americans refused to spend money on last-minute Christmas gifts, they were no more willing to fill those idle hours by going to ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.’ [The movie] cost about $40 million to produce and more to promote, but it took in a paltry $3.1 million in its opening weekend.” Meanwhile, Home Alone was shattering box office records. Not a great Christmas for the Warner Bros. team.


‘Twilight Zone’ Movie Fails to Take Proper Safety Precautions, An Adult and Two Children Die

The tragedy on the set of the 1983 movie Twilight Zone that killed Vic Morrow and two child actors has been the subject of much debate and legal action over the past four decades. Sticking solely to undisputed facts, the accident occurred during the shooting of the “Time Out” segment where a man travels back in time to the Vietnam War and needs to protect two Vietnamese children. Director John Landis hired 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen for the roles even though he didn’t file the legal paperwork required for them to appear on camera. During the filming of an action scene, a helicopter crashed. The blades decapitated Morrow and Le. Chen was crushed to death. The sequence was removed from the movie, and years of lawsuits followed. And even though nobody was found criminally liable for what happened, the lawsuits revealed that basic safety precautions were not taken. “No movie is worth dying for,” Twilight Zone producer Steven Spielberg said years later. “I think people are standing up much more now, than ever before, to producers and directors who ask too much. If something isn’t safe, it’s the right and responsibility of every actor or crew member to yell, ‘Cut!’”


Phil Lord and Christopher Miller Get Fired From ‘Solo’ Midway Through Production

As Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have proved many times over the 15 years, they can take any concept Hollywood throws at them – no matter how seemingly inane – and turn it into a brilliant film. On paper, films based on Lego characters or the Eighties TV show 21 Jump Street are horrible, bottom-of-the-barrel ideas. In their hands, they were both stellar movies. When word came out that Disney was trusting them with a Star Wars movie focusing on the early days of Han Solo, fans rejoiced. But midway through production, they were fired. “I think these guys are hilarious,” said Lucasfilm president Katheleen Kennedy, “but they come from a background of animation and sketch comedy and when you are making these movies you can do that and there’s plenty of room for improvisation, we do that all the time, but it has to be inside of a highly structured process or you can’t get the work done.” Kennedy hired Ron Howard to take over the project. The end result was not just a deeply disappointing film, but the first Stars Wars movie to underperform at the box office. The fiasco forced Lucasfilm to put their other Star Wars theatrical projects on hold and start focusing on TV shows. We’ll never know what a Miller/Lord Solo would have looked like, but it certainly would have been significantly better than the one we got. When you hire great people, you have to sit back and let them do their thing. Pulling the plug before they can show you a finished product is deeply unfair.


Matt Damon Turns Down ‘Avatar,’ Including 10% of The Back End

It’s very hard to feel bad for Matt Damon. He’s one of the most successful actors of the past two decades, and he’s swimming in money thanks to the Bourne franchise and other colossally successful movies. But in the 2000s, he had an opportunity to dramatically up his wealth when James Cameron approached him about playing the lead role in Avatar. He was offered 10% of the back end as an enticement. The only problem was that it conflicted with his work on a Bourne movie. “I had to get it all the way to the finish line,” he said, “and I would have to leave the movie kind of early and leave them in the lurch a little bit and I didn’t want to do that.” The decision wound up costing him $250 million. Damon has talked about this several times over the years, but Cameron feels he needs to let it go. “He’s beating himself up over this,” Cameron said in 2023. “And I really think you know, ‘Matt you’re kind of like one of the biggest movie stars in the world, get over it.’” Would you get over $250 million?


Will Smith Slaps Chris Rock at the Academy Awards

Despite all the success that Will Smith had throughout his long career, he always struggled to get taken seriously as an actor. That’s because he started as a rapper, spent years on a sitcom, and was best known for popcorn flicks like Men In Black and Bad Boys. But in 2022, he was finally on pace to receive a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard. It was going to be the crowning moment of his career. But shortly before they gave him the award, which everyone knew was coming, Chris Rock made a joke onstage about his wife, Jada Pinkett, who had shaved her head due to alopecia. Smith then walked onstage and slapped Rock hard in the face as tens of millions of people watched. “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!” Smith roared. It briefly felt like a rehearsed comedy bit, but it was no such thing. Smith still received his Best Actor award that night, and he attempted to apologize, but it wasn’t enough. The Academy banned him from the Oscars for a decade. Apple was forced to delay the release of his new project Emancipation by several months because the slapping incident was such an enormous distraction. The film wound up underperforming anyway. He gave Chris Rock amazing material to use on his next standup tour, but Smith benefited in no way from the incident. It was just a wild, unforced error. 


Blockbuster Gets an Offer to Buy Netflix for $50 Million in 2000, Blockbuster Turns it Down

In 1997, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen published the groundbreaking book The Innovator’s Dilemma. It explained that hugely successful companies often fail in the long run because plucky, disruptive firms with little to lose have an easier time implementing new systems that can revolutionize a business. At the time it was written, Blockbuster was at the peak of its powers. Their video rental stores dotted suburban landscapes and were as ubiquitous as Starbucks or McDonalds. And when Netflix came around and began mailing DVDs straight to consumers, eliminating late fees and the need to leave your house, Blockbuster didn’t see a threat or any need to change their practices. In 2000, Blockbuster was given the opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million. They turned it down. “Well, shit,” co-founder Marc Randolph recalled saying after the meeting. “Blockbuster doesn’t want us. So it’s obvious what we have to do now … It looks like now we’re going to have to kick their ass.” Flash forward 23 years and Netflix is valued at nearly $200 billion. Blockbuster doesn’t exist for all intents and purposes except for a single store in Bend, Oregon. There were over 9,000 at the chain’s peak. Had they made a different move back in 2000, Blockbuster Netflix could be the biggest name in streaming.


Burt Reynolds Turns Down ‘James Bond,’ ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Pretty Woman,’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’

If you were making a big movie in the Seventies or early Eighties and needed a leading man, odds were pretty decent you’d offer the role to Burt Reynolds. The man was a titan of Hollywood throughout the era that pounded out hit movies like Deliverance, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Longest Yard, Smokey and the Bandit, and Cannonball Run. But he also had a remarkable talent for turning down movies. The streak of colossal bad decisions began when he refused a chance to play James Bond after Sean Connery stepped aside because he felt Americans wouldn’t accept an American Bond. It continued when he said no to the Michael Corleone part in The Godfather, Jack Nicholson’s part in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and peaked when he rejected an overture to play Han Solo in Star Wars. Years later, he even declined an opportunity to play Richard Gere’s part in Pretty Woman. Al Pacino, Roger Moore, Harrison Ford, Jack Nicholson and Richard Gere are forever grateful for these judgment calls, but Reynolds regretted nearly all of them. Hey, at least he agreed to make Cop and a Half, Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, Not Another Not Another Movie.


Racist Movie ‘The Conqueror’ Gives Its Cast Cancer, Probably Definitely Kills John Wayne

The 1956 historical epic The Conquerer was awash in bad decisions before they even started shooting the damn thing. The lead role of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan was originally written for noted non-Asian actor Marlon Brando, which would have been absolutely ridiculous. When he dropped out, they didn’t move onto an actual Asian thespian that could play the role with credibility. They went for John “I believe in white supremacy” Wayne. Did they slather his face with makeup and use rubber bands to pull back his eyes? They sure did. If that wasn’t insane enough, they decided to shoot the movie at nuclear testing sites around Utah. It’s impossible to prove cause and effect, but 41% of the crew developed cancer in the decades that followed, and 21% died from it. That 21% includes John Wayne himself. These people didn’t even die for a good movie. The Conquerer is absolutely horrible. “Wayne portrays the great conqueror as a sort of cross between a square-shootin’ sheriff and a Mongolian idiot,” Time wrote in a scathing review. “The idea is good for a couple of snickers, but after that it never Waynes but it bores.”