The Biggest Flops in TIFF History
September 2, 2023
Every September, the city of Toronto becomes a hub of cinematic celebration as the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) rolls out the red carpet for a myriad of films from around the world. A prestigious event that has launched countless Oscar campaigns and propelled numerous films into the limelight, TIFF is a cinematic playground where dreams are realized and reputations are solidified.
However, amidst the glamour and fervor, there exists a lesser-explored facet of the festival – a realm of disappointment and missed opportunities. In this list, I’ll delve beyond the flashing cameras and standing ovations to shed light on the movies that, for various reasons, failed to strike the right chord with audiences and critics alike.
The rules for this list are simple:
The film must have had its world premiere at the festival
The film must have had a certain amount of buzz around it. If a movie fails and no one was anticipating it, then it’s not really a bomb.
The film must have massively underperformed on expectations, both critically and financially
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Benedict Cumberbatch was on the rise in the early 2010s with roles in War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the television series Sherlock. 2013 was bound to be his breakout year as he had FIVE films set to be released that year: Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Three of those would play at that year’s TIFF, with The Fifth Estate opening the festival.
The bright lights didn’t serve it well, as Bill Condon’s take on Julian Assage and WikiLeaks was met with mixed-negative reviews on account of its by-the-numbers storytelling and refusal to take a stance on the issue. 12 Years a Slave lit up the room a few days later, as did Ron Howard’s Rush, starring Cumberbatch’s The Fifth Estate co-star Daniel Brühl. Everyone was able to move on quickly, with the film grossing less than $3 million at the US box office a month later.
Men, Women, and Children (2014)
Jason Reitman was the most in-demand young director in Hollywood after the one-two punch of Juno and Up in the Air. Things went south rather quickly once he decided to make a movie about the perils of social media. Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf called it “the first Reitman film to make the 36-year-old director seem about 400 years old.” An outstanding cast consisting of Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, and Timothée Chalamet was wasted in an out-of-touch and preachy story. The savage reviews killed the already minuscule audience interest in the film, with its $300,000 haul being one of the lowest ever for a film opening in >600 theaters.
The Cobbler (2014)
One TIFF, two Adam Sandler movies! It’s hard to criticize his choices (at least on paper), as both his 2014 films came from directors with a certain amount of pedigree. The latter was helmed by Tom McCarthy, who hadn’t missed yet between The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. Nothing worked this time around, with the terrible plotting and creepy undertones stripping the film of having the whimsical tone it wanted. It took the title of Sandler’s biggest bomb away from Men, Women, and Children when it was released six months later, only grossing a mere $24,000 on its opening weekend.
A film failing that epically would have killed 99% of directors' careers. But somehow Tom McCarthy would pivot and return to TIFF in 2015 with Spotlight, finishing in the runners-up position for the People’s Choice Award and ultimately winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
Turkish writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven spent four years developing her script centering on the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She was finally able to get the film made a decade later once her debut feature Mustang was nominated for Best International Feature. She would experience a sophomore slump with her English-language debut, with critics finding the film messy and underdeveloped. Even with the star power of Halle Berry and Daniel Craig, the film wouldn’t be released until the next spring to no fanfare.
Life Itself (2018)
Amazon Studios was riding high off the awards success of Manchester by the Sea in early 2017 and wanted to continue in that sphere. Seeing the success of This Is Us on NBC, they snatched up writer/director Dan Fogelman’s next film for $10 million in late 2017. They remained confident when deciding to launch it at TIFF, premiering it at both Roy Thomsen Hall and the Elgin Theatre.
All those rose-tinted hopes and dreams came crashing down once people saw the finished product. The overwrought and convoluted soap opera incited more ironic laughter than tears within the audience. The film debuted in theaters two weeks later, where it became the second-lowest opening ever in >2500 theaters with only $2 million.
The Death and Life of John F. Donovan (2018)
French Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan had already won the Jury Prize and Grand Prix at Cannes, as well as the César award for Best Director before he turned 30. The problem with that much success at such a young age is that you can go only down from there. Such was the case for his English-language debut about a famous actor having a correspondence with a young fan.
The film spent almost two years in post-production, causing Dolan to miss the Cannes deadline. He chose to debut at TIFF instead, where he was met with the worst reviews of his career. The rumors of the film being trimmed down from a four-hour cut seemed to be true as entire characters and storylines were excised, lending to a rushed and underdeveloped plot about celebrity culture. It sat on a shelf for another year before limping into theaters in December 2019.
Lucy in the Sky (2019)
TIFF has a habit of showing their hands based on how they schedule their world premieres, with the better ones earlier in the festival and the not-so-good ones near the end when most of the press has left. Noah Hawley’s directorial debut, loosely inspired by the life of NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, found itself in the latter camp, scheduled for a final Thursday night premiere. Whatever press was still left probably wished they had already left, as Hawley’s pretentious directorial choices and Natalie Portman’s wonky Texas accent were nails on a chalkboard.
Distributor Fox Searchlight had other priorities at that TIFF with Jojo Rabbit and was still transitioning out of the Disney buyout of 21st Century Fox. Lucy in the Sky was released in theaters a few weeks later, grossing an abysmal $300,000 against a $25 million budget. Coincidentally (or maybe not), Hawley’s planned Star Trek film was canceled a few months later.
The Goldfinch (2019)
Amazon didn’t let the failure of Life Itself deter them from returning to TIFF the next year. This time they partnered with Warner Bros. on distribution and picked a safer project by adapting the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt. With Brooklyn director John Crowley at the helm, Roger Deakins as DP, and an all-star cast, it seemed this would be the streamer’s return to the awards race.
But the film ended up having a worse death than its predecessor. Early test screenings were disastrous, prompting the studio to lower the marketing budget. Despite that, they still took it to TIFF, where the reviews matched their expectations. A $2.6 million opening the following weekend led to losses of over $50 million when all was said and done. To add insult to injury, Tartt was so infuriated by the adaptation that she fired her agent for allowing it to happen and has rejected any talk of her work being adapted again.
Dear Evan Hansen (2021)
After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 edition of the festival to be a mix of drive-in and digital screenings, TIFF needed to put on a grand show to welcome everyone back to “normalcy” in 2021. Universal was more than willing to have Dear Evan Hansen be the opening night act on account of director Steven Chbosky delivering festival favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower years earlier.
But anyone who watched the trailers for the film in the summer knew that this project was doomed from the start. The 27-year-old Ben Platt was already too old for the part and enough discourse over the material’s attitude towards mental health had circulated online. Neither critics nor audiences were satisfied, leading to poor reviews and a lackluster box office gross.