Hit Movies That Almost Didn't Make It to the Big Screen

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:27:53 PM ET
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Everyone thinks filmmaking is a grand adventure — and sometimes it is. Actors make a lot of money to perform in character for the camera, and directors and crew members pour incredible talent into creating "movie magic" that makes everything look simple and fun.

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However, some of the most famous movies in history had such challenging and frustrating productions that everyone worried they would be box office flops — or completely scrapped before completion. Take a look at our list of amazing hit movies that almost didn’t make it to the big screen.

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz is an iconic classic, so it’s hard to believe the glittering 1939 MGM spectacle was almost never made. From the very beginning, it took 17 screenwriters and six directors to tackle the project. When shooting finally started, filming was a disaster.

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The original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, had to be replaced by Jack Haley because of an allergy to the aluminum make-up. Dorothy’s loyal canine companion, Toto, misbehaved, and the Wicked Witch of the West actress Margaret Hamilton was accidentally burned during filming. Despite the difficulties, the movie grossed more than $2 million and remains a timeless classic.

Fitzcarraldo

The 1982 adventure drama Fitzcarraldo had one of the most difficult productions in film history. The movie was director Werner Herzog’s insane story of real-life rubber baron Carlos Fermin Fitzcarrald. Shot in South America, one of the film’s most famous scenes involves dragging a gigantic steamship up a hill.

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Herzog stubbornly rejected using miniature effects and insisted they shoot the scene with an actual 320-ton steamer. The scene was a disaster — there were numerous injuries and even deaths. Actors suffered from dysentery, and two small plane crashes resulted in additional injuries. It’s a miracle the movie was ever completed.

Rapa-Nui

Rapa-Nui was almost doomed from the very beginning. The 1994 historical drama focuses on the history of Easter Island. Director Kevin Reynolds described the film’s shoot as a "nightmare." It was difficult to make because of the remoteness of the location.

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Flights to and from Chile’s mainland were scarce. Reynolds said, "We had one flight a week from the mainland, and there were times we ran out of food to feed people." In addition to the filming challenges, the movie only grossed $305,000. Still, apparently Reynolds didn’t learn his lesson. After this box-office bomb, he immediately tackled another difficult film: Waterworld.

Waterworld

The 1995 science fiction thriller Waterworld involved many aquatic filming locations, which proved to be an expensive headache for everyone involved. Director Kevin Reynolds and his film crew had to construct artificial islands far out at sea, which quickly gobbled up the $100 million budget.

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Actors, including Kevin Costner, were transported from dry land out to the filming locations. In addition, Costner nearly died when he was caught in a squall. Two stuntmen were also injured, and young co-star Tina Majorino was stung three times by jellyfish. Eventually, Reynolds walked away from the project, and Costner finished the film himself.

Roar

It’s a miracle no one was killed during the making of the 1981 adventure thriller Roar. The film focuses on wildlife preservationist Hank (Noel Marshall), who lives with a menagerie of lions, tigers and other wild animals. Marshall, who also wrote, directed and produced the film, decided to work with more than 100 live animals — for real.

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Around 70 cast and crew members suffered injuries. Marshall’s wife, Tippi Hedren, was bitten by a lion in the throat, and his stepdaughter, Melanie Griffith, suffered an injury to the face. Cinematographer Jan de Bont nearly had his scalp torn off. If you watch the film and everyone looks scared, it’s because they were.

American Graffiti

If you think a drama about a group of teenagers in the 1960s would be simple to make, think again. George Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti had many behind-the-scenes complications. First, a crew member was arrested for growing marijuana. Actor Paul Le Mat suffered an allergic reaction to a walnut, and Richard Dreyfuss’ head was cut open.

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In addition, Harrison Ford was arrested during a bar fight, and someone set fire to Lucas’ hotel room. The movie was a disaster in the making, but it became an acclaimed film of the 1970s. It grossed $750,000 and remains a cult classic to this day.

The Abyss

James Cameron’s 1989 science fiction drama The Abyss was an ambitious project. Featuring a number of underwater scenes, the submersible oil rig took 18 months to build. The film’s budget was around $2 million. Cast and crew members often worked 70 hours a week, and actors Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were on the verge of a mental collapse.

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At one point, Mastrantonio shouted to Cameron, "We are not animals!" This was in response to the director's suggestion that the actors should urinate in their wetsuits to save time between takes. While the film was well-received critically and grossed $90 million, everyone was glad when it was over.

The Island of Dr. Moreau

Director Richard Stanley desperately wanted to embark on his dream project: an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. Stanley was especially thrilled when acclaimed actor Marlon Brando signed on to play the title role. But then, three days into filming the 1996 thriller, Stanley was fired.

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Actor Val Kilmer clashed with Stanley, and intense arguments led producers to fire him and hire John Frankenheimer as a replacement. However, that wasn’t the end of the problems, as Kilmer and Brando didn’t get along either. (Anyone thinking maybe the problem was Kilmer?)

Apocalypse Now

Francis Ford Coppola was determined to continue his directing success after The Godfather. He decided to adapt Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness into an epic war movie about the futility of the Vietnam conflict. This project became the 1979 drama Apocalypse Now.

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Aiming for realism, Coppola shot the film in the Philippines. The shoot lasted more than a year, and everyone endured dreadful storms and script rewrites. Lead actor Martin Sheen even suffered a heart attack. Coppola described the filming, "We were in the jungle. We had too much money. We had too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane."

Heaven’s Gate

Similar to Apocalypse Now, the 1980 action drama Heaven’s Gate spiraled out of control. The movie fell behind schedule and went over budget. Director Michael Cimino’s obsession with period detail and accuracy led to repeated reconstructions for sets. Additionally, Cimino insisted on an unnecessary number of takes — once even waiting for a particular cloud to float into view. Seriously?

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In the end, Cimino spent roughly $44 million on production costs, and the film only grossed $3.5 million at the box office. While it developed a cult following, it didn’t earn nearly enough money to justify the investment. Did Cimino learn his lesson?

Cleopatra

Cleopatra was always intended to be big. The 1963 romantic epic starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the vast budget allowed for the production crew to build elaborate sets. The film remains the most expensive movie ever made — it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.

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Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz replaced Rouben Mamoulian shortly after filming began, and production stopped when Taylor became seriously ill. Some of the elaborate sets went unused. Taylor and Burton began an intense love affair that brought a lot of negative attention to the film. Despite everything, the movie is still regarded as the most glamorous historic epic ever made.

Doctor Dolittle

The 1967 musical fantasy Doctor Dolittle was troubled from the start. It had a difficult star (Rex Harrison), terrible weather for filming, wayward animals, expensive reshoots and poorly chosen filming locations. It was a disaster, and no one enjoyed working on the film, including the local residents in the Wiltshire village of Castle Combe, United Kingdom.

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Construction for the film annoyed residents, who had to remove their television aerials from their homes due to the film’s historical time period. The movie cost more than $17 million and only grossed $6.2 million. The 1998 remake, starring comedian Eddie Murphy, fared much better.

Sorcerer

Director William Friedkin is known for going "all out" for his movies. The Exorcist director constructed a gigantic bridge over a Dominican Republic river for his 1977 thriller Sorcerer. When the riverbed dried up, Friedkin relocated to Mexico, where he built another bridge over the Papaloapan River. This river also dried up before filming began.

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Rivers weren’t the only drama. During filming, 50 crew members became ill with malaria, food poisoning and gangrene. However, Friedkin didn’t give up. Everyone else didn’t enjoy working on the film, but the director says he "wouldn’t change a frame" of the movie.

Gremlins

In the pre-CGI days, 1984’s fantasy horror film Gremlins faced many complications. Director Joe Dante and his creative team dealt with problems caused by the movie’s dozens of creature effects shots. "We were inventing the technology as we went along, as well as deviating from the script as we discovered new aspects of the Gremlins characters," Dante explained.

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He added, "It really did get maddening after a while. The studio wasn’t especially supportive." The process of shooting the special effects became so arduous that the scene where Gizmo is pelted with darts was added to the film strictly to satisfy the crew.

Ishtar

Director Elaine May confessed, "I knew about acting, but I knew nothing about film." She admitted that she felt the 1987 adventure Ishtar was a "screw-up." For one thing, shooting in the Sahara Desert was a bad idea. May and her crew were fearful they would be kidnapped, trapped in landmines or caught in the middle of a civil war — if they survived the heat.

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Tensions grew between May and the cast. The director would sometimes shoot scenes more than 50 times. The film cost $51 million and only grossed a third of its budget. The movie has Dustin Hoffman but not much of a cult following. May hasn’t directed a film since.

Alien 3

The script for the 1992 science fiction thriller Alien 3 was repeatedly rewritten, even after sets were built and production had already started. Various directors worked on the project before David Fincher stepped on board. During the entire production process, Fincher was frustrated by the cast, crew and studio producers.

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He had to repeatedly reshoot several scenes, and producers then recut the film behind the director’s back. He finally became so upset with the movie that he refused to be associated with it. He was glad to be done with the project, and we can’t really blame him for feeling that way.

The Fountain

Originally, Brad Pitt was supposed to star in the 2006 science fiction drama The Fountain. The movie centered around him, but then he dropped the picture due to script disagreements just weeks before production. Director Darren Aronofsky struggled to find a replacement actor — they eventually chose Hugh Jackman — and Warner Bros. shut the production down.

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Two years later, Aronofsky returned to the project with a smaller budget of $35 million. From beginning to end, it took him almost five years to get the movie to the big screen. The result was a remarkable looking film that still only grossed $10 million at the box office.

Team America: World Police

Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 action satire of the War on Terror, Team America: World Police, was shot with puppets on a soundstage and turned into a demanding production. They produced the film with marionettes that took four people to operate. Some shots were so complex they took an entire day to film.

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Stone commented, "It was the worst time of my entire life. I never want to see a puppet again." Stone and Parker vowed they would never direct another feature film again. To this day, they have kept their word on that front.

The Emperor’s New Groove

If you think there can’t be any drama producing an animated film, think again. Disney’s 2000 film The Emperor’s New Groove had many problems. Originally titled Kingdom of the Sun, the movie was supposed to be scored by recording artist Sting. However, his songs were ditched after a tepid response, and the original director (Roger Allers) left the project.

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New director Mark Dindal stepped in to save the project. The movie’s budget was overhauled, and Dindal had to work quickly to morph the film into a critical and financial success. Despite the frantic pace, Dindal succeeded, and the movie grossed $169 million.

The Wolfman

Following Universal’s success with the 1999 fantasy The Mummy, director Mark Romanek created 2010’s The Wolfman. Unfortunately, the film had some hairy problems. Four weeks into the production, Romanek quit, and Joe Johnston took over. He requested many reshoots, and a new screenwriter was brought in to change the ending of the original script.

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In addition, visual effects creators struggled to complete the film’s final scenes. New editors were added to the production, and Danny Elfman’s score was ditched, only to be later reinstated. Although the film grossed $139 million, it didn’t come close to the success of The Mummy.

World War Z

Marc Forster’s 2013 science fiction thriller World War Z required more extras than the average film. Many of the film’s raging zombies were achieved by CGI, but hundreds of others were real-life extras. A scene shot in Malta required 900 extras. The number of people on set reached about 1,500 at one point.

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The film hit many problems, including seizure of a huge cache of weapons by officials from a counter-terrorism unit. Several action scenes were scratched at the last minute, and the ending was changed multiple times. The film cost $190 million, but it was a solid financial hit at the box office, grossing $540 million.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director George Miller spent 14 years of his life working on 2015’s science fiction fantasy Mad Max: Fury Road. He insisted on shooting the film with as many practical special effects as possible, and he repeatedly crashed real cars for the film’s action scenes.

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In addition, the film started without an official script. Instead, Miller used hundreds of storyboards. By the time he was finished filming, he had 400 hours of available footage. It must have taken a long time to edit the movie, but it was worth it. The film eventually won an Academy Award for Best Film Editing.

Blade Runner

Director Ridley Scott was excited to work on the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? However, he probably had no idea just how difficult 1982’s science fiction fantasy Blade Runner would become. He had a fractious relationship with the cast and crew, leading to many heated debates.

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Harrison Ford looked bored most of the time on set, and several collaborators described the filming as "torture." The final shot was captured just as producers arrived to pull the plug. The movie didn’t take off at first, but it has grown into a cult favorite in the years since its release.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Producers thought Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean shouldn’t have been made. In 2002, Disney CEO Michael Eisner tried to pull the plug, not wanting another box office flop like The Country Bears. Even actress Keira Knightley had her doubts. When she was asked about her next project, she said, "It’s some pirate thing — probably a disaster."

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Producers disliked Johnny Depp’s "Keith Richards" take on Jack Sparrow. Eisner was sure it would ruin the movie. Despite all the negativity, the film grossed more than $650 million at the global box office and spawned an adored franchise.

Batman

When comic book expert Michael Uslan started working for DC Comics, he had the vision to buy the rights for Batman and make a serious movie about the Caped Crusader. When he told Vice President Sol Harrison about his idea, Harrison warned him the brand was dead and to drop the project.

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No one supported him, so Uslan started working without a script or a crew. When actor Michael Keaton signed on to star as Batman, fans sent in more than 50,000 letters in protest. However, when the film premiered in 1989, it grossed $411 million globally — and Keaton became the best Batman to date.

Back to the Future

It took some time to get Back to the Future off the ground. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s 1985 science fiction fantasy was turned down by studios for years. Finally, famed director Steven Spielberg signed on as a producer, and the film found a home with Universal Pictures.

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Producers loved the idea of Michael J. Fox starring as Marty McFly, but they were unsure he could commit to the film due to his television series, Family Ties. They originally cast Mask actor Eric Stoltz, but he was fired, and Fox assumed the role. The film grossed more than $381 million worldwide and spawned a successful franchise.

Star Wars

Star Wars is one of the biggest franchises of all time. The first film, released in 1977, had broad special effects, causing the film to fall behind schedule almost right away. It seemed like a hopeless endeavor at times.

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George Lucas blew past the film’s budget and was forced to split his crew into three separate units to finish the film. Executives at Fox were convinced Star Wars would be a flop, but they were wrong — very, very wrong. Star Wars was a colossal hit, and the rest is intergalactic history.

Titanic

You would think after James Cameron’s experience filming The Abyss he would have avoided water-based movies. Instead, he directed the 1997 historical drama Titanic. The shoot didn’t go very well, and crew members described Cameron as a "300-decibel screamer." In addition, actors endured hours in cold water.

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At one point, a crew member spiked the lobster soup with a hallucinogenic drug, which sent Cameron and more than 50 people to the hospital. The budget was blown out of the water, but it worked out in the end. The film grossed more than $2 billion and won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

The Shining

Director Stanley Kubrick was determined to turn Stephen King’s The Shining into a perfect film. The 1980 psychological horror flick was a lengthy production. Kubrick ordered multiple retakes, often shooting scenes more than 100 times. The famous "Here’s Johnny" scene, which featured Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) forcing an ax through a door, took three days to film and destroyed more than 60 doors.

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It was only supposed to take 100 days to film the movie, but production actually lasted 250 days. Kubrick was reportedly so difficult to work with that actress Shelley Duvall’s hair began falling out, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Yikes!

Jaws

There has never been a movie like the 1975 horror drama Jaws. The film went severely over budget due to mechanical problems with Bruce, the film’s fake shark. Crew members called the film "Flaws." It was only supposed to take 55 days to film the movie, but it turned into 159 days.

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Meanwhile, actors Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw were in a bitter feud. It didn’t help that the movie’s boat had a ruptured hull and really began to sink. Spielberg was sure his career was over, but the movie grossed more than $100 million and became one of the most popular movies ever made.