Tim Burton’s Flop-Less Career

By  · Published on October 3rd, 2016

As a director, he’s one of the most consistent moneymakers.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that Tim Burton’s latest, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a box office winner. But the spin on the movie’s success is rather strange. Reports hype how it’s Burton’s first number one hit in more than six years, which isn’t very long and doesn’t include many titles in between. Just before the movie’s release, an infogram addressed Burton’s supposed box office curse. It includes the man’s billion-dollar-grossing Alice in Wonderland on the chart. Some curse.

Burton has been a hit-maker of various degrees since his first movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure grossed $40m on a $6-7m budget. He followed that with his first number-one, Beetlejuice, which made $74m on a $13–15m budget. His third act, of course, was Batman, which broke box office records with a domestic total of $251m ($545m adjusted for inflation) on a modest budget of $35m and was the biggest movie of 1989. That’s still his best domestic achievement, and likely its additional global $411m is his best worldwide.

Since then, he’s been up and down with his box office totals, yet his movies have still each had decent-to-great numbers relative to how much they cost. His lowest-grossing movie is his previous one, Big Eyes, which made only $14m in the US, but its budget was also only $10m, and fortunately it also made another $14m internationally, so it wasn’t exactly a flop. Sure, his movies have been saved by his greater international popularity in the last decade, but so have many name-brand filmmakers’ careers.

One “flop” that many analysts bring up is Dark Shadows, which only took in $80m domestically on a $150m budget. Again, though, the movie made a whole lot more overseas and its overall total of $246m worldwide is not too shabby. Other movies that didn’t bomb, despite what you might think: Mars Attacks!, Planet of the Apes, and Frankenweenie. And as a producer: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Two he did produce that failed, however: Cabin Boy and James and the Giant Peach.

There is only one Burton movie that could truly be considered a commercial failure, and that’s Ed Wood ($6m on $18m budget), but it can’t really be thought of as a flop because it’s such an acclaimed work. Not that critical darlings can’t bomb, but there’s an exception to be made with Ed Wood in that its prestige is so high it continues to hold Burton’s status up as a significant filmmaker 22 years later. Basically, Ed Wood is important enough that it has helped his other movies do even better, by way of branding.

It is true that few of his movies can be considered hits the way his first few were, and he is lucky that he had such enormous success with Alice in Wonderland to sort of give him a pass for another decade or more, but he doesn’t appear to ever lose money. Ironically, his new movie, although number one at the box office, does look like it could be close to being one of his less lucrative and less profitable efforts. With a gross of only $29m at home and $37m worldwide, it’s far from reaching its $110m budget.

At the moment, Miss Peregrine is looking fairly similar to Dark Shadows, though the former received much better reviews and a slightly higher Cinemascore grade from moviegoers (B+ instead of B-). Domestically they’re fairly close, but internationally the new movie opened much better than Dark Shadows in the biggest territories and is only doing worse in small territories. If Burton regular Johnny Depp had been in it, the numbers would have been even more impressive, as he’s that huge overseas.

6 Filmmaking Tips From Tim Burton

When it comes down to it, Burton is about as dependable as they come. Give him something that should be huge, like Batman and Alice in Wonderland, and he exceeds expectations. Give him a little biopic he’s interested in or passion project, keep the budget low, and he makes it worthwhile. Give him anything in between and he delivers something appealing enough to offset its costs, if nothing more. Now if only the quality of his work could be so consistent. He’d likely be even more successful at the box office, then, too.

Related Topics:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.