1. Titanic (1997)
The public didn't seem to be clamoring for lushly mounted historical romances in 1997. But that didn't keep James Cameron's Titanic from going so far over budget that it needed to become one of history's top-grossing films just to turn a profit. Furthermore, movies that relied heavily on water were considered prohibitively expensive, difficult to pull off, and box-office poison. If all that weren't bad enough, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet weren't exactly box-office superstars at the time. And with so many chancy variables at play, was it really smart to name a film after the most famous disaster in history? Had Titanic flopped, Cameron would undoubtedly have been subjected to reviews unfavorably comparing his film to the disaster that befell a certain infamous, ostensibly unsinkable iceberg-hitting sea vessel.
Nevertheless, as Aliens, True Lies, The Terminator, and T2 attest, Cameron's gift for divining what audiences want borders on preternatural. Accordingly, Titanic's canny blend of weepy historical romance and eye-popping spectacle captured moviegoers' imaginations like few films before or since. So perhaps it isn't that surprising that Titanic became both the most expensive and top-grossing film of all time, and a Best Picture Oscar-winner.
2. The Passion Of The Christ (2004)
When Mel Gibson poured a chunk of his own fortune into making an ultraviolent, extremely gory account of the last few hours of Jesus' life filmed in Aramaic, analysts suggested he was either extremely brave, or committing professional suicide. As allegations of anti-Semitism surfaced and Gibson's always-mercurial public behavior spiraled out of control, rumors began circulating that the film might never find a distributor, making it Gibson's own The Day The Clown Cried.
But as Passion's historic blockbuster success proved, it's never wise to overlook or underestimate the passion and commitment of American Christians, a huge, underserved portion of the American film-going audience. (See also The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe and the works of Tyler Perry.) Powered by an appropriately evangelical zeal, Christians helped turn Passion into a major pop-culture event, a landmark in the culture war, and water-cooler fodder across the land. Also, it made a shitload of money.
3. Late Night With Conan O'Brien (1993 to present)
When an unknown named Conan O'Brien took over David Letterman's NBC slot, he instantly became a walking punchline, a goofy-looking guy with a silly name whose show was destined to belly-flop its way to show-biz infamy. Though a revered writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, O'Brien had little performance experience, which resulted in more than a few flop-sweat-drenched performances. But as Late Night progressed, it gradually improved into one of the funniest, smartest, weirdest shows on TV, the kind of place where a running bit involving screaming raccoons with jetpacks constitutes a fairly typical bit of late-night Dadaism.
4. Charlie's Angels (2000)
Was adapting the quintessential jiggly '70s cheese-fest for the big screen ever really a hot idea? The early gossip on Charlie's Angels was that it was a hatefest all the way. The actresses playing the newfangled Angels supposedly hated each other. Lucy Liu reportedly hated Bill Murray. Bill Murray seemed to hate Charlie's Angels and everything it stood for. But the problems went far deeper than bad vibes. Eighteen credited and uncredited screenwriters worked on the screenplay (according to imdb.com), numerous actresses turned down Liu's role, and the movie went way over budget. It also kind of sucked.
Nevertheless, it's unwise to discount the primal appeal of sexy women in skimpy costumes, especially when the women in question are Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu. Throw in nonstop action, a candy-colored visual style, endless pop-culture references, and a smirking tone that relentlessly flatters the audience on its pop savvy, and you have all the makings of a hit. In a final masterstroke, Sony's marketing department succeeded in simultaneously selling the Angels as strong, positive role models for girls, and excellent masturbation-fodder for those girls' dads.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Francis Ford Coppola famously proclaimed that Apocalypse Now wouldn't just be about the Vietnam War, but that in some strange pop-existential sense, it would be the Vietnam War. And for a while, it certainly seemed destined to devolve into a quagmire of Vietnam-level proportions. Original star Harvey Keitel was replaced weeks into shooting by Martin Sheen, who in turn had a heart attack as a scheduled six-week shoot ballooned into 16 months. Marlon Brando didn't learn his lines or familiarize himself with the film's source material (Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness), and arrived on set morbidly obese. A typhoon destroyed sets. The film went so far over budget that Coppola had to finance it partially out of pocket.
Thankfully, all the madness, ambition, genius, and money that went into making Apocalypse Now showed up onscreen, resulting in an iconic masterpiece that won the Golden Palm at Cannes while still a work in progress, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
6. Dances With Wolves (1990)
When Dances With Wolves went into production, the Western was considered deader than disco and half as fashionable. Nevertheless, Kevin Costner—whose name didn't become synonymous with famous fiascoes until much later—was determined to revive the genre even if it meant producing, directing, and partially financing Dances With Wolves in addition to starring in it. As the film's budget skyrocketed, Costner paid for overages out of pocket (a recurring theme here) and analysts questioned the wisdom of transforming a slim novel into a Western epic. The project acquired the nickname Kevin's Gate, and disaster was predicted for Costner's deeply personal labor of love.
But when Dances Of Wolves came out, its shockingly impressive box-office served as a potent reminder of why for decades, Westerns reigned as one of American film's most commercially viable genres. Audiences and critics responded strongly to the film's earnest passion and passionate earnestness, and it joined fellow famous-fiasco-that-wasn't Titanic as a winner of the Best Picture Academy Award.
7. The Office, American version (2005 to present)
How could you possibly improve on the droll brilliance of the British TV comedy The Office? Why would you even try? It could be argued that Ricky Gervais' two-season wonder is so quintessentially British in tone and sensibility that an American Office makes about as much sense as Fawlty Towers set in Albuquerque. And it didn't help that the American version's pilot was easily its weakest episode, an unhappy marriage of uncomfortable new gags and recycled bits from the British Office.
Thankfully, however, after a rocky start, The Office improved immeasurably, instantly becoming one of TV's funniest, sharpest shows. The casting of Steve Carell in the Gervais role proved to be a masterstroke. The American Office is that rarest of anomalies: a remake of a classic show that both does right by its source and carves out its own strong identity. Carell won a richly deserved Golden Globe, and The Office was picked up for a second season.
8. Steve Martin's Pink Panther (2006)
Titanic, The Passion Of The Christ, Apocalypse Now, and Dances With Wolves are all deeply personal labors of love that indelibly reflect their makers' indomitable drive and passion. Steve Martin's Pink Panther joins Charlie's Angels as an idea too hacky to fail. Then again, previous attempts to revive the Pink Panther franchise with the likes of Alan Arkin, Ted Wass, and Roberto Benigni all died unmourned deaths. So analysts had ample reason to see Pink Panther as another disaster in the making, especially after its release date was pushed back and the film was re-edited to make it less lascivious and more kid-friendly.
The re-tinkering and calculation paid off, with the Pink Panther name and the box-office appeal of that guy from the Cheaper By The Dozen movies pulling in families in droves. Pink Panther opened at number one at the box office and has gone on to gross well over $100 million worldwide, proving yet again the old adage about no one ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.