Stephen Spielberg’s 10 Least Successful Films: Original Content Guaranteed


Most of the directors that gained popularity during the Hollywood Renaissance (New Hollywood) have a claim for being the best in their craft, but few can rival Steven Spielberg, who has 22 Oscar nominations to boast of and remains the highest-grossing filmmaker in cinema history. In addition to that, Spielberg is a dollar billionaire and a studio head, making him successful in every possible way.

However, not every Spielberg film has been a hit. Some only ticked a single performance box (revenue or critical/fan reception), while others failed to tick either. As such, these projects don’t often get talked about as much as the director’s other works. For some of them, he has even gone on to either offer his own criticism or express disappointment. But for someone that has made so many great flicks, he sure has earned the right to make a dud once in a while.

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Stephen Spielberg's 10 Least Successful Films: Original Content Guaranteed

10 1941 (1979)

Actor John Candy as seen in Steven Spielberg's war comedy, 1941
Universal Pictures

1941 — which is Spielberg’s second-lowest-ranking movie on both IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes — revolves around an effort to halt panic in California after residents hear rumors that the state could be the next after Pearl Harbor. There is also a director’s cut — a confirmation that the original cut was so unimpressive that the studio and the filmmaker had to try and convince audiences a bit more.

Given its subject, 1941 has the necessary ingredients to make it a great war drama but’s ruined by the endless funny dialogue. Humor has never been something the director’s strengths and so the jokes fall flat and so do all the slapstick moments. Even sadder is the fact that the movie broke Spielberg’s perfect ‘70s streak, which consists of classics such as Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

9 Hook (1991)

A scene from Spielberg's Peter Pan adaptation, Hook (1991)
Amblin Entertainment

There are numerous great Peter Pan adaptations, but Spielberg’s Hook struggles to bring the best out of the iconic character. The movie picks up after the events of J. M. Barrie’s 1911 book Peter and Wendy and centers around an adult Peter as he tries to save his children from Captain Hook. Sadly, it was panned by critics and also performed poorly at the box office, having been released at around the same time as Beauty and the Beast.

It’s easy to see why the movie flopped as Spielberg was quite conflicted on whether he should work on the project or not. According to Collider, he dropped out after the first week of production and then came back later. Despite the poor reception, Hook is still watchable as it features a strong performance from an in-form Robin Williams and stunning visual effects. Because it’s strong in some areas and weak in others, it became one of the few films to be nominated for both Oscars and Razzies.

8 The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)

A scene from the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World Jurassic Park
Universal Pictures

The first Jurassic Park installment is almost flawless, hence making a matching sequel was always going to be a challenge. Despite bringing back most of the cast and maintaining similar themes, Spielberg failed to replicate the same magic. The Lost World: Jurassic Park thus ended up being a commercial success (because audiences hoped for the same awesomeness), but a critical failure.

Like Hook, The Lost World: Jurassic Park also caught the attention of the Golden Raspberry Awards, but it was pelted with far worse ‘mock accolades, namely, Worst Remake or Sequel and Worst Screenplay. On a positive note, the film has much better visuals than the original, thanks to the technological advancements that enabled the improvement of CGI in the years between the two installments.

7 The Terminal (2004)

Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's the Terminal
DreamWorks Pictures

After the success of Catch Me If You Can in 2002, it only made sense for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to continue collaborating. Unfortunately, their next film wasn’t remarkable. The Terminal follows a man stuck in an airport after being denied entry into the US, and because there is also a coup in his country. And even though Hank is outstanding as always, the movie does little to appeal to hardcore Spielberg fans.

Given the topic, The Terminal is not only slow-paced but has little to no action, making the stakes feel very low. Lovers of the director’s high-octane films are, therefore, likely to be left frowning. According to Box Office Mojo, the drama only managed to break even by a small margin, making it a bomb when compared to the filmmaker’s other projects which normally made three or four times more than their production budgets.

6 The BFG (2016)

A scene from Steven Spielberg's The BFG
Walt Disney Pictures

The BFG is the final film that long-time Steven Spielberg collaborator, Melissa Mathison, wrote before her death. And while the reviews placed it on the “above average” category, it was a box office bomb, with Forbes noting that it failed to make any profit. The failure stings because the movie is no Oscar bait with method acting and a deep plot. It’s a popcorn flick focusing on a girl and a friendly giant attempting to stop a giant invasion.

Overall, The BFG is still one of the perfectly made Roald Dahl novel adaptations. The CGI is neat and so is the humor. For once, Spielberg even includes fart jokes and tongue-out gestures. The fact that it flopped could, therefore, be considered a mystery, but the blame partially lies on the title. Younger audiences who the film was targeted towards could have had a hard time figuring out what BFG meant. And with The Legend of Tarzan releasing at around the same time, audiences were inclined to go with a character that they already knew.

5 Always (1989)

A scene from Steven Spielberg's Always (1989)

The year 1989 doesn’t have many standout films, so Spielberg could have easily owned the year if he wanted to. Regrettably, his fantasy experiment with Always didn’t pay off, and critic reviews were mixed. The film is a remake of Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe, which was released in 1943. However, it focuses on a firefighter whose family is begging him to retire instead of a bomber pilot like the original production. His decision to switch things up a bit was understandable since the source material had been met with poor reviews, but the quality just wasn’t good.

As per The Numbers, Always only grossed $73 million, making it one of the least-performing movies of his career. Additionally, it ruined a perfect ‘80s run that had consisted of hits such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Compared to Spielberg’s other films, Always didn’t have a strong cast either, something that definitely contributed to its low returns.

4 Amistad (1997)

Anthony Hopkins as seen in Steven Spielberg's Amistad
DreamWorks Distribution

As one of the most prolific directors of all time, Spielberg has released two movies a year, many times in his career, and he did so again in 1997. Sadly, Amistad did little to erase the sore taste left by The Lost World in the same year. The film tells the story of the La Amistad ship, which was captured by slaves meant to be transported to America.

The mutiny tale is entertaining and full of emotional moments. There is also great coordination among the star-studded cast consisting of Anthony Hopkin, Morgan Freeman, and Djimon Honsou. In addition to that, the costumes are period-appropriate, something Oscar judges even recognized, but all this wasn’t enough to convince audiences to buy tickets. As per reports by Goldderby, the film failed to make enough to make it break even.

Stephen Spielberg's 10 Least Successful Films: Original Content Guaranteed

Stephen Spielberg's 10 Least Successful Films: Original Content Guaranteed

3 West Side Story (2021)

Dancers in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story (2021)
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

West Side Story is another decent Spielberg film that suffered at the box office. According to Box Office Pro, the musical needed to make around $300 million to break even but only made $165 million. In this case, the reasons were a little obvious. Between premiering at a time when theater attendances were still low and having to compete with the much more popular Spider-Man: No Way Home, the film never stood a chance.

Under more ideal circumstances, West Side Story could have found more success. And even though it failed to bring in the numbers, it offers enough to be considered one of the best modern musicals, and is essential viewing for the filmmaker’s fans because of its solid plot and excellent song choice. Most importantly, it’s more visually pleasing than the 1961 version of the same film.

2 War Horse (2011)

A scene from War Horse.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The 2010s weren’t kind to Spielberg when it came to commercial performance and War Horse foreshadowed this trend. In the film, the iconic director takes a huge risk by making a horse the main character. Events revolve around a bay Irish hunter horse named Joey that goes on numerous adventures in war-torn regions as it searches for its previous owner.

In an age where animal rights are heavily emphasized, War House comes off as a very relevant film. However, the whole concept isn’t very believable, yet the film is in no way a sci-fi or science fiction project. Even so, fans and critics showed it a lot of love online. Unfortunately, the same enthusiasm wasn’t replicated in theaters, and according to Box Office Mojo figures, the war drama failed to earn a profit.

1 Empire of the Sun (1987)

A young Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun
Warner Bros.

A touching coming-of-age film, Empire of the Sun follows the misfortunes of a young boy named Jim, who goes from living with a wealthy British family in China to becoming a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp. Plenty of anti-war and exploitation themes are, therefore, explored throughout the running time. It features performances by Christian Bale and Ben Stiller in their Hollywood rookie days.

After making many popcorn films early in his career, Empire of the Sun helped showed Spielberg’s versatility. However, it performed dismally at the box office, despite being praised by critics. Today, it remains one of the least talked about films in the director’s distinguished resume, yet it’s one of it’s his most rewatchable works.

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