Ishtar- The lessons we can learn from the 80s movie flop — Mistakes Were Made

Ishtar was written and directed by Elaine May and Starred Academy Award-winning duo Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as Rogers and Clarke, two untalented lounge singers who travel to Morocco hoping to find a gig. The film had an ultimate budget cost of $55 million but only earned $14 million at the North American box office, leading the film to be known as a major box office flop.

Ishtar was nominated for Worst Picture and Worst Screenplay in the 8th Golden Raspberry Awards, the film won for worst director. Time Out magazine suggested the movie was “so bad it could have been deliberate” and called it “one of the worst films ever made”. Ishtar is included in Michael Sauter’s worst movies of all time book, and Richard Roeper included it on his list of the 40 worst films he had seen. In 1999, Time placed the film on a list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.

Recent analysis of the film has been more positive. Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, Martin Scorsese, and Lena Dunham praised the film. I am not a film critic, so I won’t debate who’s right or wrong about the film. What I will discuss are the mistakes made throughout the film-making process that led it to be panned.

Mistake 1. Big Budget Comedies:

If you look at a list of highest grossing comedy films, the list is filled with animated movies like Incredibles 2, Minions, the Shrek movies, the Despicable Me movies and other low budget comedies like Ted, Meet the Fockers, The Hangover and Bruce Almighty. What you won’t find on the list are big budget comedies. Men in black 3 and Dead Pool 2 are on the list, but both are sequels of highly successful mid budget parent films.

Ishtar original budget was set at $27.5 million. Production decisions such as the decision to shoot the film in the actual Sahara Desert, large amounts of film being shot, instead of just shipping a needed camera part flying in a person with the part and paying for the airfare and hotel stay, double film crews being paid, scenes being shot twice and three different teams of editors editing the film in postproduction doubled the films budget. Though the film still would not have made back its production cost, even if it stuck to its budget, the losses wouldn’t have been so high. The film ended up only grossing 14.3 million at the North American box office, against a $51 million production budget and another $20 million spent on production cost. The film is estimated to have lost $40 million.

Comedies need not have big budget productions to be successful, in fact if they do they usually flop i.e. Ishtar, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Ghostbusters remake, Evan Almighty and Dudley Do-Right. Comedies just need to be funny, and that doesn’t require a big budget.

Mistake 2. Change of Leadership before movie was released:

A month after principal photography wrapped on Ishtar, Guy McElwaine, the person who green lighted Ishtar and the head of production at Columbia Pictures was fired. McElwaine replacement was David Puttnam, who was a longtime critic of Hollywood budgetary excesses. Puttnam had previously publicly criticized Beatty and Hoffman as beneficiaries of those same excesses. Given Puttnam’s history with both stars, he promised to stay out of Ishtar post-production. This would not be a good working relationship. Beatty and Hoffman thought Puttnam was trying to undermine the film by subtly suggesting it would be a failure that he wanted no responsibility for. Eventually, May, Beatty and Hoffman believed that Puttnam sandbagged the movie by leaking negative anecdotes to the media because of his grudges against Beatty and Hoffman.

Though a Studio head should want all movies released under their watch to be successful, that’s always not the case. If Ishtar would have been a success, Puttnam wouldn’t have gotten any credit for it because his predecessor green lit it. Add to the fact the way the movie was made went against his core beliefs and his grudges with Beatty and Hoffman, and you get an environment not conducive to a film’s success. Ishtar was like the neglected child who got caught between its Parents fighting and therefore didn’t receive the love and attention it needed to succeed.

Mistake 3. Bad Press:

Ishtar was supposed to be released in Christmas 1986. When the release date got moved to Spring 1987, press stories about the film’s trouble circulated. Industry insiders referred to it as The Road to Ruin and Warrensgate after the flop Heaven’s Gate. Negative buzz about Ishtar and its outrageous budget was widespread in the press long before the movie premiered. Before the film was released, market research led Columbia to believe the film would fail. It was suggested the studio cut its losses by cutting the film’s advertising budget. Columbia ended up spending more to promote the film, because it didn’t want to piss off Beatty of Hoffman. Beatty also had a reputation for being high handed with the media. Ishtar had been completely closed to the media, with no reporters at all allowed on set during production. Siskel and Ebert specifically didn’t like Beatty because he made them the butt of constant jokes. Mocking Ishtar was the Press’s only way to stick it to Beatty. Ishtar paid for the behavior of one of its stars like a child paying for the sins of a parent.

Ishtar took in $4.2 million in its opening weekend. The amount was good enough to come in number 1 at the box office, however it only beat out The Gate, a low budget horror film with no stars by only $100,000. This box office showing was a red flag for things to come. Bad Press, the modern-day equivalent of a bad rotten tomato review, is a movie killer. Time is limited, and most people don’t want to waste a few hours watching an awful film. People look at movie critics’ reviews or rotten tomatoes to trim the movie herd, so a critical review will severely hurt your box office numbers. The review spreads like wildfire and people will spend their time watching or doing something else.

Mistake 4. Hollywood’s treatment of May

May had previously directed a box office flop in the 70s called Mikey and Nicky, so Ishtar was her redemption project and that flopped too. May wouldn’t direct another film for 29 years after Ishtar and the film she finally directed was a tv documentary on Mike Nichols, her former comedy partner. She had been blackballed from directing in Hollywood.

Male directors get 5th, 6th and 7th chances to direct after multiple flops just look at M. Night Shyamalan but May didn’t get the same leeway. A lot of the issues with Ishtar weren’t of May’s control, she was complicit in some of the budget overages but not the sole blame for Ishtar’s failure. Beatty and Hoffman starred in other movies, Puttnam stayed on as studio head, it was only May, the only female in an important position with the movie who suffered career harm for the flop. Sadly, like most things in life the women took the brunt of the blame for the men’s errors.

Originally published at on August 3, 2020.

recovering Lawyer, History buff who wants to share my knowledge with the world . To teach them lessons from our past. see all of the stories on

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