The Big Picture
Some movies can be considered the “biggest ever” in their genre but still be a box office bomb due to extravagant costs. Westerns have limited global appeal and tend to only work well at the American box office. Wild Wild West was a financial disaster despite its box office numbers, primarily due to its exorbitant budget of $175 million.
There are strange instances throughout history where something can be technically “one of the biggest [insert movie genre here] ever” and still be a box office bomb. It’s a rare phenomenon, but sometimes, the costs of a motion picture are so exorbitant that even beating out most other entries in its genre at the worldwide box office isn’t enough to become a hit. Extravagant costs will sink even the most seemingly mammoth box office hauls. So it was with the 1999 film Wild Wild West, a Will Smith/Kevin Kline star vehicle that attempted to transform the TV show of the same name into a massive, “modern” blockbuster. The result was something that became an instant punchline, the nadir of Smith’s leading man career for decades to come. It was also, by default, one of the biggest Westerns ever at the worldwide box office. It was a strange financial endpoint for such a doomed and widely-mocked motion picture, but also one that reflects how strange box office phenomena can be.
Wild Wild West
The two best special agents in the Wild West must save President Grant from the clutches of a diabolical, wheelchair-bound, steampunk-savvy, Confederate scientist bent on revenge for losing the Civil War.
Release Date June 29, 1999
Studio Warner Bros.
Why Don’t Westerns Make a Lot of Money?
Westerns are infamous for being something that only tends to work well at the American box office. The genre’s so rooted in our country and traditions that it’s difficult to sell it to other countries. While other staples of American genre cinema (noirs and superhero fare, namely) are able to resonate with people around the globe, Westerns tend to leave audiences in other countries cold. Exceptions like Django Unchained exist, but for the most part, Westerns are one genre studios know have no real appeal to audiences outside of America.
Yet, given how famous Westerns are in the canon of major American movies, studios, every so often, try to launch big-budget attempts at reviving the genre. The thought process here appears to be that the Western was massive in the 1950s and ’60s, so it must have the ability to be gargantuan once again. Studios will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into major Westerns in the hopes of turning back the clock and making it 1948 again at the box office. Of course, projects like Cowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger never work out like they’re supposed to. These projects are so costly that they need interest from audiences from all over the world to become profitable. Given the limited global appeal of Westerns, that’s just not going to happen. Even for domestic audiences, the appeal of Westerns, unless they’re Django or in the Yellowstone universe, tends to be limited. Why would you spend $180+ million making one?
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Ah, but studios keep trying and trying, hoping that a big-budget Western “might work for us.” Ironically, many of these attempts have emerged in the wake of Wild Wild West becoming a tremendous bomb. This was a development that should’ve immediately made further stabs at uber-costly Westerns a no-go at any studio. Then again, there was a lot more going on with Wild Wild West’s box office doldrums than just the fact that the lead characters were riding around on horses. Wild Wild West was hit by a perfect storm of problems.
The Story Behind ‘Wild Wild West’s Box Office Haul
Upon first glance, the box office numbers for Wild Wild West may not seem innately disastrous. The film’s $113.8 million domestic haul was way below other late 1990s Will Smith blockbusters like Independence Day and Men in Black, but it was still enough to be the 17th biggest movie of 1999 domestically, beating out titles like Analyze This, Inspector Gadget, and Sleepy Hollow. It also managed to become the 17th biggest movie of 1999 at the worldwide box office with a global haul of $221.2 million. For comparison’s sake, the 17th biggest movie of 2021 globally was Cruella, with $225.8 million, while Wild Wild West’s sum was similar to 2022 blockbusters like Bullet Train.
Meanwhile, among Westerns, Wild Wild West is a box office champion. At the time of its release, Wild Wild West was the second-biggest Western in history at the domestic box office, only behind Dances with Wolves (not taking inflation into account). Decades later, a handful of modern Westerns (The Revenant, Django Unchained, True Grit, Rango) have outgrossed this movie, but Wild Wild West is still firmly among the top ten biggest Westerns in history. That’s no surprise since Wild Wild West was a massively promoted summer blockbuster released over the 4th of July weekend and starring Will Smith. Something would’ve had to go hideously wrong for this movie not to surpass the North American haul of Billy Jack.
‘Wild Wild West’ Was Bizarrely Expensive
Image via Warner Bros.
The problems, of course, for Wild Wild West financially came with its budget. Among major 1999 blockbusters, The Phantom Menace cost $115 million to make, The Mummy had a price tag of $80 million, and The Matrix cost just $65 million. By contrast, Wild Wild West cost a staggering $175 million to make in 1999 money. At the time of its release, Wild Wild West was one of the most expensive movies ever made. Only titles like Titanic surpassed its exorbitant costs. Even today, when every studio spends hundreds of millions on potential blockbusters, $175 million isn’t chump change. Wild Wild West cost more to make than the 2019 Marvel movie Spider-Man: Far From Home and was roughly on par with the budget of Top Gun: Maverick. That’s before taking decades of inflation into account, of course.
In hindsight, given that neither Independence Day nor Men in Black cost more than $90 million to make, it’s ludicrous that Warner Bros. ever gave Wild Wild West a price tag remotely approaching $175 million. Made for the $90 million that Men in Black cost, Wild Wild West could’ve been a respectable moneymaker that did slightly better than usual for a Western. On a $175 million budget, Wild Wild West was a massive money-loser, though Warner Bros. never officially disclosed how much cash it lost on this boondoggle.
Westerns Should Not Be This Expensive
Being a big fish in a small pond doesn’t automatically make you a shark. So it is with Wild Wild West, which has a box office haul that looms large over nearly every other Western in existence. However, its ludicrous costs also made it one of the biggest box-office bombs in history and a precursor to later modern box-office horror stories like Cowboys & Aliens and The Lone Ranger. It was also the first indication that Will Smith wasn’t impervious to box office duds, though the actor that really felt the sting of Wild Wild West flopping was Kevin Kline. After working frequently in the 1990s in a variety of box office hits and scoring some award-season love along the way, Wild Wild West was a major turning point in his career. Afterward, he turned to supporting roles and only made sporadic appearances in live-action movies over the next decade. The days of him being seen as somebody who could anchor a film alongside Will Smith were over.
This is the kind of momentous ripple effect one would expect from such a massive bomb and miscalculated enterprise like Wild Wild West. If there’s any silver lining to it flopping so hard that it changed the career trajectory of actors like Kline, it’s that it reminded studios of the necessity of frugality. Westerns can make money — there’s an audience for these films just like there’s an audience for all genres of cinema. But you have to make them smartly and not in a way that breaks the bank. There was never any conceivable way a $175 million Western would ever be profitable. Even once it became one of the biggest Westerns ever at the domestic and worldwide box office, Wild Wild West still turned into a cautionary tale of studio spending run amuck.
Wild Wild West is available to rent on Apple TV+ and Prime Video in the U.S.
Rent on Apple TV+