Forrest Gump: the $678m grossing film that apparently made a loss

Forrest Gump
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It made $678m at the box office off a $55m budget – but according to Hollywood accounts, Forrest Gump made lost over $60m..


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Stories of Hollywood’s particular brand of Excel spreadsheets are, it’s worth declaring up front, really not particularly rare. For examples, look at the book Fatal Subtraction: The Story Of Buchwald V Paramount, which told the story of Art Buchwald, whose idea formed the spark for the Eddie Murphy hit, Coming To America. Buchwald had won a lawsuit against the studio after accusing it of stealing his idea and turning it into the film.

But then he accepted damages from the studio by way of compensating him, that gave him a slice of the net profits. Yet ‘net’ is the crucial word here. After running the numbers through its computers, Paramount insisted that the film – which cost $39m to make, and grossed $288m – had made a loss. That it owed Buchwald nothing. The aforementioned book charts the story, as Buchwald took the case to court.

This, though, is one of the cases we’ve actually heard of, and there’s no shortage of other examples behind the scenes.  Studio accounting of 1969’s The Italian Job, for another high profile example, was arguing that the film was in loss decades after its release, in spite of a big budget remake and hundreds of thousands of discs being sold in the 2000s alone.

And then there’s Forrest Gump.

The origins of the multi-Oscar-winning sensation lie in the source book by Winston Groom. He sold the rights to his 1986 novel, and whilst in development, the film passed across the desks of Terry Gilliam and Barry Sonnenfeld. The latter was all set to make the film, but his attachment to the characters from the first film led to him accepting the chance to make Addams Family Values instead. I covered that story in a podcast, here. Ultimately, Robert Zemeckis would seize the opportunity to make the movie, and it would turn into something of a sensation. It proved a gigantic surprise hit in 1994, off the back of rich acclaim.

Groom had inked a deal that landed him $350,000 for his book, and a 3% share of the film’s net profits. He thought he was quids in too, when the movie – that cost $55m to make – went on to gross $678m at the global box office. It took home lots of Oscars too, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (nobody thanked Groom in their speeches), and made another mint on home formats as well. It remains a popular title in the studio catalogue.

Groom, thus, pursued his 3%. But there was a surprise waiting. For he was staggered to discover that he wasn’t being paid a penny. In fact, as Premiere reported back in July 1995, he was being told that the movie had actually lost $62,403,581.

Clearly the economics of a movie are far different from just taking the cost of it away from the box office receipts (and to be clear to any lawyers watching, we’re not suggesting that Paramount was up to no good). Lots of people have a slice, not least Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis, who both ended up cutting their up front fees in exchange for a part of the gross receipts of the film (before the costs had been taken out). Still, from the outside looking in, there was still plenty of money to go round. Groom through so too, and thus sought legal counsel. He brought a case against Paramount Pictures, hiring the same lawyer who had fought Paramount in the Coming To America case.

At first it looked like he would be unsuccessful. He’d signed the contract, and that was effectively that. However, Paramount and Groom ultimately came to an agreement where the author conceded that he was happy with Paramount’s accounting explanation. The catalyst for the studio pursuing settlement of course had nothing to do with it exploring a potential sequel to Forrest Gump, and it – around the same time – paid a seven figure sum to Groom for the rights to his follow-up novel, Gump & Co.

That sequel never ultimately got made, and it’s hard to see the film version ever seeing the light of day. But on the bright side for all concerned, we suspect the film may have officially made it somewhere near profit. Hopefully enough to upgrade the copy of Microsoft Excel at work, at least.

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