From Box Office Flop to Masterpiece: The Case of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994)

How Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994) went from a box office failure to a cult classic.

Ed Wood (1994) was a box office flop, making only $5.9 million out of it’s $18 million budget. The film had an A-list lineup, including Johnny Depp as Ed Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi, supported by Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, and Bill Murray.

Before Ed Wood, Burton had produced Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990), as well as Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). All of these pictures had gone on to make millions upon millions of dollars, with Burton becoming somewhat of a Hollywood cash cow. Ed Wood, however, according to Hollywood executives, was a nightmarish disaster. Yet, to Burton fans everywhere, it was a raging success, steering the director away from corporate filmmaking. Perhaps it’s even ironic that during Burton’s rollercoaster of success he would decide to write a film about a man who never quite reached it.

Some of the welcome reception Ed Wood recieved may have been encouraged by fans of Ed Wood, who was posthumously labelled “the worst director of all time” in The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), written by Michael Medved and his brother; Harry Medved. Some have even claimed it was the title of “worst director” that boosted Wood into recoginition in the first place.

Norman Alden as Cameraman Bill and Johnny Depp as Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994)

The real Ed Wood

Edward Wood Jr. was born in Poughkeepsie, New York on October 10th, 1924. Wood was best known for creating low-budget films within the genres of horror and science fiction. Some of his best known films are Glen or Glenda (1953), which had a budget of around $20,000, and Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), which had a budget of approximately $60,000. The latter would later be dubbed “the worst film ever made”, also in The Golden Turkey Awards. Glen or Glenda (1959) was a semi-autobiographical film about cross-dressing and starred Wood in the main role, although he was credited under the name Daniel Davis. After its release, Glen or Glenda would widely be considered a poor reviewed exploitation film, although it would later receive somewhat of a cult following based on Wood’s posthumous success in the 1980s.

Director Ed Wood

One of the most important things to remember about Ed Wood is that he never found success whilst alive, eventually eking out a living by writing short pornographic stories for a number of magazines, such as Howl of the Werewolf for Deuce magazine in 1973 and Exotic Loves of the Vampire in 1972 for Ecstasy magazine. The extent of Wood’s erotic writing career is unknown because he often used pseudonyms, for examping penning Exotic Loves of the Vampire by a one Ann Gora – we can probably surmise why. (Frey, 2014). More of Wood’s writing from his pornography career can be found in Tom Brinkmann’s Bad Mags: The Strangest, Sleaziest, and Most Unusual Periodicals Ever Published (2008).

Ed Wood also wrote a number of stories, some of which were compiled into a book back in 2014 named Blood Splatters Quickly: The Collected Stories. Bernie Bloom, an established publisher of erotic films and magazines said of Wood:

“To me, Ed Wood was a crazy genius. Way ahead of his time. Everybody was afraid to do the things that he would do. He was the most prolific writer I’ve ever known. And the fastest. He could write better drunk than most writers could sober.”

The character Ed Wood

Ed Wood (the film) is a love letter from one director to another. Burton dissociated from his well-established fantastical gothic setting and replaced it with a contemporaneous one; the 1950s in black and white. It’s far less showy and elaborate than his previous films, allowing space for the emotiveness of the story to flourish. The film’s cinematographer, Stefan Czapsky, monochrome vision was rejected by Columbia and led the picture to be picked up by Disney later on in its development.

The secondary character in Ed Wood is of course Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau, who would actually go on to win his only Academy Award for the role. It’s been widely surmised that Burton was compelled to the relationship Lugosi and Wood had together due to his own relationship with the late Vincent Price, demonstrating the parallel between an aged actor and a young, enthusiastic director.

Johnny Depp as Ed Wood and Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood (1994)

Wood was inspired by science fiction, fantasy and gothic horror. The imagery and the characters occur time and time again in his stories, yet it’s widely known that science fiction films, in particular, are incredibly expensive to produce due in part to their extensive range of costuming, makeup and set design. It’s not unreasonable to expect a few seconds of video to have cost millions of dollars. Now with CGI, certain sequences can be produced at a lower cost than an entirely film that only uses practical effects, but no such technology was available to Ed Wood.

For instance, Bela Lugosi died during the filming of Plan 9 From Outer Space, so Wood hired Tom Mason, his wife’s chiropractor, to be a stand in for Lugosi. A fake shemp, Mason was disguised to conceal his real identity. Furthermore, Wood scrapped various pieces of footage he had captured of Lugosi and patched them into the final cut which only scrambled the narrative further still. Nowadays, posthumous roles are becoming more and more common with the advent of superimposition and image manipulation technology.

There’s so much irony surrounding Wood’s directing career. In a biopic made 16 years after his death, a story featuring a film dubbed as the worst of all time, would go on to recieve two Academy Awards, and endure almost three decades of warm reception from fans – after also failing financially. Everything Wood was searching for during his lifetime, arrived just a few years after his death. In an article from The Independent, Darren Richman suggests some of force behind securing Ed Wood as a cult classic is that Burton manages to project Wood’s “undeniable love of cinema” thoughout the biopic.

On his website Post Modern Joan, Doug Bonner writes:

“There’s a certain sorrowful disconnect in the American Experience for many creatives: the ones who wait tables and haven’t been called for an audition in almost a year yet still determinedly identifying themselves as actors; the poetry-writing baristas; the visual artists who work the retail floor. It’s for these – the ones who flip burgers in order to buy college textbooks, the ones who grow in determination for their first break while their talents stagnate, the ones who create everything they have through a tunnel-vision will power – that Ed Wood’s life and works alone resonate. They sing to those not yet defeated, to those desperately wanting to live up to their full potential: to the facets that reside in the dark, neglected corners of most of us.”

Wood’s love for film is undeniable, and that is demonstrated in Burton’s film. Burton allows us to see Plan 9 From Outer Space through Wood’s eyes, and the viewer can’t help but be strung along with his hopeful optimism, which slowly becomes crushed overtime. In 1965, Wood penned an autobiography titled Hollywood Rat Race but it wouldn’t be published until after his death in 1998. In the book, he writes about how to make it in Hollywood, yet he was never able to. Depp’s portrayal of Wood’s boundless optimism and hopefulness demonstrates heartbreaking resonance. I think it’s Wood’s resilience to failure that underpins his cult following today.

Tim Burton directing Johnny Depp and Sarah Jessica Parker on the set on Ed Wood (1994)

Two years after the release of Ed Wood, Burton wrote Mars Attacks! (1996) which would be very difficult to prove that it was not at least in part inspired by the real Ed Wood. In Burton on Burton, the director himself even claims “sometimes [during the development of Mars Attacks!] I actually felt like I was turning into Ed Wood. .” (2006). In the text, Burton notes that he was inspired by Wood’s “extreme optimism”, but also notes Wood’s relationship with the idea of denial:

“Being passionate and optimistic is great to a certain point, and then you’re just in complete denial, it becomes delusional. That’s what I liked about the Ed Wood character. I could relate to him in that way. I think everybody is in some form of denial. Denial is an incredible thing. Most people don’t go through life with an extreme awareness of every aspect of themselves.”

Ed Wood is relatable in more ways than one. Whether you feel ostracised, hopeful, passionate, or flawed, there’s a facet of Ed Wood you can relate to, and thus, his work in film. I think the success of Burton’s Ed Wood, can be found in the way that Burton depicted Wood. Burton related to him too:

“People think it’s funny I did this movie. Because I’ve been so successful, why would I want to make a movie about somebody who’s not successful? But the way I feel about that, and him and me, is that any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success and failure is a very thin one. That’s why I responded so much to him.”

I think another reason behind the success of Ed Wood, is that Burton had space to create a particular version of Ed Wood. His life was never well documented, and it’s known he didn’t even have an obituary after he died alone of a heart attack. What’s very common, when looking at biopics, is the frequent unpicking of details audiences are inclined to do. Being in black and white, Burton need not worry about depicting the correct eye colour, nor other minutiae, instead focusing everything into the emotion of the film. Burton has expressed criticism toward biopics before, stating they’re always going to come across as fake so it makes sense to go with it. And I agree, there needs to be a line between a biopic film and a documentary. Ed Wood’s rejection of the ultra detailed biopic format gave the film an edge.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me on Patreon or Kofi!

Sources used in this article:
Bonner, D. (2009). Ed Wood: A Neighbor on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Post Modern Joan. [Online]. Available from: https://web.archive.org/web/20110715110501/http://www.postmodernjoan.com/wp02/?p=1315.
Frey, P. (2014). The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr. [Online]. Available from: http://www.edwoodonline.com/thehunt/MAIN.html.
Richman, D. (2018). Movies You Might Have Missed: Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. The Independent. [Online]. Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/movies-you-might-have-missed-tim-burton-ed-wood-a8163461.html
Salisbury, M. (2006). Burton on Burton. Faber and Faber: London.


  1. Ed Wood (the film) does have a lot of charm, and, like you said, Ed Wood’s boundless optimism is contagious.

    I watched this film for the first time a couple of years ago, and I enjoyed it so much, I watched it twice in a row.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: