In context: Film adaptations of The Nutcracker have destroyed the careers of anyone who has tried to make one. They’re Hollywood’s biggest ___________

Not “white whale” or “holy grail,” I don’t think.

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    Call me Ishmael but I quite like white whale here: it's career-, soul- and life- destroying, taken on voluntarily, profitless, all-consuming, pointlessly obsessive, fixed on an ever-elusive prize, and without any conclusion, other than in death: why not use it? (A real question btw!) – tmgr Dec 16 '18 at 16:50
  • The easiest way to make a small fortune adapting The Nutcracker is to begin with a large one. (Originally said of boat-building, apparently.) – Phil Sweet Dec 16 '18 at 17:09
  • @PhilSweet Richard Branson famously paraphrased that as well: "How can you become a millionaire? Start off by being a billionaire, then launch an airline!" – Mike Harris Dec 16 '18 at 17:42
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    I have certainly heard/read the term "career killer" several times. – Hot Licks Dec 17 '18 at 1:31
  • White whale isn't bad, but it carries the connotation of something you obsessively chase after, rather than just a job you get. – Stuart F Nov 25 '19 at 11:22

poisoned chalice

While you rightly reject holy grail, perhaps a poisoned chalice would be more to your taste.

Oxford Living Dictionaries gives the following definition:

poisoned chalice noun, British

assignment, award, or honour which is likely to prove a disadvantage or source of problems to the recipient.

‘many thought the new minister had been handed a poisoned chalice’

‘Running Scottish Enterprise is not necessarily the poisoned chalice that some suggest and I still expect a significant number of hats to be thrown in the ring.’

‘But in one part of Yorkshire, it seems the role of Mayor has become a poisoned chalice, which leaves the incumbent at the mercy of rude and disrespectful councillors.’

‘His elegant and popular wife should tell her husband - who only seems ridiculous because he is in the wrong job - that it is time to reclaim dignity and contentment by handing on the poisoned chalice.’


Further example sentences can be found with the above link.

Note that poisoned chalice is listed here as British English, and Merriam-Webster agrees, calling the phrase "chiefly British."

Note also that you are usually handed a poisoned chalice: this is important as it shows that, although a poisoned chalice is usually welcome at first, the sense is not always of something that is taken on voluntarily (perhaps more of assignation), which may well rule it out in your context... that is, unless a director or producer was handed The Nutcracker as a project, perhaps by a malicious studio executive.

Also, I wouldn't go for "Hollywood's biggest poisoned chalices." The words seem mismatched, so you'd probably need to rephrase for stylistic reasons if you were to use poisoned chalice.

Development hell

Somewhat similarly to how you describe The Nutcracker, the English-language Don Quixote movie project has a reputation of being somehow cursed, starting with Orson Welles' extensive, lengthy and inconclusive efforts, and continuing with another production by Terry Gilliam, which has spanned decades and changed lead actor multiple times. Having said that, two Don Quixote films have, in fact, been completed in recent years, including the infamous Terry Gilliam production. So much for the curse, perhaps.

Productions such as these are referred to in the industry as development hell, which does not complete your example sentence (unless you say They're Hollywood's biggest examples of development hell but that isn't perhaps the nicest of sentences). Nonetheless, the term's worth mentioning as it is so near to what you're looking for, although it is media industry -specific and it has a different emphasis than what you want - on the never-ending project itself, rather than on its pernicious effects on the individual in charge.

Wikipedia gives the following definition:

Development hell, development limbo, or production hell is media industry jargon for a film, video game, television program, screenplay, software application, concept, or idea that remains in development (often moving between different crews, scripts, or studios) for an especially long time before it progresses to production, if it ever does. Projects in development hell are not officially cancelled, but work on them slows or stops.

Vapourware (or vaporware) is a related term used in software development.

Oxford Living Dictionaries defines it as follows:

vaporware (British vapourware)

noun, computing, informal

Software or hardware that has been advertised but is not yet available to buy, either because it is only a concept or because it is still being written or designed.

‘While some have accused the product of being vaporware, it certainly is getting plenty of attention.’

‘One thing you can be sure of: there's no risk of downloading a virus from vaporware.’

‘We should stop development on all new, and old products and concentrate on making them stable instead of showing vaporware.’

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    It may be chiefly British for those with little schooling. – Lambie Dec 16 '18 at 18:00
  • @Lambie Well, there's a lot of them out there! (I will continue to defer to the dictionaries here, but your comment is doing its job as a useful qualifier.) – tmgr Dec 16 '18 at 18:14
  • Poisoned chalice was the first thing that came to mind for me too. I'm a Brit but I always thought everyone knew what that meant! – Mr Ethernet Nov 25 '19 at 11:05

Epic failures don't come much bigger than an albatross around the neck or white elephants

All of them can be seen as cursed.

In the industry the rate of future return after initial release is often referred to as "legs" so in this case exceptionally poor legs. see the very odd references to legs here However the hacks term is box office flop or bomb as in

If a film released in theatres fails to break even by a large amount, it is considered a box office bomb or box office flop, thus losing money for the distributor, studio, and/or production company that invested in it. Due to the secrecy surrounding costs and profit margins in the film industry, figures of losses are usually rough estimates.

see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_box_office_bombs

So I propose the worst "disaster movie" should be titled "A bomb with short legs" however a search on that term is not recommended so perhaps a safer bet is short legged flops

Depending on how you add it all up, the Guinness World Record for “largest box office loss" was
"Cutthroat Island (1995)
Total Loss (Inflation-Adjusted): $143 million" see greatest flops

However since then "King Arthur: Legend of the Sword" has reputedly lost more.

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There's a term used in politics that I think fits, a policy initiative is sometimes called 'a third rail.' It refers to the centre track in electrically powered subway systems. The third one, in the middle carries the current and the idea is that if you touch the third rail you will be electrocuted.

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You could try

kiss of death

Defined by Random House1 as:

a relationship or action that makes failure or ruin inevitable

In your case:

Film adaptations of The Nutcracker have destroyed the careers of anyone who has tried to make one. They’re Hollywood’s biggest kiss of death.

1 Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary, © 2010 K Dictionaries Ltd. Copyright 2005, 1997, 1991 by Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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They’re Hollywood’s biggest stumbling block. TFD idiom

stumbling block

A challenge, hindrance, obstacle or impediment that prevents something from being accomplished.

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Whom the gods would destroy, they first tempt with this project.

The phrase "Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad" is spoken by Prometheus, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem "The Masque of Pandora" (1875).

However, if you google “Whom the gods would destroy”, you’ll see that quite a few people have adapted the phrase to their own purposes. The Wikipedia explanation (at the above link) is worth reading. Madness can be well-intentioned, even virtuous, but the gods are capricious and often cruel in their treatment of human vanity.

Depending on your audience, all you might have to do is put “(whom the gods would destroy...)” after the project name, and the more informed readers will get the hint.

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Film adaptations of The Nutcracker have destroyed the careers of anyone who has tried to make one. They’re Hollywood’s biggest death march projects.

death march is a term from the business world (especially project management e.g. in IT).

Quoting Wikipedia:

In project management, a death march is a project that the participants feel is destined to fail, or that requires a stretch of unsustainable overwork. The general feel of the project reflects that of an actual death march because project members are forced by their superiors to continue the project against the members' better judgment.

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    The only problem I can see with this is that it might still be considered a 'taboo' term, too sensitive to 'downvalue'. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 25 '19 at 11:21

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