In 1995, actor Kevin Costner produced, starred in, and (uncredited) co-directed an apocalyptic movie in which the Earth is flooded by melted ice caps called Waterworld. With a price tag of over $175 million, Waterworld was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever produced. And with only $88 million in domestic box office revenues, the movie was considered a commercial disaster. Only three things helped stem the movie’s disastrous fate. First, it made back its losses and then some in international ticket sales, grossing nearly $265 million in total. Second, while the movie was unpopular with theater goers, it did decently well with critics, receiving mixed reviews.
And finally, it probably inspired Costner to continue research into ways to separate oil from water at a large scale.
In 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker, struck a reef in the Gulf of Alaska, causing an oil spill. Between 250,000 and 750,000 barrels of oil rushed into the water, causing one of the largest man-made disasters in history to that point. Costner took interest in the issue, and even used the Valdez itself as a plot element in Waterworld. And in 1995 — the same year Waterworld came out — Costner acted on this interest. He purchased a company — including some intellectual property — from the U.S. government for $20 million. The technology? A machine which uses centrifugal force to separate oil from water. Costner’s partner, the company’s CEO John Houghtaling, called the machine a “kind of like a big vacuum cleaner.”
For 15 years, he and his business partners refined the technology, waiting for the next great oil spill disaster. When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, Costner and team were ready to spring into action. They offered their technology, which allegedly can separate 97 to 99% of the oil out of water at the rate of 200 gallons a minute, to BP. BP ended up buying 32 of the machines as part of the on-going cleanup at an unreported price. Costner himself spoke at a press conference announcing the deal, seen here, in which he and others describe the history of the technology and company.
Unfortunately, not everything in the deal came out cleanly (bad pun not intended.) Originally, Costner had partnered with fellow actor Stephen Baldwin and another person, with the aim of together marketing the technology. However, Baldwin and the friend were somehow not included in the deal made with BP; Baldwin sued Costner over this alleged transgression.
From the Archives: BP’s Eerie Version of Battleship: In the 1970s, BP came out with a board game for some reason — and the board game was about a fire on an off-shore oil rig.
Related: An oil centrifuge tube. It’s for chemists and runs a crazy amount of money for what is ostensibly a glass tube.