Tuesday, July 7, 2009

By Any Meager Means Necessary

It may seem obvious but often needs restating anyway: More money doesn't make a movie better. Often times the best movies of the year are those with the lowest budgets. Of course, by Hollywood standards that still means in the millions and these days budgets are out of control. And before anyone starts playing the familiar tune of "but that's because of inflation. Movies have always cost a lot" let me provide some important details. Movies do cost a lot but if you download an inflation index calculator from the Department of the Treasury, as I did a few years ago and have bored people with it ever since, you will quickly discover that budgets in Hollywood have grown far out of whack with inflation.

Here's how the calculator works: Put in a salary of $15K in 1970, about what my Dad was making then, and it translates to $52K today. That's about right for where he was professionally at the time for the same job today. So it works with that example. Almost anything you want to try works (car prices, food costs, etc.) Plug in the numbers for a specific date in the past and they come back roughly comparable to what you would expect today.

Except movie budgets.

Don't let anyone tell you otherwise - They have skyrocketed beyond all reason. Let's look at a few examples by going to IMDB where one can get estimated budgets (EB) for movies. For instance, Citizen Kane has an EB of 686,033. What does that come to in 2009 dollars? A little over six million. Nowhere near the average 35 million a lower budget(!) drama runs today. What about the bigger movies, the epics? Well, according to the "making-of "documentary on the special edition DVD of Bridge on the River Kwai, that movie cost a fortune to make. A fortune! So it's a good guideline for how much the big budget stuff went for. It's EB is 3 million in 1957. That comes to 15.8 million in 2009. That's how much Slumdog Millionaire cost to make and it's considered one of the lowest budget sleeper hits in years.

What about that 35 million dollar price tag for the average drama today? Well, let's use Star Wars - 13 million in 1977. Again, watching the documentary on any one of the Special Edition DVDs will alert you to the fact that the studio was ready to shut the production down due to time and cost overruns until they saw a rough cut and dollar signs began flashing in their eyes. What's that massive 13 million dollar budget that had the studio in an uproar come to today? 36 million. Three years later for The Empire Strikes Back Lucas was given unlimited budget to do the sequel - 18 million in 1980. Today that's 45 million. And we still haven't even reached the budget of Changeling released last year with Angelina Jolie and directed by Clint Eastwood, a period drama done for 55 million.

So what happened?

Somewhere in the late eighties Hollywood decided to start paying actors and directors tens of millions of dollars per film. Folks old enough to remember will recall the shock when it was revealed that Jim Carrey or Arnold Schwartznegger were going to be getting 20 million for their next movie. Previously stars had made a fraction of that per film. Killer agents had come in and changed the financial schemes. Also, like a hospital charging 8 dollars for each aspirin knowing that insurance will pay for it, the technicians in Hollywood and rental companies and cities themselves starting charging enormous amounts of money for their services knowing Hollywood, now in the throes of blockbuster bonanzas and massive star egos, would pay it. In the early to mid nineties budgets spiked, costing upwards of five times the amount of a comparable movie made just five years before, and they haven't looked back.

If we go back to Changeling we find that Jolie and Eastwood comprise almost forty million dollars of the 55 million dollar budget. The movie made 98 million worldwide. The profit would have nearly doubled if Jolie and Eastwood hadn't toppled the budget with their salaries but that's neither here nor there. The main point is that movies remain the same. There are great ones, good ones, mediocre ones and awful ones no matter what the cost. So why go crazy spending so much on them when you can get the same results for so much less?

Ed Wood of course didn't spend much but surprisingly, spent more, much more than some of the low-budget wonders we know today. Plan 9 from Outer Space had an EB of $60,000. That comes to $296,930 in today's dollars or roughly, 300,000. Once on the other hand cost $150,000 in 2007 which translates back to $33,000 in 1959. So Once, a movie praised and awarded the world over, was made for about half of what Plan 9 cost. Primer was also praised though received no Oscar noms or awards like Once. It was made for a mere $7,000 or about $1,500 in 1959 dollars.

Ed Wood would have been shocked by the budgets of today's Hollywood, a business that has figured out a way to make computer imagery, something that literally doesn't exist in the real world like an animation cel or a model, cost a fortune. Yes, CGI promised to provide movies with extraordinary special effects at a fraction of the costs since there would be no more stunts, miniatures or time consuming animation and yet Hollywood figured out a way to make it cost more. Ed would have been horrified.

So in these days of penny-pinching and thrifting and desperately trying to save every nickel for that next rainy day I salute those filmmakers currently working, or having done so in the past, on the Ed Wood model of low budget moviemaking. To John Carney, Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová, Shane Carruth, Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, Robert Townsend, Sam Raimi, Robert Rodriguez, George Romero, Herk Harvey, Marc Price and everyone else who's ever made a movie on financial fumes, thank you. Thank you for proving it can be done for less than the annual national budget of a small country. The range in quality isn't that much different than the range in quality for the bigger budget stuff but it pays off in hope at a much higher return because it gives hope to aspiring filmmakers, like me, that one day, maybe, we can do it too. Thanks Ed.