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.


Raquelle said...

This was very interesting to read. Thank you! Movie budgets have gone way out of proportion. Those numbers you provided for the Changeling are staggering. I can't believe it cost that much to have Jolie and Eastwood in the film! And it's a double-edged sword because maybe the film wouldn't have made $98 million if they were not in it.

I like low-budget Indies because I feel filmmakers have to be more creative with what they have to work with. Classic films are that way too. Lewton's films were made on very low budgets, and I think The Cat People is one of the best films I have ever seen!


Greg said...

Raquelle - I think this is an excellent point:

I can't believe it cost that much to have Jolie and Eastwood in the film! And it's a double-edged sword because maybe the film wouldn't have made $98 million if they were not in it.

One of my favorite Ken Burns' works is his Baseball documentary. In it George Will defends the high salaries of the players by saying, "Not one fan, not one, has ever paid a nickel to see an owner."

The big salaries can pay off as can big budgets. Titanic cost a fortune but made an even bigger one and it's doubtful it would have had it not had so much money poured into it providing the details, sets and special effects it needed.

At the same time I love it when someone can make an entertaining movie on fumes. Like Plan 9 or Once or Primer. Or good old Val Lewton who did make such great films.

Flickhead said...

Just a clarification, Raquelle: Eastwood isn't in Changeling; he produced & directed.

bill r. said...

Oh no! I called Herk Harvey "Herck Hervey" yesterday! I'm so embarrassed...

Anyway, isn't one of the reasons that movies like Once or Primer can be made so cheaply is because of the now relative cheapness of certain kinds of filmmaking equipment? I don't actually know, but I keep hearing people say that aspiring filmmakers outside of the Hollywood system can no longer bitch about budget restraints because certain kinds of cameras are so cheap now, and people like Ed Wood didn't have that option.

I don't know if those people are talking out of their ass or not, but I thought I'd mention it.

Greg said...

Flickhead, most of this post comes from a comment I left on your blog months ago. So uh... thanks.

Greg said...

Bill, film stock does cost a hell of a lot more so I don't think anyone is talking out their butt about that but once you have the stock it's up to you to make whatever you can.

The 60k it cost for Plan 9 would have probably been cut in half, like Once was made for, if Wood had had access to digital technology. Also, you still have to pay people. If Primer had actually paid union wages to its actors it would have cost around 100k most likely. Still cheap but 7k indicates he used friends who worked for free and his house, which he did.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I was reminded of when Don Siegel visited the set for Phil Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What was for Kaufman a low budget film at Two Million dollars was for Siegel an astonishing ten times the amount of the first version.

Greg said...

Don Siegel visited the set? Wow, how cool. I love both versions although by 78 budgets were still basically in line with inflation. The spike hadn't happened yet. Going by it's EB the remake would have, adjusted for inflation, cost about three times the original. That sounds about right. By 1978 a sci-fi thriller got a lot more budget, and respect, than in 1956.

Marilyn said...

Hey, Greg, I posted my link in your home post. Get with it, buddy!

bill r. said...

I keep losing followers. It seems like every time I gain one, I lose another, and I never know who's leaving. Why is that?

bill r. said...

Actually, I do know who's gone. Is it because I didn't reciprocate? Although I may have, I can't remember now.

Greg said...

Marilyn, I updated the post. Sorry, it's a runaround day for me. And now I have to go again.

Bill, I'll never stop following you. Ever.

Flickhead said...

Don Siegel visited the set? Wow, how cool.

Greg, Don Siegel played the cab driver seen toward the end of Kaufman's Body Snatchers.

Greg said...

I knew that. I really did. I had just forgotten until just now and I don't know why. That's sounds totally made up I realize but it's true. Thanks for refreshing my memory.

Fox said...

Though it IS obnoxious when certain professional atheletes make $50 million dollars a year, I find it interesting that (for the most part) the public doesn't makes as much of a stink when Johnny Depp makes the same (or more) for a movie.

I'm all about getting paid what you're worth, so maybe studios should do more "back-end" deals with stars, promising them millions only if the film MAKES millions. Ask Danny Glover how much he made off of Saw.

Also, thanks for telling me about the EB feature. I had no idea that existed for old movies, and I'm super excited to go check some of them out.

Raquelle said...

Apologies. I'm not very up to date on contemporary movies and didn't know that Eastwood wasn't in Changeling.

Tommy Salami said...

The budgets are insane, and the accounts still manage to write them off as losses, so we carry their tax burdens as well.

Stars have always made fortunes- Mary Pickford made millions when movies cost a nickel. I guess we blame sports stars because we can remember when DiMaggio made less in his career than A-Rod makes in a month.

Personally I think budgets are highly inflated for accounting reasons and because it somehow generates hype.

Greg said...

Apologies. I'm not very up to date on contemporary movies.

Raquelle, don't ever apologize for that. I find not being up to date on contemporary movies one of the most appealing qualities a person can have.

Greg said...

Fox and Tommy - I agree that stars should work on the percentage system. If the movie makes money, they make money, if it doesn't they don't. However, even that sometimes seems like a bad idea because then they might refuse to EVER make a small picture and all we would ever have would be big budget action flicks. I don't know what the answer is but I do know the numbers I researched are correct. Mary Pickford was under contract making a million a year for multiple films not for each. Adjusted for inflation it's still a lot but nowhere near what stars command today at the expense of the movies overall budget.