Big Budgets Finally Scare Hollywood

When I was a kid, I remember being shocked when I heard a film cost 30 million dollars to make (I forget exactly which movie it was, but to my young mind nothing should cost 30 million dollars to make).  Ahh, the naivety of youth!  Nowadays, 30 million bucks are just a drop in the buck for the gushers of spending by Hollywood studios.  Paying an insane amount of money to make a motion picture is just part of the economics of filmmaking -- the investments often reap enormous rewards. This summer alone a couple of movies exceeded the billion dollar mark at the global box office.  Big budget tentpole pictures help make smaller pictures possible, bringing in enough revenue to allow production companies to take risks with more artistic projects that might not have a built-in mass audience.  Yet, the skyrocketing costs of some movies in development are giving pause to even the usually carte blanche movie moguls.

That blank check mentality may soon be a thing of the past as the tenuous worldwide economy makes it ever more difficult to find funding for mega-productions.  Universal Pictures abandoned Ron Howard's ambitious multi-movie-and-television-series adaptation of Stephen King's popular fantasy saga The Dark Tower.  The project is still alive as the producers seek a new distribution and financing deal, but if it ever sees the light of day, it will likely be a much more conservative endeavor -- they'll take it one movie at a time.  We'll likely start seeing less projects being pitched as trilogies and more one-shot stand-alone projects (and if they end up spawning sequels and launching franchises, that would be proverbial icing on the cake.)

Disney nixed Gore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, which would have starred Johnny Depp as Tonto, when the proposed budget exceeded $250,000,000 (some rumors claimed it was approaching $280,000,000).  The director is struggling to save the project by cutting costs by at least 30 to 50 million, including deleting the werewolf plotline (don't ask).  Things are getting serious when supernatural reimaginings of established franchises are being rejected.

Studios have to factor in the anticipated return-on-investment.  A movie might cost an arm and a leg, but if it rakes in double or triple or even quadruple its budget, the studio can buy some gold-plated prosthetic limbs and have a goldmine left over.  (Okay, that was a weird metaphor, but you get my point.)

Movie executives are even second-guessing relatively smaller budgeted films.  Universal Pictures showed its cold feet again by abandoning a movie version of the Broadway hit musical In the Heights

Look at the end credits for even low-budget films and you will see the long list of people involved in creating them.  When studios greenlight a superbudget project, they are giving birth to an economic engine that will keep running for months or even years and extend in hundreds and hundreds of different areas. The rewards can be great, but there are no guarantees and the risks are becoming even greater.

We might be cynical and think that this new timidity in Hollywood is long overdue, but there have been some intriguing ideas that never made it to the big screen because they were deemed too expensive.  Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a biopic about Napoleon.  Orson Welles wanted to adapt Heart of Darkness.  Both were rejected and now live on only in our "what if" imaginations.  I've read the illustrated screenplay by Harlan Ellison of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, which was never filmed because of the incredible cost it would have required to produce, but it would have been the Citizen Kane of science fiction movies.  The Will Smith version that was released decades later never came close to what could have been.

Hopefully, Hollywood executives will be realistic in their expectations and movie makers will not assume that the money will flow for every outrageous idea they have.  On the other hand, I hope the new frugality will not hurt other projects that should be made.


Amanda said…
Hi Nick! I came across your blog and like the way you write so I subscribed! Looking forward to reading more more of your blog posts! Wish you were on WordPress! Have a great day!
Nick said…
Thanks, Amanda!

-- Nick