[Pictured: John Carter, struggling with his budget and about to be trampled by reality.]
Hey Powerwolf Pack,
This week on the mailbag we talk about budgets. Is bigger always better, or does it amount to filmmakers having “a large millstone hung around their necks and [being] drowned in the depths of the sea”?
Now that I’ve met my quota of dark biblical allusions for the year, let’s move on to the mailbag!
Herr Wolfen von Powerburg:
With so much of the entertainment industry desperate for old IP and cinematic universes to add financial stability to the Rube-Goldberg machine that is the production process, I have to wonder if they bring a lot of the risk upon themselves.
Square Enix considered Tomb Raider (2013) a failure even though it opened by selling 3.4 million copies. Resident Evil 6 met a similar fate despite selling 4.9 million. Disney gambled hundreds of millions on John Carter without even bothering to market it properly. The Lone Ranger was practically guaranteed to appeal to a certain demographic whether or not it was a special effects extravaganza, but it ended up losing money because of how much they had spent.
Do studios really need to spend so much to compete? Is it a blind gold rush for the biggest gross income regardless of the profit margin? Is it just driven by the producer’s ego?
-Michael J. Caboose
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. The only reason anybody in the film industry does anything at all is ego. Pretty much anybody who is capable of succeeding in the film industry would be wise to place their bets elsewhere. While a very small handful of people (mostly producers and movie stars) are able to make a good deal off of the process, everyone else in the industry exists to support their profit, and the amount of profit they make is, as you mentioned, fantastically unreliable.
One drive down Hollywood Blvd will convince you that the film industry is a giant dick measuring contest. There’s no other explanation for movie billboards taking up the side of a skyscraper. It’s certainly not cost effective advertising, but it sure lets their friends know they’re working on the biggest project in town.
People are mostly in the movie industry for one of two reasons. 1) They think it makes them look really cool. 2) They are one of the poor, pathetic souls who feel a calling to make it their life’s goal. The more money you make in the industry, the more likely you fall into Category 1. The incentive for these folks is to have the “biggest” projects in existence on their resume. If you’re in Category 2, you might feel a desire to make a film as grand as it “deserves” to be.
Contrast this with the legendarily frugal Thomas Rothman, CEO at 20th Century Fox from ’94-’12. He’s the guy who turned down Deadpool after seeing its brilliant test footage, and is particularly despised by comic book fans for making the X-Men films so cheap. He’s known for running Fox’s quality into the the ground during one of their lowest periods, yet the the studio still made a steady profit, since their movies cost so little to produce.
In hindsight, it’s easy to say Rothman didn’t take enough risks. On a shoestring budget, Deadpool is now the top grossing R-rated film of all time. Marvel bet big with The Avengers and the risk paid off huge. It’s easy to point at these, and say “Duh Rothman! Go big or go home!” But if Batman v Superman‘s modest estimated profit (after a respectable $850-900M haul) is any indication, big budget superhero success is anything but a given.
So do movies need big budgets? Maaayyyyyybbbbeee? Depends on whether or not the material demands it. Depends on whether or not the money will actually improve the end product or if it will just encourage the crew to focus on the wrong things. It’s impossible to say definitively. Every movie’s production is a beautiful mess of a snowflake. And (again, in hindsight) it’s easy to pick apart what movies would have really benefited from a bigger budget. It’s much harder to determine whether or not a movie had too big of a budget, though not making a profit is a pretty good indication that either this was the case, or the audience never existed for it in the first place. There’s stuff like you mentioned, like The Lone Ranger and John Carter, which might have turned a profit with a smaller budget, or even attracted a bigger audience with lo-fi practical effects and a focus on marketing them as the “original adventures” that inspired countless Westerns and Superheroes.
People like bitching about movies and videogames. (I’m certainly no exception.) Others are quick to point out that these industries exist to make a profit. Frankly, having worked in the film industry for a while, I think this is bullshit. The industry exists to exist. It’s perpetuated based on the assumption that it is important, and its importance stops the moment it stops turning out meaningful content. Ego drives the industry and profit exists to fuel egos. It’s a dirty establishment, but it certainly makes cool shit for us to talk about.
Pardon me. I’ll be curled up in the corner, regretting my life choices.
Are there any movies you wanted to love but was criminally under-budgeted? When is less more? Let us know in the forums, and be sure to send in your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org for the next episode of the Powerwolf Mailbag!