A Big Short – How Some Movies Become Overwhelmed by Their Own Bloated Budgets

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One thing that you can always use to describe a summer movies is big.  Big action, big names, big effects; all that.  But, what most audiences tend to ignore as they watch a movie in the theater is the big cost attached to making a big movie.  Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for most film companies.  It works to a films advantage sometimes when no one is taking notice of a movie’s budget, because sometimes filmmakers don’t want the public to know.  It’s not that they want to hide something shady in a films budget; it’s just that depending on the movie that’s being made, it’s better for the film to not look like it was over-budgeted for the necessities of their story.  There’s a stigma in the film industry related to movies that are too expensive, and it’s a kind of bad press that filmmakers would like to avoid.  It’s a kind of bad press that may not affect an audiences perception, but it does affect one’s standing in the industry.  But, this is a worry that is becoming increasingly prevalent in Hollywood as the nature of the business is changing.  Cinemas are now having to compete with streaming services and alternate forms of entertainment and that has caused many film studios to up their game by taking bigger gambles.  Some gambles pay off, but many others don’t, and those failures tend to overwhelm the rest because they generate negative press, which industry journalists love to report on and dissect.  Even still, investing in large scale film-making has it’s rewards alongside it’s faults, but few if any people in charge of investing in film view that as worth the risk.  The only thing that actually keeps the industry going at all is when expectations are exceeded, and that’s a result that only comes about through chance.

The very fact is that film-making is an expensive art-form.  Even a modest budget film today sports a eight digit figure price tag, and that’s seen as responsible.  But anyone who doesn’t work outside of Hollywood doesn’t see how movies can become so expensive.  Paying the salaries of the cast and crew takes up a significant amount, even when those salaries can sometimes be obscene based on the talent involved, but the vast majority of a film’s budget goes into the visual development and physical construction of a movie.  When a film calls for extravagance, it will be costly.  Now, if the studio believes in the project well enough, they will approve of the budget, believing that it’s worth the risk because they have faith in their audience.  But, a lot of factors can also cloud the judgement of the filmmakers and it ends up leading to movies that don’t match their expectations, becoming instead money traps that are out of their control.  Things like unforeseen accidents, clashing egos, and even the very fact that some filmmakers are out of touch with what their audience wants can all lead to films that fail and underwhelm at the box office, and it’s only then when the bad press about an out-of-control production begins to take hold.  That’s why so many film companies fall back on the safe and predictable; because they are more reliant.  However, for the film industry to survive, it cannot solely survive on small pieces; it needs to take risks in order to stay ahead in the game.  Unfortunately for them, risks are not an easy sell when you’re in the need for more money.

Perhaps the thing that causes the industry to take pause more often than not is when they see one of their own suffer a loss even in the face of overwhelming success.  Disney, for instance, just recently announced their quarterly earnings for the first quarter of the year, and they shocked the industry by declaring less than expected profits, even despite having a great start to 2016 season with successful movies like Zootopia and The Jungle Book, as well as the carry over box office of last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Yet, that’s what happened; even Star Wars couldn’t stop Disney from losing money.  Now, of course the blame for this can’t be solely put on the film division alone.  Disney is a wide-spread multi-national corporation with their hands in all kinds of different industries; not just film.  What other media company do you know of that has their own cruise ship line?  Yet, when some part of the company begins to suffer, it drags the rest of the company down with it, and I’m sure that this is what will be happening to Disney in the short run.  They have already gutted their Interactive games division, and I’m sure their Motion Picture department will also see dramatic cuts.  At the same time, I don’t think that Disney will be stuck in the mire for long; I just hope this one bad quarter doesn’t lead them to doing something drastic.  In the long run, it has actually benefited Disney to take risks.   From Snow White to Pirates of the Caribbean, they have gambled and won many times over.  Even Disneyland looked like a foolish idea in it’s development, and now it’s the most visited theme park in the world.   But, at the same time, they are also the company behind Tron (1982), The Black Cauldron (1985), John Carter (2012), The Lone Ranger (2013), and Tomorrowland (2015); extravagant movies that even despite their quality all lost a huge amount of money for them.  In order to be the biggest media company in the world, you have to take big risks and in turn, your failures will look bigger as a result.

But, given their deep pockets and the strength of their brand, Disney will still prosper.  It doesn’t quite work out as well for smaller companies when they suffer a crushing box office failure.  There’s a long history in Hollywood of flash in the pan upstart companies that fell victim to their own success.  The independent market especially sees this a lot, when one company suddenly sees one gamble pay off big and then they squander their profits chasing after a chance to compete with the big studios.  This has been the case with companies like Orion Pictures, Miramax, and Revolution Studios.  You see a pattern with these companies where they start of big and then fade into obscurity or non existence; usually gobbled up by larger studios.  Golan/Globus’ own Cannon Pictures in fact still own the record for biggest money loser in Hollywood history with Cutthroat Island (1995), a costly gamble you can only find from a company working outside of the Hollywood system.  But, perhaps the biggest fall from grace ever witnessed in Hollywood would be the collapse of New Line Cinema.  New Line looked like it would be the first mini-major studio to climb to the next level in decades after huge, record-breaking success in the early 2000’s with the Austin Powers franchise as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  But, some poor corporate choices, including not paying Peter Jackson his full share of the Rings profits which then led to a lawsuit, as well as costly gambles like The Golden Compass (2007) and New Line quickly fell into the red, eventually becoming swallowed up by Warner Brothers for a fraction of their initial worth only a few years prior.  It’s a sad reality when failure becomes more pronounced when you can less afford to tolerate them.  It takes a history of gambles paying off to let the occasional ones that don’t work go by unnoticed.  Sadly, independent companies remain in the position of having to suffer a loss in order for them to have any real shot.

But, why do so many films fall victim to bloated budgets.  Competition is the key factor.  When Hollywood smells money in the water, they chase after it feverishly, despite many of those same players being ill equipped to take on the challenge.  This is the case with many copycat films that arise after a breakout success.  But, for every Titanic (1997), there’s a Pearl Harbor (2001).  For every Gladiator (2000), there’s a Troy (2004); and so on.  The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) was a rare copycat that succeeded in the wake of The Lord of the Rings, but it was a lucky one amid so many failures, and it too saw fleeting success in it’s follow-ups.  Suffice to say, just because one film achieved success doesn’t mean that it will translate across the board.  And yet, so many failures come out of this sometimes foolish attempt to make success repeat itself.  If there’s one thing that Hollywood has never been able to figure out is how to manage a fad.  Audiences tastes change rapidly, and what once looked like a sure bet a year ago will be old hat by the time the film is ready to be released.  The smart thing for Hollywood to do is to not look at one success and view that as the wave of the future.  There are few constants in Hollywood, one being adaptations of already established materials, hence why Comic Book movies have remained popular.  If Hollywood chooses to throw caution to the wind and try to capitalize too much on what’s popular now, then they run the risk of a short shelf life for their movies.  One risk that currently could prove troublesome for future films is the belief that R-rated content in a Superhero movie equals big money.  It may have worked for Deadpool, but that film was an exception.  What worked for it may not work for Superman, or Iron Man, or any other beloved superhero, and yet some naive studio exec will try to force the same formula into where it doesn’t belong and it will end up spoiling something good as a result.

Apart from competition, some films end up going over budget purely due to conflicting egos behind the scenes.  Sometimes it becomes too easy to point the finger at the director himself for letting a production get out of control, but it’s not always the case.  Sometimes it comes down to a lack of substance in the overall production, and the inability to recognize the problem early on.  There are some movies that you look at in retrospect and wonder why they went forward at all when they are flawed to their very core, and it’s usually because there were people involved who refused to pull the plug despite all the problems.  A movie like this usually starts out fine, but inadequate oversight by the producer or too many notes by the studio heads or a lack of control on the set by the director, and you’ve got a overblown mess that just hemorrhages money.  And where the egos compound the problem is when nobody wants to accept a share of the blame, preventing any of these problems from getting resolved.  A perfect example of this would be the comedy sequel Evan Almighty (2007).  The Jim Carrey comedic hit Bruce Almighty (2003), turned a profit and it was only natural for Universal Studios to want to explore sequel options.  Unfortunately, the premise was weak from the beginning (using Noah’s Ark as a reference point instead of the clever “power of God” premise of the original) and Jim Carrey refusing to return didn’t help as well.  The film eventually wrapped with a whopping $220 million price tag (the most ever for a comedy), and there was no way for it to possibly make up that budget, even if it matched the grosses of the original.  Egos got in the way of Wild Wild West (1999) as well.  We all know of producer Jon Peters’ obsession with giant spiders (thanks to Kevin Smith’s own insight after working with him), but why did it need to show up in a Western of all places costing untold millions in CGI effects.  It eventually tanked at the box office and became another in a long line of cautionary tales in Hollywood.  But, this was also a case where an ability to take some blame and cut losses early on could’ve saved some headaches down the road and instead, the egos of those involved just compounded the problem and turned what should’ve been simple films into monumental disasters.

A movie being too big for it’s own good can also be a factor in crating an unnecessary bloat of a film’s budget.  Now, Hollywood has benefited from showing off scale before.  Whether it be the sweeping vistas of a David Lean epic, or the majesty of James Cameron’s full-scale recreation of the Titanic, or the wonder of Peter Jackson’s visual extravagance in the special effects in The Lord of the Rings, going big has often paid off at the box office.  However, it also takes smart money management to make sure that these extravagances don’t overwhelm the rest of the budget, or at the very least get accounted for ahead of time.  It usually takes the most expert filmmakers to pull off extravagance without going over budget.  People like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan have managed to deliver films that constantly put their budgets to work without worrying their studios, and the results speak for themselves.  As long as their projects are on time and on budget, then the studios that make them won’t balk at $150 million to make War of the Worlds (2005) or $190 million to make Inception (2010).  But, there are other cases where going big only led to unnecessary risks.  The floating atoll in Waterworld (1995) is a perfect example of throwing too much money behind a film that didn’t need it, because it was a costly set that was featured very briefly in a long movie, allowing the audience to see very little of the actual work put into it.  The same goes with the extravagant sets of Cleopatra (1963).  The money is there on screen, but are we engaged enough to even care.  If there is a risk to take, the filmmaker must ensure that it is worth every cent, and not every filmmaker has that ability.  Sometimes knowing the best way to use the money helps to keep the budget from going overboard.  Christopher Nolan has managed to do that by trying to capture as much as he can in camera before it’s handed over to visual effects.  Peter Jackson manages to do it by working almost entirely in house and shooting close to home in his native New Zealand.  Unfortunately, that’s a luxury that few other filmmakers are capable of having.

In the end, is it worth the risk of investing hundreds of millions of dollars into a movie.  In many ways, it’s very beneficial.  The higher budgeted a movie, the more likely it creates a lot of jobs for the crew and post production team.  A big budget is also beneficial for spurning innovation in the industry.  Would you believe that the single most expensive movie of the last decade wasn’t from Marvel, or Michael Bay, or from Christopher Nolan.  It was the movie Tangled (2010), an animated fairy tale from Disney which cost them $260 million to make.  The reason for that huge budget came from building the infrastructure needed to support it’s creation, like an updated and expanded animation facility, which has since been responsible for huge hits like Frozen (2013) and Zootopia (2016).  That’s an investment that paid off in the long run.  But, as we’ve seen, a failure to control an expanding budget causes some fractures that can’t be mended in the Hollywood system.  And this usually results from inexperience of people who are way in over their heads or from people who let their own egos get in the way.  When the fault falls on you for a failed, over-budget movie, it can even damage your future in the business.  The fall of filmmaker Michael Cimino after the failure of Heaven’s Gate (1980) is a perfect example.  The collapse of the visual effects industry also proved that cost overruns had long reaching consequences, as many of those studios shut their doors after pricing themselves too far.  In the long run, we do love it when Hollywood takes a risk and doesn’t rely too much on old tricks.  But, knowing the expense that each studio has to deal with every year with their entire slate of films, some of which they know ahead of time will fail, it does become understandable why some studios choose to be more careful with their money.