January 17, 2008

Starry-eyed finances

In the making-of extra on the Stardust DVD, upon visiting the set where a full-scale model of De Niro's flying ship is being built from scratch, Neil Gaiman quips that he feels a bit guilty about "writing a few paragraphs" that would get translated to a million dollar-plus set (taking up ten minutes or so of the movie).

He needn't feel guilty about providing good trade union work. But this kind of extravagant and unnecessary budgeting is nevertheless appalling. Not because there are little children starving in China or wherever (eating all the food on your plate as a kid only made you fat, after all). But because it's ultimately ruinous to good movie-making.

Stardust cost $65 million and grossed $40 million. In 2007 dollars, The Princess Bride cost $30 million and grossed $55 million. The two films are aimed at similar-enough demographics that it would seem wishful thinking to imagine Stardust would break even on that budget. (The same problem attends The Golden Compass, hugely overbudgeted for its potential audience.)

To be sure, Stardust is a gorgeous-looking movie. But it is difficult to justify the artistic return on investment. Monty Python and the Holy Grail cost $1 million (in 2007 dollars). Can you actually see $64 million worth of a difference in art direction between the two films?

The 2003 remake of Samurai Resurrection has the "look and feel" of the Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster (unlike the enjoyable but very B-movie 1981 version starring Sonny Chiba). The making-of extra on the DVD reveals a smart but carefully rationed use of mattes, wire-work, green-screens, and CGI. For 1/10th the budget of Stardust.

I challenge anybody to spot differences in verisimilitude (often inaptly termed "realism") between The Last Samurai ($140 million) or Memoirs of a Geisha ($85 million) and NHK’s Taiga historical drama series ($500,000/episode).

Elsewhere in the business world, computers are used to decrease overhead and increase ROI. Hollywood has managed to do the opposite. This short documentary shows how that shouldn't be the case, recreating the D-Day landing on Omaha Beach. Three men play all the soldiers, one man runs the camera, and then everything is put together in post.

At $40 million, the 100 percent green-screen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow shows what CGI is capable of (and it broke even). That was four years ago, half a century in digital technology terms.

An hour-long, prime-time, Hollywood-produced television drama currently costs around $2 million. That establishes the base cost of a two-hour movie at $4 million or so, including a reasonable use of special effects. But not counting star salaries.

The only "star" roles that made a lasting impression on me in Stardust were Pfeiffer and Danes. The only special effects that really mattered were some rotoscoping to make Danes glow (she's a literal star, after all), and "magic" CGI of the type done just as well on shows like Charmed and Buffy.

The thing is, I'd like to see more movies like Stardust. But that's not going to happen with production companies making fifty cents for every dollar spent. Since it's possible to make movies that look "blockbuster" on near-art cinema budgets, Hollywood needs to wean itself from this "all-in" investment strategy.

You're not all Peter Jackson! Or even Michael Bay.

As William Goldman famously said, when it comes to predicting success in Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything." Which means that winners over the long run follow the same rules as a smart Wall Street investor: with a diversified portfolio. Not by sinking a dozen dry wells and hoping that the next one will prove the gusher.

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