May 04, 2015

A movie's money's worth

Megan McArdle wonders if Hollywood finances will be unraveled by the "unbundling" going on in cable offerings. Arguing that they may well be, she points out that Hollywood movies are "incredibly expensive to make," and that cable television is a big source of operating profits.

Gone Girl, without a massive cast, exotic foreign shooting locations or blockbuster special effects, ran to about $60 million. That doesn't include marketing budgets or the overhead of running a studio, just the production cost of the movie. And, obviously, if you like big-budget, special-effects-driven Hollywood spectaculars, things start north of $100 million and just keep heading up from there.

Except that Hollywood spends that much money on movies because it can, not because it has to (and because when properly managed, a successful Hollywood movie generates a lot of cash flow without ever technically turning a profit, which makes the accountants happy).

In the process of panning Invictus, Bill Simmons damns Eastwood with this faint praise that's more revealing about Hollywood economics:

Eastwood bangs out expensive movies under budget and ahead of schedule. Doesn't shoot a ton of takes, doesn't drift from the script, doesn't waste afternoons waiting for the sun to set just right, stuff like that. He's the most efficient director working today.

Princess Kaguya (directed by Isao Takahata) is Japan's most expensive animated film to date, costing (wait for it) $50 million. In Japan, Frozen (budget: $150 million) now ranks second in all-time box office, right behind Spirited Away (budget: $20 million).

In the day-in-the-life documentary about Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki grumble at length about Takahata's inability bring in projects on schedule and under budget. They're kindred spirits to Clint Eastwood.

McArdle points out that "technology enables directors to spend vast fortunes on special effects," but again, only because they can. Compare Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Alpha (2014) to see how far motion capture animation has come in ten years, at a budget of $10 million for the former and barely twice that for the latter.

By comparison, television series in Japan are budgeted at about a tenth of their Hollywood counterparts, so the Appleseed XIII (2013) TV series looks like the 2004 Appleseed movie. In ten years, I'm confident it will look more like Appleseed: Alpha.

Over a decade ago, I couldn't tell the digital background mattes from reality in the moderately low budget remake of Samurai Resurrection (2003) until I watched the "making of" segment. The same goes for the extremely low budget Raise the Castle! (2009).

It's one of the most unintentionally meta films ever, a movie about a guy who can't build a real castle and so constructs one out of cardboard, made by a director who can't afford to build scale sets and so makes them out of cardboard in the local high school gym.

Aside from campy special effects that are supposed to look campy, I didn't notice most of the digital mattes. That's how sophisticated desktop editing software has become.

Japanese studios are increasingly turning to digital 3D and motion capture to make live-action versions of manga and anime. It won't be long before you will have to look very hard to tell the difference (in technical terms) between a Pacific Rim and a Patlabor.

The entire Patlabor: Next Generation series (a total of 7 hours in 8 parts) is budgeted at (wait for it) $20 million. Pacific Rim (2 hours) cost $190 million.

But what will ultimately make Patlabor: Next Generation worth watching is the quality of the storytelling. Once you have reached a certain level of technical proficiency, a better story is going to beat the crap out of better production values every time.

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# posted by Blogger Joe
5/05/2015 7:45 PM   
Gone Girl is a poor example; Fincher reportedly average 50 takes per scene. Plus there is his salary and those of Affleck, Pike, Harris, Perry, Cronenweth, the myriad of producers and above-the-line folks. On the other hand, it grossed over $360 million and likely netted more that $60 million. In other words, the investors doubled their money. That's pretty damn good.