Reviewing the Budget

March 22, 2012
A thought by James Berardinelli

John Carter is going to lose $200 million for Disney. The Hunger Games may have the biggest all-time March opening. The Dark Knight Rises/ may pose a threat to Avatar's position as the all-time domestic box office king, if Titanic hasn't re-taken the crown by then as a result of its April 3-D re-release.

Who gives a crap? I mean, really.

I can understand the financial implications being important to the bean-counters in Hollywood. But to everyone else? Are we so fascinated by how Hollywood spends money that this has meaning? Does it change my movie-going experience even a little if I know the budget?

It's possible to make a case that there is some value in tracking the Hollywood grosses/gains/losses. For example, due to its dismal performance, John Carter will not be starting a franchise, so we don't have to obsess over when John Carter 2 is coming. No one is waiting for a sequel to The Golden Compass because its financial performance decreed there wouldn't be one. If The Hunger Games scores the expected $120M+ this weekend, there will be more entries into that franchise (probably three more, with the final installment being broken into two pieces). Box office totals can also tell us something about where strong movie-going interest lies, although I'm not sure we need the numbers for that.

Box office receipts can also skew perception. Remember Peter Jackson's King Kong? The one that was repeatedly referred to as a "flop" because it "underperformed" relative to "expectations"? Last I checked, that movie made about $550M worldwide (theatrically) against a production budget of $207M. Does that sound like a "flop" to you? And that doesn't take into account DVD and TV rights sales, which have boosted the gross close to three-quarters of a billion dollars. By even the most conservative estimates, that equates to a profit of $200M. Yet the lingering impression many people have of the movie is that it was a failure.

And therein lies a pernicious problem. Too often, movie quality is being confused with box office success. Everyone reading this knows there's no correlation. It's an extreme rarity that the annual box office "champ" will be someone's "best movie." Transformers: Dark of the Moon, anyone? Worse still, some "critics" are beginning to review the box office. Far too many write-ups of John Carter mention its production budget of $250M. How is that in any way relevant to the quality of the movie? Putting that information in a review serves no useful purpose unless it's to italicize runaway budgets in Hollywood.

I don't care how much a movie costs. My ticket is the same price whether I'm seeing a Small British Costume Drama with a $40M budget or Avatar 2, which may cost >$300M. (Although that's not strictly correct, since I will be expected to pay a surcharge for the Avatar 2 3-D experience.) It's possible I'll enjoy the former better, but everyone knows what will "win" the box office. From time-to-time, Hollywood has toyed with the idea of tiered prices. $5 for the SBCD, $10 for the latest mid-range mainstream feature, and $15 for the blockbuster everyone wants to see. The biggest factor to make this unworkable is enforcement. It's the same reason why MPAA classifications are pointless: theaters don't have enough employees to monitor who enters every auditorium in a megaplex. The same way a 14-year old can buy a ticket to Transformers 3 and sneak into Hangover 2, they could buy a ticket to a cheap $5 offering and wander instead into a theater showing the $15 blockbuster. It was possible to station ushers at every door in the days of duplexes and triplexes, but even if there's one usher per two auditoriums, that's ten additional employees at a 24-plex or close to $1000 a day in wages. Not gonna happen.

I wish I could remember when newspapers began printing box office grosses. I believe it was some time during the early '80s. I remember checking how the Star Trek movies did. I don't recall the figures being widely available for The Motion Picture (1979) or, for that matter, for The Empire Strikes Back. But I believe they were there for The Wrath of Khan (1982). There was widespread speculation at the time about how much that movie would need to make for there to be a Star Trek III. The estimated figure was about $35M (slightly more than 3x the production budget) which, of course, was easily surpassed (not during the first weekend, although it had the biggest first weekend of any movie opening in 1982).

Back in the '80s, however, box office grosses were curiosities. They appeared Tuesdays in the trades, and were picked up by the wire services for inclusion in Wednesday morning daily newspaper entertainment sections. During the '90s, studios started using the numbers for marketing purposes ("XXXX was the most watched movie of the weekend!"), hoping movie-goers, like lemmings, would follow the leader. That's when those figures jumped over the line from back-page trivia to news. Weekly grosses became a blood sport although, when you think about it, this is one area in which competition makes little sense. Today, it sometimes seems that's all people care about. An industry has sprouted up surrounding predictions and analysis.

I don't have a problem with box office total curiosity. I check out the numbers myself, although I sometimes feel a little like the driver who slows down to see the grisly wreckage of a crash. My issue is that they have come to dominate discussion and perception. If a movie makes a lot of money, it must be good and therefore there must be sequels. If a movie fails (by whatever definition), it's not worth the time to watch and should be buried. This mentality leads to an assembly line of cookie-cutter productions, which is dangerously close to what the last two summer blockbuster seasons have brought us. I used to enjoy comic book superhero movies; now I'm bored of them. (Although The Dark Knight Rises is on my "Top Five Can't Wait To See" List for 2012.)

Too many production decisions in 2012 are being made solely on the basis of what will strike box office gold. It's no longer enough for a quality movie to make a modest profit. "Modest" is a bad word. And "quality" is a serendipitous occurrence. I'm not sure that a massive box office collapse would be the worst thing that could happen to the movie industry. If nothing else, it would force the powers-that-be to rethink the process they use for greenlighting productions. As for those of us who write about movies, we need to be retrained to focus less on how much a movie costs and/or grosses and more on whether or not it's worth the price of a ticket.