From 1988 to 2007, there were 14 times that a new film became the most expensive film ever made up to that point, not adjusting for inflation. That’s impressive considering that from 1946 to 1987, only eight films succeeded in becoming the most expensive film ever made. Budgets for blockbusters are ballooning to incredible proportions. The stakes seem to be huge for every summer movie to perform amazingly.
The current record holder is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the third film in that series, and definitely the worst of those three. It cost an estimated $332 million in adjusted dollars. No other movie has cracked the $300 million mark – yet. But it seems like $200 million budgets are so common that few people stop and think about what a huge number that is.
In the past six years, no movie has been bold enough to challenge Pirates of the Caribbean’s place as the most expensive, but they certainly haven’t shown any signs of shrinking. Is $300-ish million as high as they’ll go? Is there a natural barrier to movie budgets that prevents them from getting much higher than they already are?
I’d like to talk about the factors that could keep film productions from getting too much more costly or ensure they continue to rise in the coming years.
Studios take a big risk in financing tentpole movies. Most of these films are either based on already-popular source material or sequels to other successful films. Despite these precautions, there’s no guarantee for success. These films could turn into a John Carter just as easily as an Iron Man. Who knew that a silly cartoon show about alien robots who disguise themselves as household items and vehicles could turn into a multibillion-dollar movie series? But last summer, Hollywood severely underestimated moviegoers’ intelligence by making a serious action film based on a board game.
To mitigate the risk of making such expensive films, studios are increasingly looking to foreign markets. It’s a good way to both recoup their costs and create worldwide demand for specific brands. Often, blockbuster sequels seriously outperform the original in the international market, as is the case with Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3. Even if a film underperforms in the United States, as was the case with the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, it can still prove just as profitable as other films in the series thanks to its international gross.
Theatrical runs of films have to compete with Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and many other sources of entertainment that are increasingly portable and inexpensive. That’s not news. In fact, I think that this, more than anything else, has fueled the increase in movie budgets in recent years. Studios want to stay relevant and give moviegoers an experience they can’t get at home or on a smartphone. Thus, the 3D fad, digital projectors, bigger emphasis on special effects, etc. to try to maintain a competitive advantage. But all of this focus on hardware and glitz could eventually backfire as people get numb to it all and possibly start tuning it out.
The Peter Principle
How did M. Night Shyamalan go from creating amazingly successful films like The Sixth Sense for $40 million to making $100+ million sci-fi epics that critics and fans love to hate? I’ll tell you how: The Peter Principle. A filmmaker who has one brilliant idea is expected to duplicate his success or move into a completely new area he’s unfamiliar with and be successful in it. It happened to Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Ridley Scott, Kevin Smith, and Richard Kelly, to name just a few. Not everyone is cut out to be James Cameron or Christopher Nolan. Some should simply be wise enough to accept their limitations and move on after putting their vision to film. They shouldn’t be promoted to the point where they’re in too deep to ask for help. I imagine a surprising number of today’s filmmakers just don’t know how to control their budgets. Things have gotten too unwieldy for one person to control.
It seems to me that filmmakers and studios today are locked in a devastating arms race. Comic-book and sci-fi films are all the rage right now, and those just so happen to be two of the most expensive types of films to make. So many digital effects and action set pieces have to be planned and executed flawlessly to keep up with the latest technological trends. But is all of this really leading to a superior product? Give me Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with its outdated special effects but wonderful story and subtle performances any day over most modern sci-fi epics. Give me Superman II’s romance and wit over most action movies with shallow love interests and empty action sequences. A return to the basics of solid storytelling could be just what the doctor ordered to solve the problem of escalation. The only problem is I don’t know if anyone is willing to take a chance on such a risky idea as that.
Something’s Gotta Give
This situation will probably have to change. Blockbusters may become so expensive that they’re not economically feasible in the ever-changing technological climate. If audiences become jaded to special-effects-driven films and more than just a few of those films lose money, studios may be forced to pare down budgets to more manageable levels. I’m sure there will always be a market for big spectacles, but surely a happy medium can be found that doesn’t require every blockbuster to cost such ridiculous sums to compete in a crowded market.
What do you think? Will movie budgets continue to remain as high as they are or rise even higher in the coming years or will they have to shrink?
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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Great thoughts. I’m surprised that film studios can tolerate the risk of marketing just a few blockbuster films. If even one is a bust, things could get really bad very quickly. Most of these modern films substitute action for plot and character development.
Thank you for your kind comment. I like those. 🙂
The whole situation seems unsustainable. Something is probably going to go wrong eventually and require a change in how studios assess the riskiness of these towering projects they work on all the time.
I would love to see a return to basics, like what Pixar did in its early years, marrying ambitious special effects with old-fashioned storytelling. I think that’s why they became so popular so quickly. People really want that stuff again.
If the boil-over is going to happen it had better happen within the next three years, that way the movie industry can petition for government money to help them sustain very important jobs and uphold the American way of life. Just like the automobile industry. Without movies what are all the people going to do with their spare time? It’s an American institution that needs to be preserved because it is what moves America, and the world! Don’t be blaming those executives, they are just doing their job, providing a staple of life and preserving what the world needs to move forward into a bright new future! It has been a part of our world for…well, for a very long time… and we can’t live without such a high quality product that we’ve become accustomed to having. Uncle Obama will help. He knows what we all need, even more than we do, and we know quite a bit! Yes, the costs have to continue to go up, otherwise we will all stop going to the movies. We love mindless action and plotless stories. Isn’t that basis for how our government makes decisions nowadays?
You are scarily right. I agree 100 percent with everyone you said. Boy are we in trouble.