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The Cautiously Conservative Cost of Film-Making In the Recession…

When it first became clear that we were in for a long recession, there was a lot of fear about what that would mean for cinema. With less money to go around, and the ever-present fear of financial disappoint, a lot of people speculated that it would lead to a serious downturn in the production and distribution of “indie” movies by the major studios, a concern validated by the closing of various speciality divisions within major studios. While it has undoubtedly gotten significantly harder to produce and sell independent film, one look at last year’s Best Picture nominees suggest that these little gems are doing relatively okay – with films as provocative as Black Swan, as alternative as The Kids Are All Right and as gritty as Winter’s Bone all making the cut. Still, if the indie apocalypse that was foretold hasn’t come to pass, I do have to wonder what the cinematic cost of the current economic climate might be.

Hollywood's taken the occasional slap on the wrist over the past few years...

It doesn’t seem that big budget motion pictures are suffering too much either. After all, one need only look at the incredibly bloated budget of the unproven (and subsequently disappointing) Green Lantern to see that the studios are still pumping huge amounts of money into their matinee productions. If anything, in what seems like an attempt to consolidate spending by applying it where it is likeliest to see greatest return (a prudent investment strategy), with the budgets for summer blockbusters soaring. It seems like the strategy is paying off, at least mostly. With the exception of a few very costly misfires (including Cowboys & Aliens), it’s the big budget films (including Transformers 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II) that have been pulling in huge volumes of cash.

So, if big budget blockbusters aren’t suffering, and small indie films are still surviving, where are the cuts being made? It seems that the cuts are being applied to unproven studio properties. It looks the studios are saving money by refusing to invest huge sums in franchise properties that have yet to prove themselves. It’s hard to fault the studios for what amounts to a sound business strategy, but I was more than a little sad when Universal announced they weren’t moving ahead with an adaptation of The Dark Tower or that they were pulling the plug on Del Toro’s adaptation of The Mountains of Madness. On the other hand, I think I actually signed with relief when they cancelled the upcoming Ouija movie, so your mileage might vary.

It's not as easy to stay in the green as you might think...

In fairness, one can see why the studio is cautious. With the obvious exception of Bridesmaids, they’ve had a bit of a rough year, and apparently their new owners, ComCast are less interested in their movie production facilities than they are with the company’s broadcast division. it’s a shame, because the studio has produced some of the more interesting big-budget movies of the past number of years, including films like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Public Enemies. I can understand why neither film was a hit with audiences (and I didn’t even particularly like Public Enemies), but there’s no denying that they represented somewhat brave choices.

That sense of cautious conservatism appears to be spreading to other studios, with Disney currently wrangling with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinksi about the troubled adaptation of The Lone Ranger. Truth be told, even I’m not entirely sold on the premise (why do we need cowboys vs. werewolves?), but that creative team seem to deserve a better shot than most of the big budget blockbusters that get thrown our way – certainly more than a fourth Transformers film. I understand the business logic behind it, and I can’t fault it, but it’s frustrating to see the studio that produced Imagine That and The Haunted Mansion dumping the Tom Cruise sci-fi movie Oblivion.

Movie piracy is always a concern...

So, I think it’s projects like those that will suffer in the recession – movies made around unfamiliar or unproven premises. Instead, I imagine we’ll see a lot of studios returning to the same well, with a whole host of remakes, prequels and reboots to established franchises. Truth be told, I’m not being overly cynical here. Although they represented reboots, X-Men: First Class and Rise of the Planet of the Apes were perhaps the year’s best blockbusters. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Rise of the Planet of the Apes survived on luck, as it’s probably hard to argue that – following Tim Burton’s disastrous remake – Planet of the Apes is a more recognisable franchise than the Lone Ranger. But what do I know?

You might argue that there’s relatively little difference between the movies Hollywood is producing and the movies that it’s passing on. After all, one could hardly describe Gore Verbinski’s Lone Ranger as “original” – it’s arguably just as much a reboot as The Amazing Spider-Man. Similarly, Del Toro’s Mountains of Madness was an adaptation rather than an original screenplay, as was Ron Howard’s The Dark Tower. I can understand why they might not seem that different from the movies that are flooding our multiplexes in the years ahead.

Another failure might cause the studio to go bananas...

However, I do discern a rather subtle distinction. It seems that Hollywood’s reliance on old ideas is increasingly becoming far more modern. It’s no longer simply the goal to take what worked for an audience twenty or thirty years ago and serve it up for their children to enjoy – the window of opportunity seems to be closing. It seems to be more about taking the films that we enjoyed five to ten years ago, and serving it up for us to enjoy ourselves. It hasn’t been that long since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and we’re already getting a new origin for Peter Parker. I remember going to the cinema to see Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier… now it’s James McAvoy. At least there was a much larger gap between Hollywood and its inspiration in the past, with The Lone Ranger as something of a pop culture relic that perhaps deserved to have the dust blown off.

Instead, this feels like a snake eating its own tale, but it’s impossibly catching up with itself. The length of the creature is gradually getting shorter, and I have no idea what’s going to happen when the beast inevitably runs out of tale. But I would guess that it won’t be pretty.

2 Responses

  1. What’s interesting about the current cinematic climate is that studios lie about the budgets of their films. And we tend to buy those lies. I’ve heard a rumor that one of the summer’s blockbusters reported a budget $50 million dollars less than what was actually spent. I get the impression that studios don’t want people to really know what they’re spending, maybe now more than ever since this isn’t totally new.

    • That’s interesting, becaus ethe first bit of damage control on Green Lantern was not to say it’d have legs or it’d make the money back on video, but to argue that the budget was much lower than reported. Literally lowering expectations.

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