July 21, 2011

"Nobody knows anything"

Back in 1982, screenwriter William Goldman famously said "Nobody knows anything" about how well movies will perform at the box office. But, a whole lot of smart, hard-working people have worked hard on this question, and the variability has been reduced over time via a number of means. More movies are sequels or remakes. More movies are planned from the beginning to be sequel-amenable. Talent gets locked in for potential sequels at the initial contract stage, with options with escalating payments. 

Movie budgets are secret and the numbers that get into the press are driven by various agendas (e.g., make it sound superstupendous before it comes out, make it sound less ruinous after it flops, etc.) But, you can kind of see money spent on the screen, especially on standardized products like sequels.

All this makes being a suit a slightly more scientific job. The big question becomes: Can you keep milking a particular franchise by constantly upping the budget faster than audience boredom sets in, or do you cash in now and burn your last audience by skimping on budget and time. For example, Jurassic Park III ($93 million budget) was a clear cash-in move: Spielberg handed direction off to somebody else and the film felt like it ended before the super-colossal pterodactyl attack that would have put it over the top. (The low budget parts of JPIII are actually quite good, with William H. Macy and Tea Leoni doing a screwball comedy of remarriage.) Not surprisingly, in the decade since, there hasn't been a Jurassic Park IV.

On the other hand, with Pirates of the Caribbean, they keep spending gigantic amounts hoping to keep the franchise alive. 

We can look at the Harry Potter budgets reported on The-Numbers as an unreliable but at least apples-to-apples comparison to see why the final Harry Potter movie seemed so skimpy. 

#1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone, 11/2001: $125,000,000 budget -- Off to a good start

#2 Chamber of Secrets, 11/200212 months since the previous release: $100,000,000 -- Only a year and a $100 mil is skimpy for this kind of sure thing; director Chris Columbus retired from the series after the ordeal of getting out two movies in 12 months.

#3 6/2004, Prisoner of Azkaban, 19 months: $130,000,000 -- Everybody goes on and on about what a great job the director Cuaron did, but more money and more time didn't hurt.

#4 Goblet of Fire, 11/2005, 17 months: $150,000,000

#5 Order of the Phoenix, 7/2007, 20 months: $150,000,000

#6 Half-Blood Prince, 7/2009, 24 months: $250,000,000 -- That's a lot of money, fifth most all time according to this list among movies already released; and it's a reasonable amount of time. Guess what, it was highly enjoyable. This revitalized the series and set it up to cash in hugely on the last book.

#7a, Deathly Hallows - Part 1, 11/2010, 16 months, some fraction of $250,000,000 -- The producers decided to spend $250,000,000 on making J.K. Rowling's 7th novel as one long production, but then they decided to release it as two separate movies totaling 276 minutes (compared to #6's 153 minutes). Despite lacking in dramatic action, this one clocked in at 146 minutes. It looked great. They clearly spent a lot per minute, although not quite as much as the previous movie. I think the decision to split #7 into two movies was fine. There were no more skippable subplots and children can't be expected to sit through a 4 hour plus movie. What's not fine is that the producers thought they could make two movies for the same cost and in the same duration as their sixth installment.

#7b Deathly Hallows - Part 2, 7/2011, 8 months, the remainder of the $250,000,000, perhaps not even $100,000,000 if expenditure was proportional to time between releases -- This one is the shortest of all eight movies at 130 minutes, and the long-awaited climactic scene looks weak. Charitably, you can say that the filmmakers ran out time and money to make the finale as good as it should have been. Uncharitably, you can say that this is where they finally cashed in big time.

My old articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

"Charitably, you can say that the filmmakers ran out time and money to make the finale as good as it should have been. Uncharitably, you can say that this is where they finally cashed in big time."

Do I hear Sailer's Inner Child speaking?

Disgruntled said...

The Potter movies have been so crazy profitable, that I think they'll have to somehow keep making something based on the world if Rowling will(has?) license it out.

At this point, I'm not even sure how many of them I've seen. While sometimes amusing, they're pretty forgettable. They never really made much sense, but I guess that's an advantage of writing about magic. I lost interest after the one in which one of the characters had a time machine.

Anonymous said...

You misunderstand the time, logistics and technology of film production so much as to be risible. Not to mention two more seconds spent in earning credits as a Wikipedia scholar would have told you that the sixth movie was in the can and ready for a November 2008 release when it was delayed "to guarantee the studio a major summer blockbuster in 2009."

Anonymous said...

Lucas managed to cash in big time on the entire prequel trilogy, not to mention the multiple re-release of the originals in various guises.

I'm not sure if there was anything left to cash in on Jurassic Park III, since JP2 was so amazingly awful. Sam Neill's character even manages to get in a dig at JP2 the beginning of the third movie.

I presume the Harry Potter filmmakers had to work fast in order to cash in on the excitement, lest the original Potter fans be grandparents by the time they were finished. My young cousin who was in elementary school when she began reading the books and is now a happily married mother of 2.

Daniel said...

Very interesting to read this summary in contrast with the summary at Bruce Charlton's blog

Different strokes for different folks, it would appear.

Truth said...

Never saw one HP picture, Avatar, or Titanic. NOW WHAT, FOOL?!?!?

Anonymous said...

are you playing movie-critic/Hollywood-observer again?

eh said...

I am willing to admit that, after eschewing the whole phenomenon as, ahem, something beneath me, I read the first four Potter books...because they came in a set. And I saw the first two Potter movies. After that I lost interest.

Anonymous said...

Young people comprise most moviegoers, and their tastes are easier to figure out that those of older people.

Anonymous said...


Henry Canaday said...

Never having read or seen a “Potter,” my ignorant theory is that they succeed because: 1) they, like so many Spielberg movies, are about the last years very clever and adventurous pre-adolescents spend before sex becomes an obsession and misery; and 2) the source books are reasonably entertaining because most British novelists, unlike so many of their American counterparts, do not double as college English professors.

Marlowe said...

Goldman also observed how Lucas & Spielberg had changed the rules of the game and simplified the ecology of Hollywood by 1982 in what seems to me, now, 30 years later, a true feat of brilliant extrapolation. By the early 80s the two men had only produced a handful of hits between them - Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) - and one huge flop in Spielberg's case, 1941! (1979), which not even the cream of young American comic talent could redeem, yet Goldman saw that they were something new under the sun and not merely a pair of lucky producers: rather a new kind of mogul, reshaping the nature of film production (and I mean the actual process as well as the content).

Quite simply without these two men & James Cameron, a rival innovator, we wouldn't have Michael Bay and the dominance of giant spectacle movies awash in CGI.

Tim Burton is probably the fourth stooge in this vaudeville act: his 1989 Batman movie prepared the ground for the modern superhero and the triumph of the literal comic book movie Goldman described metaphorically.

I would add however that the magic doesn't always work: The Golden Compass died in the cradle possibly because its original was too much a literary conceit and far too cerebral.

Bruce Charlton said...

The problem for me is that I have a very different evaluation of the relative quality of the movies:


But I see no reason to accept the initial assumption that (beyond a certain point) there is no reason to assume that extra money and time make for better movies.

Indeed I can think of plausible reasons why more money might be associated with *worse* movies - given what they spend money on (mostly, flashy special effects and set-pieces - which were what spoiled several Harry Potter movies - in my opinion).

Anonymous said...

Never read the Harry Potter books. Saw all of the movies. Wanted to see what it was about. Was obsessed for a few months to a year. Lost complete interest after that. Harry Potter isn't water, it's soda. It's okay and a litte entertaining but not engaging, lasting and a work of art (a literal masterpiece) like Lord of the Rings nor as good as say Star Wars, the Matrix or The Chronicles of Narnia.

PN said...

There's another good reason film budgets can't be trusted (one which dovetails with another recent iSteve post)... films get tax incentives back from a number of states based on their budget numbers.

For instance, my own state offers a nice little payout for movies with budgets over 200k which conduct almost all principal photography within the state. The payout is a percentage of the budget, so less-than-scrupulous producers can claim a film budget of $2m was actually, oh, $4m and enjoy a nice paycheck.

Such shenanigans were not unknown in the Louisiana film industry recently - until the state finally got wise.

Anonymous said...


Never, ever trust the budget estimates of big movies that you see online. Nine times out of ten, they're either spin from the studios that put them out, or rumor-spreading from rival studios trying to say "look how much money they spent on this turkey."

You generally only get accurate budget information when there's a lawsuit over profits after the fact.

Whiskey said...

Steve, Goldman said that when it was untrue. Even in the 70's producers knew that say, "the Sting" or Towering Inferno made money, and Taxi Driver and Raging Bull did not. But producers gave a big middle finger to audiences and made movies for their peers. Louis Mayer and Sam Goldwyn knew what made money -- stories middle class people would like.

The danger is social distance eroding the ability to understand what middle class audiences like. If Sting or Bruce Springsteen live like oriental potentates, with "wipers" (out of the Eddie Murphy movie) ... it does not matter because their skills as musicians and songwriters remain the same (even if their lyrics are stupid). But for producers and directors and screenwriters, social distance produces say, "Grace is Gone" instead of Taken.

Whiskey said...

When Goldman wrote that comment, audiences flocked to see Newman and Redford in Butch Cassidy, and the Sting. They went to see big budget disaster movies like Airport or Towering Inferno. With lots of movie stars. They did not like depressing, arty, made for fellow movie maker movies. Taxi Driver is a towering achievement -- but its not exactly a crowd pleaser. Meanwhile Death Wish, well was, along with Dirty Harry, and neither required a huge budget.

Taken is just Dirty Harry mixed with Death Wish. Its not that hard to figure out. People like that stuff. But you can't be arty and pull it off.

James Kabala said...

"the sixth movie was in the can and ready for a November 2008 release when it was delayed 'to guarantee the studio a major summer blockbuster in 2009.'"

Besides this undoubted fact, it is also true that 7a and 7b were filmed as one unit - which you sort of acknowledge, but I don't quite know how you incorporate it into your overall theory about the time gaps.

Anonymous said...

Whiskey, both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull made money, though neither were blockbusters. The former did make something on the order of 14 times its production costs. Looking that up took two minutes.

Anonymous said...


Funny. I miss the 80s.