Memo to studios: Get your costs under control

Poster for SPECTRE, one of a series of overpriced movies.

Poster for SPECTRE, one of a series of overpriced movies.

The other day, this blog published a post about how SPECTRE spent too much for at least two scenes. But the 24th James Bond film isn’t unique in that regard.

Things have gotten crazy as studios pursue a “tentpole” strategy of a few expensive films that support their entire film slates.

A more recent film, the comic book-based Suicide Squad from Warner Bros., debuted earlier this month and has worldwide box office of more than $480 million to date.

Thursday on Twitter, two entertainment news writers, Jeff Snider of Mashable and Scott Mendelson of Forbes.com, posted about whether Suicide Squad should be considered a hit if it tops out at around $600 million.

Before we take a closer look, let that figure sink in. People are seriously debating whether a movie based on a comic book unknown to most of the general public is or isn’t a hit after generating $600 MILLION in ticket sales.

Anyway, here’s the gist of the posts about Suicide Squad.
 

Granted, there is a difference between whether something is popular and whether it turns a profit for its studio.

The classic example is 1963’s Cleopatra, which sold an estimated 67.2 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to the Box Office Mojo website. That’s in the same neighborhood as Goldfinger’s 66.3 million in the region.

Despite that, Cleopatra is remembered as a movie that nearly bankrupted its studio (20th Century Fox) while Goldfinger is remembered as a huge hit. Then again, Goldfinger had a budget ($3 million in 1964) that ensured profits while Cleopatra couldn’t cover its costs despite being seen by a lot of people paying for theater tickets.

In the 21st century, the decimal places have shifted but the lesson remains the same. It’s in the interests of filmmakers and studios not to spend for the sake of spending.

It’s absurd that a movie has to surpass $1 billion to be considered a hit. It’s also borders on the irresponsible.

Even with inflated ticket prices, there have been only 26 movies all time that have $1 billion or more in global box office. Yes, that’s not adjusted for inflation. Regardless, selling $1 billion in movie tickets is hard. Very hard.

In our post about SPECTRE, we detailed two scenes (a car chase and an explosion) where spending a lot of money appeared to be point, not story telling or dramatic choices. But SPECTRE isn’t alone.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, ended its theatrical run with global box office of almost $873 million. Yet, it’s seen as a disappointment for not making the $1 billion mark because, gosh, any movie with Batman and Superman should have been a cinch to make $1 billion.

None of this is new. Go even further back and directors such as D.W. Griffith and Erich Von Stroheim got into trouble for overly expensive movies for their day. Clint Eastwood, as he transitioned into directing, witnessed ridiculous spending for the 1969 musical Paint Your Wagon. As a result, Eastwood has made acclaimed films as a director but he’s also known for efficiency.

Decimal places change, but the lesson doesn’t. Movies have always been a balance between art and commerce. Studios can, and should, watch their spending. It’s still possible to make good films on a budget.

That doesn’t mean cheap spending. Movies like SPECTRE and Batman v Superman can’t be done on the cheap. But it calls for smart spending.

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