As they say, you have to spend money to make money. But the amount you dispense is not often proportional to the amount you earn. This is why out-of-control movie budgets continue to scare both Hollywood executives and those of us following the industry, even though many of the most expensive films of all time also ended up the most lucrative.
For every success ("Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End") there's a big bust ("John Carter" and "Cutthroat Island"), and right now, after incurring a writedown loss on "John Carter," Disney has good reason to worry that their "Lone Ranger" movie, starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp, will be like the latter two.
Recent reports show that the "Ranger" production is behind schedule and costs are back up to $250 million, a price that was previously considered a deal-breaker for the studio. Although there may be more cuts made to "Ranger" action sequences deemed disposable, the filmmakers -- who include "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott -- might be wary of eliminating too much of the movie's value in the process. After all, some of that excised spectacle may just be what attracts a larger audience.
Unfortunately, it's hard to say how much it attracts them. While the average moviegoer isn't always drawn to expensive material over inexpensive (especially since a film's production cost has no effect on its ticket price for the consumer), audiences frequenting cinemas in these pickier times want some bang for the studio's buck, as well as for their own. If they don't see where the money went, chances are they'll choose something when it looks like more care and effort went into it.
That's why James Cameron can go to town with his budgets. He may spend a lot of money and take a lot of time with his movies, but the passion he has for giving us something we've never seen before shows up on the screen. By comparison, "Men in Black III" -- regardless of the profit being made from its worldwide grosses -- offers viewers very little that's fresh, let alone worth the $225 million it is said to have cost, as most everyone involved with the film just seemed to be going through the motions of getting a product out there. A fun time making films often translates to a fun time watching them, and similarly, the care put in can correspond to the care felt by those experiencing it.
That said, passionate projects shouldn't be confused for passion projects, as a flop like John Travolta's "Battlefield Earth" proved in the past. The thing about the former is that passionate filmmakers can take a property nobody seems to want (perhaps even themselves), such as an adaptation of a theme park ride, or a genre that typically fares badly, such as a pirate adventure, and deliver an enormously popular piece of entertainment.
Sadly, the constant proof that nobody in Hollywood knows anything is still at play with these recent big-budget projects. Because domestic audiences aren't flocking to expectant hits with name-recognition and seemingly built-in-audiences like "Battleship," "John Carter" and "MIB3," studio suits think that they should be more careful. However, as we now see with the current "Lone Ranger" news, being careful isn't always the path they take.
Another huge box-office disappointment will likely happen in the near future. Therefore, the best thing for studios to do now is to pull back on tentpole budgets for new properties, even those based on popular existing material, and wait to see what sells. Then they can throw big money at proven titles as they've done with the "Pirates," "Harry Potter" and "Dark Knight" sequels (but only if the original, likely passionate talent, returns).
However, the studios shouldn't, nor will they, completely scale back the way they did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Right now, more than ever, we want big blockbuster event movies. Otherwise, we'll stay at home with our more interesting TV programs. It's a bigger deal to us that we have to make the effort to get to the cinema these days than pay whatever the ticket costs, and likewise it should be a bigger deal for Hollywood to have to make the effort to get us to the cinema than pay whatever the production costs. In the end, we just want the movies to be well-made, whether that means script-wise, effects-wise or both. As they say, you have to give a lot if you want to get a lot.