When people make the comparison between the budget and the box office returns of an unprofitable film, I find it ironic that the focus is often put on saying that the film cost too much to make, rather than on saying that the film didn’t make enough money. For most people, when they remark that a film cost too much, they are simply expressing their disappointment at the financial results, perhaps mixed with some frustration that a film they like probably won’t get a sequel. That same mention of expense as the deciding factor can also indicate a belief that the key to success in filmmaking is to spend less, rather than to insist on quality that justifies expense. To be fair, insistence on quality can be implied, but if that is the case, why does the conversation so often turn to a mechanical focus on budget? This trend has only become more prominent in recent years on discussion boards, comment threads and social media. This seemingly small distinction in focus on budget vs. quality gets at the root of a philosophy which can enable mediocrity and which is prevalent in too much of the film industry.
Several observations can be made to highlight the disadvantageous nature of this recent trend in industry perspectives. If any of the films which have done poorly and were deemed “too expensive” had instead made $1billion at the box office, nobody would be saying they were too expensive. The “too expensive” critique can only be made in hindsight, after the box office results are in, and thus is minimally helpful. If it is an assertion that the film wasn’t good enough to recoup its budget, why the emphasis on the budget, rather than on the presentation and experience of the film itself? It’s true that people like to look at objective data, rather than delve into subjective opinions, but at what point does by-the-numbers analysis draw too much focus away from the “intangibles” that constitute the heart and soul of cinema? Does real success come from an effective budgetary risk-management formula, or does it come from romancing an audience? Being responsible with resources is important, but it should never get veto power over what makes a film shine. If financial risk can put a film over the cusp into groundbreaking excellence, it is better to give the film that support, rather than defensively cut the budget to mitigate losses. The latter seems to increasingly be the modus operandi of the film industry, to the industry’s own detriment.
Generally speaking, “too expensive” critiques seem too convenient for shifting the conversation away from the more challenging topics of:
(1) the quality of the marketing
(2) the appeal of the source material and the film adaptation’s approach to that material
(3) the quality of the filmmaking, regardless of whether it’s an original or an adaptation
If the marketing is poor, the source material questionable, the adaptation loose, and the filmmaking lazy, a film can fail financially even if it was made on a shoestring budget.
If the quality is poor, while the budget is high, even going back in time to reduce the budget would not save the film; it would likely result in a film of even lower quality and further diminished appeal, with even less of a chance of being considered a success in proportion to its budget.
Conversely, excellent marketing, robust source material, a strong adaptation, and effective filmmaking can turn even the highest budgeted film into a massive financial success. No one complains about the expense of a film when that scenario unfolds.
The ideal scenario is for the quality to be excellent, and the budget low. However, strict adherence to this ideal results in limitations being put on certain genres. There are some film genres, especially those which incorporate imaginative elements, that do not naturally conform to the business-model ideal, no matter how frugal the filmmakers may be. These are the “you have to see it in the theater” type of films which require extensive world-building and visual spectacle, and which can only be made with big budgets. To keep such films on an arbitrarily limited budget, in an attempt to prevent them from being “too expensive,” decreases their ability to incorporate the elements that make such films appealing in the first place. There is a point where “cheap” becomes “weak,” rather than “profitable.” Box office returns don’t justify the budget. Quality justifies the budget. If, for some reason, top-notch quality ends up missing at the box office, at least it will not have been because anyone refused to support the film due to the fear of losses. Quality only increases the chance of success, while a lowered budget increases the chance of keeping a film out of both the red AND the gold.
Business models can be useful tools to keep blatant incompetence, and/or excess, in check. At the same time, if the film industry wishes to make movies with maximum appeal in every genre, there must be an acknowledgement that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all business model. When an imaginative script works on paper, can be marketed with gusto, understands and properly leverages its source material (or is a great original), and can attract top-level talent both behind and in front of the camera, it absolutely should be given the budget it intrinsically calls for. Putting a budget cap on a project of this type, apart from the needs of the genre and the particulars of the production, is asking for a weak product – which, predictably, won’t be anywhere near as successful as the same material when produced at its full potential.
The breakout success cost/return point is when quality is supported by a sufficient budget, and a real, genre-fulfilling experience happens in the theater that compels repeat viewings. The truly ideal business model is when budget becomes a footnote in the history of a success. Are those types of films even being attempted any more? Or are we just getting safe-bet franchises and budget-capped, ambition-capped, and appeal-capped would-be pioneers?
Audiences can sense when films are being made per a “safe” and less expensive formula. An industry that settles for middling, safe-bet products will be greeted with middling enthusiasm, and is already in a net-loss situation – with nothing to bring it back off of life support. For people to fall in love with the movies again, and to consequently reinvigorate the entire industry, filmgoers need to be treated to regular servings of wonder – not cynicism, not gratuity, and not bland, budgetarily-convenient predictability. Yes, people like the tried-and-true, but they LOVE the new-and-wonderful. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar are stand-out examples.
In the imaginative and wonder-evoking genres of film, as is often true with food, economy and quality tend to be at odds. This ties into the tension between convenience and substance, or between junk food and a healthy feast. Is the global film industry content to treat cinema as fast-food, or will it invest in realizing the promise of fulfilling, captivating, and substantial feasts?