How Much is Too Much?

Excellent story in the Los Angeles Times on the subject of skyrocketing movie budgets (Many thanks to Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech for noting this one.) It seems that while shooting the deadly bore Sahara, Breck Eisner staged and shot a scene in which an antique plane crashes in the desert. But it never made it into the movie. That 46-second clip cost the studio more than $2 million.

Now that is not particularly startling, not even necessarily the mark of an industry out of control. But Sahara is a movie that lost an estimated $105 million (although the Hollywood accountants claim it only lost $78 million; whew, that's a relief). And it's a film that had ten -- count 'em -- ten screenwriters. (Incidentally, one very amusing sidelight; Sahara is based on a novel by Clive Cussler, who also wrote Raise the Titanic!, another catastrophic money-loser. Surely this must be a record of some sort.)

At any rate, the LATimes piece is quite lengthy and fascinating reading. (Much more compelling than the crap that Cussler churns out.)

The one question I would love to see someone ask is why you would entrust Breck Eisner with a multi-million-dollar epic; his previous directing credits included: Recon (1996), the pilot of the short-lived series The Invisible Man, an unknown number of episodes of Taken, and a 2003 film called Thoughtcrimes that has a cast of names that I don't recognize. Subsequently he has directed a telefilm, Beyond, and been announced for the Creature from the Black Lagoon remake. In short, there is absolutely nothing in his filmography that suggests he could direct a large-budget feature. No, wait, he was a production assistant on Tango and Cash; that must have been it.

There is a famous story told by John Gregory Dunne in his first major book, The Studio, about Fox putting Richard Fleischer in charge of Tora, Tora ,Tora!, which was a $20-million film, an astronomical sum in 1969. He asked a producer -- I believe it was Joe Pasternak -- why they would give him that project since his previous film had been a $20-million flop. Pasternak's reply, "Because he's made a $20-million film." The logic, if you stop and think about it, is not as absurd as it sounds. Fleischer had proven -- repeatedly, in fact -- that he could bring in a hugely complicated film with a lot of expensive action on budget. Eisner hadn't.

Of course, if my father was Michael Eisner, I might be directing a multi-million-dollar epic. And to be absolutely fair -- which, dear readers, you know I always am -- the film did produce over $200 million in revenues, which for a less bloated film would have been extraordinary.

One of the fascinations of the article is the ways in which the studios balance their budgets on the backs of individual films; I vaguely recall a story about Steven Spielberg at the outset of his career at Universal -- although it might have been any of a dozen directors at several different studios in the '70s -- realizing that there was some unspecified cost factored into the budget for a film -- call it ten percent if you like -- that was the studio's way of paying off all its non-production expenses. Said director was, needless to say, unhappy since, if the movie lost money, it was his scalp that would be taken.

But the fact of the matter is, quite simply, very few of the most bloated films actually realize a profit (and if the studios don't want anyone with points to see a dime, their accountants can make even that profit disappear).

In the 1970s, when the average studio film was budgeted at $15 million, Neil Simon expressed his dismay, "Fifteen million dollars! That's not a movie, that's a hospital." When a film can lose $78 million, or $105 million, then there is something so wrong with this industry that it defies any analogy that Doc Simon can propose.

Sahara cost (according to the article) $281.2 million dollars. That's not a movie, that's housing for half the homeless people in LA.

Or, to play fair and keep the money in the industry family, that's not a Breck Eisner movie, that's about ten times Sam Fuller's entire career.