What does a massive film budget mean anymore?

Red Notice
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With big budgets come big responsibility. But why don’t huge budgets necessarily result in good-looking films these days?

Last week, we reported that Joseph Kosinski’s new Formula One movie’s budget has apparently crossed the $300m mark.

For context, this will make the as-yet unnamed film something like the 12th most expensive movie of all time. It’s also about five times the GDP of Tuvalu.

But this sort of spending isn’t really anything new. As long as there have been movies, people have been spending too much on them. With the growth of visual effects and increasing numbers of moving parts in even the smallest blockbuster,

Of the 50 most expensive films ever made (adjusted for inflation) just four arrived before the year 2000. At the time of their release, Cleopatra (1963), Wild Wild West (1999), Waterworld (1995) and Titanic (1997) made headlines for the damage they were doing to Hollywood’s piggy banks. For the most part, though, you could see where the money went – Cleopatra might have had a few teething problems, but it also had big sets and the most famous actress on the planet in it at a time when those were the most expensive things a film could have.

That trend continued in the 21st century, too. In the distant pre-Covid past a big budget, while not a guarantee of quality, still seemed to end up on the screen one way or another. Some of the most expensive franchise fare made between 2000 and 2019 – Star Wars, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Avengers – whether through their starry casts or surplus of explosions in different capital cities, certainly don’t look cheap.

Jack Sparrow would rather die than skimp on his visual effects budget (Credit: Disney)

This, in my eyes, was a good thing. If a film’s budget was big enough to generate a headline, audiences could basically guarantee a ticket would provide at least the entertainment value of your average fireworks display: one “oo”, a couple “ahh”s and somewhere to buy some plastic tat on a stick. There was a level of trust there – these Hollywood types won’t have spent a squillion dollars for no reason

Post-Covid, though, audiences have been hit by a series of blockbusters that just don’t seem to justify their price tags. Marvel has come under fire more than most: Black Widow, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania and Thor: Love And Thunder were iffy enough to unionise the VFX industry. But Fast X and Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny weren’t exactly groundbreaking in the looks department either (I maintain that de-aged Harrison Ford looks much creepier than he does impressive).

Of course, the increased demand for VFX work over the last decade or so goes some way to explaining why costs are spiralling out of control. But budgets are spent on more than just fancy computers. On the physical side of production, stunts, multiple filming locations and stunts in multiple filming locations all, obviously, come at a price.

Quite why this means The Fall Guy ($125-$140m) cost at least $60m less than The Gray Man ($200m+) despite being a lot more stunt-heavy is anyone’s guess. Why that sum is even comparable to Dune Part Two ($190m), a VFX and action-heavy sci-fi epic which stars several of the biggest stars on the planet and spent 27 days shooting in the Abu Dhabi desert, is one of the many financial mysteries the industry is predictably reluctant to answer.

(L-R): Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Kathryn Newton as Cassandra "Cassie" Lang, Evangeline Lilly as Hope Van Dyne/Wasp in Marvel Studios' ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2022 MARVEL.
Ant-Man And The Wasp Quantumania cost something in the region of $326m (Credit: Disney)

Much stock, too, has been put in the death of residual payments. With the decline of the home video market and plenty of films skipping the box office altogether, stars are supposedly negotiating bigger upfront payments to make up for it. This at least explains why Leonardo DiCaprio is able to command salaries in the $30m range for Don’t Look Up and Killers Of The Flower Moon, but doesn’t explain why Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness (one reasonably hefty star) cost $26m more than Avengers: Infinity War (all of them).

While these like-for-like comparisons are never entirely accurate, Hollywood’s increasingly nonsensical accounting has put the industry in a bit of a pickle. Ever since films opened in movie palaces and claimed their place as the biggest form of entertainment on the planet, glitz, glamour and expense have played huge parts in their enduring appeal. Blockbuster cinema is an industry of scale – if the money isn’t spent making something feel big, extravagant and exciting, it’s difficult to explain to audiences why they should bother splashing the cash on a trip to the multiplex.

While the also-spiralling costs of low and mid-budget films is a different question, when it comes to blockbusters, it’s hard to say if any amount of money is too much to spend if it makes the product look impressive enough. If movie-going is supposed to turn into an event again, studios need to start putting their money where their mouths are – and not wherever the hell they put it making Red Notice.

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