Posted by: wolferiver | August 7, 2010

Halfbaked Oversimplification

The Technology Liberation Front posted a piece called “How To Make A $200 Million Movie”. It’s a sarcastic comment on the high cost of making movies, using a 5 minute short film which the maker said cost $800 to make, and was shot with a relatively inexpensive digital camera. Techdirt picked up the story, adding commentary to the effect that “it’s the story, stupid.”  The premise clearly is that just because some Hollywood producers seem to believe that a typical movie ought to cost in the neighborhood of $200 million, doesn’t mean that they’re correct.

I can’t disagree with the sentiment, but I think it needs a little unpacking, particularly in light of the many comments by readers at Techdirt, who all blamed runaway movie costs on “Hollywood excesses.” Overpaid union workers and wasteful executives are very convenient scapegoats.  Both articles simplify the issues by implying that all one needs is a cheap digital camera and a good story, and voila, you have a “successful” movie, conveniently ignoring any definition of what “successful” means. (Achieving a certain level of artistic merit? Gaining a large audience? Earning financial payback? All of the above?)

I completely agree that the most important thing about a movie is whether it tells an interesting story, and that it need not cost $200 million to tell a good story. Lord only knows how many dreadful movies there are that had huge budgets. But let’s not forget there are some expensive movies that are fun to watch — the James Bond franchise movies, or the Bourne movies are just two examples that come to mind. The added stunts and visual effects, or the charismatic leading men, add an extra dimension to their stories which goes beyond what their book versions can provide — although, those, too, are entertaining.  There are also dreadful independent movies that rightly languish on a shelf.  And does anyone seriously believe that the cheap movies made by Roger Corman have significantly enriched our collective cultural consciousness?

Consider the short movie that led to this pontificating. Uncle Jack is a cute and fun short movie, and the film makers (cast and crew) are clearly skilled at their craft.

I also watched the “making of” video where the film maker said actual shooting took about 3 days. Although he talked about his inspiration for the script, he said nothing about the time that was put into writing the script, not to mention the time spent securing a stage and the props, time spent securing the talent – both acting and crew, and the time spent preparing and planning for the shoot. (The actors and crew didn’t all just show up one day only to loaf around while the director figured out where they should stand, what bit of action they should do, and where he should plant his cameras. He had to have put some thought into that ahead of time.) Also, there weren’t many stunts, but they still took time to plan and rig up. And what about the post production work? How much time went into editing, the sound mixing, adding the visual F/X, and doing the compositing?

The film maker implied that most of his cast and crew signed on virtually for nothing. (If so, for 3 days of shooting, probably no one missed being paid. Try getting such free labor for 30 days.) I don’t know if his budget included renting the studio that he shot in, but somehow I can’t imagine that his $800 budget included 3 days of sound stage rental.  (Or,even one day of sound stage rental, for that matter.) Maybe it did, but then, how did all those wonderful props (the purple troll, for example, or the skeletons) get into the picture?

Did he need special lights? Or did he shoot using ambient lighting? Shooting night scenes doesn’t require as many lights as trying to simulate daylight, but it still needs lights. The audience needs to clearly see the actors and their actions. Studio sound lots, on the other hand, usually don’t come equipped with lights; you have to bring them in yourself. Oh, and why shoot in a studio? Because you can control the sound better. No inadvertent background noises which would require time-consuming re-recording of dialog.  Did the film maker already own the camera and the lenses? Because if you rent them, those are going to cost you some $$, too.

While I don’t doubt that this director’s out-of-pocket expenses for this particular shoot may likely have only been $800, I think he’s vastly underestimating the value of the time others spent on this film, or his own time in writing, directing, and editing, or the value earned by the likely horse trading that may have gone into obtaining free resources.

The difference between a movie that is interesting and one that isn’t has a lot to do with how good the story is, but it also has a little bit to do with how well it is told. (If all it took was a great story in order to get a large audience, then the 60’s and 70’s Doctor Who episodes would have more than just a small, cult fandom.) The production values in a film still count for something, and there’s a cost for a certain level of professionalism.

I just happened to re-watch the recent Sherlock Holmes movie last night (the one directed by Guy Ritchie), and while watching the end credits roll by, I noticed that there was a veritable phalanx of crew members over and above the large number of faces appearing on the screen as cast and extras.   This is not uncommon, as everyone by now knows, on these types of large budget movies.

In fact, if you took just the raw number of crew names from the credit list, which had to average on the order of 100 people, and just did a rough $25/hour cost and a sixty hour work week (which is 40 hours straight time, and 10 hours of overtime at double rates – so just make it 20 hours) for let’s say half a year, then on wages alone the makers spent close to $15,000,000. And what do you want to bet that each of the two leads received compensation on the order of $10,000,000 (and very probably more)? So, you could safely say that a quarter of the (typical) $200MM budget is spent on wages for cast and crew while shooting. (Warning, I am not an industry professional, so these figures have no basis in fact, and are based on underlying assumptions of prevailing living wages, normal working hours in the developed world, and casual readings of past information on typical film shooting timelines as reported by Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.  However, I would venture to say that, in general, they’re sound.)

Then there’s location shooting costs. The credits say that the movie was shot in London, New York (huh?), Manchester, and Liverpool. You don’t shoot in those cities for free. There’s licensing, fees, and inspection costs. Other miscellaneous costs, such as the cost for the city to manage traffic also need to be paid. And of course, each specific location will charge you rental for use of their buildings, and it’s part of your contract with them that whatever mess you make in their rooms, you have to put back the way you found it. Was the production overcharged for these things? Maybe or maybe not. (If someone came to you and said they wanted to shoot a scene in your house, what would you charge them? Exactly my point.)

What do you suppose all those period costumes for the leads and the extras all cost? Or all those props? What do you think renting horses and carriages costs, especially nowadays when they’re pretty rare. Lights, portable generators for power (and these are honking big ones, the size of semi trailers, not the little ones you might have in your garage for when you lose power in your house), fuel to run those generators, cables (hey, copper costs beaucoup bucks nowadays and it takes a LOT of copper to supply the power to juice those lights), sound equipment, cameras, lenses, dollies, rails for dollies (don’t want the camera to go bump as you’re filming a rolling shot), and of course raw film, which itself costs a LOT. (Let’s not get into the argument of the merits of film vs. digital, eh? Each has its place.)

All this just gets raw footage on film and “in the can”, as they say. Then you start the post production work, which involves a second phalanx of visual effects people, editors, and sound mixers. For a movie with a hefty amount of special visual effects, this work can go on for another half a year. So, just for discussion purposes, add another $15MM to the wages tab. (Again, an average of 100 people working on various aspects of post production, for about half a year.)

You can certainly tell a Sherlock Holmes story without all these huge costs. Consider Granada Television, which a decade or so ago made several series of 1-hour episodes (which still occasionally air in the US on PBS) for much less money. There were no “name” stars, no extras milling around in the background adding verisimilitude to scenes, most of the filming took place in a studio, very little if any visual effects were used, and there was virtually no action to choreograph and rehearse, only a lot of people standing around and saying things like “I say, Lord Percy.” I would argue, however, that far fewer people in this country were entertained by this version of Sherlock Holmes, than were by the Guy Ritchie big studio version.

I happen to find each of these two versions of the Sherlock Holmes story entertaining in its own way.  Despite the vast difference in audience size, and the scale and scope of the two productions, it would be fair to say that each achieved success regardless of how you might define the term.  Both have solid production values, both achieve a certain level of artistic merit, both were enjoyed by millions, and I would bet that both versions made their respective production houses money.  This, despite the cost structure of each being vastly different.

The point of this long diatribe is to show that most of the cost of a movie can be seen on the screen. That is, if you understand what you are looking at.  Are some of those costs padded? Undoubtedly, although the extent of that depends a lot on how carefully the production accountants kept an eye on spending. I will point out, from my work in the private industrial sector, on large construction projects, that the larger the budget is, the more there is a tendency to let the small stuff go. But in this respect, Hollywood productions are no different than large projects in any other industry.

Are there people on the payroll that don’t completely earn their paycheck? Probably, but again, that’s no different than any other workplace.  Most of the people employed to make movies earn their wages satisfactorily, and most of them only make enough to maintain a middle class lifestyle.  But then, this too, is true of most people in most other industries in the western world.  All this is to say that there is nothing inherently more wasteful in the actual making of a movie than in the actual making of any other product.  (The publicity and marketing of Hollywood productions is another story, but our topic is producing something, not marketing it.)

Are there wildly overcompensated stars? Perhaps, but then, the perceived value brought to the project by such stars is at once subjective and objective.  For some people, no visual dramatization of a Sherlock Holmes story will get them to watch, since in their opinion, nothing can touch the original books.  For others, only a big star on the large screen will get their attention.  To put it another way, Jeremy Brett, the star of the British TV Sherlock Holmes series won’t get you off your couch, but Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes on the big screen just might.  If the goal is merely to provide viewing for couch potatoes, then a Jeremy Brett is all you would want to finance.  If, on the other hand, you want to drive viewers off the couch and into theaters, then even the high cost of a Robert Downey Jr. could well bring a return on the studio’s investment.  However, it could be said that the employment of name brand stars on a movie project falls under the category of sales and marketing – a completely different topic.

Taking an $800 short, 5-minute film, and extrapolating that into an example which all full length feature films (or even 1-hour TV dramas) ought to follow is, to say the least, an over-simplification of what goes into making a movie. Yes, story is important, and no, what the production might have cost doesn’t really matter to a viewing audience, but the making of any successful movie needs a certain level of competency, and whether openly acknowledged or not, comes at some not inconsiderable cost.  While the film and TV industry is clearly grappling with a rapidly changing distribution system, their cost structure isn’t going to magically change just because their traditional distribution venues are shrinking and new ones haven’t clearly emerged.



  1. Terrific post. Although my position on the Hollywood food chain does not allow any real familiarity with the details of big picture budgeting, your analysis sounds pretty much right-on. On a big movie like that, the bulk of the lighting crew (grips and electricians) would be making closer to $35/hour at current Hollywood rates, although some — camera and sound dept , among others — make considerably more. Then you’ve got the legions of “producers,” some of whom do seriously important work and others who are useless parasitic barnacles absorbing money simply for being friends with the right people. Post production on such digital wonders also accounts for a huge portion of the budget.

    Certainly there are excesses — wasted money — in Hollywood, just as occur on any large construction project. But even the A List stars aren’t getting the $20 million/picture deals these days that were common ten years ago. Things are tough all over, including Hollywood.

    You’re dead right about story. A great story poorly told will interest no one, while a poor story well told might at least be seen as an intriguing failure. The problem, as always, is finding the right approach to telling your story. Too much money can be just as dangerous as too little. One of the producers of “Battlestar Galactica” said that his show would have been much the worse if they had a million dollars more to spend on each episode. That extra money would have gone into fancier SFX shots for a flashier look — more impressive space battles — but then the writers and actors wouldn’t have had to work so hard. It was the human drama that made that show so interesting, not the spaceships and explosions.

    Sometimes less really is more.

    I’ve seen your name in the comments section of my blog, but didn’t know you had one as well. I like it, and will definitely be back.

  2. Thanks! It’s nice that someone other than my siblings casts a glance here.

    I was very curious about the wages. I assumed $25, but I think in my calculations I also assumed some overhead, which is what we do in industrial construction projects. That is, the actual take home for a craftsman is around $19 to $25, but there is additional benefits factored into that, which nearly double what we, as the owners, get charged by the contractor. That includes things like insurance, workman’s comp, union benefits the contractor is obligated to pay, and so on. We may also see a per diem in that figure, especially if we’re building in a location remote from any skilled labor force. Furthermore, if we do work out in our west coast facilities, for some reason, we actually estimate labor costs closer to $70, but no one has ever satisfactorily explained why skilled labor costs so much more there. For the record, however, we do see regional rate differences, with the southeast being the lowest and the west coast being the highest.

    I wonder if when setting up film budgets, is the same sort of overhead applied to the labor cost?

  3. Probably, but I’m the wrong person to talk to about the ins and outs of film budgeting. My world is lights, power, and cable, not spreadsheets and budgets.

    Basic union scale for my trade — set lighting — is currently something like $34.50/hour here on the West Coast. I say “something like” because many of us rarely see full scale anymore. As I’m constantly whining about on my blog, the rise of cable has been a double-edged sword, since cable networks enjoy a “sidebar deal” with IATSE allowing them to pay considerably less. The show I’m currently working on pays $29 and change for a set lighting technician or grip. Best Boys (foreman, essentially) get a couple of bucks more, as do the Gaffer and Key Grip (respective department heads).

    That said, not all cable shows take advantage of this. I worked on “The Bill Engvall” show ( a sit com) during two of its three seasons, and TBS was nice enough to pays us full scale. “Mad Men” also pays full scale to its crew, and has right from the start. But “Greek” — a Disney show, of course — screwed their crew for all four or five seasons, paying them as little as possible. Disney is famous in Hollywood for being the most tight-fisted of operations.

    None of this includes the cost of benefits – health and pension plans. I’ve been told that the overall cost is somewhere close to fifty bucks/hour to the producers, but that was just a rumor. I have no idea what the real total is.

    The West Coast locals pay more than the the flyover states and Southeast, but I think the East Coast film workers probably make more. Unions (and the union tradition) are a lot tougher back there. I imagine the coasts are more expensive for contractors and producers because the cost of living is so much higher out here. Until recently, there were lots of employment options on the West Coast, but the demise of aerospace in SoCal (and many of those laid off workers went into the film biz) and erosion of the local industrial base have dried up the those options. The digital revolution continues to weaken the basic economic foundation of the biz, and what we here consider “runaway production” has sent much of the work to Canada and the many states offering fat tax rebates to film productions.

    Back in the late 80’s (before I got in the IA) I did a few non-union features based in Hollywood that filmed in North Carolina, Mississippi, and Vermont. This was partly because the story took place in those locales, but also took full advantage of the much lower costs of filming on those virgin locations. Back then, they’d fly the whole non-union crew out from Hollywood, then pick up a few locals as needed. It wasn’t all sweetness and light, though. That film I did in Vermont — in the Fall and early Winter — paid me a flat $200/day for a six day week with no overtime until a cumulative 96 hours — meaning 16 hour days. I got some O.T. on several of those weeks. In other words, we got our asses kicked thanks to being non-union. But the film would never have been made if it had to go union, so there’s the dilemma.

    Nowadays, they take department heads and maybe Best Boys on location, but the rest of the labor is drawn from the local pool — and now there are reasonably competent film workers just about everywhere.

    It’s a different world. I’m glad I saw what I did when I did. I wouldn’t want to a be a young person trying to break in these days.

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