Film Fund-amentals: Rumors of the Beast

There are several major kinds of secrets in life. There are the secrets that everybody knows but is not suppose to talk about (e.g., the bunker underneath the vice president’s mansion).

Then there’s the stuff people won’t tell you about because they expect you to learn on your own (e.g., parenthood). There is the legal mumbo-jumbo such as the fine print in any financial document that exists primarily to give lawyers a reason to live. Then there is the secret of a movie’s budget. This is the most elusive secret of them all.

There are two versions of the budget of any film. There is the official version that can be (normally) found through either Variety or the IMDb site. These are good figures. They are extremely solid, reliable figures. Occasionally, they are sort of accurate (give or take a few zeros).

Then there are the “real” figures. Despite the title “real,” these figures are more like a mystical beast that is rumored to lurk within the darkest depths of the forest. Occasionally, there are reported sightings as it allegedly slithers through the shadows. The rest is a mix of circumstantial evidence and mere hearsay. In truth, there is more evidence to support Roswell than the typical Hollywood financial report.

Take, for example, the recent release of Drag Me to Hell (the title sounds like a GOP convention). As countless articles proclaimed, the film marked the return of Sam Raimi to his glory days as a low-rent but fun director of cheap, gory, but pretty lively horror films. It has repeatedly been referred to as a low-budget, then semi-low budget, production.

But nobody actually knows what the figure is (or if they do, they are very quiet about it). Raimi (who is an extremely interesting filmmaker) has the distinction of easily going back and forth between the genre movies that he truly loves and the big honker productions that have made him a marketable director. Within a short space of time, he was able to vary between making Spider-Man at $140 million and The Gift for a mere $10m. He can take the high road or the low road and have a good time either way.

But just how low budget is Drag Me to Hell? The base reported budgets for the most recent set of similar horror films produced by Raimi have averaged around $20 to $32 million dollars (The Grudge 2 and 30 Days of Night), so we can guess that this represents the current base average for Raimi. Then with Drag Me to Hell, he is both producing and directing. So hey, what producer doesn’t feel like being generous with himself as the director? So let’s up it to somewhere between $35 and $40 million.

Of course, the movie is now way outside the rational parameters of what can be expected in revenue for a modern horror movie. As I argued in a previous piece, you’ve got to keep these things averaged around $10 to $15 million if you really want to have a smooth ride to the bank, especially since you’ve got the MPAA rating bind. No self-respecting horror movie wants anything less than an R rating (it’s the gore meter guarantee). But if you’re looking for a wide-spread, mall-based audience, you’ve got to get a PG-13. Actually, the PG-13 seal of parental approval is kind of pointless for a horror film. Who the heck wants to see a horror film that their parents might go to? But if you’re hoping for a broad audience, you’ve got to have it.

What the PG-13 rating suggests is that somebody at the studio was worried about trying to pull in as wide of an age range as possible (as well as setting the stage for the eventual release of the Unrated Director’s Cut on DVD). It’s a move that smacks of desperation — a kind of desperation that might mean that the budget drifted toward the $45 to $50 million mark.

So is this really a low-budget production? In the real world, not exactly. By Hollywood standards, it’s sort of lowish. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: How do you define “low.” With an opening weekend of $15.8 million, they’re going to want to sell a lot of DVDs real soon. Privately, it sounds like another argument for budgetary restraint. Either way, this is not a low-budget movie.

And once again, the legendary critter called Budget slips back into the misty folds of the dark hills of Hollywood.

— Dennis Toth interviews Dennis Toth on whether Land of the Lost marks a temporary slip or downward slide for Will Ferrell’s boxoffice appeal. Read the story by Christian Toto, “Ferrell’s Next Step.”