Film Fund-amentals: Between the Lines

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that 2012 scored over $225 millions across the globe for a blow-out opening that will convince the nitwits that run Hollywood that they are making money. Of course the movie’s planet-destroying budget of $260 to $300 million suggests that the flick has barely covered its equally inflated promotional budget. But this is not the way the suits look at these figures. In fact, I don’t think they really look at any figures. They just read their own ink and go crazy.

Gee, isn’t it a shame that the movie is bound to drop like a rock at this point? After all, it still needs to make about another $300 million to really break even and its demographic market is about to move on to the next hyped-up thrill ride (the advance ticket sales for The Twilight Saga: New Moon has already beaten this box office record – a painful reminder of the awesome power wielded by teenage girls). This has been the grim destiny of virtually every tent-pole movie released this year. It’s all smoke and mirrors, hiding the financial waste behind a lot of fuzzy math and bad reporting.

Meanwhile, the American Film Market has just wrapped up its annual showcase in Santa Monica with enough despair for several Fassbinder films. In a quick report at, both attendance and sales were notably down, and the warm Pacific breeze could not thaw the chill of a seemingly collapsing independent film market. Not helping the mood at the AFM was a preponderance of horror films, Twilight clones and remakes. Some of the movies presented were retreads such as Scream 4 and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, which made that part of the program sound like a bad acid flashback. Besides, the biggest movie last Halloween was This Is It!. Even the horror genre is taking a beating in the current recession (OK, with wide spread unemployment and economic collapse, who needs Jason and Freddy?).

To be honest, much of the current news isn’t good. Especially if you can’t read between the lines. Take for example the hot rumor about the death of the horror genre. It isn’t exactly dead, it’s just kind of different. Heck, what is New Moon other than a type of romantic horror film (which isn’t a new concept either). Besides, some of the most recent titles in the genre have pretty much performed as would be expected. The most recent version of Friday the 13th was made for around $16 million and took in about $46.6 million in US box office. That is pretty much the steady state model for the genre. Not a big hit, but basically a decent enough profit. What do you want, blood? Perhaps you need comedy. Though the movie Zombieland went through a short shelf life after a decent opening, it still did pretty well (budget $25 million/ US box office $74.5 million). In both cases, these are perfectly respectable profit margins. Once upon a time, this would have been considered great.

This is also the year that one of the highest grossing films (in proportion to its budget) is Paranormal Activity. As of last weekend, the low-rent spookfest has taken in over $104 million. With an initial budget of $11,000 dollars (not counting any coupons used during production), Paranormal Activity has garnered over 90,000 percent of its core cost. Most tent-pole movies can’t even break even let alone achieve this feat. By this standard of comparison, Paranormal Activity is even more successful than Titanic.

In fact, most of the truly successful films of this year have been primarily low and mid-range productions. All you have to do is look at the figures and do a little bit of old-fashion accounting (I mean real accounting, not the bogus stuff done in Hollywood by guys who studied math under Bernie Madoff). The vast majority have been movies made on budgets of $15 to $40 million. Even some of the movies that didn’t do that well still did OK. Take for example the sci-fi picture Moon. Its box office total (US and British combined) was around $6.4 million. The film’s budget was $5 million. So far, so bad. But since it’s bound to score another $5 to $10 million in DVD and cable release, the movie will easily break even with a few bucks to spare. Not bad for a small investment. At one time, this would have even been considered reasonably good.

Meanwhile, the latest crop of fat-ass honkers is already hitting the wall. The new version of A Christmas Carol has peaked at a worldwide gross of $96.9 million with a budget of nearly $200 million dragging it quickly into Christmas Past (guess it’s a good thing this turkey opened before Thanksgiving). 2012 is about to drop into oblivion courtesy of New Moon (which was made for about $50 million – a slight increase in cost from the previous installment of the Twilight saga). Basically, the entire box office pattern for 2009 follows this model. It has been the year for modestly priced movies doing well. Gee, could the universe be telling us something? Darn tooting. So why isn’t any one listening?

The old B-movie maestro Sam Fuller once noted that if Hollywood gave him a budget of $10 million, he could make at least 10 to 12 good movies. Sam had a point. An extremely valid point. Believe it or not, this will be the future direction for Hollywood productions. Not because Hollywood wants it this way, but simply because it is inevitable.