Why everyone lies about their movie’s budget
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I was at PEN USA’s annual Literary Awards Festival a few weeks ago, having a great time, hobnobbing with all sorts of illustrious writers, when I ran into ‘There Will Be Blood’s’ writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was there to accept an award for his film script. A huge fan of his work, I told him how much I’d liked his movie. He nodded and shyly smiled, and I thought he might say something like, ‘Oh, geez, thanks for the compliment.’ What he really said was: ‘In that story you did, you got the budget wrong.’
If I actually believed in New Year’s resolutions, I’d happily promise to never write about a movie’s budget ever again -- all it does is cause pain and misery, both for the press, which is always being spun by studio executives and producers, and for the filmmakers, who are always convinced that clueless reporters and columnists are wildly inflating their movie budgets. (It is safe to say that no one in the history of Hollywood has ever complained about the press underestimating the cost of his or her movie.)
To be fair, Anderson wasn’t all that angry. We went on to have a perfectly amiable conversation. But I’m sure he was unhappy, since when I made reference to his budget, which I said was in the vicinity of $45 million, I was making the point that his movie -- a dark, intense historical drama -- cost so much (along with the marketing outlays of Paramount Vantage’s Oscar campaign) that it could never possibly make a decent profit.
The problem that journalists have in reporting about movie budgets is that nearly everyone they ask about a movie’s budget tends to -- how do I put this nicely -- offer a whopper of an untruth. In other words, shock of all shocks, people in Hollywood lie. The studio chief who made the movie gives you a low-ball number. The head of a rival studio, eager to make a competitor look bad, gives you a wildly inflated number. Most journalists have reported that Baz Luhrmann’s recent film, ‘Australia,’ cost $130 million. 20th Century Fox insists that it cost less, saying it received a hefty subsidy from the Australian government, knocking $30 or so million off that figure. But every rival studio chief I spoke to about the film said with great authority, as if they’d seen a host of internal Fox documents, that the film cost $170 or $180 or $200 million, just to throw out the three different figures I got from three different executives.
What’s a reporter to do? Who tells the biggest whoppers? And how does one reporter use triangulation to figure out the real budget number? Keep reading:
I’m old-fashioned about reporting budget numbers. I like to go to the source. In other words, I try not to report a number unless I’ve gotten it from a top executive at the studio (or financing company) that made the picture or a producer or some other high-level member of the production team. You’d think this would work out pretty smoothly, but even then, I’ve discovered that budget numbers are a slippery business.
My colleague John Horn, who is something of an expert on movie budgets, since he is always writing about film profitability, reminded me of the legendary example of funny numbers involving Jeffrey Katzenberg and his DreamWorks Animation films. When ‘Shrek 2' was being released, Katzenberg (like most studio execs) was eager to make the film look as profitable as possible, so he didn’t stop reporters from believing his movie cost a pittance. That’s why Newsweek, in 2004, reported that the film’s stars Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy and Cameron Diaz ‘got $10 million each to reprise their characters, which accounted for almost half the film’s modest $70 million budget.’ But after DreamWorks Animation went public, its budget figures suddenly soared dramatically, with the company acknowledging that the original ‘Shrek’ cost closer to $130 million, with its and other DreamWorks sequels costing ’15 to 30% higher’ than that.
Once burned, twice shy, which is why the showbiz media has a healthy skepticism about budgetary information from studio executives. Sometimes you get the feeling that you could ask five people who worked on a film to tell you the budget -- and you’d get five different answers. When I was writing about the unknown screenwriter who’d penned Clint Eastwood’s ‘Gran Torino’ last month, I reported that the movie (co-financed by Warners and Village Roadshow) cost $35 million. Warners immediately called to complain, saying my number was totally wrong. Rob Lorenz, a delightful guy who’s one of the producers of the film -- and has worked with Eastwood for years -- asked how I could have possibly gotten such a wrong figure. Actually, I told him, I got the budget figure from Bill Gerber, who -- ahem -- was the other producer of the film, with Lorenz and Eastwood. Since Gerber had once been a head of production at Warners, I figured he knew what he was talking about. Lorenz told me the film cost closer to $25 million, so I amended the figure, saying the film cost ‘less than $30 million.’
This happens all the time. I wrote in a recent post that Sam Mendes’ ‘Revolutionary Road,’ a Paramount film produced by DreamWorks, cost $45 million. I didn’t make up the number -- it’s what a top executive at Paramount (which then owned DreamWorks) told me the film cost. As soon as the story ran, Stacey Snider, who runs DreamWorks, e-mailed me to say the film only cost $35 million. It seems unlikely that Paramount would inflate the cost of a film it financed and distributed, since if ‘Revolutionary Road’ fails to find an audience, it will look like an ever bigger flop if it cost $45 million instead of $35 million. But I also trust Snider, who has a better track record than most studio chiefs in offering honest numbers. So what does the movie cost? Let’s just say -- that’s a work in progress.
As you can see, assessing movie budgets is a skill that relies on instinct as much as actual reporting. Horn uses something akin to triangulation, i.e. the art of measuring from three different points of reference, the epicenter being where those lines intersect. As he puts it: ‘Ask three people without axes to grind, or reasons to lie, what a movie’s budget is, and the average of those numbers can be a close approximation of the film’s true cost.’
When Horn was reporting on the budget of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ for his Word of Mouth column, he asked a few executives ‘close to Paramount’ what the film cost. Two got back to him. One said $175 million. Another said $185 million. Horn ran the lower figure. Even so, the studio complained, saying that while the film’s initial budget was in fact $175 million, incentives from Canada and Louisiana -- where much of the film was shot -- reduced the actual cost to $150 million. The Times published a clarification to explain why our original budget number was off the mark.
But right around the time that Paramount was upset that our ‘Benjamin Button’ number was too high, I found myself on the phone with a studio boss who complained that our ‘Button’ number was too low, saying, ‘You guys are so gullible. That movie cost at least $200 million.’ I guess that makes us damned if we do, damned if we don’t. It makes for a frustrating experience all around. As a baseball junkie, I take pleasure in the sanctity of numbers. You know that at the end of game you can accurately calculate every player’s batting average, based solely on his performance. Fudging isn’t allowed. If a player’s hitting .315, he’s hitting .315. If he goes 0-for-4 in the next game, his batting average goes down. No explanation, no exception.
But movie budgets, like everything else about the business, are never black and white. In Hollywood, the numbers are a lot like the truth -- they are always subject to interpretation.
and Paul Thomas Anderson, right, on the set on ‘There Will Be Blood’ by Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount Vantage.