REVIEWING THE BUDGET: THUMBS UP . . . OR DOWN?

Elaine May's "Ishtar," as nearly every movie review pointed out, cost upward of $40 million to make. Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," as nearly every movie review pointed out, cost $100,000.

Since the overall reviews were better for "Hollywood Shuffle" than for "Ishtar," and since Hollywood aligns common sense with dollars and cents, the obvious conclusion is that "Hollywood Shuffle" is 400 times better than "Ishtar."

There are a lot of weird conclusions to be drawn from movie reviews, but for people who depend on critics to help them plan their movie schedules, it must be getting difficult to know which is being reviewed, the movies or their budgets.

Budgets are certainly irrelevant at the box office. You pay the same to see a movie that is shot in someone's backyard as you do for one where they rent a country. The retail end of the movie business, unlike that of the auto industry, is not dependent on the costs of such things as raw materials, workmanship and roadability.

Its prices are not even a function of supply and demand. Until a picture moves over to the $1.50 house--the film industry's answer to the remainder table in book stores--ticket costs are consistent.

So what does it matter to moviegoers how much a movie costs, or how overpaid an actor is? What does it matter that "Ishtar" may not make enough at the box office to recover the salaries of its two stars?

Few reviewers were able to announce their verdicts on "Over the Top"--guilty of romanticizing the dodo sport of arm wrestling--without mentioning that Sylvester Stallone had been paid $12 million for grunting in it.

Stallone may be to acting what the Hula-Hoop is to dance, but in a free economy, he is worth what the financiers are willing to pay him.

The problem for reviewers, and for many moviegoers, is that the costs of film making are now routinely reported as news. Many of the companies making movies are public corporations and management decisions are accountable. Whenever they commission an expensive new product--whether it's an Edsel or an "Ishtar"--cost and quality are inextricably bound.

The interesting thing is that the media get the budget figures from the very people whose companies and careers often hang in the balance. Itemized film budgets are not matters of public record.

It used to be that big budgets compounded the hype and created a greater want-to-see among people who have to be pried, like abalones, from their TV sets. Eventually, the competition for the title of "biggest spender" became so great, producers announced budgets that were sometimes twice the actual bloat.

Today, it is common for film reporters to ask for budget figures, and to be given them. Producers talk, directors talk, studio executives talk, Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, talks and talks and talks.

Every year, Valenti announces the average cost of a studio movie and we all whistle. But the number--$16.8 million was the average for 1986--is meaningless until you consider what that kind of money can buy. A large medical complex in Encino, Magic Johnson's Lakers contract, an international arms scandal.

When a single movie--particularly one as intellectually modest as "Ishtar"--runs up a tab two or three times the average, a critic would need the discipline of a monk not to weigh it against its price.

So, a phenomenon (fat budgets) that was originally used to raise expectations has come to lower them. "Legal Eagles" would have been a passable entertainment at a "normal" cost. At a reported $35 million to $45 million, it was obscenely thin.

When a film comes in at the other end of the scale, we're disbelieving. "A Room With a View" would have been a mere charmer if we hadn't known its budget. At $3 million, it was heralded as a cinematic miracle.

Oddly, "Ishtar" seems to have benefited--at least with some critics--from all the bad publicity surrounding it. Had the film been released on schedule last Christmas, critics inclined to review budgets would have been laying for it.

There had been skepticism about the project from the day it was announced, but it wasn't until Columbia was forced to postpone its release from Christmas to last month that the black clouds began to form.

Major studios do not postpone Christmas movies without having replacements handy, and Columbia's cupboard was bare.

Later, there were rumors about power struggles between the stars and May, followed by reports that May had gone back, months after the film was supposed to have been finished, to add or reshoot scenes.

Meanwhile, the new administration at the studio was treating "Ishtar" like a delivery of battery-powered toilet seats ordered by the last administration.

The whole thing creaked like "Heaven's Gate."

Then the movie was released and--surprise! surprise!--many of the reviews were friendly.

From a reading of about 30 reviews from a cross section of critics in the United States and Canada (all but four mentioned the budget), the most common theme of the positive reviews was that "Ishtar" is not that bad. Sure, $40 million is a lot of money to spend on a piffle, some said, and you won't find a fraction of the budget on the screen. But there are enough laughs to warrant buying a ticket.

ABC-TV's Joel Siegel said he had some good laughs with "Ishtar," then estimated the cost-per-laugh at $2.8 million.

Eleanor Ringel of the Atlanta Constitution gave the movie a double-budget review, comparing "Ishtar's" excesses to those of "Howard the Duck's," concluding that "Ishtar's" "balance of outlay and return seems a lot more worthwhile."

Joan Bunke, writing in the Des Moines Register--presumably in this decade--said it doesn't matter to audiences whether "Ishtar" cost $50 million or $17.50, people will be repaid their $3.75 ticket cost "three times over in sheer fun."

In the case of "Hollywood Shuffle," there is no question that the budget affected the reviews positively. There are inspired comedic moments in "Shuffle," and the film is clearly about something. But if the movie occasionally looks homemade, well, that was the inevitable result of an invisible budget.

The important thing, the critics agreed, was what Townsend had managed to do for a paltry $100,000.

But for moviegoers trying to pick and choose their entertainment, the question is not how much Townsend got on the screen for so little, or how little May got on the screen for so much. We just want to know whether it's worth the $5 or $6 (significantly less in Des Moines) that we will pay to see for ourselves.

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