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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

question of the day: How much is too much to spend on producing a movie?

As production budgets have been spiraling seemingly out of control in recent years, industry watchers have been wondering if there was an end to it. A few years ago, there was the shocking expenditure of $300 million to make Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the most expensive production budget ever; when adjusted for inflation, it’s still the second-most expensive movie ever. Also close to the top of the list, both in actual dollars and inflation-adjusted, is Tangled, which cost an astounding $260 million. Yet, both gambles paid off handsomely for Disney, the studio behind both films: POTC3 just barely recouped its costs domestically but took in more than $963 million worldwide; Tangled didn’t come close to earning back its costs domestically but made more than $590 million globally.
So it seems odd that that same studio, Disney, late last week shut down production on its reboot of The Lone Ranger, which would have starred Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer (The Social Network) as the title character. And it was all about money. From Mike Fleming at Deadline:

I’m told this all just happened, and Disney pulled the plug because of the budget. I’ve heard the filmmakers were trying to reduce the film’s cost from $250 million (some even say $275 million) down to $232 million. But it wasn’t the $200 million that Disney wanted to spend. And between Depp, Bruckheimer, and Verbinski, the gross outlay on the film is substantial.

Yes, the economy is in the toilet. And yes, this is true:

This becomes the second major Western-themed project to bite the dust, after Universal halted a mammoth adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. And is it coincidence that The Lone Ranger halted right after another Western, Cowboys & Aliens, proved a pricey disappointment for DreamWorks and Universal?

But this is true, too:

[P]rincipals Bruckheimer, Verbinski, and Depp have minted money when they’ve worked together for Disney. Bruckheimer is the longtime cornerstone producer on the Disney lot. Depp has starred in the studio’s all-time biggest films including Alice in Wonderland and the four Bruckheimer-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. Depp and Verbinski teamed for three Pirates installments, grossing billions of dollars for the studio. And Verbinski most recently directed Rango, the Paramount film that is a frontrunner for Best Animated Film Oscar and which grossed $243 million worldwide. Disney has four of the 10 all-time top worldwide grossing films in Hollywood history, and three of them starred Depp. That includes Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which Verbinski directed and which grossed $1.066 billion. The most recent Pirates installment also cracked the $1 billion mark this summer, and Disney’s only other film on that all-time Top 10 list is Toy Story 3.

It is hard to imagine a fantasy pirate movie requiring $250 million to produce, never mind a straight-up Western. It gets harder to imagine when you realize that Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is killing at the box office and is one of the best-reviewed films of the summer, costs a “mere” $93 million to make, and certainly shows a lot of fantastical imagination up on the screen.

Are we perhaps reaching a moment in Hollywood history where excess is pulling back… even excess that sells? Is the industry finally asking itself:

How much is too much to spend on producing a movie?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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