erik lundegaard

Why a Film's Budget is Irrelevant

A few days ago, Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times blog, “The Big Picture,” credited both his own paper and The Wall Street Journal for getting the real story on the $56 million opening weekend box office of “Watchmen.” He then took Variety to task for same. What the L.A. Times and WSJ added, and Variety didn’t, was the budget of the picture, $150 million, and, as Goldstein states in his opening sentence, “A wise old Hollywood hand taught me ages ago that the only way you can even begin to figure out a film's profit potential on its opening weekend is by knowing how much it cost to make in the first place.”

Here’s the bigger question that Goldstein and that wise old Hollywood hand don’t address: Does anyone outside of L.A. care about a film’s profit potential?

Seriously. What’s the point of having box office numbers in most newspapers on Monday morning? Why does a CBS news anchor, giving a news brief during the Sunday night broadcast, always tell us the weekend’s box office champ and how much it “raked in”?

What does box office represent?

It represents popularity. The reason the figure is in most newspapers, the reason CBS news cares about it, is that box office gives us some indication of which movie, and thus what kind of story, our neighbors (near and far-flung) care most about. This weekend.

So does a film’s budget have anything to do with what box office represents? No.

In fact, if you were going to add other figures besides a film’s gross numbers to establish a film’s popularity, here’s what you would add before a film’s budget:
1. Its theater count
2. Its screen count
3. Its per-theater average
4. Its per-screen average
5. Its marketing budget
This last one is particularly relevant. In the old days, a film’s box office represented not only popularity but — because films didn’t advertise beyond trailers — some measure of its quality. Back then, pictures rose and fell on word-of-mouth. Now it’s marketing blitz, saturation, screens. Get into town, rake it in, vamoose before they know what hit them. Harold Hill stuff.

How much a picture cost isn’t relevant. But how much they spent to get our asses into the seats — versus how much it made — is. Hell, I’d love to see a ratio on this. Something like: box office minus marketing budget divided by screen count. But good luck getting the marketing budget from these guys.

I understand why Goldstein, and that old Hollywood hand, care about a film’s profitability. They’re industry people. The rest of us just want to know if the thing's any damn good.

Posted at 07:52 AM on Thu. Mar 12, 2009 in category Movies - Box Office  
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COMMENTS

Jon wrote:

Yeah... but...

So by and large I agree with you on this point. It's logical, and well argued, but as someone who revels in the minutia of box office numbers, allow me to defend, if half-assedly, the idea behind budget numbers.

For me the value of budget numbers are two fold: first, as you point out, "industry people" and old-school Hollywood types care about budget numbers. True they may have zero correlation with quality, but its information nonetheless, and more information is usually for the best. By putting budget numbers into "mainstream" box office news reports, news folks make non-insiders feel like they're getting the "inside dish." This may be completely nonsensical, and it doesn't refute what you put above, but it is fun. And when else is "news" usually fun?

The second side of this defense has to do more with those of us who follow these things on a more regular basis: critics, journalists, fanboys, etc. For us (and by us, I might just mean me) there's an element of schadenfreude and/or jubilation that comes from checking into budget numbers. As a horror guy, I love rooting for the low-budget success story ("The Strangers" from last year being the most potent example) or making fun of high profile -- and obviously ill-advised -- flops. Budget info can also gives me (maybe us) some small amount of consolation when a crappy film does really well (I'd posit "Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls" here): i.e. "I know 'Crystal Skull' did really well, but it cost them X to make, so it's not like it did THAT well."

With that being said, I would love to get my hands on reliable marketing data because we could all have a stats-nerd field day with that kind of information. I also would echo your points about the other, more valuable stats. I really like to use per screen numbers as my go to. But once you've worked your way through that information, I think it's okay to make a little room in there for budget chatter.
Comment posted on Thu. Mar 12, 2009 at 11:07 AM

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