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Hot Take: Movies Cost Too Much

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 13, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 13, 2023 |


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Over the weekend, I went to see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny with my parents. It was a perfectly pleasant experience, a solid if unspectacular film made more palatable by my heavily tempered expectations. There’s plenty to enjoy in this sequel but nobody expected it to reach the lofty heights of the original trilogy. Still, knowing this didn’t make me question some of its sloppier moments any less. This was most evident to me in moments where the special effects felt too light, untethered to reality or waxier than the humans they tried to replicate. Too much of it just looked like every other blockbuster of the past four or five years. Browsing Wikipedia after the movie, I was stopped dead in my tracks to discover that the reported budget for Dial of Destiny was between $250 - 300 million. How?! Where did the money go?!

Once upon a time, it was considered a wild rarity for even the most hotly hyped blockbuster to cost over $100 million. Inflation does its thing but that doesn’t account for the intense rise in budgets for these tentpole flicks, to the point where powering past $250 million is no longer that surprising. Just check out the big hitters (and flops) of the past few months: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania reportedly cost $200 million; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was budgeted at $250 million; The Flash was between $200 and 220 million; Fast X somehow required a budget of $340 million. Only a couple of these films made enough money to qualify as a hit, and even then, some of the numbers feel suspect.

We are now swamped under by a market of films that are simply too big to fail. The average marker of a box office success, by which I mean earning out its costs, is if a movie made back two and a half times its reported budget. So, a $100 million film must gross around $250 million to be in the black. This is a conservative estimate that doesn’t take into account myriad extra costs that go into basic production and marketing. Still, it gives us a rough idea of the high stakes of Hollywood business. The higher the number, the more the studio needs to simply break even. Fast X currently has a worldwide gross of $721.3 million. That means it’s around $130 million short of balancing the books. Where is the victory in that? How can it possibly make sense to earn so much money and have it not be enough?

The narrowing market of media monopolies has greatly constricted the amounts and types of films being made. We’ve long lamented the quiet death of the adult-oriented mid-budget film, the crime dramas and classic thrillers that used to be a reliable part of any studio’s slate. Much of that has gone to streaming, where you’re lucky if it’s able to capture a sliver of its desired demographic’s attention before the almighty algorithm swallows it whole. What we’re left with, by and large, is a homogenous approach to artistic allure, a desperate desire to appeal to as many people as is humanly possible. It is not enough to make some money: you must make all of the money, and you’ve got to spend it to make it.

One would think that the sheer amount of money flying around for these films would breed creative range, but I think we’re seeing the exact opposite. All these blockbusters look the same, sound the same, have the same narrative rhythms and humour, and the same third act stumbles. Hollywood has never been great at taking the path less trodden but it’s seldom felt as inescapably samey as it does now. Why does an Indiana Jones film look like a Marvel film which looks like a Disney live-action remake? The aforementioned restrictions explain a lot, but it’s also the inevitable result of studios’ pained efforts to play it safe. It worked once or twice before, so it has to pay off again, right? The strange effect of this is that most of these films don’t even look expensive now. How can they when the studio has given the effects team half the time to finish entirely CGI scenes than required and every actor looks utterly lost on a green-screen set?

Of course, perhaps the problem isn’t cost but distribution. We know that the people who do most of the work on these movies aren’t the ones financially benefitting from it. If they were, the writers wouldn’t still be on strike and the actors wouldn’t be considering joining them on the picket lines. VFX workers are notoriously overworked and underpaid, forced into impossible deadlines for films that require evermore CGI in lieu of location shooting or actual sets. Harried camera-people and cinematographers then have to compensate for hurried effects, leaving every film with the same dingy palate and eye-straining lighting that makes going to the cinema exhausting. Studio restrictions lead to sloppy cinema, and money can’t always help when the demands for wider profit margins are forever looming overhead.

Hollywood is suffering thanks to its astonishing unwillingness to treat its creative workers as people, and the end result is evident in every blockbuster of the past few years. While $300 million budgets become the norm, we are repeatedly told that there just isn’t enough money for writers, that the studios are so strapped for cash that they have to invest in AI. The lies are only going to get louder as these supposedly safe bets sink into the red, as evidenced by the already troubling numbers for Indiana Jones 5 (which fell from the top spot on the American box office in its second week, replaced by the far more cost-effective Insidious: The Red Door.) Giving the writers and below-the-line workers a fairer deal won’t fix every issue the industry has, but it will at least rebalance the scales in a more favourable manner. The issue of obscenely high budgets might take a bigger disaster to fix. The problem with being too big to fail is that the crash will cause a crater that will take a long time to emerge from.