29 May, 2008

Bringin' Your Bling: Films and their budgets

I got into an interesting conversation with Wyck Godfrey and Greg Mooradian on the set of Twilight about budgets for films and how that can affect the overall scope of a film, so I thought I’d explore that a little bit more informally here.

Generally when you are first told about a film ‘in the biz’ it seems like you find out who is directing, who is producing, who the big actors are, and what the budget is. From these few pieces of information, an expectation for the film is born. For example, if you hear that Johnny Smith is directing a film produced by Jennie Smith, the main actor is Susie Smith and the budget is $2,000… you’re not going to have many expectations. That can sometimes work to your favor; you can be blown away by an independent film made on a tiny budget with no-name actors; it can rock the film world and make you open your eyes in different way. On the other hand, it’s probably not going to be a big money maker, you have no idea if any of the people involved in the film have any talent whatsoever, and if it’s one of those rare films that does shake up the film world- well then, that’s great… but that’s probably .001% of films. Conversely, if you hear that Harrison Ford is starring in a film directed by Stephen Spielberg, produced by George Lucas and has a budget of $125 million… you most definitely will have certain expectations. You know their track history, you know the work that they put into their films, you know, even if it’s just subconsciously, how they spend their money (big name actors? special effects? props? music? locations?) and judging by this list, you’ll know that I’m referring to the most recent Indiana Jones, and that title brings with it a whole new set of expectations.

All of these variables go into what makes up a film; how it is developed, how it is made, how it is marketed, and how the fans receive it. While a film isn’t necessarily dictated by its budget, it seems that it is often led by it. I think it's hard to remember as a fan of film that it is actually a very serious business, and every single thing revolving around it costs money... even just thinking on a really small scale: think of the cost for the batteries used on a film set! Then add in the expenses for all of those rolls of duct tape! Now don’t forget about the coffee, water, and granola bars. That’s a lot of money added up, and that’s just the inconsequential costs. Now add in the cast’s salaries, the director and the crew’s salaries, the catering bill for lunch every day for upwards of 100 people, car rentals and hotel rooms for the duration of the shoot, electricity costs to keep the generator running around the clock, costumes, lighting, and walkie-talkies!

And I’m still just on the shoot! I haven’t even added in the post-production stuff like editing, special effects (oh so costly), music and marketing. There are so many avenues for expenses that, generally, it is the budget that tells you what you can and cannot have in a film. I read a quote somewhere that “a large budget can allow you to be creative, but a small one will force you to be creative.” That stuck with me because you can see how different films choose to spend their money, and where their priorities for the film lie based on those choices. Greg called this, “deciding where to bring your bling.” Filmmakers need to decide where they’re going to spend the most for the “money shots.”

My own opinions of Eragon aside (I’m not a huge fan of the books, and I found the adaptation seriously lacking), it is a good case study for how a budget can affect the adaptation of a book. When I spoke to Wyck Godfrey about his work on Eragon, he focused heavily on the budget constraints of the film, and the intentions of the studio that alienated the original work. He was brought onto the project rather late, as he has a lot of experience and the Powers That Be seemed to hope that he would be able to help get the project back on track. When he joined, the budget had recently been cut nearly in half. This is huge. Imagine Indiana Jones, my previous example, the budget of which was $125 million, suddenly finding out that they only had $62 million to work with. An actor like Harrison Ford can cost $25 million alone (that was his reported salary for K-19: The Widowmaker, 2002). How on earth are you supposed to create a believable world in the Amazon, special effects like spaceships and man-eating ants, pay the cast, crew, extras, rentals etc. etc. on $40 million?

The answer for Eragon, whose budget hovered around $100 million, was to cut scenes, and play up the “money shots.”

Wyck tried to get them to focus more on the story, making Eragon a bit younger (the studio wanted someone around 25, he argued for a younger teen as Eragon was supposed to be, and they settled on Ed Speelers, 17 at the time), and Wyck wanted to include the scenes that are integral to the plot should the sequels be created, in order to have correct continuity. Apparently this was not very plausible in the filmmaker’s and studio’s eyes, as they pretty much disregarded the book, and decided to make it a “spectacle” film for a holiday release. They drifted away from the plot, and focused on the money shots like those of Saphira, the dragon. “Every time that dragon was on screen, it cost a fortune,” Wyck described, “but that’s where they wanted to put their money. They got rid of Angela, the cat…a lot of stuff, so they could have more shots of Saphira.”

As most of us know that didn’t work out so well for Eragon in the States. Fans were in an uproar, and Christopher Paolini, the author, who was not involved in the adaptation process, appeared disappointed and Wyck got the feeling that Paolini wouldn't be likely to sell the rights to his other two books in the Inheritance Trilogy any time soon. In the international market, however, the movie did just what the filmmakers hoped it would do: it made a lot of money. The book is not as popular worldwide as it is in the US, so there was less of a fervent fan base to disappoint. While Eragon only made $75 million in the States, it made $245 million in the foreign markets, and with a budget of $100 million… that is a sizable profit. Thus the studio got what it wanted, but they created a less than satisfactory work in the opinions of the fans of the novel.

The other thing that Greg expanded upon is that if you have a $200 million budget, then you have to be able and willing to bring the film up to that level. The bar is so high with films like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings now that if you are creating a fantasy adaptation of a known book, you can’t half-ass that big adaptation; it’s irresponsible, or as Greg says, “you can’t bring a knife to a gunfight. You have to be able to ante up. If you want to produce something big you have to have the chunks to do it.” He emphasized that even if the film is as successful financially as Eragon was, it’s not a wise move these days to ignore the original work because the author may publicly disassociate with the film, the fans won’t support the project and they’ll shun the movie. It could end up that you don’t have a good film and the fans, the one group that might have been able to promote it fairly well and show their support, have been alienated (Think The Seeker, the adaptation of Susan Cooper’s brilliant book The Dark is Rising… they completely alienated the fan base by not respecting the original work. Susan Cooper publicly shared her disappointment in the film and did not support it, so therefore her fans did not support it either).

With Twilight, Wyck and Greg both verbalized their excitement to work on the film because although it has a smaller budget, there aren’t many places that they need to “bring their bling” and they are confident that they can ante up and not disappoint fans and moviegoers. There are certainly some special effects in the film (the magic carpet which makes actors appear as though they are walking at 35mph, wire work, explosions etc.), but there isn’t a huge dragon, there isn’t a spaceship, there aren’t hundreds of thousands of troops to create… it’s a very real film. Once you believe that some of the main characters are vampires, the rest of the film is quite believable, and they didn’t need any bells or whistles to emphasize that fact. Greg and Wyck seemed pleased by this fact because that meant that they could focus on the story and include the scenes that they wanted to include that added to this story, as that's where the true tension and excitement of the film is. The fights will be exciting, the explosions impressive, and it should all satisfy and perhaps even impress the typical male going to the film… but the filmmakers didn’t need to worry about bringing all of that superfluous "bling" to the screen; instead they could actually utilize the book, involve Stephenie Meyer, and focus on the story of Bella and Edward, as it is that story that has ensnared so many readers. We as fans aren’t obsessed with the books because they’re shiny, shoot off sparks, or come with 3D glasses… we don’t need gimmicks; we need the story, and Greg and Wyck seem to realize this. And luckily so does the rest of the cast and crew!

I don’t know Twilight’s budget, but Summit advertised that they hope to make quality films in the $20-60 million range, so even if Twilight is at the top of that scale, it’s still far less than some of the other big -budget films out there (Harry Potter= $200 million, The Golden Compass= $180 million). It’s definitely neat to see how a film of this size, scale and budget (generally smaller all around) is creating this much buzz already. It will be great to see the finished product and finally realize how every little piece I’ve studied and analyzed up to this point fits together to make a comprehensive, and I hope a very successful, film. I hope that this film is appreciated equally by the Twilight fans and the people who have never heard of the Cullens before, and that it may serve as an example of how to appreciate the fans, honor the author, and still create a good and successful film, so that all of the many adaptations that still lie ahead in the world of film may have a better shot to instill the same feelings and excitement as the original work, and our beloved vampires don’t turn into FBI agents, or our adolescent heroes become middle-aged wash-ups.

Hmm… I’ll keep pondering this, but there are the thoughts for now.


inmortal said...

Woahhhh. I loved your article. I wanted so badly to know what happened to Eragon because everybody was saying that it had a huge fanbase and the movie didn't work out because it was very bad. BUT NOW WE KNOW WHY!!! OMG Thank God Catherine is a great director and Wick and Greg have that vision of not spend money in useless stuff that only boys are gonna like... (you know.. this is mostly a girl movie LOL) like some fake special effects and stuff. I agree with them about focusing on the story. Thank you so much for this!! :D Now I'm so happy!

Debbie said...

That was great! I really enjoyed reading your report. I am a movie buff, I love movies and I can't wait for Twilight to come out. I read Eragon and I looked forward to that film as well. It was a disappointment, I expected more. Actually, I reviewed Entertainment Weekly for its critique of Eragon. It wasn't good, and I didn't waste my money going to the theatre to see it. I waited for it to come out on DVD. I am so glad that Catherine, Wick & Greg are staying true to the story.

Lissete [Frerard Addict] said...

Wow your article was fantastic! I'm very relieved to hear that the producer and director are making this movie the best that it can be! And the whole Eragon bit was fascinating. Thanks for the info, I can't wait for the movie! Thanks to the Twilight Lexicon for the link to this.

Kerry said...

This was a very interesting post! I really learned a lot! Thanks!

edith said...

I have read your other blogs on Twilight but I HAD to comment on this one! Thank you for explaining the whole budget situation; it truly helped sooo much! I can't wait to see what Catherine and producers, Wyck and Gregg, bring to us rabid fans! I'm positive we won't be disappointed. By the way you're an excellent blogger! Great writing!

Forever Dawn said...

Really great article. Very informative.

Minor note: I believe you mean to say "ante up" not "anny up". It's a poker term meaning "to pay up".

sierra_blue said...

The budget for Twilight is actually supposed to be near the 30 million mark. I hope they get a higher budget for the sequel should Twilight make enough moolah at the box office. I don't want any cheesey low budget looking wereeolves, lol! :)

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your intelligent commentary on the making of Twilight. A lot of us either forget or don't understand what goes on behind the scenes. I am glad you feel confident about the end product. Keep up the good work!

southern belle said...

Wow. That was really impressive. Thank you for that. I'm glad to know why Eragon turned out like it did, though it just makes me even more mad at the studio/filmakers than I was before. I saw the movie first and I loved it, but when I read the book, I refused to watch the movie again because I knew it would make me mad. I'm glad to know that Twilight's lack of "bling" in the original story means they can keep more to that story in the film. Thanks again for the article-really informative. Can't wait for Twilight (...and can't wait to see Indiana Jones)!

m~ said...

Wow! Those are not things we as and audience/fan think of when we go to a movie. You have defiantly given a lot of information that, I for one, would have never know. I read an article somewhere that said the script was written with Bella as a track star and that there were FBI agents involved, but that Catherine Hardwick had the script rewritten to follow SM's story line. I am relieved to hear you say that this is the case.

ThinkBrown said...

Hey, inmortal, twilight is not mostly a girl movie! i know plenty of guys that read the twilight books.

Eric said...

So even though I have not fully emersed myself on this subject as many of the well wishers and smart bloggers that have commented before me, as your best friend from Lancaster, I have to say that I really enjoy learning this part of who you are as a student. Not just an academic student, but as an over-all scholar. You always bring home the best stories, photos heck...gifts! And everything from the set of a highly anticipated movie to dealing with a drunken seat mate on a flight home... we love it all! Being able to see your train of thought, though, gives kind of a blue print of how you react to your interests...ok...obsessions!

Can't wait to read more, but more importantly, see you soon!!!! Hopefully??? Maybe??? Ah well, hugs and kisses!!!!!

TL said...

Wonderful Article! I'm so glad someone blogged about this subject and put some great intelligent thought/backup into it. I was extremely worried about the budget... rumors around the 30 mil. and how it would effect what we would see on screen (the mtv action scene, iffy on the FX) but now I feel alot better, seeing that most of the "bling" was put into core scenes.

Its nice that you did compare it to Eragon and shed some light on its ... less impressive adaptation to the screen, and how twilight would differ. As well as inform us on on wyck's involvement with both these films. It can be said that, wyck most likely learned a great deal from working on Eragon and in turn would steer twilight away from the mistakes/downfalls Eragon had.

Keep the great blogging! Thanks alot! :)

Anonymous said...

WOW! great writing!!!! :D