The economics and ramifications of Dredd

The Dredd movie could and should have opened up a market for non-studio comic book movies. Where do things stand now?

If all had gone to plan, this year’s really rather good Dredd movie would have been the latest modestly-budgeted film to signal a real way forward for comic book-based films. Appreciating that at the moment, the options are to make a $150m+ PG-13-rated superhero movie, or something as low cost as James Gunn’s Super (or even more adventurously, American Splendor), there had nonetheless been signs of a middle ground. A welcome one at that.

Kick-Ass, after all, had offered a way forward. Independently-funded, and costing in the region of $30m, the film’s worldwide cinematic gross of just under $100m, with significant returns from home viewing too, was a really big deal. It certainly can’t have harmed the progress of getting Dredd funded in the first place, which we’ll come to in a minute.

Kick-Ass creator Mark Millar has recently signed up to be creative consultant on Fox’s Marvel-based movies. And he’s been open about his plans for continuing to make films based around the Kick-Ass budget level. The low cost of making Kick-Ass, and now Kick-Ass 2, has a pay-off in terms of the creative freedom it offers. After all, if you don’t need to recoup $200m at the box office alone, then you don’t have to take some of the harder edges off the film in question. You can even go out with an R or 18 rating and still make money. There is life beyond a Marvel or DC blockbuster.

Sadly, though, you know where this story is heading.

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Back in September, a brand new Judge Dredd movie hit our screens. Costing around $40m to make, and shot in South Africa, it was put together outside of the Hollywood studio system. The plan was for it to be the first of many big screen Dredd adventures.

Writer and producer Alex Garland was making encouraging noises in interviews before the film’s release, too (director Pete Travis wasn’t part of the film’s promotional push, possibly in part down to rumours of all not being entirely well behind the scenes). Dredd only needed to make $50m at the US box office – that’s just a third of the opening three day take for some recent blockbusters – and the formula would have been proven: Dredd 2 could press ahead, with Dredd 3 also teased. 

To further extend the film’s chances of making its money back, it was shot and released in 3D. This has been an area of contention for more than the usual number of reasons, in that in the UK, it was really, really hard to track down a 2D screening of the film anywhere. However, even though we’re no fans of 3D, you can see why the producers and financiers of Dredd went that way. They were taking a big punt on a planned franchise that had already been burned once at the box office. Adding a 3D premium to ticket prices, in theory, increased the chances of them getting their money back. And they needed every opening they could, given just what a risk Dredd was.

Thus, while you may not have been a fan of adding 3D to Dredd, in this instance, it might just have been pivotal in the business plan in this case. At the least, it added some projected numbers to the Excel spreadsheet at the point a decision needed to be made in pressing ahead or not.

We’ve talked before on the site about the subsequent financial performance of Dredd at the box office, which has veered between good to very poor depending where you are in the world. But this in itself tells a story. One problem of making a film such as this outside of the studio system is that you lack the marketing muscle that comes with the package. More to the point, you lack the coherence of one studio rolling something out across the world.

Kick-Ass was sold to different distributors like this. Universal picked it up in the UK, and did a terrific job with the film. Lionsgate took it in the US, and didn’t do too badly with it either. There were still differences in how they approached it, but nothing drastic.

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In the case of Dredd, Entertainment Film Distributors pushed the film hard in Britain, and got some reward. Dredd’s current worldwide total stands at $23m, and just under a third of that has come from the UK, courtesy of the big marketing push that EFD undertook in Dredd’s country of origin.

The rest? Not so good. Dredd’s taken $10.3m in the US so far, it’s had peaks of business in Malaysia, Russia, Brazil and Spain. But there’s no gloss really that can be put on this: Dredd has not performed as many would have hoped, and there’s inevitably going to be a consequence to that.

On the flip side, Dredd is a very British character, and there may have been some tarnish in the casual moviegoer’s mind as a result of the 1995 take on the material. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that the film’s marketing in the US was nowhere near that of the UK. That it was an ‘acquired’ film as such for Lionsgate, released on a weekend with three other wide releases, and suffered as a result.

That’s a bit unfair to Lionsgate, perhaps, which didn’t have a fully vested ownership in the film to consider backing it to the extent it did with something like The Hunger Games. But the next time somebody in the US looks to a wide release of an R-rated comic book movie, Dredd will be featuring on the inevitable Powerpoint slide. This was no Jonah Hex, a previous R-rated adaptation. Jonah Hex got slaughtered by critics, Dredd didn’t. The box office? Jonah Hex took $10m in the US, virtually nothing elsewhere. A sad parallel of sorts, between two films of very different quality.

The economics of Dredd aren’t cheery, yet still salvageable. So far, we’ve learned that the market for a well-reviewed, hard-edged comic book movie is a bit more limited than we might have thought on the big screen. The jury, for the time being, will remain out as to whether Kick-Ass was an exception to the rule. However, there’s the small matter of home viewing to consider. DVD, Blu-ray, on-demand, television rights… it’s not inconceivable to suggest that Dredd may yet not only see profit (which is likely), but go on to be something of a hit (a longer shot, but still feasible). At some point, you’d hope that those good reviews will have some impact.

The thing is that cinema really needs these interesting, risky, mid-budget films. Paramount made a killing in the 90s by aiming for mid-priced thrillers, knowing that each would turn a tidy profit, even if they never went haywire at the box office (with the possible exception of Double Jeopardy, which went on to be a big hit). There’s little reason that the same approach still couldn’t work well for other genres, where $40-50m could be spent far more productively, and stretch a lot further, than Hollywood would have you believe.

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For this to come true with comic book movies, perhaps there needs to be a couple of companies actively fighting to make this happen, and not on a hand-to-mouth basis where one financial disappointment derails everything else. Maybe Mark Millar has the right idea here: even if he’s getting his funding from the assorted patchwork collection of financiers, there’s one constant voice at the heart of it all.

As it stands, the economics of Dredd make gloomy reading, and it’s hard not to conclude that some damage has been done in terms of getting further projects off the ground. Kick-Ass 2 may yet give the idea a big shot in the arm, Dredd may yet be resurrected. But right now, the very high and very low budget status quo looks like being preserved.

The immediate consqeuence? Dredd 2 looks a very, very long shot. And that’s a real shame.

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