Why are films getting so much more expensive to make?

With $150m the going rate for a medium-priced summer blockbuster, why has the cost of making a film hit such astronomical levels? And what are the ramifications of that?

Last week, spurred on by Mark Oakley’s look back at the film, I dug out the original Superman and gave it a spin. It’s a staggeringly ambitious film, packed with action sequences, model work, effects shots, and the general feeling that all concerned were throwing everything they could find at the wall, with plenty of it sticking.

Heck, it’s a film that even gets you forgiving the fact that it spends 140-odd minutes leading up to a massive event, well worthy of pushing the most powerful superhero of them all, only for it all to be unravelled through a crappy script cheat.

What really struck me, though, is just how they managed to afford to put the film together at all. Superman wasn’t, of course, a cheap film by 1970s standards, but just look at what it features. There’s a compelling cast, for starters. There’s the then-cutting edge flying sequences. There’s the opening sequences on Krypton. The rescues that introduce us to Superman.

Don’t overlook the seemingly simple things, either. There’s the set for Lex Luthor’s underground lair. The time spent in the busy, extras-packed offices of the Daily Planet. The big sequences taking in the passers-by on the streets of Metropolis. There’s such a huge scale and ambition to it that you can’t help but be impressed.

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And all that’s before you get to the massive events at the end of the film. The earthquake. The bursting of the Hoover Dam. The Golden Gate Bridge collapsing. The scenes of havoc being wreaked. Appreciating that, particularly with the high definition version that’s been released, it’s easier than ever to see what’s a model and what’s real, there’s still an abundance of ambition and spectacle here. And I can’t help but feel that Zack Snyder is going to have his work cut out with his upcoming reboot of the franchise.

Because here’s the thing: were the script for Superman The Movie to arrive on the lap of a Hollywood producer tomorrow, I genuinely don’t think they could afford to do it, to have so many action sequences, so many sets, so many name actors, and camera-devouring moments of destruction. It’d go through the budgeting process, and come back with a $200-300m price tag at the very least (the fairly action-light Superman Returns cost $250m). And that’s if everything went on schedule and was possible to do.

But why is this the case? Why have movies become so expensive?

It’s a good question and one that’s impossible to answer without first acknowledging that the original Superman movie itself was radically expensive at the point it was made. Appreciating that there was some cost saving involved, through the decision to make most of Superman II at the same time, it’s still credited as costing $55m. To put that into some kind of context, that made it a more expensive film to make than 80s hits such as Rambo, RoboCop, The Terminator, Die Hard, and the majority of seemingly expensive movies that you can think of.

However, there’s also little doubting that the goalposts have changed where film budgets are concerned. What stoked my interest in this still further was a comment from Den Of Geek reader, _mart_1, on our article about getting R-rated movies made. To quote him:

“There is a reason why the 70s is considered one of the most creative periods for movies. More had to be done with less money. The first Indiana Jones movie cost 18 million. I found inflation calculator that says it’s 42 mil in today’s money, but Tomb Raider cost 80 mil (2001 money) (comparable movie), National Treasure 1 cost 100 mil (2004 money), and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 185 mil (2008 money)! And let’s not forget that Raiders of the Lost Ark is still better than any of these new movies!”

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It’s hard to argue with his logic, and I think that the key point there is that “more had to be done with less money”. Bluntly, filmmakers were given a far more restricted set of tools and had to marry them up to their imagination. Suddenly you get the $55m spent on Superman (which equates to $175m in today’s cash, accepting again that some of that money was spent on filming the sequel) looking like really good value for money.

But, as _mart_1 demonstrates, Superman isn’t the best example, as the contrast between Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is a fairer case in point. Few would, surely, argue that Raiders wasn’t the most exciting of the two films, with the genuine, edge-of-the-seat action sequences, the real sense of adventure, and the rounded characters, whom you can’t help but root for (sorry, Shia). That $18m budget bought a lot more than the $185m spent on Crystal Skull.

I don’t want to take pot shots at Crystal Skull, per se, as it’s ground that’s been covered plenty of times before. But even from our vantage point, there seems to be a lot of wasted money on the screen. Cash has been thrown at special effects that add nothing to the film (and, crucially, look less realistic than the first film), and unlike the models and sets of old, CG increasingly costs serious money. Every CG-reliant film feels like it has to top the previous one, as if it’s a technological arms race. And that, in a sense, loses what the point of visual effects are supposed to do. They’re not supposed to be about ‘look what we can do’. They’re supposed to be about ‘look what the film needs’.

Furthermore, the cast and crew of Crystal Skull took home far greater salaries than they did on Raiders, while staging the in-camera action sequences involved deploying very expensive Hollywood experts. Plus, there’s inflation to take into account, and ultimately, big names wanting a lot more money for their work. The end result? Even a straightforward-ish mid-range blockbuster needs around $100m in the tank just to get off the ground.

For it’s not just Indiana Jones that’s affected. Look elsewhere, too, for further examples of budgets gone crazy.

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Of the box office top ten in the US as this article is being written, Mars Needs Moms has cost $160m (more than Terminator 2), Rango cost around $135m, Adam Sandler vehicle Just Go With It has an $80m bill (for a fairly straightforward comedy, remember. It’s cost more than Ghostbusters or Gremlins did), and Battle: Los Angeles suddenly looks a bargain at $70m (around the same price as Independence Day and more expensive than Jurassic Park).

The definition of what’s cheap has changed, too. The $42m budget for Red Riding Hood eclipses what was spent on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie.

So, why is this a problem?

It’s simple, really. The more a film costs, the more commercially sensitive it needs to be. After all, if it was our own business, we’d be wary of losing $50-100m on a film that we just happened to want to see ourselves. And studios, thus, need movies that can recoup their negative cost and go on to make a profit. Hence, risk is reduced, and many projects, which might include the original Superman were it being tackled now, wouldn’t be able to get off the ground.

And that ties into the bigger, overarching issue, here. That, ultimately, the film business is a much bigger beast than it was in the 70s and 80s, and lots more people are making more cash out of it. In the 70s, a film made its money from its theatrical run, its soundtrack LP, being sold to television, and any other tie-ins that could be generated.

Now? Well, just look at Pixar’s Cars. Over $400m at the worldwide box office was taken in, and that’s before it brought home the bacon again on DVD and Blu-ray. And then, on top of that, it’s been responsible for generating $7-8bn in merchandising revenue. It’s an extreme example, but with even smaller projects such as Ghost Rider capable of bringing in over $200m at the box office alone, the rewards are greater than they’ve ever been. Consequently, therefore, so are the stakes.

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The scary thing is that it’s a trend that shows little sign of abating. Every time budgets appear to be being challenged, and the barriers to the entry for the film industry lower slightly (and heck, I’ve not even touched on the cost of promoting a film once it’s been made), along comes a massively budgeted movie that makes more money than ever.

There’s not a studio in Hollywood that wouldn’t want the $2.7bn take of Avatar at the box office alone. Or the $1bn+ that the likes of Alice In Wonderland, The Dark Knight and Toy Story 3 generated.

It used to be that $300m worldwide was classed as a major hit. Now? $1bn is the big goal, and that inevitably has people spending even bigger to try and get it. After all, the jackpot is a major franchise, a well to which a studio can go to time and time again for fresh takings. And given the money a franchise can make, it’s often worth staking $300m at the table to try and make one happen.

Which is why we’re here, with spreadsheets increasingly taking precedence over artistic merit and films such as At The Mountains Of Madness struggling to get a green light. And while we’re in a situation where a wise filmmaker can still get a generous amount out of a sizeable budget (Christopher Nolan, step forward), I can’t help but feel that some of the sheer ingenuity that realised the likes of Superman, Raiders Of The Lost Ark and The Terminator is being lost amidst the rivers of cash.

It seems, bluntly, that in many cases, the more money that’s being poured into a film, the lesser the end product when it finally hits the big screen. It makes, on the one hand, films such as Moon all the more impressive (where a $5m budget funded a film that looked like it cost ten times that). But Hollywood studios still, ultimately, seem to be more about making people richer, than films better.

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