Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Titanic’s wake

It’s been over ten years since Titanic was released, and it is still the highest grossing movie of all time. Everyone knows the numbers, it cost $200 million before prints and advertising, and made about $1.8 billion worldwide. Good business model, right? I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I see that it was/still is a HUGE success that is also still a relevant pop culture phenomenon. It also established the idea of a tentpole movie. A tentpole is a property that a studio will give a much bigger budget than their other movies will come close to. The idea is that a high performing tentpole will make enough money to cover their smaller movies and financial failures. Take Warner Brothers for example, the success of The Dark Knight will completely write-off the failure of Speed Racer. It’s an understandable way of thinking when that is the idea. But for some reason since Titanic, tentpoles have been covering the costs of more tentpoles (See: Dark Knight and Speed Racer again) which has done more damage than you could imagine. It has killed the mid-level movie.

Before Titanic, most movies cost in the $20 to $40 million range. And guess what, there were more successes then, because it’s much easier to make back $30 million than $200 million. These were all kinds of movies; comedies, dramas, ensemble pieces, romantic comedies, period dramas and dark comedies. Nowadays, it is not abnormal for a studio to spend more than $50 million on a comedy (Wild Hogs, anyone?). Also, independent movies were cheap, definitely less than $5 million. (we can still make them super cheap now btw, see BRICK: $500,000 budget.)

Since Titanic, studios have mostly been interested in event movies, and independent films were left to take up the slack. And they did, and won many awards in the process. Now at this point, name actors began to realize that if they want to do meaningful work (or win an award), they better get their ass in a good indie flick. And they did.

To combat their newfound lack of award recognition, studios were forced to open their own smaller shingles so that they could again make small, intimate pictures to compete with indies. (See: Paramount Vantage, New Regency, Focus Features, etc.) Since these shingles were “independent” but attatched to a larger studio these movies’ budgets could rise a bit. This forced independent filmmaker’s hands. Luckily, this came at a time when the nouveau riche were finding it cool to invest in independent film. And it’s been this way for a while.

Now, we’ve got $20 million independent films! (see: The Women. A movie full of name actors, not one of which is male that is independently financed for $16 million?! We’ll talk about that tomorrow) I guess that’s just the way the cycle goes? Studios spend more, indie filmmakers have good stories which attracts talent, studios spend less in a different way to get actors/awards, indie peeps then spend more to get actors back, which they do. For some reason, I inherently feel that if you’re making a movie for $20 mil then you’re not really indie, no matter where the money comes from, and that’s a prejudice I know. I also know that there are still small somewhat cheap indie movies being distributed, but there are just far fewer than in the past. It raises a question: Does the next generation of independent filmmakers come from the internet? Is that the new independent distribution? Is that our only option now?

© 2008 MD TOTAL all rights reserved.

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