... Kim Masters interviewed Battleship director Peter Berg on why his $200+ million film isn’t doing so well. During his explanation he mentions how expensive tentpole films are.
And the reason for this expense? Visual Effects!...:
Berg: $200 million dollars is the going rate for these films. That’s what they cost.
Masters: if not 3 ($300 million).
Berg: Yeah, I mean that's a reasonable number.
Masters: Shocking though it is, yes.
Berg: But the money is all going to … the business to be in is ILM. That’s whose making all the money..
Masters: The effects houses.
Berg: Yeah in particular ILM. I mean and they do great work but its what these films cost because you’ve got these giant visual effects components and they dictate the prices on them.
Ah, yes. In Hollywood, the buck-passing never stops.
But here's a news flash: Effects houses go belly up all the time, and it's not because they are rolling in huge profits. It's because they are money losers.
So why do the big, tent-pole effects exstravaganzas cost so damn much? VFX veteran Dave Rand has an idea:
... If directors actually directed the visual effects instead of being spoon fed their dailies from the VFX black box by a redundant hierarchy [over] the visual effects artist we’d stop getting to version 300 before the director even sees our work. It’s all a matter of taste and we should be answering to one source not a ladder of sources. ...
(Shorter Dave: Doing a shot over and over tends to drive up costs.)
Animated features, of course, are one big visual effect, and use the same hardware, software and skill sets as their live-action cousins. CG animated features are also hugely expensive, as was the case with their ancestors back near the dawn of time. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cost $2,00,000 when two million greenbacks were really worth something. The next Disney feature Pinocchio cost well over $3,000,000 and was, dollar to minute, the most expensive movie of its time. Gone With tthe Wind cost $4,000,000 but was three hours and forty-five minutes against Pinoke's hour and twenty-five ... and so a bargain!)
Today's cartoon features, though hardly cheap, vary widely in cost. If Box Office Mojo is to be believed, Pixar's latest opus Brave carries a $185 million price tag, while DWA's Madagascar 3 comes in at $145 million, and Ice Age carries a $90 million sticker. The least expensive of the class are the off-shored candidates from Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me, Lorax, Despicable Me Deux etc.) which cost somewhere within hailing distance of $70 million.
I submit that the bulk of cost variations result from the different approaches to creation. When you make a feature twenty or more times (Tangled comes to mind), you're going to get a large price tag. When you make a long-form cartoon with a story done once, and created through a well-planned but simplified pipeline (the Chris Meladandri model), you get lower budgets.
But even free-spending producers can learn new tricks. Take Depression-era Disney: After breaking the bank on the little wooden boy, Walt came back with a lower-budgeted production entitled Dumbo. Despite the low cost, people liked it. And went to see it. And seventy-one years later, most animation artists I know consider it one of the best films of its kind.
The take-away? Big budgets don't equal memorable movies. Never have, never will.