Tuesday, February 11, 2014

$40 million investment in 7 films yields $1.4 billion box office windfall!

Too good to be true? No, the worldwide box office receipts for the following films was 25 times their budgets combined:

MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING  - budget $5 million; box office $368 million
NAPOLEON BONAPARTE – budget $400,000; box office $46 million
LOST IN TRANSLATION- budget $4 million; box office $120 million
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE – budget $8 million; box office $100 million
JUNO – budget $7.5 million; box office $231 million
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE – budget $15 million; box office $377 million
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY – budget $15,000; box office $193 million
What do these films have in common?
- They are all, by US standards, low budget films.
- None has a major film star in a lead role.
- All 7 could have been made by Australian filmmakers using the production mechanisms we have in place thanks to our federal and state film funding bodies and tax incentive schemes.
The combined budgets for these films, $40 million, is the equivalent sum given by Australian tax-payers to Warner Brothers’ GREAT GATSY, directed by Baz Lurhmann.
THE KINGS SPEECH is another film that could easily be included in the list above which not only could have been but was, largely, made by Australians. The film’s budget of $15 million yielded $414 million at the box office worldwide.

We could have produced three $15 million films of the quality of THE KING’S SPEECH for the same amount Australian tax-payers gave to Warner Brothers for GATSBY – if, that is, we had three screenplays as good as that for THE KINGS SPEECH.

Other than a fine screenplay THE KING’S SPEECH did, of course, have a bevy international ‘stars’ in it (Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon) but were they responsible for the runaway success of the film? No, they are fine (and famous) actors who were attracted to a very good screenplay and lent their talents to the realization of it. Given how low the budget was, I imagine that they all worked on it for less than they earn on the tent pole films they also appear in,  because they fell in love with the screenplay.
The presence of Bill Murray in LOST IN TRANSLATION and Alan Arkin, Toni Colete, Greg Kinnear and Steve Carrell in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE no doubt also assisted enormously in these films’ success at the box office – not because they are ‘stars’ but because they are fine actors and were eminently well suited to the roles they played.
So, size doesn’t matter. The size of budget does not matter if the story being told captures the imagination of viewers. A relatively low budget film will attract the most talented of actors if the screenplay is of the highest quality. As Alfred Hitchcock declared, there are three essential ingredients required to make a good film – the script, the script and the script. And the wonderful thing about this particular ingredient in the making of a good film (whether measured in box office receipts or in artistic terms) is that it is one of the cheapest items in a films’ budget.
One does not need to be Alfred Hitchcock to know that even Alfred Hitchcock could not make a good film from a bad script and yet making films from bad scripts is something we are really good at in Australia! Why is this? 
I have written about the lack of attention to the development of quality screenplays at length and would rather not repeat myself here. Besides, this particular blog entry has been inspired (if that is the right word) by a chance encounter with Kim Mordaunt, writer/director of THE ROCKET at Sydney airport a couple of days ago. We were both heading for different parts of the world and in our brief conversation I learned that despite the critical acclaim quite rightly heaped on THE ROCKET, despite the many awards the film has won, despite the fine screenplay he worked on for many years to get ‘just right’, Kim is still supporting himself as a filmmaker by teaching film.
Surely, when a filmmaker such as Kim Morduant demonstrates that they can make a fine film on a small budget – less than $2 million – Screen Australia and the appropriate state funding bodies should be on the phone saying. “Congratulations, Kim, Sylvia (producer) on your fine film. We want to help in whatever way we can to gear your next film into production. If you would like to give us a one page outline of your next project we’ll cover all the development costs.” The subtext of the conversation would be, “You have earned the right not to have to teach to support yourself whilst developing your next project.”
Australia could have produced 20 films budgeted at the level of THE ROCKET for the same amount we gave to Warner Brothers. If only one of these films achieved the success of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY this would be $40 million well invested – not just because the box office receipts would more than justify the investment but because 20 filmmakers would have had the opportunity to go out on the kind of limb a $2 million budget allows and because this going out on a limb is more likely to produce a body of uniquely Australian films than $40 million invested in the next big GATSBY-like blockbuster that is produced here.
Of course, I have employed sleight of hand here. The box office success rate of low budget films is far less than the list above suggests. However, these figures suggest that relatively small investments in low budget films makes a lot of sense from a box office point of view – as long as the screenplays are strong and as good as they are ever likely to be.

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